Dealing with a severe mental block while serving

Mr_Zorg

New User
Hey everyone!

Have any of you experienced a mental block of sorts on a particular tennis stroke? Ideally, the serve? How did you go about it?

I started playing tennis around 7 years ago without taking lessons (also didn't play as a kid) and during that time I developed a really ugly serve motion. I've watched my share of tennis matches and am pretty confident that there is not a single aspect of the service motion that is correct.

In observing that awful serve I concluded that one of my biggest issues is the fact the racquet doesn't drop at all. So, with some helpful tips from Feel Tennis Tomaž (link to video) I managed to develop a relatively solid serve loop. The issue now (and the reason I'm creating this post) is the fact I simply cannot perform this new loop after the toss. Basically, if there's a ball above my head my body instinctively performs that weird *** serve. There's definitely some mental block preventing my body from performing the loop when the ball is in the air. You can see what I'm talking about in the following short video.

The last part of the video is me attempting to hit the ball with the "improved" serve loop. Does it look any better to you? Btw, don't let editing fool you, for every one of those hits, there were at least 10-15 fails.
So far I spent several hours trying to hit the serve with this new loop. Honestly, I'm not even close to hitting it with any sort of consistency. I know breaking old habits is hard, but this does feel like I'm perhaps going about it wrong. Like there's a better way...
 
Hey everyone!

Have any of you experienced a mental block of sorts on a particular tennis stroke? Ideally, the serve? How did you go about it?

I started playing tennis around 7 years ago without taking lessons (also didn't play as a kid) and during that time I developed a really ugly serve motion. I've watched my share of tennis matches and am pretty confident that there is not a single aspect of the service motion that is correct.

In observing that awful serve I concluded that one of my biggest issues is the fact the racquet doesn't drop at all. So, with some helpful tips from Feel Tennis Tomaž (link to video) I managed to develop a relatively solid serve loop. The issue now (and the reason I'm creating this post) is the fact I simply cannot perform this new loop after the toss. Basically, if there's a ball above my head my body instinctively performs that weird *** serve. There's definitely some mental block preventing my body from performing the loop when the ball is in the air. You can see what I'm talking about in the following short video.

The last part of the video is me attempting to hit the ball with the "improved" serve loop. Does it look any better to you? Btw, don't let editing fool you, for every one of those hits, there were at least 10-15 fails.
So far I spent several hours trying to hit the serve with this new loop. Honestly, I'm not even close to hitting it with any sort of consistency. I know breaking old habits is hard, but this does feel like I'm perhaps going about it wrong. Like there's a better way...
That's normal. You're programmed to serve a particular way and the ball is the trigger that runs the program. That's why your shadow serve looked so much different.

I noticed that during your shadow serves, you aren't looking up. This makes your shadows easier than an actual serve. Try adding that and see if your shadow changes [I'm betting it will].

If you can execute a good shadow, the next step is to find a progression that bridges the gap between shadow and actual. One way is to toss the ball in a location that's impossible to hit. Why? Because the ball is the trigger. If you can maintain your shadow in the presence of a ball [even if it is too far away to hit], that's progress in overcoming that particular trigger. Like introducing a small dose of an allergen to get your immune system to respond but not over-respond.

Another thing to try would be to toss normally but let it drop well past your contact point before swinging so you don't actually hit it. Again, it's a way of having the ball present but without the imperative to make contact.

Once you get good at this, then introduce the real toss. But don't be surprised if you backslide again. Everyone has different ability to relearn and you might just take more reps.

I have a similar problem: my front foot wanders forward a bit. It never happens on my shadow serves but it's been a struggle training it out of my real serve.
 

Gimble

New User
I had similar issues with the serve.
I seem to have fixed the issue doing the following...
1. Video from behind, and the other side at high fps.
2. Check out 2minutetennis on YouTube... he has a serve instruction video, along with 2 video lessons that he has done for other people. Compare your videos at the checkpoints to his... and make adjustments. Its the Federer style serve, I like the way he explains each checkpoints... slightly cheesy (birthday hat), but made the most applicable sense to me.
3. Repetitive practice of shadow swing ensuring the correct checkpoints at home without a ball to build up muscle memory.
4. Slow practice with the ball... so you are tossing a ball, but not hitting it, just slowly going through the checkpoints.
5. Then increase speed to hit the ball. Redo the video... rinse and repeat until cooked!
 

