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Tactical Movement – Part 1: Movement and Footwork – 360 perspective

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  • Tactical Movement – Part 1: Movement and Footwork – 360 perspective

    Author: Mike Crooks mike@hotspottraining.com

    Abstract Tactical Movement is a concept that encompasses all of the 4 performance factors and their linkage in particular the limiting effects of each factor on the overall desired outcome and development goal. It is a holistic approach to enhance player development putting physical "contextual" competency at the heart, fuelling technical, tactical and mental development for a rounded and competent tennis player.
    This article considers analysis of a single stroke and a point sequence with the overall intention of demonstrating the importance of movement and footwork within the performance factor hierarchy and how that tactical intentions rely upon efficient application and execution of footwork and movement.

    Key Words: Tactical movement, Footwork, holistic methodology, tactical potential, tactical opportunities, footwork application, performance factor hierarchy, The ‘Limitation/Potential’ model Tennis coaching has been defined in terms of 4 performance factors or processes that appear reguarly in coach education material, namely technique, tactics, physical and mental skills. All of the processes are heavily linked and have a limiting and potential effect on one another, i.e the level of functional physical skill will impede the deveopment of technique. Similarly competence in a process will promote possibility, potential and opportunity in other performance factors.

    This idea suggests a need for a holistic teaching model, that identifies how all of the factors play a role within what it is that’s is being taught.
    Technique is a solution to a problem or in tennis terms, a tactical intention. Without the intention there is no need for technique. For example, there are many ways to throw a ball but certain methods are better suited to different tasks. To throw a ball for distance one will use the over arm technique but conversely to throw a ball a short distance into a bucket one would use an underarm throwing technique. Similarly a player who wants to rally the ball cross court or play a drop shot, will employ certain techniques in order to achieve their desired outcome. This outcome success can be measured in terms of ball spin, flight, pace, the effect of the shot on the opponent, the opponents reply and in addition the players ability to recover into the most optimal position post stroke execution. If the desired result is observed, one can suggest that the player has executed appropriate and effcient technique.

    As the tactical intention increases in complexity, the technique will also have to develop to achieve the new desired result. Within a simple tactical intention a player can increase the quality of the shots played within the tactic. Quality is a natural progression to any tactic and will also have an effect on the players technique and physicality. For example a player that is striving to improve the tactic of keeping the oppnent neutral maybe required to enhance ball characteristics such as speed, spin and flight and also be required to function on the move and from varying court positions. As this tactic is explored, the demands of the player’s movement and footwork will also be challenged. As the quality is improved the management of the players space and time will be also be challenged presenting technical and physical requirements to develop in conjunction. Mentally the player will have to increase levels of focus and provide motivation to strive for the quality factor. This has to be coupled with the understanding and belief that the player has the possibility of improving to the new level. Understanding what is possible and what is currently being demonstrated by the highest performers is essential in developing a player.

    A coach may consider the racket requirements to produce a shot, in terms of its path and shape to achieve a desired intention but in reality the thoughts must extend further into considering the rest of the processes in order to offer a complete understanding and deliver the highest quality of execution within a performance.

    The level of technical competency will limit the execution of tactical intention’s in terms of quality, i.e. to execute a high level of tactical intention the players technique must be capable of doing so. To repeatedly, and continuously execute tactical intentions a player’s technique must also be comprised of effective footwork and movement (to include court coverage and recovery positions). This naturally leads to the level of physical competency in movement and footwork limiting both technical execution and tactical intention. In addition to this, biomechanical fluidity through stroke execution will also limit the racket potential and in turn the quality of the tactical outcome.

    To define this, the level of physical “contextual” competency will limit technical and tactical execution. Contextual refers to the requirement or function of the body to allow the racket to impact the ball in the most effecitive way to achieve a tactical intention.
    Similarly the footwork and movement requirements through the complete stroke cycle to recovery fall under this umbrella of physical contextual competency and can be taught and learnt alongside the other skills required to play the game of tennis.

    The mind governs the complete execution of the game. Therefore the brain’s ability to co-ordinate the body and mental focus limit the entire process of stroke production for tactical intention. Choices of movement and footwork could be conscious or unconscious depending on the skill level of the player and the stage of aquisition.

