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What is Shadow Tennis? More importantly, how could YOU be "shadowing" differently to improve your tennis game?
Shadow Tennis is one of the oldest, most pure, and versatile exercises for improving many aspects of your tennis game. Shadow Tennis is not just swinging a tennis racket by yourself.
Shadow Tennis challenges your speed, rhythm and power, while skyrocketing your heart rate and spurring fat loss. Plus, it allows you to rack up high reps without the distraction of approaching balls to slow you down, so you can go faster and smoother for longer.
Mix forehands, backhands, volleys and overheads together in any pattern for 1- 2 minutes straight, and then rest 30 seconds. That is 1 round. Do 6 to 10 rounds with some extended breaks in between
Learn how to use Shadow Tennis in your training, warm ups and cool downs, to become a natural and more fluent player.
Shadow Tennis is when a player moves around by him/herself swinging the racket at the air. Shadow Tennis is an amazing exercise for tennis players to hone their swing techniques, condition their muscles, warm-up or warm down during their workouts, or even to mentally prepare themselves before a match. Done properly and with the right goals in mind, Shadow Tennis can improve your swing technique, strength, power, speed, endurance, rhythm, footwork, attacking and rallying and defensive skills, and overall playing abilities.
Shadow Tennis is incredibly versatile because of its freestyle nature and simplicity. You can practice anything you want without any distraction (ie: an approaching ball or an opponent trying to beat you), and take instant feedback from a mirror, coach or camera. You do not need any equipment or anybody. Shadow Tennis is quite harmless as you are not punished for making mistakes. All you need is an imagination and you can practice virtually any Footwork Moves you want. You can practice your “out steps", your recovery steps, your contact point, your balance moves, your hitting stances and corresponding swing lines. You can even focus on a still head, racket head speed and even visualize patterns of play, playbooks and/or point routines. It is totally up to your own imagination and dedication.
The drawback to Shadow Tennis is that it not as realistic as an actual match. There is nobody for you to adjust to or no ball to react and respond too. Even if you are playing an imaginary opponent, there is a good chance this imaginary opponent is moving the way you would move and with too much predictability. Of course, playing a real opponent is always harder because he or she plays unpredictably and requires you to change your thoughts and react on the fly.
The reason I say this is because most players do not have good movement. They may have good power and good speed, but their movement is not natural and is not relaxed. As athletically impressive as they may be, it simply does not look coordinated. I see a player huffing and puffing, sweating and grunting, simply to move his or her own body.
Rod Laver (pictured), one of the greatest players of all time, practicing shadow tennis barefoot as a teenager. Source: Unknown.
Shadow Tennis is all about the movement. There are no distractions from having a target in front of you or an opponent to make you uncomfortable. The focus of Shadow Tennis is to get used to tennis movements. Nothing else!
Before you try hitting a hundred backhands down the line, you should first do it in with Shadow Tennis. Your arms and legs need to get used to the movement.
The feet need to get used to being wide, your body is turning as a unit automatically and the recovery steps are efficient and effective. You do this, so when you play a real match, the things that do not happen naturally are suddenly “there”.
I have also noticed a lacking in “calmness” from tennis players that do not Shadow Tennis enough. There is something different about a player that does Shadow Tennis regularly. The player looks amazingly comfortable moving around and swinging the racket as if it is their default movement…it is as natural as breathing for them.
On the other hand, a player that does not Shadow Tennis regularly (or at all) always looks like they must be “switched on” to match mode. The player who needs to be pumped up before they get on the court. Then they get in there and they appear to be a bit too “ON”. They're moving around too much, they're all over the place. They're too excited, too anxious, perhaps even too nervous. It is not natural for them to be on the toes, or split stepping or staying low. Sure enough, they eventually get “switched off” in match play. They get tired, beaten down and go into panic mode because the tennis movements are not natural.
