The Myth of the Magic Bullet

John Yandell

Is there a magic bullet that can turn your forehand into Roger's?

I remember when you could find Tennisplayer in the top 10 when you searched for tennis instruction on Google. Ha!

It's a different world now. The internet is completely cluttered with wild instructional promises. "Don't be left behind. Make the world's best contact, eliminate low-back and shoulder pain, and enjoy effortless swings."

"I am literally hitting Federer's forehand." All that for only $300. There are dozens and dozens of You Tube coaches who make this or similar claims.

"I can fix all problems in your game at a huge discount! I guarantee you can hit 100mph serves." I say bull shit.

Do these players have any idea how fast 100mph is actually is? I say get a radar gun and find out.

I know a coach who sent his radar gun back because it said he was serving 85mph when he was certain he was serving 100mph or more. Hey, 85mph is pretty good.

There are two problems here. The first is the accuracy and credibility of the information of the coaches making these promises. The second is teaching theory and how technical change actually works.

A couple of secrets and you will be serving just like the pros.

Don't get me wrong. It's a free world—at least somewhat still--or at least when it comes to tennis. If you believe it, if you want to pay for it, if it makes you feel good, if it gives you hope, go for it. No one can prevent people from falling for fantasy scams if fantasy is what they want.

But in my opinion this type of instruction won't really help your tennis game—possibly the opposite. And most people find this out the hard way—or maybe end up denying that they did.

The Magic Bullet

I call all this the magic bullet theory. Let me give you one or two secret ideas and you will be serving or hitting forehands just like pro players.

After working with players at all levels for 25 years, including at the highest levels of the pro game, I can tell you the truth. It doesn't work.

You are not Roger Federer. You never will be. I've worked with young players, and some not so young, who believed they could be.

But if you were really were who you hope you could become, you'd be playing for money somewhere instead of losing to "pushers" at the 4.0 level. Reality. Harsh but true. But no less true than the power of self-delusion and denial.

Kei Nishikori: an example of extreme forward wrist snap.

So let's look at the fundamental problems in this approach. The nature and quality of the information, and the failures in the teaching methodology.


The first question to ask is exactly what technical changes do you need to make—according to the magic bullet proponents—to elevate your strokes to the alleged world class level.

There is no shortage of proposed magic changes. The problem is that many or most of them are either technically incorrect and/or technically harmful.

Listing all of them would make for a hundred page article—not to mention the pain of having to watch all those horrifying YouTube videos that propound them. But let's look at just a few magic bullets on the serve and the forehand and on footwork.


A common magic bullet on the serve is to snap the wrist. Although the wrist moves from laid back at the start of the upward swing to neutral at contact, when most YouTube gurus say snap the wrist, they mean continuing the forward flexion of the wrist after contact and into the followthrough.

No matter what he says on YouTube Novak doesn't have forward wrist snap.

This motion cuts off the continued rotation of the hand, arm and racket, driven from the shoulder--a primary generator of racket speed. Technically it's called internal should rotation.

You don't have to look further than Kei Nishikori to see the negative effects of believing in this forward snap. Not only in the loss of racket speed but in the potential for the type of wrist injuries Kei has suffered. (Click Here for a fuller analysis of Kei.)

But how many hundreds or possibly thousands of lower level players are hurt—often literally—by faithfully snapping the wrist forward. You can even find pro players like Novak Djokovic advocating forward wrist snap in online lessons—although the high speed footage of Novak shows that clearly he doesn't really do it himself.

Right Finish

An extreme ball position leads to occasional right side finishes.

A second magic bullet tip is to followthrough on the right side of the body to generate kick, rather than allowing the racket to continue across the body. This isn't what causes kick or adds topspin to your serve.

In reality the right side finish is a consequence of an extreme ball position on the toss to the left. You see it at the pro level among a small number of players on some serves, mostly on second serves—Pete Sampras and Milos Raonic for example.

Those guys do it because they are swinging more radically left to right on the way up to the ball. That's where the extra topspin comes from. For the average player this finish again cuts off the hand, arm, and racket rotation, causing a loss of speed and spin and probably increasing the chance of injury.

