Is your brain hard-wired to hit a tennis ball incorrectly?

by Keith Coleman, USPTA
<i>If the brain and wrist are hard-wired for excessive wrist flexion, how can a player overcome this natural tendency?
If the brain and wrist are hard-wired for excessive wrist flexion, how can a player overcome this natural tendency?
Joseph Cohen and his colleagues developed a tennis-teaching aid for the wrist based on the theory that your body is hard-wired to hit a tennis ball incorrectly. Bow Rodgers, the developer of another wrist support, must have reached a similar conclusion through observation and experience.

The wrist, in concert with your brain, will flex and make numerous adjustments to hit the tennis ball at multiple contact points, thus exponentially increasing your inconsistency. It also, inadvertently, "trains" your body not to prepare for the ball appropriately and your feet not to get into the proper position for consistent ball striking (the bane of most players from beginners to pros).

USPTA pro John Yandell (and others) have proved through high-speed digital photography that "there is no wrist snap involved in pro forehands." But if the brain and wrist are hard-wired for excessive wrist flexion (snapping the wrist), how can a player overcome this natural tendency? ­Until recently, the answer was to hit thousands of balls under the watchful supervision of a certified pro who understood proper stroke biomechanics, until a new neuronal and muscle pathway developed.

Would you believe that monkeys helped solve this problem? From the 1960s through the 1980s, *Edward Taub, Ph.D., worked with monkeys to study the effect of deafferenting one of their arms (severing the arm nerves that communicate with the brain), and binding the undamaged arm, in the hope that the brain could "retrain" the damaged limb to work again. Contrary to hundreds of years of inaccurate neuroscience, Taub proved that the brain is "plastic" (capable of making enormous changes in neuronal connections when forced to do so). Although his controversial research triggered an animal-cruelty investigation and long legal battles, this amazing discovery revolutionized the treatment of many stroke victims. The treatment involved constraining the healthy limb on one side of a stroke victim and forcing the patient to use the "damaged" side. The results were phenomenal!

Previous therapies had averaged 15 percent to 20 percent gains in reusage of the affected limbs. Taub's new treatment, Constraint Induced Movement Therapy, resulted in 80 percent to 90 percent reusage gains by numerous patients. So what does this have to do with tennis technique?

There are teaching aids on the market that effectively "constrain" the action of the wrist. In essence, they "rewire" the neuronal and muscle pathways to develop the correct stroke technique. Unknowingly, Rogers and Cohen both related the application of Constraint Induced Therapy to tennis biomechanics.

I was trained to teach tennis by the legendary Don Budge and due to his enormous influence had been extremely skeptical of using "gimmicks" for the past 35 years of teaching. But I had also trained in cognitive neuroscience during these past 35 years.

I was reading Dr. Jeffery Schwartz's book, "The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force," when I first saw advertisements for two aids to retrain the wrist and it hit me that "they are both using CIT."

Obtaining each product - the Wrist ­Assist and the Racket Bracket - I was able to use them with numerous students over the summer in my role as the head pro at the Ocean City Tennis Center in Ocean City, Md. I was amazed at how quickly students began to "automatically" use the proper footwork, balance and kinetic chain to strike the tennis ball. Anecdotally, students preferred each product equally. Therefore, it is not my intention to endorse one product over the other, but to endorse the development of effective teaching aids in stroke development that are supported by the best and most current cognitive neuroscience.

Do you want better strokes? Perhaps a type of "constraint induced movement therapy" is just the key to retraining your brain.

Keith Coleman is a USPTA Pro 1 and the head pro at the Ocean City Tennis Center in Ocean City, Md. He holds a doctorate in psychology and clinical studies and teaches in the psychology department of North Shore Community College, Danvers, Mass., as well as maintaining a private psychotherapy practice.
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