Why rhythm is important in tennis

In this comprehensive interview, Dr Mark Kovacs shares his eclectic sports expertise on the seldom-covered but highly important subject of rhythm in tennis.

Published : Jun 27, 2020 11:55 IST

Roger Federer is probably the most rhythmical, efficient tennis athlete ever and also rarely hampered by injuries. Unbelievably, Federer has never retired in 1,513 career matches.
Roger Federer is probably the most rhythmical, efficient tennis athlete ever and also rarely hampered by injuries. Unbelievably, Federer has never retired in 1,513 career matches.

Roger Federer is probably the most rhythmical, efficient tennis athlete ever and also rarely hampered by injuries. Unbelievably, Federer has never retired in 1,513 career matches.

What exactly is rhythm in sports? And if rhythm improves performance, how can tennis players become more rhythmical?

These intriguing questions fall in the purview of Dr Mark Kovacs, a high-performance expert, sport technology consultant, performance physiologist, researcher, professor, author, speaker and coach with an extensive background in science-based training and researching elite athletes. As the chief executive officer (CEO) of the Kovacs Institute (www.kovacsinstitute.com), he oversees the direction, testing protocols, and athlete-monitoring programmes. Of special interest to tennis players, his new KI Academy (https://kovacsacademy.com) in Atlanta, Georgia, features a tennis-specific education programme.

As a sports technology expert and physiologist, Dr Kovacs directed the sports science, strength and conditioning, and coaching education departments for the United States Tennis Association (USTA) during 2008-11.


During his tenure at the USTA, he created a programme to integrate the medical and sports science services for full-time athletes at the National Training Center in Boca Raton, Florida, as well as for the development of full-service care and training at satellite facilities in Los Angeles and New York. He went on to develop one of the first graduate classes in sports technology in the United States at Life University during 2013-19.

The 40-year native of Melbourne, Australia, has coached or trained more than two dozen top tennis pros, including 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, John Isner, Robby Ginepri, Reilly Opelka and Frances Tiafoe. Dr Kovacs has also taught and trained dozens of top professional athletes in the NBA, NFL and MLB, such as Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, in addition to junior baseball players and golfers.

An All-American and NCAA doubles champion in tennis at Auburn University, he played professionally in 2002 before completing his graduate work at Auburn University and earning his PhD in exercise physiology from the University of Alabama. Dr Kovacs is a Certified Tennis Performance Specialist (CTPS) and Master Tennis Performance Specialist (MTPS) through the International Tennis Performance Association (iTPA), a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association, a certified Health/Fitness Specialist through the American College of Sports Medicine and a United States Track and Field Level II Sprints Coach. He is also a United States Professional Tennis Association (USPTA) P1-Certified Tennis Coach.


Dr Kovacs has written or co-written seven books, most notably Tennis Anatomy and Complete Conditioning for Tennis . These sports and exercise science books, translated into more than a dozen languages, focus on stretching, recovery, mental skills training, anatomy and training.

In the comprehensive interview that follows, Dr Kovacs shares his eclectic sports expertise on the seldom-covered, but highly important subject of rhythm in tennis.

Dr Mark Kovacs has coached or trained more than two dozen top tennis pros, including 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, John Isner, Robby Ginepri, Reilly Opelka and Frances Tiafoe.

Rhythm is the dynamic grouping, structuring and accentuation of sequential elements of a process, of which arrangement is determined by a required and/or personally selected temporal scheme,” wrote noted tennis coach Richard Schonborn in 2003. Do you agree with this definition as it applies to tennis?

Rhythm is really a way to effectively and consistently synthesise energy flow through the body. Richard Schonborn’s description of rhythm in the tennis world is a very complex way of explaining rhythm. Most people know rhythm when they see it. It’s the efficient transfer of energy. I like to simplify life. So I don’t disagree with that description. It’s just more complex than it needs to be. It’s a lot simpler than that. It’s an efficient energy transfer from the ground through the body and out into the ball.