One more common example of a fallacious magic bullet is to use an extreme abbreviated backswing—so you can serve just like Andy Roddick. I have seen this work on very rare occasions, for example for Gavin Glibert, who we analyzed in Your Strokes. (Click Here).

Even at age 10 Gavin was the exception. He's got a very strong very flexible shoulder and I will be very interested to see his serve in 5 years and out. But for the huge majority of players I have worked with the abbreviate wind up is a disaster.

The change to an abbreviate wind up limited Paul's racket drop.

It prevents what they think it is achieving by restricting the racket drop. It's the 1/10th of a second or so between the drop and the contact that generates most of the racket speed. And the abbreviated wind up for most players reduces this because it restricts the drop.

This can be true even for successful tour players. My work with Paul Goldstein, the Stanford coach, but then a top 50 pro player, demonstrated this clearly. Paul had changed to an abbreviate backswing to try to pick up racket speed. It had the opposite effect.

When he opened up his wind up and improved his drop it added significant mphs to his serve. Years later remembering that it's probably why he hired me to be a technical consultant when he became the Stanford coach. (Click Here for my work with Paul.)


I could go on giving examples about the serve but that is enough pain there. So let's stop and move onto the forehand.

Players hold the wrist more laid back on inside balls.

Again there are dozens of magic bullet myths, but let's just look at a couple of the major ones. Like the serve, the first one is forward wrist snap, and there are some big name coaches who are all over YouTube advocating it.

The reality is that the role on the wrist is the exact opposite of forward snap. The brilliant biomechanist and elite coach Brian Gordon has measured this.

What he found is that top players are actually inhibiting the forward snap. Yes, the wrist flexes forward at least somewhat on many forehands.

But his research proved that players limit this in order to align the racket head with the shot line. So going inside out or inside in the wrist is held more laid back.

On wide balls, players allow the wrist to come somewhat more forward, again so the racket head aligns with the shot target line. The blows away the whole idea that the secret to a great forehand is to mechanically "lag and snap." (Click Here.)

Another false magic bullet is that the key to racket head speed is the wrap finish. "Show me the butt of the racket."

Wrist at eye level, hand at left edge of torso, good spacing between hand and body.

This is for the over the shoulder finish, but is also advocated for the across the body finishes under the shoulder or even lower. The problem here is that quantitative analysis shows that the racket is traveling most slowly in the wrap—whatever the shape.

It's going around 5mph typically. The wrap is actually the deceleration phase, so cutting the forward swing short by emphasizing the followthrough has the exact opposite of the intended effect.

The real key is the forward extension of the swing prior to the wrap. The great forehands in the pro game and at all levels have this.

It means the wrist reaches about eye level at about the left side of the torso with a couple of feet of spacing between the hand and the shoulder. After that the deceleration into the wrap occurs naturally.


Again I could go on about the forehand, or move to the backhands—both one hand and two, but again that's enough pain to make the point. So let's look at one additional magic bullet on the groundstrokes, the recovery step.

The recovery step isn't part of the forward swing.

With the speed of movement in the higher levels of the game, no doubt that on a high percentage of balls, players swing the back foot around and to the outside to push off and start the recovery. The question is when?

The magic bullet theory is that the recovery step is actually part of the swing and happens before the wrap or even before the extension of the swing is complete. I have personally seen students who were taught that swinging the back foot around generates additional power. No.

That's not the way it really happens. In reality the outside recovery step happens after the extension of the stroke or sometimes during or even after the wrap.

Teaching the player to start this step too soon limits or even destroys the natural power of the stroke. Yet it's become a staple, especially in high performance coaching.


So given these examples—and there are so many more—why do so well meaning avid coaches and well intentioned players at lower levels make these same mistakes over and over, advocate them as truth on You Tube, and expound this on internet message boards?

The fundamental reason is the limit of human perception. As I have written before, the human eye is way too slow to see what happens clearly in tennis strokes.

The contact is 10 times too fast to see with the naked eye.

The ball is on the racket for about 1/250 of a second. But the human eye can only see increments of 1/25 of a second. 10 times too slow to see the contact.

