In Part 1 of this series on the kick serve, I presented the technical reference points for the kick serve motion. This included explaining the three versions of the kick that a player needs to be a complete competitive server. These versions are true topspin, slice topspin, and twist. (Click Here.) Then in Part 2, I presented the drill progressions and a training plan for developing the kick in all variations. (Click Here.)
Now, in this third article, I want to further discuss some important questions regarding this controversial serve and outline what I see as the 5 most common mistakes in teaching and hitting the kick.
Finally, in the upcoming in the fourth article, I'll present the last critical component in my system, the prehabilitation and strengthening exercises I use with my students everyday at my academy.
Let me preface this discussion by saying that, although I have been a certified personal trainer, I am not a doctor, nor am I physical therapist. This article presents my personal observations regarding the kick serve. It is intended to promote discussion and to explain my views on some of the common movements I see that in my opinion can lead to injury.
But this article is not meant to dispense medical advice. I advise all readers to carefully consider my point of view, as well as those of others, to do their own research, and to make an informed decision about following the training protocols outlined in this series.
So first, some philosophical points. I invite all readers to "kick" around the following ideas with an open mind. It is only through intelligent, respectful discussion and further research that some of the kick serve conundrums can be resolved.
The big question of course is this: is it "dangerous" to teach the kick, especially to young players? I believe the kick serve can be learned safely and efficiently following my system. However, there seems to be a lot of disagreement in the coaching community about the safety of this serve. Many pros fear teaching the kick for liability reasons or because they have become convinced that the serve will ruin their students' backs or shoulders.
I think this fear of the kick is misguided. Perhaps it's even one of the great myths in modern tennis teaching. Where is the definitive research proving that the kick will ruin the back and shoulder? Has there really been enough evidence to condemn teaching this serve, or is most of the fear based on insufficient data, rumor and/or supposition?
I have not seen any research that convinces me that this serve will cause injury in well-trained and well-conditioned athletes. In fact, my own experience as a player and in teaching the kick in my academy supports the opposite conclusion. This serve can be used and taught safely, even at a young age.
I was heartened in a recent conversation with Pat Harrison at the US Open, whose boys Ryan and Christian, are some of America's brightest prospects, when he admitted to me that he taught them the kick serve very young--with a back arch--at ages 7-10. But it takes a brave coach in today's current tennis philosophical and political climate to teach the kick this very contrarian way.
As I stated, this is my opinion and it would be great to see research that provided more definitive answers to the many questions coaches and players ask.
Can the kick be taught safely with or without an accompanying stretching and strengthening program? What age of introduction minimizes the chance of injury? At what age is it safe to teach the aggressive left-to-right hand and arm action and shoulder motion?
Should there be a "no kick" type rule in tennis for young 10-under kids, similar to the "no curve" rule in some baseball leagues? Or can a well-trained and supple shoulder safely endure the kick motion at a young age, say 5-10 years old? What age window of introduction maximizes the attainment of kick serve mechanics? Is it easier to learn the kick at 7 than at 17?
Do most of the top tour players use a back arch in the kick? If so, how much and when? Should players be taught a back arch or does that just happen? Does teaching the arch put too much stress on the spine and back muscles?
Can the risk of injury be minimized with a good strengthening and stretching program? What are the long-term (20-30 year or more) consequences of hitting a heavy kick on the shoulder and back? Will the kick shorten the lifetime career of a server?
Now think of how you would answer these questions. More importantly, ask yourself the basis for your answers. Is it research or study of video? Is it experience and observation? Or is it what someone may have told you, that is, rumor? Tennis pros are loathe to admit that they don't know the definitive answer to every tennis question, but the best coaches know both what they know, what they don't know, and what is debatable.
I think it is important for coaches to be honest with students and clients. Tell them the truth. "The jury is still out on this or that." Don't become dogmatic on a subject that you are not sure of to mask your insecurity.
There is significant disagreement in the coaching community about whether pros should--or even do--arch their backs on the kick, and if so how and when. I think the high-speed video shows without question that many top pros do indeed arch their backs significantly on the kick.
The video shows that at some point in most kick serves there is a significant convex shape in the back. This seems to be particularly true in servers with pinpoint stances, which is a stance that I personally favor. The question is not does it happen; the question is whether the back arch is a stressful or harmful motion.
It would seem logical that a repetitive extreme curving and snapping of the spine would put this area, including the related musculature under more stress then when serving with a straighter back. If this is true, the question is whether the benefits of this action outweigh the risks of injury and whether the risks can be mitigated.
There are similar issues around the modern open stance forehand. The extreme rotation is believed by many to be more stressful on the hip and core, but the coaching community by and large has accepted this technique, presumably because the performance gains are worth the risk and the injury potential can be minimized.
We know the open stance forehand may be more stressful to the body and may cause more injuries, but we teach it because it gives our students a performance edge on the court. Following the same logic, I argue that the same approach should apply to teaching the extreme kick.
As I have argued, the ability to hit this serve is integral to high performance. Not teaching it--including the back arch--is a disservice to the student who aspires to play at the highest level. If you don't teach a twist with a back arch, I believe you are taking away a performance edge.