Mr_Zorg

New User
Thank you so much for the replies!

@S&V-not_dead_yet
This is exactly the sort of progression step I was hoping to hear/learn. I'll try tossing the ball up without actually hitting it. Will also focus on looking upwards during the shadow swings!

@Gimble
Thanks for the 2minutetennis tip! I'll check out the tutorial assuming I get over the initial hump.
 
Great tips from @S&V-not_dead_yet and @Gimble
The hump often happens because you are shaky about the exact loop path your racket should be traveling through; If you precisely know how the racket should be drawing the loop, having a ball to hit may interfere with your swing path near the ball, but should not interfere with your loop motion. Feel Tennis is generally great, but I suspect you may need a little more point markers for the loop path.

If I can add, you are opening too much at contact. To stay sideways, tuck your left arm better (like your shadow swing). Resist your urge to look at where your ball goes and keep looking at the contact point after hitting for a second. That would teach you the feeling of staying sideways.
 
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Chas Tennis

G.O.A.T.
Hey everyone!

Have any of you experienced a mental block of sorts on a particular tennis stroke? Ideally, the serve? How did you go about it?

I started playing tennis around 7 years ago without taking lessons (also didn't play as a kid) and during that time I developed a really ugly serve motion. I've watched my share of tennis matches and am pretty confident that there is not a single aspect of the service motion that is correct.

In observing that awful serve I concluded that one of my biggest issues is the fact the racquet doesn't drop at all. So, with some helpful tips from Feel Tennis Tomaž (link to video) I managed to develop a relatively solid serve loop. The issue now (and the reason I'm creating this post) is the fact I simply cannot perform this new loop after the toss. Basically, if there's a ball above my head my body instinctively performs that weird *** serve. There's definitely some mental block preventing my body from performing the loop when the ball is in the air. You can see what I'm talking about in the following short video.

The last part of the video is me attempting to hit the ball with the "improved" serve loop. Does it look any better to you? Btw, don't let editing fool you, for every one of those hits, there were at least 10-15 fails.
So far I spent several hours trying to hit the serve with this new loop. Honestly, I'm not even close to hitting it with any sort of consistency. I know breaking old habits is hard, but this does feel like I'm perhaps going about it wrong. Like there's a better way...
You don't have internal shoulder rotation (ISR) in your service motion. Serve at 41 sec shows no ISR - it's a Waiter's Tray technique.

Forum search: internal shoulder rotation Chas Ellenbecker
Forum search: Waiter's Tray Error serve Chas

There are many posts explaining and illustrating.

You need to study ISR and the shoulder impingement posts including the search word Ellenbecker.

Demo- hold your arm straight out from your side. Take a racket in your hand. Your arm is straight and the racket shaft is at a considerable angle to your forearm when the wrist is neutral and comfortable.

Now - using muscles attached only to your upper arm bone - gently do ISR so that the racket head picks up some speed. That speed is produced only by ISR. The high level serves in the ATP all include that internal shoulder rotation motion as well as swinging motions. You can't think about or work on your serve until your understand ISR. Study the Ellenbecker posts for the shoulder impingement issue. The arm bone should not be raised at too high an angle at the shoulder joint. Search for the Ellenbecker posts and threads.


In tennis, I believe that there is a very strong awareness of and need to orient the racket face for impact. The Waiter's Tray addresses this by orienting the racket face early, except for closing the racket face as it swings up and forward. But for a high level serve, the fact that the racket head would also be rotating from ISR is difficult to learn with the WT mindset. That's because the ISR directly conflicts with the simple WT approach of aiming the racket face very early. 60% or more of active tennis players have a WT technique. I have written many posts on Waiter's Tray technique & ISR with videos.
 
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Return_Ace

Hall of Fame
I think your "improved" motion is definitely better than your original, although still a hybrid of that and your shadow swing. But that's fine! It's a step towards where you want to be.

One thing i would say is that your currently practising on court, but the court itself can also be part of the stimulus of your original swing muscle memory. I spent lockdown practising my serve in the garden to a point where i thought i was happy with it, got back on court afterwards and realised i went straight back to my old motion.

What i saw from one video, can't remember who it was, is to do a few practice serves facing the other way, so you don't have the "pressure" of the net and service box encouraging you to go with the "safe" original motion.
 