Since a stroke takes around a second, give or take, at best the eye only sees 4 or 5 frames and those are all a blur. So the key positions are almost invisible.

Many years ago when we started building our stroke archives, I optimistically and naively thought that these resources could change the way players and coaches thought about key positions in strokes. It gave us all a window into what was basically an invisible game.

And many coaches were influenced by this. The vast majority though weren't. As I wrote a few years ago in The Myth of the Tennis Tip (Click Here) most teachers continued to teach the way they had been taught, feeding balls from a basket interspersed with a litany of verbal tips.

And this is the same approach we see in the magic bullet approach—with the addition of exaggerated claims about what their secret information could do for players who bought in and paid.

Learning Theory

So here is the added difficulty. Let's say a magic bullet coach actually gets it technically right about a certain element of a stroke. That truth, expressed verbally, still isn't enough, usually, to get the change into the stroke of the player.

High speed video of your strokes is the only real way to get to the truth and make real change.

Why? Because sports learning isn't verbal—it's visual and kinesthetic. Players need to create internal mental images of technical change and accompanying feeling inside their bodies.

There is no way to "think" yourself through a stroke. It has to flow from a feeling and a mental picture. No doubt some players can make this translation on their own but the overwhelming majority can't.

Hence we have paralysis by analysis. The more verbal information a player tries to absorb, the more likely it won't create change—or actually could lead to the opposite.

This is why it's so depressing to watch traditional lessons. Week after week students struggle and week after week their strokes look the same or worse.

The Answer

So what's the answer? A totally different teaching methodology that uses video. This is what I have been developing and refining and applying over the years.

It's a few simple steps. Film the player's stroke using a compact high speed video camera, or even a slow motion setting on a cell phone, and do this without comment.

Mac like most top players—instinctive visualization.

Show the video to the student. Show them high speed footage of world class technique and compare the actual key positions of the student to the pro model.

Now have the player physically model the key positions needed for the change. Then have them create internal mental images of those positions and how they feel.

Then have them go back on the court and use the images and feelings to work on the stroke. Hopefully without resorting to words or internal mental dialogue.

I am convinced this is how great players learn and play. This is why they can't describe their strokes verbally. And when they try—say in You Tube instructional videos--they tend to fall back on tired clichés they have heard at some point, clichés that don't actually correspond to how they play.

To paraphrase the great John McEnroe, "I see the image of a shot flash across my mind, then I hit it." But you don't have to be an all time great to develop this ability for yourself.

I know because I have seen it time and time again with players at all levels I have worked with on my court in San Francisco. You can see how this worked for these players by perusing the Your Strokes section on Tennisplayer.

Actual shot of our Side by Side page. Click Here to visit!

And if that inspires you can come on out to California and I will do that for you. But what if that isn't a viable option?

Side by Side

For the past year we have been building the capability for subscribers to do it for themselves. It's our Side by Side section.

You can upload your own stroke video to Tennisplayer and see yourself side by side with a wide range of stroke models—the top players, basically any grip, all the strokes.

And what about the key positions? Those are there in our Ultimate Fundamentals section. (Click Here.) And in more detail in the Teaching Systems section with a lot more detail. It's called A New Teaching System. (Click Here.)

And no it's not a magic bullet approach—but it does allow players to radically improve technique and maximize whatever their true natural ability may be.

Next year I will be taking this Tennisplayer resource to the next level. I am going to do podcasts that demonstrate how to use the Side by Side section. And you can jump start your ability to do this by uploading your own strokes and follow along live, step by step.

Stay tuned for more on that!

John Yandell is widely acknowledged as one of the leading videographers and students of the modern game of professional tennis. His high speed filming for Advanced Tennis and Tennisplayer have provided new visual resources that have changed the way the game is studied and understood by both players and coaches. He has done personal video analysis for hundreds of high level competitive players, including Justine Henin-Hardenne, Taylor Dent and John McEnroe, among others.

In addition to his role as Editor of Tennisplayer he is the author of the critically acclaimed book Visual Tennis. The John Yandell Tennis School is located in San Francisco, California.

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