Shadow Tennis is the practice of committing repetitive tennis movements to muscle memory. Forget about power, speed or endurance, strategy, improvised and flashy moves, etc. It is simply the raw exercise of moving your body like a tennis pro. You might be too tired to drill or hit against the ball machine, but you can always have energy to practice moving.
It is the constant practice of developing this coordination that truly makes you a great player and makes you a natural. It is the supreme ability to move your body that develops naturalness, allows you to relax, to be efficient, to be balanced and to feel comfortable in your own body.
The goal is not to show off to everyone else at the Club or Academy, throwing as many swings as you can and jerking your head back and forth. That is a terrible goal and, if anything, only leads to you getting tired in a few minutes... which is sad given your just playing the air.
The worst thing you can do for developing technique is to try to and work on everything all at once.
Move around. Use your legs, move your feet, relax the shoulders, swing the racket. Move! Move! Move! Shake your limbs out, keep up on your toes. Repeat! Breathe and put some purpose into your movements. Breaking a sweat is OK if your goal is to warm-up. You want to put your body into motion.
Are you working on a certain swing line? Or a defensive move? Go slow, take your time, and check out your form in a mirror. Instead of working on the entire movement, maybe you can pick out 1 or 2 key points to focus on. I like to call these “triggers” i.e. think about one key aspect that seems to give you the best results. Once that part feels right, you can move on to another detail or try the movement in its entirety. Repetition is important but only after you know for sure that you are practicing the right thing. This is where having a Footwork Coach helps.
Being able to do a move perfectly does not mean you can do a move NATURALLY. Perhaps you have got your balance techniques down right but cannot seem to execute them in a real match. You can improve this by shadow swinging from different locations on the court. Instead of always setting yourself up in the same stance, you can try swinging the racket from different stances. Also try moving around and hitting volleys, approach shots and overheads. Instead of trying to force the moves, try to find a way for your body to allow a movement to feel natural.
Sometimes singular movements feel good, but you lack the flow during a match. You can work on your rhythm with Shadow Tennis by making many movements - 3-4 Forehands, 3-4 Backhands, 3-4 Runarounds, Repeat. Here you are working on rhythm so it’s ok to minimize the movements to help you find a natural “tennis dance” rhythm in your body, rather than fully exerting and putting 100% power on every movement. Develop some rhythm by focusing on the FLOW... FLOW... FLOW!
Shadow Tennis is perfect for working on key strategic moments during a match. Maybe you have a bad habit of too narrow a base. Or maybe you are needing to work on bending that back knee or an efficient plus explosive crossover recovery step. Or maybe you just got out in a tennis match and hesitate to come into the net. Shadow Tennis drills with a strategic mindset are great for developing new strategies to beat opponents and then developing NEW HABITS to fulfill these strategies. It is all muscle memory and mindset.
Move slowly, relax, breathe. Reflect on the match you just had. Think about different techniques or movement strategies that could have helped you and work on them. You have already done the hard work for the day. This is your time to enjoy the moment rather than to squeeze one last workout out of your body.
I would say my biggest complaint about Shadow Tennis is not so much that players are doing it wrong, but rather that they are not doing it enough. If you are a serious tennis player, you should be shadowing a minimum of 30 minutes a day. Pros will do more like an hour. That shouldn’t be hard at all considering you can use shadowing for warm-up/warm-down and also when developing new techniques.
A general Shadow Tennis workout would be about 15 minutes long. You do it straight through, with minimal rest. Keep your body moving and your muscles warm. If you are getting tired too easily, simply slow it down. Shadow Tennis can be done anywhere anytime. You should never have any excuse for sitting down and doing nothing at the gym or tennis court. You can Shadow Tennis even as you’re watching another match or waiting in line for a court.
Use Shadow Tennis to get warm and start loosening up your joints.
Use Shadow Tennis to work on new moves like swing lines, Contact Moves or split steps
Use Shadow Tennis to condition your arms and leg endurance. Work on the common repetitive movements that you use during a match.