Dragy

Legend
Another good idea I picked from some ET video to address exactly that issue (perfect shadow swing, absolutely not repeating when the ball is introduced) was to toss the ball a bit away, time the swing against the toss, but never hit it - just execute the shadow swing. When you are able to do it the same way you do without a ball, you are ready to start making the contact. I'd still suggest, as @Return_Ace did above, that you first practice without a court in front of you - you practice hitting the ball with your great serving motion, not straight through to making great serve. As soon as you solve and settle those steps:
- Good swing (you have decent without a ball);
- Good swing with toss and timing;
- Good swing with good clean contact;
you can then proceed to figuring out where the ball goes, and adjust your toss and posture (lean, swing upward and across angles) to make the ball go to proper spot - over the net and into the box, intended direction. But you cannot achieve all of it - new motion, high racquet head speed, consistency and precision - without first learning to make clean contact with full swing.

As an extra note, I think your shadow swings are somewhat synthetic: racquet is never oriented for good contact around the top of the swing. So it's rather consequential you struggle to transition this to serving with the ball:


I'd suggest to alter shadow swings with following focus:
- Don't open your chest towards the net as soon as you do.
- Direct your swing more upward towards and across imaginary ball, not behind and then forward.
- Find that "squaring" instance. Shadow-swing moderately slow standing in front of the fence so that expected contact happens when the tip of the racquet touches the fence, so that you can exactly feel how it travels up on edge and then squares for contact... After that fence "touch" it's no more acceleration and forcing, just relaxation into follow-through.

 

Chas Tennis

G.O.A.T.
Another good idea I picked from some ET video to address exactly that issue (perfect shadow swing, absolutely not repeating when the ball is introduced) was to toss the ball a bit away, time the swing against the toss, but never hit it - just execute the shadow swing. When you are able to do it the same way you do without a ball, you are ready to start making the contact. I'd still suggest, as @Return_Ace did above, that you first practice without a court in front of you - you practice hitting the ball with your great serving motion, not straight through to making great serve. As soon as you solve and settle those steps:
- Good swing (you have decent without a ball);
- Good swing with toss and timing;
- Good swing with good clean contact;
you can then proceed to figuring out where the ball goes, and adjust your toss and posture (lean, swing upward and across angles) to make the ball go to proper spot - over the net and into the box, intended direction. But you cannot achieve all of it - new motion, high racquet head speed, consistency and precision - without first learning to make clean contact with full swing.

As an extra note, I think your shadow swings are somewhat synthetic: racquet is never oriented for good contact around the top of the swing. So it's rather consequential you struggle to transition this to serving with the ball:


I'd suggest to alter shadow swings with following focus:
- Don't open your chest towards the net as soon as you do.
- Direct your swing more upward towards and across imaginary ball, not behind and then forward.
- Find that "squaring" instance. Shadow-swing moderately slow standing in front of the fence so that expected contact happens when the tip of the racquet touches the fence, so that you can exactly feel how it travels up on edge and then squares for contact... After that fence "touch" it's no more acceleration and forcing, just relaxation into follow-through.

Dragy, do you think that the serve at 41 seconds looks like a Waiter's Tray?
 

Dragy

Legend
Dragy, do you think that the serve at 41 seconds looks like a Waiter's Tray?
I think it has unnecessary degree of preset stringbed orientation (opening) on the way off the drop, but it's not classic WT techniques where racquet head travels open over the top without around rotation (all-arm aka ISR powered). OP seems to make off-center contact which stops racquet rotation immediately after contact, so we see full "pronated" finish quite late, but it happens. So I'd call it "transition techniques" - which is in line with the fact that OP is working on imroving his techniques.

If you look at elbow shadow unseen on pre-contact frame and appearing on past-contact frame, it displays ISR as present.
 

Chas Tennis

G.O.A.T.
I think it has unnecessary degree of preset stringbed orientation (opening) on the way off the drop, but it's not classic WT techniques where racquet head travels open over the top without around rotation (all-arm aka ISR powered). OP seems to make off-center contact which stops racquet rotation immediately after contact, so we see full "pronated" finish quite late, but it happens. So I'd call it "transition techniques" - which is in line with the fact that OP is working on imroving his techniques.

If you look at elbow shadow unseen on pre-contact frame and appearing on past-contact frame, it displays ISR as present.
Impact can cause very rapid racket head orientation changes so I don't consider that for analyzing ISR. I look at ISR from the Big L Position to the frame before impact.

