In the first article in this series, I outlined the theoretical framework I have developed for building the Spanish forehand, including what I believe are the distinguishing technical characteristics of the shot. (Click Here.)
These include: the shoulder turn and the coiling of the legs, extreme body rotation through the forward swing, parabolic swing shapes, the explosion into the air, and precise balance throughout, especially on the landing.
Mastering these factors leads to the creation of maximum racket speed, the holy grail of the Spanish forehand. Racket speed is what allows players to produce a heavy ball combining velocity and spin in various balances.
Now let's look at some of the drills and exercises I use with my students. These are based on what I have learned in my studies with some of the great Spanish coaches, taken from other famous coaches, and also, what I have developed and evolved through my own teaching experience. In this article we'll look at what I call Shaping Exercises and Hand Fed Ball Drills. Then we'll move on to Racket Fed Drills and Power Building Drills. We'll also address common problems that emerge when developing the Spanish forehand at all levels.
Manual Forearm Hinge
The Manual Forearm Hinge exercise is helpful for players who have difficulty getting the feeling of the steep upward trajectory necessary to achieve heavy spin. I'm a big believer in manual manipulation of the body to help students learn particular technical movements. It can be the difference in breaking through technical sticking points.
For players who have learned the classic linear forehand with a relatively stiff forearm and wrist, this type of exercise and physical manipulation can give them the feeling of the hinged, snapping forearm action of the modern forehand.
This second exercise is a progression from the first hinge drill, adding a hand fed ball. The player takes the feeling of the shadow movement and then incorporates it into generating topspin with the hinge movement. By isolating the upper and lower arm with no legs or hip rotation, the motion is simplified and the student is forced to hit the right technical reference points if he wants to get the ball over the net. As players get better at this movement, I will ask them to swing faster and faster to achieve more speed and rpms.
It is said that good coaches invent, great coaches steal. Here I'm stealing from the work legendary Robert Lansdorp has done on Tennisplayer. (Click Here to see Robert's article that includes his original version of this drill.)
The purpose of the drill is to force the player to extend through the ball by holding the finish. But I've incorporated this extension with more of a topspin focus and also use it with open and semi open stances. Here I have one of my beginning tournament players get the feeling of extending before taking the followthrough up and over the shoulder. After she has developed a good feel for extending through the ball and still hitting topspin, I can encourage her to try different finishes such as to the side of the shoulder or low at the hip wraparound, knowing that the extension component will be preserved.
This shadow exercise gives players a visual of the Spanish swing shape. It graphic demonstrates how this parabolic shape, differs from the more traditional linear swing path. You can use balls to delineate the shape, but chalk is equally good. One advantage of teaching on clay, the traditional surface in Spain, is that the coach can draw the shape directly into the court surface.
Following the parabola swing, the player first extends, and then finishes across the body. After she reaches the extension point she wipers right to left (from her viewpoint) with a low wraparound followthrough. In this drill, the player can also work on driving from the legs and staying on balance. In addition it helps the player feels how full body rotation contributes to creating the swing shape.
Circle Leg Drive and Landing
In this exercise, I'm breaking the old school rule by encouraging my students to jump and rotate through the shot. I'm trying to develop power and athleticism, coordination and balance. I'm trying to develop the kinetic chain, starting with a great leg drive and transferring energy up through the hips and core into the ball. This energy is then harmoniously linked with tremendous arm speed. That's how you develop a big, whipping forehand like Nadal or Verdasco.
I pay special attention the landing because that is how balance is trained. Players have to land in the center of the circle and on perfect balance. My player is making this look easy--but try this yourself--and you will see that it is very difficult to load, explode, and land with grace and balance, while maintaining body position in the circle.
Racket Speed Side Feed
This is the all-time Spanish classic and I have seen many variation of this drill in Spain. This exercise is hand fed from the side. It's the number one drill that I use to develop power, racket speed, and coordination of the different energy linkages.
This drill is generally for more advanced players who have the basic swing shape and now need to develop coordination, timing, and huge whip. Watch how the player is loading his legs, exploding upward, and accelerating his arm at maximum speed. It's also a good first progression for teaching kids how to hit a swinging volley, a very important shot in the Spanish system.
I tend to do 3-5 sets of 10-20 repetitions in one lesson. You need to be careful. You want to challenge the arm musculature to get a good training effect but you don't want to overload the shoulders or arm/wrist so much that the player is risking injury. So use common sense, especially with players under 10 and with older adults, and ask for feedback from the player as to arm fatigue.
If you are working with younger players who are just beginning to learn that parabolic shape, you can let the ball bounce and work the racket speed that way. Beginners will struggle to take the ball directly out of the air at first, but can progress to that later.
All-in-all, this type of drill is the best way I know to build the vicious arm speed and to get that heavy ball that typifies the modern professional forehand. For those familiar with boxing, it's a bit like working on the speed bag in the gym to train the fast twitch muscles.