From a physics perspective, it’s how efficient your kinetic chain sequencing is in that movement — whether it’s a serve, a volley, a forehand or a backhand. There is an optimum, fundamental way to transfer energy from storing to releasing energy out into the ball. So, rhythm and ideal rhythm, is just the optimum kinetic chain energy transfer. We know it when we see it. We talk about Roger Federer and Rod Laver and the Pete Sampras serve, and you can see they have unbelievably good rhythm. They could also be said to have unbelievably good kinetic chain sequencing.


Would you please define the “kinetic chain?”

A kinetic chain is the concept that joints and segments have an effect on one another during movement. When one is in motion, it creates a chain of events that affects the movement of neighbouring joints and segments.

Why is rhythm so important in tennis?

Rhythm is so important for two major reasons. First, it allows you to transfer forces from the lower body up into the upper body and out through the racquet and into the ball so that you can optimise pace and spin. That is how rhythm enhances performance.

Second, it’s really, really important because if you’re in rhythm and you utilise your kinetic chain effectively, you’re going to reduce your risk of injury and unnecessary overuse on the wrong body parts because you’ve utilised your energy in the most efficient way possible.

So there is a performance enhancement aspect to rhythm as well as an injury prevention and injury reduction perspective.

Who are the most rhythmical players in tennis history? And how are they rhythmical?

You can think about any pro player and any stroke that you really like, and most likely that player is super rhythmical. Roger Federer is probably the most rhythmical, efficient tennis athlete ever and also rarely hampered by injuries. Unbelievably, Federer has never retired in 1,513 career matches.

You can go back previous generations to Ken Rosewall, who won his first Grand Slam title in 1953 and his last in 1972, to Stefan Edberg, who missed only two majors in his 14-year career. On the women’s side, Evonne Goolagong, Chris Evert, Hana Mandlikova and, this century, Justine Henin, were paragons of superb rhythm.

A lot of other pro players, like these all-time greats, also looked like they weren’t trying that hard, but they were able to be in all the right positions and generate great pace and great spin on the ball. They are also more rhythmical and efficient, which are related assets.


It goes back to the kinetic-chain sequencing. These elite athletes used their body efficiently. They don’t waste any energy. And they have a great transfer of energy capability with what they’re utilising. And most of those players also had lower injury rates over their careers. The important thing to know is that rhythm is very trainable.

Jelena Ostapenko, the 2017 French Open champion, credits some of her tennis success to ballroom dancing.

Is teaching and learning rhythm different for male and female players because of their different physiques and mentalities?

This is a great question. Are there gender differences as to how you should train for rhythm? As a tennis player, there is a fundamentally more efficient way to hit a tennis ball and a less efficient way. [But] that is not gender-specific.

What are potentially different in genders are learning styles, which is not even necessarily gender; it could be within genders for Player A and Player B. That difference could be male-female or a 14-year-old versus a 20-year-old, or an individual who grew up in Australia versus one who grew up in Italy. They’re going to learn a little bit differently due to their backgrounds and to some genetic factors.


The other potential aspect is game style. But again, it’s not a gender-specific difference. It’s game style, learning style, background, family environment, genetics, irrespective of gender.

So you’re going to train them differently, but based on those differences. However, we do know that there are sound fundamentals on serves, groundstrokes and volleys that all good players should have, irrespective of gender.

The Journal of Sports Sciences  did a study “To determine the effect of circadian rhythm on neuromuscular responses and kinematics related to physical tennis performance. After a standardised warm-up, 13 highly competitive male tennis players were tested twice for serve velocity/accuracy (SVA), countermovement vertical jump (CMJ), isometric handgrip strength (IS), agility T-test (AGIL) and a 10-m sprint (10-m RUN).” It concluded, “Tennis performance may be reduced when competing in the morning in comparison to early evening. Therefore, coaches and tennis players should focus on schedule the SVA, power, speed, and agility training sessions in the afternoon.” Do you agree with this conclusion?

We have to be careful when taking information from one very small study with a small number of tennis players being evaluated and applying those results [as valid] for an entire population.