I posit that without a back arch, the maximum angle and sidespin on the kick cannot be achieved, limiting the player's tactical effectiveness. This may be a debatable point, but my approach is based on this postulate.
Simply put: more back arch equals more angle (specifically serving to the ad court) and more sidespin on the ball, which allows a player to strategically pull his opponent off the court—a critical advantage in today's pro game.
Sooner is Better?
I simply believe that the body can be taught to arch the back safely, when the player follows the proper stretching and strengthening program. In fact I think it is possible to argue that it is easier and safer to develop this strength and flexibility when players are younger, rather than adding new physical stresses to the motion of an established player later in his junior or early pro career.
For these reasons, my concern about back injury is not extreme, except in the case of prior susceptibility, such as a previous back injury, or scoliosis, etc. I think we need to draw the line in these cases and players who have a history of back problems should avoid learning a twist with a back arch. They should focus on learning good topspin and topspin slice serves. But for those players with healthy backs, the benefits of a great twist are too important to ignore because of what I feel is an unfounded and exaggerated fear of injury.
I would also draw a distinction between coaching recreational versus competitive players. In my business, all the students I work with are aspiring towards some kind of high performance competitive tennis. Therefore, the coaching protocols for me might be different than for a recreational coach teaching adult club players or juniors who are just playing for fun.
One other critical issue that bears on injury is how the kick is often hit and/or taught. In my opinion, there are 5 common kick serve mistakes that not only reduce the effectiveness of the serve, but that are possible causes of injury. So let's go over them now.
Error 1: Bending Backwards at Waist
The first error I often see has to do with how players try to bend in the kick motion. Players often bend backwards from the waist and push the hips out. There is no back arch--rather there is an extreme lean backwards from the waist with the back more or less straight. I believe this move puts a lot of pressure on lower back.
The correct way to bend the back is to push the chest out and pull up from the rib cage, arching the more supple middle back. We'll go into this in more detail in the prehabilitation exercises in the next article. At my academy players actually work on this exact move as a variation of a yoga stretch in our system.
Error 2: Tossing Behind
It's true that the toss for the kick serve is more to the left, and also, possibly slightly further back, compared to flatter variations. But too many players exaggerate this. In an attempt to get more spin, they move the contact point back far behind the front edge of the body. This reduces power and depth.
In my opinion it can also put excessive stress on the shoulder/rotator cuff. If there is any truth to the correlation between the kick serve and injury, it may have to do with players making contact too far back over many years. Sadly, this ball position undermines the strategic value of the serve by taking away so much speed.
Young players, and all players for that matter, should resist trying to hit more spin than is natural with a proper contact point. The toss behind your body may give more spin, but the player will lose MPH on the serve and end up using more arm in the serve rather than the whole body kinetic chain.
Error 3: Early Back Snap
The back arch should happen smoothly and rhythmically as part of the motion. But some players start the arch artificially so it occurs too early in the serve. These players tend to snap the back with a jerky and spasmodic motion. I often see this happening before the toss.
If you look at the pro examples, however, the arching starts later, well after the release of the ball. This early back snap is a forced movement, as compared to the natural arching in a well developed kick. It's painful to observe and in my view puts additional unnatural pressure on back, pressure that could increase the risk of injury.
Error 4: Toss Extreme Left
One tendency on the toss is to place the ball behind the edge of the body. Another is to toss too far to the left. In a worst case scenario, these two factors can be combined. It's true that some of the great servers pull the ball quite far to the left. Pete Sampras routinely made contact over the center of his head or even further left. But this is the most extreme case with an elite server and Grand Slam champion. Meanwhile, I've seen lower level junior and pro players actually making contact further to the left than Pete, in fact on the actual left side of the body.
It may be true that you can generate more kick from this position, but again you lose speed. It also makes it very difficult to land on balance and recover for the next shot. More importantly, I believe this contact point goes too far and creates far too much stress on the back and shoulder, again, a possible factor in increasing the chance of injury.
Error 5: Abbreviated Right Finish
The final error I commonly see is abbreviating the finish on the right. And, speaking of Pete Sampras, yes you can find examples of him not finishing all the way across the body. But it all cases, his motion appear totally relaxed. That's not what I see when I observe this error.
The player exaggerates the right finish and appears to force the racket to stay on the right side, and then stop abruptly. We know from biomechanics that one key to any stroke is a smooth and natural deceleration of the racket head. Forcing the right finish doesn't accomplish that. In my opinion, this puts unnecessary stress on the rotator cuff. It is preferable to release the serving arm over to the left pocket after swinging all the way out. If on occasion the hand tends to stay more right as a consequence of the swing path, that's fine, but it should happen on its own and not from a mechanical attempt to imitate Pete.
So that's it for this installment on our journey exploring the kick serve. It's been great to hear from so many Tennisplayer subscribers about the articles, so keep the comments coming in the Forum, please. Next we'll see the awesome series of training exercises that complete my kick system and give you the full training approach you need to develop this awesome serve. Stay tuned.
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