Racket Speed Front Feed
This racket speed drill is fed from the front, another variation of the classic Spanish approach. The front feed also involves movement, so it is more challenging. Players should develop proficiency with the side feed first and then move to this drill next.
It's a great drill to simultaneously develop hand-eye, footwork and positioning as well as the tremendous arm whip. The coach can vary the toss direction and height to make the drill more difficult, depending on the level. The same cautions about over use apply as with the side feed, especially with players doing the drill for the first time or with adult players.
Defensive Heavy Ball
Here is a version of the classic Spanish defensive movement drill that I have written about in a previous article for Tennisplayer. (Click Here to see me doing this drill with an older, higher level player.)
The player retreats back to receive the ball, letting the height drop between her hips and shoulders. Note she is using the characteristic Spanish double-rhythm method of footwork to defend the court, as discussed in the previous article.
She loads with an open stance and explodes upward into the ball. I'm looking for smooth rhythmic movement along the defensive V, good balance, and then huge leg drive and racket speed to create heavy spin.
This is a good all-around drill for developing defensive movement and positioning and for introducing players to the tactical concept of defense. Players should hit the ball on the fall on defense, so this drill is key to help them get a feel for that concept. Players who always take the ball on the rise or moving forward, need to practice giving up court position and moving backwards. This is a classic Spanish philosophy which has now become part of USTA Elite Player Development curriculum, what Jose Higueras calls 360 degree movement.
On the Rise
As I have written previously, I feel today's competitive juniors need a complete game that combines defense and attack. I think it is equally important to train them to take the ball on the rise, not just on the fall. This is a basic drill that I do on regular basis to develop this. I toss the ball quickly at the player's feet. The player must use a whipping forearm action to pick up the ball on the rise. This is a difficult drill, and the coach can vary the challenge by tossing faster or slower. Although it is possible to hit the ball on the rise with an open stance, I like to stress neutral stance here when developing the concept of playing up and attacking the ball.
I call this my "Workshop Drill," because this is the drill that I use to build and rebuild technique and to work on proper lateral movement and recovery. It can be paced very fast to challenge advanced students or can be paced very slow to simply work on technical reference points.
When a coach is building technique, I believe that as much as possible, the drills should incorporate movement, footwork and balance in conjunction with teaching stroke mechanics. I only use stationary drills only sparingly and when necessary, when a kid is really struggling with a technical aspect.
I highly recommend this Workshop Drill as a basic structure when shaping the mechanics of the Spanish forehand. In this drill, I pull the player out wide towards the sideline. He must then execute a flawless technical swing, and recover with the proper footwork back around the cone. It's a simple drill, physically tiring, and a great way to build that beautiful modern forehand shape.
I recommend multiple sets of 10 balls with young beginners, and 5 repetitions for really young players between 5-7 years old. I emphasize perfect form, balance, and movement mechanics. For older and more advanced players, you can push them by doing the exercise faster to develop quickness, or make the drill even more demanding by increasing the repetitions to 20 or more balls.
The Emergency Drill is great for developing quickness and adaptability on the run when a player is in trouble. The animation shows a variation of a drill that I stole from Luis Bruguera, the legendary Spanish coach, and father of Sergi, with whom I have had the privilege to study. Classically the Spanish defend a tough emergency shot with high topspin, to save the rally and work back into the point.
Other more aggressive approaches would teach a go-for-broke on the run style, but for slow clay court play, high spin is the right shot on the run. I try to teach my students that it is okay to go for broke on the run depending on the score, situation, and surface. I recommend teaching students both a high spin shot for emergencies and a go for broke power drive.
This exercise provides a natural opportunity for players to work on developing their "reverse forehand " finish technique, a term popularized by Robert Lansdorp. (Click Here to see his latest article on that topic.)
Watch how my player demonstrates a nice reverse finish in this clip, applying extra topspin and height to the ball to give him time to recover and grind!
Uncle Toni's Favorite
This drill is rumored to be a favorite of Rafa's coach, Uncle Toni. I believe Jose Higueras is also using a variation of this drill now in the curriculum for the USTA Elite Player Development. The idea is to push a player forward and back developing his footwork, spin and whip, and ball control.
I like using this drill with my advanced players. You can move the player forward all the way to the net and then all the way back, or change directions and move back and forth in the middle of the drill. This drill also helps players develop natural feel for the reverse finishes.
In this drill, I'm feeding the ball low and my player has to use his forearm whip and hand speed to control the ball at his feet. Pato Alvarez, a famous Spanish coach, also does a variation of this drill but focusing more on the rhythm footwork and higher balls.
So that's it for shaping and hand feed drills. In the future I'll present the racket fed drills I use, plus strengthening exercises, and some of the common problems I see developing the Spanish style modern forehand. See you then!
Special thanks to my students Sean Mullins, Will Coad, and Lia Kiam for the doing the awesome demonstrations of the Spanish forehand that made this article possible.
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