Based on that information, we are not sure if it’s the circadian rhythms of the individuals or the sleeping habits. We’re not sure of the nutrition composition of the individuals, what they ate before, during, and after these events and how that may impact some of this. There are a lot of unknowns and variables, so you have to be cautious.

In general, when we’re talking about the best time to train — the morning or afternoon — this varies based on individuals. Certain individuals do perform better in the afternoon, while others perform better in the morning. Individuals who wake up earlier usually do better in the morning, and those who wake up later usually do better in the afternoon. So you have to optimise your training to maximise the individual differences.


That said, you want to do certain things when players are fresh. When the nervous system is fresh, you want to train speed and power more so. When they’re more fatigued, you may train endurance or strength variables. So understanding those differences is very important.

Does rhythm help you groove your strokes?

This statement actually doesn’t make sense because rhythm is a component of your strokes. Having good rhythm is important when you’re training your strokes so that you can implement them in match play.

People have to understand what training rhythm means. Training rhythm is making sure your kinetic chain is synchronised, and you have efficient transfer of energy from storing to releasing. That’s all it is.

If you’re talking about training rhythm, make sure you’re talking about it in the right framework. If your movement pattern is inefficient, and you train that, and you say I’m training the pattern of that inefficient movement pattern, then you are training an inefficient outcome. So you have to be careful because you could actually train the wrong way.

What is the connection between “rhythm” and “timing” the oncoming ball?

Rhythm and timing oncoming balls are a bit more related to anticipation, reaction time, and body position because “rhythm” and “timing” are different terms. Timing of your footwork to an oncoming ball is really important because when you’re timing the footwork, you’re trying to get your body in the right position and optimise your load parameters so you can release your energy most effectively.

If you don’t time the rhythm aspect of what you’re doing correctly, then you’re going to be out of sync and you’re not going to load effectively. You definitely want to utilise the oncoming ball to set your feet, rotate your hips, load effectively, and then transfer your energy in the simplest, most efficient way possible.

Is there a connection or cause-and-effect relationship between relaxation and rhythm?

Relaxation and rhythm are two very different things. You can be highly relaxed and (still) can’t produce force. You need enough contraction, which is the opposite of relaxation, to produce force. Most people, when they say “relaxed players,” mean efficient players, and mean someone who has good rhythm, meaning they have a good kinetic chain sequence. It doesn’t mean they’re actually relaxed in the traditional sense. If you’re overly relaxed, you can’t produce force at the highest level you need as a tennis player.

So you need to be rhythmical, but be careful about using the term “relaxed.” In a sense, you want to have a feeling of relaxation on court, but you don’t want to be excessively relaxed because you won’t be able to generate the force and the pace you need. So that is a really interesting perspective.

For a single-handed female, Justine Henin, of Belgium, was phenomenal.

How does a player hit with more rhythm?

It’s very simple. You have to train your strokes to be more efficient and to load and release energy in the right sequence. For example, you load through the back leg before transferring energy to the front leg during a groundstroke.

We know that for the serve, for the forehand, for the backhand, there is an appropriate sequencing pattern. We understand that. We studied that in our labs. If you optimise your sequencing pattern, you will be more efficient, and you’re going to have much better rhythm. So hitting with more rhythm is very trainable.

How does rhythm apply to running and footwork?

Exactly the same as in strokes. There is an efficient movement pattern in running and footwork, and there is an inefficient movement pattern.

Take a look at the International Tennis Performance Association (www.itpa-tennis.org). It has the best available resources on tennis-specific footwork and movement, and it provides more than 30 major movement patterns for the tennis athlete. That includes all the major movements tennis players make.

Doing those movements efficiently with good rhythm is the right way to move on the tennis court. [But] people move in a lot of other ways that are inefficient.

Tomaz Mencinger, a professional tennis coach currently living in Slovenia, wrote on https://www.feeltennis.net/serve-rhythm/: “There are two main reasons we need to pay special attention to a proper rhythm: 1. It prevents tension from creeping into your motion, and therefore allows you to create a whip effect on your serve. 2. It enables you to serve at a very high consistency level. Good servers take almost exactly the same amount of time from the moment they initiate the service motion to the moment of contact with the ball.” Do you agree with Mencinger’s reasoning?