Use Shadow Tennis to close out your day and loosen whatever muscles that may have tightened from your workout. Take one last look at your technique in the mirror to recap on the techniques you have learned that day.
Shadow Tennis anywhere, anytime when you are alone. Try using a mirror and see what happens when you change or try different things. Or try Shadow Tennis at a park or beach when it’s nice and quiet and ambient. You can even do it in sand or on grass where it is softer on the legs
Shadow Tennis as you practice using various templates like properly placed arrows, dots, squares or small ladders. Templates are a fantastic training tool to develop the timing and accuracy of your footwork. Templates guide you to use the correct stance and foot placement, and to add another dimension to the training . Shadow Tennis as you practice with templates will help to build the correct movements into your muscle memory.
At many parks you can find hills with a slight gradient. These are perfect for working on your lateral movement, with racket in hand, by moving across the incline mimicking defensive forehands and backhands. Remember going down the incline will work on your stride frequency by using the assistance of the hill i.e. your speed. Then going up the hill will work on you stride length by using resistance i.e. getting your legs stronger and more powerful.
I am a big fan of using resistance bands - such as Wearbands - to work on developing a player's ability to stay low. Dominic Thiem is the master of using various types of resistance equipment. Kudos goes to his fitness coach, Duglas Cordero in Miami, for using boxes, vipers, parachutes, benches etc. to work on his agility and footwork, with a racket in hand a large percentage of the time.
Shadow Tennis under the supervision of a Footwork and Movement Coach and take in the feedback. Adjust on the spot and see what happens. You can also have him/ her call out cues words or point in a certain direction to work on your reactions. For example, if I know my players will face an aggressive net rusher, I have them focus on passing shots and lobs.
You don't have to always Shadow Tennis alone. Have a friend Shadow Tennis with you so it's like you’re playing each other, except you keep a distance so no rackets connect. Feed off the energy of the other player.
I have an entire video and manual pack devoted to groundstroke Shadow Tennis routines that players can use to practice their footwork off a screen. This is a great option on wet days and when socially isolating.
If you don’t have access to a screen then attaching cues cards to your racket is also very helpful. This takes away the need to remember the moves and/or your selected routine.
Throw a medicine ball or even better an agility/reaction ball against a wall or over the tennis net. Shadow Tennis does not have to done with a racket in hand. A medicine ball is an amazing tool if thrown against a wall (when by yourself) or over a tennis net to a partner. Just make sure it is no heavier than 1 kilogram and bounces well off the ground. Even better is a big soft reaction ball because the unpredictable bounce works on your reading, split step and fast unit turn.
Footwork Shadow Circuits are a fun and amazingly effective way to work on your tennis fitness and movement. I like to set up templates and move from one template to another working on a variety of different Footwork Moves. This can be done on the tennis court, down a path, around a field or oval or on your driveway. Jogging in between also creates an extra aerobic component.
See your Shadow Tennis warm up as the THEORY part of the squad session. I am a big fan of warming up a tennis group with Shadow Tennis, instead of running around the court and doing butt kicks, because in my opinion it is the most specific way to introduce the players to the shots of the day and the strategic themes. It also brings all levels together and this creates a great dynamic team atmosphere. If the theory of the steps, stances, moves and swing lines are addressed in the warm up then the students can rotate straight into the fed ball, live ball drills and then finally match play!
This is one of the biggest reasons for training in a gym in front of a mirror and or having a Footwork Coach. You need a way to know if what you are doing is valuable. You need a way to critique yourself and look for opportunities to improve. It is extremely hard to improve if the only feedback you get comes from yourself.
Have a trainer or coach oversee your movements and make little suggestions here and there. There really is no substitute for having the constructive input of someone more experienced than you. Even if you do not have a mirror, you could have a fellow player (preferably one more experienced) look and adjust what he or she sees.
Look at your form in the mirror and see if you can find areas for improvement. It also helps to compare your form to that of other tennis pros online. See how certain aspects of their technique looks different to yours - mimic their movements.
