The Theory of Non-Embarrassment

James Shaughnessy, MSS, CSCS, USPTA Master Professional

If you had friends watching you play tennis for the first time, would you rather miss a shot into the bottom of the net or miss the same shot 60 miles per hour over the fence? People almost always answer the latter even though the net is a lot closer to being in play. Why? Because being weak is embarrassing.

Hitting a ball 60 miles per hour over the fence may lose the point, but shows strength. Humans strive to be viewed as strong rather than weak. When asking students for their style preference as “a soft hitter who gets a lot of balls in play” or “a hard hitter,” I have never once had a player choose to be coached in a soft-hitting, pusher style. It’s perceived as weak –embarrassing.

The Theory Of Non-Embarrassment states that a player swinging with insufficient upward racquet trajectory and insufficient upward racquet velocity will instinctively open the racquet face. This is because in the last few hundredths of a second before impact, the player’s brain subconsciously realizes the ball is going to go into the net and they instinctively adjust, opening the racquet face to avoid embarrassment, even though this emergency adjustment can send the ball screaming toward the fence.

Thus, the higher the skill level, the less the player hits through the ball.

Why “hit through the ball” isn’t always good advice
Research shows that none of the top ten pro players hits “through the ball” (Tennis Industry, Sept/Oct 2018: 48-49). And yet, in our coaching, we consistently hear coaches instructing players to “hit up and through the ball.” This advice ignores the essential requirement for an upward ball trajectory to clear the net.

The coach understandably wants topspin and a solid racquet-to-ball impact. To create topspin, a player must cause friction on the ball by swinging upward from lower than impact, on an oblique (indirect) path to the ball’s center of gravity. The definition of “hitting through the ball” is the action of meeting the ball with the stringbed of the racquet perpendicular to the path of the ball AND moving directly along the path of the ball’s center of gravity.

A player cannot swing directly and indirectly at the same time. The coach is asking the player to do the impossible.

The solidness of a ground stroke is the result of the ball impacting with the sweet spot of the stringbed on an indirect trajectory to the ball’s path. Typically, the racquet swing path of a successfully aggressive groundstroke has an upward trajectory of 25 to 39 degrees when measured horizontally or from the ground. Data show that the closer the trajectory is to 25 degrees, the lower the skill level of the player. The closer the trajectory is to 39 degrees, the higher the level of the player.

Coaches often object to upward trajectory with statements like “there’s nothing on the ball,” or “it’s all spin,” or “the ball doesn’t get through the court.” But the problem of getting the ball through the court with something on it has to do with the forward velocity of the player’s racquet, while the problem of getting the ball over the net and down in bounds has to do with upward velocity. Coaches think that by taking the upward trajectory off the racquet, the ball will go faster. It will because it has less spin, but this ignores the additional problem that the ball must rise above the net and drop down inside the baseline. Therefore, merely telling a player to hit through the ball is dangerously flawed advice, unwittingly forcing the player into the embarrassment zone.

Coaches must understand that racquet speed is a combination of forward, upward and sideward components. The forward racquet velocity component causes the ball to have greater speed, but the net and gravity preclude a level swing path. A coach’s advice to have a level swing will cause a player to instinctively open the racquet face and miss long.

To address this, here are some simple coaching take-aways:

1. Be mindful that the lower the racquet is below the impact, the greater the available distance to build upward racquet velocity and to create the friction necessary for topspin and ball elevation over the net.

2. Data show the best pro players begin their stroke an average of 16 inches below impact, which is about one and a half racquet head widths. A coach can focus on this point just before contact to ascertain that the racquet comes from 16 inches below the ball. Feedback is important, as the student often times will not feel this without practice and guidance.

3. High-level players must hit sufficiently hard to succeed, but coaches must avoid trying to add forward ball speed by advising players to level their swing and hit through the ball. This advice causes otherwise great players to fall subject to the inevitable net-baseline problem and the Theory of Non-Embarrassment.

Unaddressed, this natural human instinct to avoid embarrassment can result in major problems when coaching a player’s forehand. However, understanding it can solve important forehand issues.