I have problems with a couple of those statements. It’s not technically true that “it prevents tension from creeping into your motion.” You can have great rhythm with no tension. You can have really bad rhythm with no tension as well. You just may be out of sync from a kinetic chain standpoint.

So tension is very different from rhythm. Tension has a lot of factors to it. One could be force and pressure that’s being applied. The question is why. Is it a mental stress that’s causing tension? Or is it you’re thinking through motor patterns and causing scenarios to put extra pressure on you? So you have to be careful with how that is being described.

Second, it is true that “good servers take almost exactly the same amount of time from the moment they initiate the service motion to the moment they contact the ball.” That is fundamentals. That is a routine. That is effective sequencing of the service motion. However, that’s not really the true definition of rhythm — because you can have very consistent and reliable bad serves, meaning that they have bad rhythm. So they may do the same thing over and over again, but their kinetic chain is not sequenced at all. It has really bad mechanics.

What role do the arms play to establish rhythm on the service?

The arms are a conduit to energy transfer. You can use whatever energy you’ve been able to produce from the legs and that have been transferred up to the (body) core and up into the arms. The arms play a huge role because they provide extra leverage if you are in the right position. If you go to Stage 4 of the serve, the cocking phase, that’s such an important part of the arm because that’s the last stage you’re storing energy in your upper body before you start accelerating.

So, if that’s done correctly, and that’s in sync and timed correctly, you’re going to have a much more effective serve because the upper body then, and the arm specifically, can come through from the correct position, accelerate optimally, and then make contact in the right position, and then go through a long, axis rotation after the serve. So, it’s really important to get that position right. The arms play a vital role in appropriate service rhythm.

Do Roger Federer and Serena Williams have the most rhythmical serves?

Not necessarily. There are a lot of great servers on the pro tours. But they all have the exact same fundamentals. Federer, Sampras, Serena Williams, Goran Ivanisevic, John Isner, Sam Stosur, Madison Keys. We’ve studied them all in depth in the lab, on footage, on the court in different ways.

The fundamentals of great serving are consistent. It goes back to the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, even with some different mechanics with the back foot and the front foot coming off the ground. But they all get into some fundamental positions. These positions vary for all strokes. Specifically, you should load energy onto the lower body transferring and loading energy to the upper body.

Roger Federer and Serena Williams both have very efficient, very good rhythmical serves. However, Serena Williams’s serve goes off every few matches, or every few games within a given match. She’ll miss a lot of serves. Why? The kinetic chain wasn’t sequenced effectively for that period of time. It’s important to understand that.

Do Simona Halep and Novak Djokovic have the most rhythmical backhands?

A lot of players have great backhands. Again, the reason the backhands are so good and so rhythmical is chiefly because of their lower-body sequencing. Their hip turn is phenomenal. Their footwork...they’re getting their leg behind the ball and being able to store energy in the right way so they can release energy out at the target and into the ball. So they definitely have great backhands.

I’d put Andre Agassi up there as one of the best. There’s Jimmy Connors. Justine Henin, for a single-handed female, was phenomenal. Stan Wawrinka. Roger Federer. There are so many. Halep and Djokovic are at the top of the list, but there are a lot of great ones.

Great forehands — such as those of Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl, Agassi, Federer and Rafael Nadal — vary markedly in terms of technique because of different grips and strokes. Therefore, does the rhythm differ for Eastern, Semi-Western, and Western forehands? And if so, how?

When it comes to strokes and specifically the forehand for this question, there is a simple way to analyse it. Grips dictate swing path. And swing paths dictate contact point. If you keep those three variables in mind, it’s very easy to understand the fundamentals of all good forehands. Eastern forehands have a more linear takeback (backswing) to a certain degree. Western forehands have a more angular takeback and more rotation.