    Similar to developing racket skills coaches must strive for autonomy and fluidity in movement and footwork application. The body will adapt appropriately if it knows what is the most suitable movement pattern to employ and that there has been sufficient prior experience.
    When a player chooses to execute a certain stroke for tactical gain he/she will employ certain racket paths, footwork patterns and movement positions to fully exploit the tactical intention desired.

    Stroke Analysis: A 360 perspective

    In this article I will consider the analysis of a single stroke to include, where possible, a 360 degree perspecitve. The intention is to provide some thought on the linkage between the 4 performance processess and suggest that approaching player development using a holistic 360 teaching model will allow players to learn more effectively and at an accelerated rate.

    It has been suggested that regressing the performance factors from tactical intention, physical “contextual” competency embeds itself at the root of development and by developing comeptency in this area can logically promote development in other factors. For this reason, this analysis of Andy Murray considers the movement from a biomecanical point of view and includes tactical reasonning for the adopted footwork pattern to promote the importance of contextual movement and footwork.

    In this sequence of images we see Andy Murray playing a forehand approach (in fact he wins the point with this shot) and it is very interesting what he actually does and why. I choose this sequence as it is commonly executed by many of the top players and demonstrates the ever increasing physical requirements of today’s tennis players along with adopted footwork for tactical intention.

    In this first image Andy is positioned behind the base line, a common position of rally, but he has already initiated his movement by stepping across and forward with his left leg. We can see that there is a heel strike action, associated with walking and running patterns which is used for controlling the body’s movement, with the left foot. This implies he has a flexed hip on the left side which in turn has caused the pelvis to hike up on the left side, higher than the right. The spine is flexed over to the left and his hitting shoulder is lower than the non-hitting shoulder due to the preparation with the hands. His head is centrally positioned to maintain balance and focus on the incoming ball. Already we can see there are many functional body requirements to execute this stroke. Andy keeps his hands close to him although has set the racket head. This choice of step allows him to cover the correct amount of ground efficiently and set himself up for what he intends to do. It could be suggested that stride patterns need to be adaptable in length and direction as players will need to cover varying distances in varying times, managing space and time, throughout the course of a point and adjust their feet when close to the strike zone.

    In the left image Andy has impacted the ground with his left foot (right image) demonstrating the requirements of the foot to pronate (Internal rotation of the ankle and dorsiflexion). In preparing the head of the racket Andy has extended his spine slightly into a more upright position. Once again there is a physical requirement for the foot/body to function optimally. The choice of movement and footwork is also characteristic in Andy preparing his racket with care and accuracy before striking.

    Andy is in a tennis specific position here (left image) with his hands creating a heavy shoulder turn that creates an angle between the shoulder line and the pelvic line. Shoulder and pelvic lines are the straight lines created if one were to draw through from one point to the other, i.e. a line drawn, and extended through the left shoulder from the right shoulder. The pelvic line bisects the shoulder line as the shoulders are rotated further than the pelvis. This is known as a separation angle which allows for fast forward rotation and linkage to the ground.
    The foot position (right foot) which is in contact with the ground has the ankle rotating with the racket which in turn slows down the pelvis hence creating the angle mentioned previously with the shoulder line. Not only is the pelvis rotating it is also shifting forward towards impact. This increases the loading effect in the abdominals from the left pelvis to the right side of the ribcage. A slingshot potential in the body has now been created ready for when Andy begins to release the racket towards impact. Andy’s left foot is poised to plant on the ground to carry his motion closer to his desired impact zone.

    Andy has now got himself over the baseline and into a position that will allow him to be positive with the ball strike (right image). He has moved his right foot in front of his left foot which allows him to get close enough to the ball. He is intending on loading on the right foot which will allow him maintain a good court position, be aggressive with the stroke, generating optimal rotation to the ball and also allow him to be well positioned post shot to recover effectively.

