The Myth of the Follow Through
For as long as people have been teaching tennis, the advice “follow through” has been a cornerstone of lessons. Because there is a misunderstanding of exactly what the follow through does, however, it is often taught incorrectly, and can hinder a player’s strokes.
Following are some myths about the follow through, as well as an explanation of its role in the kinetic chain.
Myth #1 — Carrying the Ball on the Strings
Many people believe that by following through correctly, a player can keep the ball on the strings longer, allowing the player more control on his or her shot. TV commentators have also incorrectly explained to millions of viewers that some players are able to change the ball’s direction while it is on the strings, adding disguise to their shots.
In actuality, the ball is against (not “on”) the strings for only three-to-six milliseconds. As a reference, once the ball hits the strings, it takes a human 30-to-40 milliseconds to hear that sound or feel the shock.
The ball is gone and off the strings almost at the instant of contact, and the racquet cannot catch up. As you continue your follow through, the ball has been long gone.
And even if you could keep the ball on your strings longer, why would you want to? The longer the ball is on the strings, the more chance there is for it to move and slip, thereby decreasing control.
Myth #2 — Your Follow Through Determines Direction
Advising a player to follow through where they want the ball to go, intimating that there is a lacrosse-like relation between the ball and the racquet is not only false, but can negatively change a player’s mechanics.
As we explained above, the ball is projected from the strings so quickly, the follow through has absolutely no affect on the ball’s direction, spin, height, depth or overall trajectory.
The only thing that determines where the ball goes is the angle of the racquet face at contact, and the angle from which the ball is approaching (angle of incidence and reflection).
The speed of the racquet and trajectory of its path influence pace and spin, but once the ball is gone, follow through has not affect on the ball.
In addition, trying to “carry” a ball on the strings causes the player to decelerate prior to contact. Since we know that Force (commonly referred to as “power” or “pace”) = Mass X Acceleration, decreasing acceleration will decrease the pace your player will put on his or her shots.
Telling a player to follow through in the direction they want the ball to go, especially on the serve, does, however, seem to be an effective teaching tool. Whether it motivates the player to position himself differently or rotate the upper body differently, this advice has seems to be helpful to players.
Explaining to them, however, that they cannot carry the ball on the strings, and that following through has no influence on the ball that has already departed, may make them think more critically about their mechanics.
Myth #3 — Turn the Racquet Over for Topspin
By now, we know that extraneous motions made after the ball has left the racquet do nothing, and can have negative affects on the stroke.
What gives a ball topspin are the angle of the racquet face at contact (slightly closed) and the direction of the racquet’s path (upward), which impart topspin to the ball. Watch your players to see if they are, in fact, turning their racquets over after their shots, which may be causing a shorter swing, decreasing depth on their shots, and resulting in a deceleration before contact, which decreases power.
Note that an increasing number of players have developed an abbreviated follow through with almost no follow through and the racquet making a severe downturn, often referred to as the “windshield wiper” groundstroke.
Other players follow through with their racquet higher, with arms bent at the elbow and the racquet finishing over the shoulder.
As long as the player is able to hit the ball where he wants, when he wants and how he wants, without causing a repetitive stress injury, an otherwise unique stroke is acceptable.
If you have players who use this stroke, make sure they player can get the depth, direction and consistency they’ll need to win at more competitive levels.
The Real Purpose of the Follow Through
If a tennis player were to hit a stroke on a court where a pole was stuck in the middle of the court next to where the player was hitting a forehand, and the player’s racquet were stopped by that pole immediately after contact, not allowing the player to follow through, the ball would travel just as if the player had followed through.
The lack of a follow through would have no affect on the shot.
The same is true of basketball players who are fouled on the arm before they are able to follow through. TV commentators often say that a player must be allowed to follow through, but as we now know, once the ball has left a player’s hand, the follow through has no affect no the shot.
Why then, should tennis players follow through?
If a tennis player does not follow through and tries to stop at contact, she will have to decelerate much earlier in the shot, losing pace on her shots.
Using another analogy to help explain this to your players would be the example of a sprinter who runs through a finish line, rather than stopping at the line, because in order to stop at the finish line, the runner would have to begin slowing down before he got there.
This is the real value of the follow through — it allows the correct stroke to be completed and provides the natural deceleration for the correct swing preceding contact.
Note that some players who use an exaggerated wrist snap and forearm acceleration, especially on the “windshield wiper” stroke, will appear to have almost no follow through. These players use a combination of power and spin on their shots, generated from their hips, racquet path and other factors.
Again, as long as the player is able to hit the ball where he wants, when he want and how he wants, without causing a repetitive stress injury, an otherwise unique stroke is acceptable. Keep an eye on these players, as this stroke has been seen to cause repetitive stress injuries.
Explaining to your players why they need to follow through, rather than just that they should follow through, will better help your players improve their strokes.