The contact points are going to be different. Extension before and after ball contact are going to be a little less on Western grips because their swing paths are different from an Eastern grip, which is going to be a little longer before contact. The Eastern hitting zone is a little longer because it is more linear, straight through. Whereas Western swings are going to come across the ball a little more. You’re still going to have good extension, but you are going to break off (the straight plane) a bit sooner than if you have an Eastern grip.

So it’s important to recognise that grips dictate swing paths and swing paths dictate contact points. However, lower-body function and using and improving energy transfer are paramount in all strokes when it comes to effectively using the ground and hitting great forehands.

We talk about Roger Federer and Rod Laver and the Pete Sampras (in pic) serve, and you can see they have unbelievably good rhythm. They could also be said to have unbelievably good kinetic chain sequencing.

Should volleying be rhythmical? Or does it require more staccato movement?

Volleys are one of the simplest movements on the tennis court. Volleys require very little upper-body movement and mainly lower-body energy transfer. Movement into the ball, and your body moves, and you meet the ball at certain locations. The best volleyers of all time and previous generations were even better than the current generation because they practised it a lot more.

Pat Cash, Stefan Edberg, Pat Rafter, going back to John McEnroe, they all had very similar fundamentals. A lot of people said McEnroe had different volleying technique. No, he had great volleying technique. The ball was always out in front (at the contact point). He was always able to use his legs to do the majority of the movement. It just looked a little bit different. Pat Cash, who was much more athletic, was able to rely on his legs even more. Stefan Edberg was similar. So good energy transfer from the legs to the ball makes volleying so much easier. And great rhythm is important on the volley as well.


Should coaches and teaching pros emphasise rhythm? And, if so, why?

I never talk about rhythm. That’s partly because it’s a term that’s hard to define if you define it, as some coaches do, as a feeling. Whereas, energy transfer and kinetic chain transfer are much more accurate and applicable. So, yes, every coach should teach every great athlete to have great rhythm.

But the question is: how do you teach rhythm? I teach it based on physics principles of loading energy and releasing energy. So you have potential energy, which is the loading of the energy, and then you have kinetic energy, which is the releasing of the energy. If you do that in the most efficient way possible, you’re going to get the greatest outcome. And that means you’re going to have the greatest rhythm.

In what ways can plyometrics improve a player’s rhythm?

In most cases, plyometrics is a form of high-velocity movement — jumps, throws, things like that. But the true definition of plyometrics is an e-centric movement, followed by a short amortisation phase, which is a short pause, from changing from e-centric, and following that with a concentric movement.

Think about a jump. In a jump, you go down, there’s a slight transition from going down and going up. The down is the e-centric, and the up is a concentric, and the short part in between is the amortisation phase. And that is exactly what we’re talking about. So becoming better at plyometrics means becoming more powerful and explosive is going to make you a better tennis player.

However, it may not actually improve your rhythm. You could be more explosive using bad rhythm, or bad kinetic chain sequencing. So you definitely want to do those (plyometric) activities, but you still have to work on your technique. Just getting better at plyometrics won’t make you automatically a more rhythmical tennis player.

What off-court exercises and on-court drills improve a player’s rhythm?

There are hundreds of exercises. First, you have to get strong and stable in the lower body. So strength training in the right ways is vital. And stability training in the right ways and in the right positions that you need on the tennis court is vital. Then you need to learn how to transfer that from a power perspective, so you transfer energy in the correct sequencing. So there are some off-court drills like medicine ball throws from forehand to backhand and serve, utilising your lower body and syncing your kinetic chain.


On-court drills are all about good technique. Rhythm training is technique training. You don’t separate them out. You focus on improving efficient technique by following sound physics principles about storing and releasing energy and optimising energy output. So it’s really important that you go about it the right way and understand how to make your strokes better and improve your rhythm [at the same time].

Is there any connection between breathing and rhythm?

There is a huge connection between breathing and energy production. So rhythm is a form of that. So storing energy — let’s say I’m a lefty here on my backhand — you take a breath in, breathe in at this point, and then from here, you’re going to release energy out into the ball, and that’s when you’re going to breathe out.