If something feels too difficult, you are probably doing it wrong. Your shoulders should not be hurting during the swing. Your back should not be aching when you drop your back knee. You should not be falling off balance when you move around. If you’re getting tired doing Shadow Tennis routines, how can you expect yourself to have much endurance during a high-stress match with an opponent?
This should be a rule that you apply to every minute of your training. Do not ever let the brain go dead. THINK! BE ALERT!. See if you can notice your own vulnerabilities before your opponents do.
What to think about while you perform Shadow Tennis drills?
YOU NEED TO INSPIRE OTHERS WITH YOUR OWN SELF-DISCIPLINE. IF YOU DISCIPLINE YOURSELF NO ONE ELSE HAS TO!
Back in 1998, I was employed at White City in Sydney, Australia and I was working with a top ranked junior player who was in the Qualifying Draw for the NSW Open, which is a lead-in event to the Australian Open.
I was stretching her at the side of a court when I noticed an established Argentinian player, named Inés Gorrochategui, walk onto the practice court. I also noticed that her hitting partner hadn’t turn up. Instead of walking off the court and loosing the opportunity to practice, she picked up her racket, walked to the T of the service box and did these amazing sets of choreographed Shadow Tennis routines. She did about 10 highly dynamic shadow shots then recovered by walking around the net, playing with her strings, breathing deeply and staying super focused. This went on for 30 minutes and was it so inspirational that a crowd of spectators, 5 deep, gathered around the court watching her in awe!!
I never forget my young player's words as we watched Inés Gorrochategui walk off the court - “Geez, I hope I don’t have to play her!!
To this day it was one of the best examples of self-discipline I have ever seen, and it has had a massive impact on me from that day forth.
Interestingly, Inés Gorrochategui has become a French Open Quarter Finalist and reached a WTA career high of 19 in the world.
The biggest take home message on that day was that she was totally unsupervised and did it all off her own bat. It was incredible. What a role model and message Inés Gorrochategui was sending to all of those watching. It never felt like a show. It was just an amazing use of her valuable time on court!!
I do not recommend it. It distracts from the purity of the Shadow Tennis exercise. If you want to add resistance, it becomes resistance training. And even then, the extra weights do not help your racket-head speed/power very much because they apply force in the direction of gravity rather than the direction that your racket travels. It might be a good conditioning exercise, but even then, the pros that shadow tennis with weighed rackets do it at a VERY SLOW speed. High speed shadow swinging with weighed rackets may damage your joints!
No, it is not necessary. Maybe every now and then you can mess around as a left hander for co-ordination, but it’s not necessary as part of your regular tennis training. In my opinion, if you want to try something new, weird, or different - you should try something new from your regular stances.
No piece on Shadow Tennis (written by me) would be complete without the inclusion of
a little project that meant a lot to me!
"Tennis is a dance and the ball is your partner"
I have been using this quote all my career.
So much so that, in 2009, I teamed up with great friend and brilliant dance choreographer, Koto Thompson, and Tennis Blast Partner & great coach, Kerry Dock, to create this short video.
Move Great, Feel Great!
Recently, I was driving my daughter home from swimming squad, which she had been doing 4 times a week for a year, and I said “ Ella, when are you going to start racing and getting involved in competition?" After some thought, she replied “You know Dad... I have no interest in racing ...I just love swimming!!”
That got me thinking about the last part of this article. Does tennis always have to be about winning, about the Division One College dream, about going pro or winning a title ?? Maybe it can just be about the joy of movement, the idea of swinging a racket and feeling fantastic, about striking that imaginary ball, about flowing and shifting and floating and slicing and playing without pressure, without its ins and outs!!!
Maybe, through Shadow Tennis, the game can be about being in the moment. It can be about seeing tennis as a dance, an escape, an adventure or an act of being??
Remember, your health is your wealth.
Play the game purely because you love it!!