    Here Andy has begun to pivot on the left foot that suggests that he is rotating heavily towards the left, towards the ball. The heel strike appears again and the pelvis has come forward creating a greater angle between the shoulder line and the pelvic line. He has set himself to explode off his right foot creating maximum speed from the shoulders into the ball. The choice of this footwork pattern allows for maximum acceleration from the body/hand whilst maintaining forward momentum.

    Andy has moved from a position of rally behind the baseline to being inside the baseline to play this shot. In the time available Andy has effectively positioned himself to play his desired shot and also be ready to continue the rally post execution.

    At impact the shoulders have completely caught up with the pelvis with the ankle of the right foot also rotating. This has driven the knee inside his foot. The result is that the spine is in a delayed flexed over position. It is almost like the lower body is considering where it needs to go next and there is a delay for the upper body to finish the stroke. The difference in rotational speed of the pelvis and spine is also an effective way of transferring force from the ground to the impact and is a result of the preloaded sling shot. The racket head is dropped below his hand which will allow Andy to quickly rotate his hand up through contact creating heavy spin on the ball.

    Even after impact as the racket extends forward the spine is still left behind and the shoulders are tilted. The racket head is higher than the ball as a result of fast hand movement prior to impact. Notice also the spiralling motion of the hitting arm throughout the shot. Hitting off the right foot and landing on the right foot, a right – right footwork pattern, allows him to maintain good court position and initiate the recovery back into the court. His spine has now caught up and he can move into the next position. Throughout the whole execution of the stroke Andy keeps his head in a neutral position whilst his body works around it to make the shot.

    The spinal position is of interest as it stays in a laterally flexed position during the stroke. This is for a number of reasons. Firstly it allows the lower body to rotate and to aid in the abdominal loading pattern and transfer force effectively from the ground. Secondly, Andy has set himself up to play a stroke off his right foot and the intention is to recover back into the centre of the court either following the ball into the net or backing up behind the baseline. The spine being left behind is characteristic with the shifting the centre of mass and is visible in walking (Gait) patterns. The function of the body through technical execution and footwork/movement is a clear limit of technique and also has direct tactical relationship. The tactical intention results in the body performing chosen and practiced movement and footwork patterns to allow the racket to affect the ball appropriately to achieve the desired result and also to allow a recovery position that will maintain dominance or stability in the point.

    Final Remarks to the above sequence analysis.


    The above sequence is of interest from all angles. Andy has chosen a footwork pattern that is relevant tactically. He was able to cover ground quickly and efficiently in the first instance and then use a right, right footwork pattern to execute the shot. This meant that he was well positioned post execution to recover effectively. Had Andy adopted a different approach he may not have had the tactical opportunities open to him or executed the shot as well as he did (since it was a winner) and lost the dominance in the point.

    As mentioned, technique is only of use if there is a tactical intention and that the physical requirements of the most appropriate technique must also be considered. In addition how a player approaches the ball and recovers from the stroke are of upmost importance as a player will need to put the learning into a competitive environment.

    When analysing, teaching and training players, consideration of all 4 processes in a holistic teaching model is necessary to provide maximum learning opportunity to players. The contextual physical requirements of tennis are often over looked but it has the power to enhance player’s technical competency and support the overall tactical intention.

    Teaching in this manner will allow players to understand what it is they are learning and understand when and how to apply certain techniques from both a racket and footwork/movement perspective. We have looked at this method from the perspective of a professional player and high level of tactical intention, but consider a simple tactic of “over and in”. Players must know how to position themselves to play a shot and where to recover for the next shot in the rally. Similarly footwork patterns and stances are taught to young players and should be progressed along with the techniques with the aim of providing a full 360 degree experience of the possibilities within the tactical intention. The tactic of over and in can be extended to rallying on the move or covering more court or simply the quality of trading. Within these progressions, techniques will have to adapt and enhance along with footwork and movement patterns, including court positions and coverage, as players will be increasingly challenged to manage time and space. As we have seen in the analysis of Andy’s shot there is clear need for a functional body and exercises can be used to promote tennis related body function within the development of the other skills. This will aid in technical development which will allow players to explore the game further when tactically related.

    Footwork and movement also have their own technical, tactical, physical and mental attributes as we have seen and should also be worked on alongside the development of racket technique within coaching sessions.

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