We’ve done studies on breathing’s impact on power production and force production. There’s a huge relationship. So you want to store, breathe in, when you’re storing energy, usually your take back (backswing) on your strokes. And then you want to release as you accelerate. So you breathe in when you’re storing energy, and releasing your breath, when you’re exploding out into the ball.

So you should definitely work on breathing to improve your rhythm and getting that sequencing correct.

A lot of people said John McEnroe had different volleying technique. No, he had great volleying technique. The ball was always out in front (at the contact point). He was always able to use his legs to do the majority of the movement. It just looked a little bit different.

What is your opinion of the tests that analyse and measure rhythm, such as ITN, Rhythmic Competence Analysis Test, and Untimed Consecutive Rally Test?

I’m familiar with them. They’re fine drills, but they are not really rhythm tests. It’s more like seeing if someone gets an outcome in a certain way. But getting an outcome in a certain way doesn’t tell you which way they’re performing that movement. They may get the (desired) outcome, but they may — or may not — be doing it right.

The right outcome — a ball that goes to the right spot — doesn’t always mean the process is correct. So you really have to analyse the process to make sure the energy transfer is done in the most efficient manner possible.

Jelena Ostapenko, the 2017 French Open champion, credits some of her tennis success to ballroom dancing. Is dancing a good way to learn about and create rhythm in tennis?

When we talk about the transferability of different skills, we have dancing, and a lot people played soccer when they were young, and they say that gave them skills that helped them develop in tennis.

Did that improve their rhythm? In my definition, yeah, 100 percent. It made their energy transfer and made their ability to load and explode more efficient and effective because they were exposed to it from multiple, different ways.

So transferability may have happened in those scenarios, such as for Ostapenko. Did it improve their rhythm? If we’re defining rhythm the way we’ve been talking about it, then yes.

Does playing other sports improve one’s rhythm in tennis? If so, which sports, and why?

Playing other sports definitely improves an athlete’s efficiency and movement capability. Does it always transfer to tennis? No. Certain sports don’t transfer very well to tennis. But you learn fundamental movement skills, especially when you’re young that can be transferable across many sports. Jumping, throwing, landing, catching, kicking. All those things are really important and can transfer well to tennis.

So the best sports are usually those sports that are similar in their movement parameters to tennis. Sports such as soccer, basketball, volleyball, things that require some of the similar movements. Other sports may play a role in hand-eye coordination, such as golf and table tennis and squash. So playing other sports can provide real value.

Do you recommend hitting against a wall to enhance your rhythm?

Hitting against a wall is one of the best training tools ever invented. The reason is that the wall never misses. So you can get perfect practice every day. Also, based on how you hit into the wall, you’ll get a different response (rebound). So it teaches you how to use spin, topspin, location. So it works on all these factors.

The benefit of a wall is that you can retrain over and over again the same movements and the same strokes. So you can become highly confident at certain strokes. The best volleyers of all time grew up practising against a wall. If players want to improve any aspect of their tennis, using a wall will be beneficial.

What are the best ways to break the rhythm of your opponent?

This is different from all the things we’ve talked about, which is about our rhythm and our ability to hit the ball correctly. To break the rhythm of your opponent requires you to take your opponent out of his comfort zone. If your opponent is hitting the ball great crosscourt and dictating play with their forehand, you would try to take them out of this pattern by hitting higher balls and hitting lower balls, hitting to their backhand more, and trying to move them away with what they’re most comfortable with. No one likes doing things that are uncomfortable for them, so it’s the same thing on a tennis court.

Your goal is to disrupt the most comfortable pattern and strokes that your opponent has and try to have them hit shots they’re uncomfortable with.


What should a player do to counteract an opponent who tries to disrupt or break your rhythm?

What you should do is focus on a simplified game plan. If your best game plan is to hit crosscourt, you should do everything you can to hit crosscourt — even if your opponent hits down the line, or even if your opponent slices the ball low to you. You should stick with your game plan until it doesn’t work because that’s going to give you your best chance of success. Especially at the higher levels of tennis, game plan B usually doesn’t work because everyone is so close.

So play game plan A as best as you can with the best scouting information you have to have a good chance of winning.

Should you have a mantra to help you increase your rhythm, such as “split and back” to remind you to split step and take your racquet back?

Choosing a mantra is very important, especially at the lower levels of tennis because you have to remind yourself how to hit certain shots and how to position yourself in certain ways. So having a timing cue like that when you see the ball coming from your opponent — you say “split, take your racquet back” — will give you two simple cues to focus on.

So have a (mantra) cue to have better rhythm is very beneficial. Those cues may vary. It may be “hip turn” or “load the back leg” or “take a step back to go forward.” All those are very simple cues to help you improve your game.

Do remembering and using numbers, such as 1-2 or 1-2-3, help you become rhythmic?

Using numbers or a cadence or a metronome, which is all the same concept, is trying to use timing to improve your rhythm. It definitely can improve your rhythm and make you feel better. And it definitely can put you in a better position. However, it still hasn’t fixed your technique. You could have timing parameters, like 1-2-3, down perfectly, but if you don’t transfer (energy) at the right time, and you don’t sync your kinetic chain, your rhythm will still be off. So you may getter better timing, or even better rhythm for your footwork, or parts of your footwork, using a cue like that, but it (still) may not give you a better outcome with your stroke.

So using numbers is helpful, especially when you’re first learning a skill, but you want to get to a point where you have unconscious confidence, meaning you don’t have to think about each step. If you have to think through, 1-2-3, you’re not going to be very natural with it, like a ballroom dancer. When they start, they have to first learn the steps — 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 — where they’re going, but once they get better at that movement, it becomes more natural. It becomes more rhythmical because they’re transferring their energy in a much smoother and more efficient way.

Is it accurate to say when running, traditional crossover steps are rhythmic, while shuffling your feet is arrhythmic?

I wouldn’t say that’s accurate because rhythmical movement is the most efficient movement possible. Crossover steps are faster to get from place A to place B. However, they take a little more energy to produce because you have to push more into the ground to get that extra force to make the larger steps. Shuffle steps are totally acceptable if you have plenty of time. But if you’re trying to move quickly, crossover steps are better.

One way of moving is not more rhythmical than the other. Shuffling is actually easier on the body. It takes less energy per step. That’s why more people do it and it’s appropriate. However, you don’t cover as much distance. So it depends on which method you choose to use. But both crossover steps and shuffling can be very rhythmical.

You used the criterion of time as the determinant to choose either crossover steps or shuffling. However, traditionally the determinant stressed by many coaches has also been space or distance — meaning laterally short distances along the baseline and very short distances when moving back for overheads. And crossover steps are better for longer distances, while shuffling are better for shorter distances.

This space criterion is incorrect. Just because some coaches talk about it, does not make it correct. Larger steps are faster, and being in the air longer is better than taking smaller steps. Smaller steps are used as an adjusting step, when the larger steps are not implemented correctly. This does not mean smaller steps are not used. You just need to be clear about how and why they are used.

Time dictates space and distance that can be covered. So time — not distance — is the major determining factor.

Hitting against a wall is one of the best training tools ever invented. The reason is that the wall never misses. So you can get perfect practice every day. Also, based on how you hit into the wall, you’ll get a different response (rebound). So it teaches you how to use spin, topspin, location. So it works on all these factors.

Do you think coaches and teaching pros have not taught rhythm enough, or even at all, in the past? And, if so, what, specifically, do you recommend about the teaching of rhythm?

Rhythm is often taught incorrectly due to the lack of understanding of fundamental movement skills and the need to have efficient energy/force transfer from the ground up into all functioning muscles. I know that many coaches try to improve rhythm, but many times they are not focusing on the right areas to achieve this.

So my recommendation is to focus on sound fundamental movements that apply basic physics principles and focus on efficient and effective loading mechanics in all strokes and movements. This involves the effective transfer of this stored energy (loading) into releasing the energy in the most efficient way possible.

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