Also for a
High Level Technique - the edge of the racket is toward the ball at the Big L Position. See lower red arrow in the picture below.
Waiter's Tray Technique - the racket face faces the sky around the time of the Big L Position.

I take both of those word descriptions with a grain of salt regarding the racket face angle and look for the ISR from its start to one frame before impact.

I don't see ISR leading to impact for the OP.

Some servers have read that they should do ISR and it appears that some do ISR + pronation after impact. Since the main purpose of ISR is to add racket head speed before impact, I only look at ISR leading to impact. When I first started I expected and looked for ISR racket head turning to continue through impacts but I soon found exceptions. But before impact from the start of ISR to impact there were no exceptions in the high level serves. Look at 8 or 10 servers and you probably will find exceptions after impact.

Since ISR around impact has been measured by tennis researchers as the single joint motion contributing the most to racket head speed - over 50% - this high speed should be apparent before first touch for impact.

Do you believe the Elliott and Marshall research on the serve from 25 years ago? (there have been issues about the ISR measurement accuracies)

There are many pictures and videos that show the details of ISR. All the ATP clear high speed videos show it. ISR from start to impact is indicated below by the red arrows in this Toly composite picture.


After impact, the racket head often goes to the 'fully pronated position' - but not always. The fully pronated position is probably useful for learning ISR and the high level serve. But it is not a necessary checkpoint.
 
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Dragy

Legend
Impact can cause very rapid racket head orientation changes so I don't consider that for ISR. I look at ISR from the Big L Position to the frame before impact.

Also for a
High Level Technique - the edge of the racket is toward the ball
Waiter's Tray Technique - the racket face faces the sky.

I take both of those with a grain of salt and look for the ISR from its start to one frame before impact.

I don't see ISR approaching impact.

Some servers have read that they should do ISR and it appears that some do ISR + pronation after impact. Since the main purpose of ISR is to add racket head speed before impact I only look at it then. When I first started I looked for ISR racket head turning to continue through impacts but there were exceptions. But before impact there were no exceptions in the high level serves from the start of ISR to impact.

Since ISR at impact has been measured by tennis researchers as the single joint motion contributing the most to racket head speed - over 50% - this should be apparent before impact.

Do you believe the Elliott and Marshall research from 25 years ago?
I think there’s ISR from “big L” (hate that term, and well known Nalbandian picture is flawed), and you cannot say there’s no, as head blocks the upper arm to see anything directly.

I trust their figures, okay, lots of contribution from ISR.

You asked my opinion on WT. I responded based on what I could see in the video. That’s it, I guess?
 

Chas Tennis

G.O.A.T.
I think there’s ISR from “big L” (hate that term, and well known Nalbandian picture is flawed), and you cannot say there’s no, as head blocks the upper arm to see anything directly.

I trust their figures, okay, lots of contribution from ISR.

You asked my opinion on WT. I responded based on what I could see in the video. That’s it, I guess?
If the racket face faces the sky exactly that is simple and it may be a Waiter's Tray. And if the edge is exactly aligned to the ball at Big L, that serve may be a high level serve. But what about when the racket is 30 or 45 degrees off of 'edge on to the ball' or directly 'facing the sky'. Then forget about both those word descriptions and look directly for ISR. ISR is shown by the wrist & racket head but that could include pronation along with the ISR. The OP's racket head hardly rotates going to impact - little or no ISR. Another observation - ISR can be directly shown by the elbow shadows. Elbow shadows of bones or tendons near their attachments can be used to directly indicate ISR without pronation. Then if the racket face is at 30 degrees you might be able to directly see ISR by the elbow shadows. It is always best to check the ISR.

Here is a serve where the elbow shadows indicate ISR. This video has pauses to read text. Play through the 4 second pauses. Step through each frame to the ball single frame using the period & comma keys and look at the elbow shadows that indicate ISR.

Big L Position has some problems in that Waiter's Tray may not display a clear Big L Position. Also, for the high level serve, the elbow may still have a bend. If ISR starts with a bend in the elbow, the forearm and racket are moved in a much different way than if the elbow is near straight. Look at clear high speed videos........

Another issue is that forum posters have extended 'the racket face faces the sky' at Big L to 'open racket' at other times of the service motion outside the Big L Position. I don't know every place during the service motion where the racket is 'open' or 'to the sky' or what those other times might mean to serve technique. I just know 'edge on to the ball' or 'racket face faces the sky' are very useful checkpoints around the Big L Position.

One minute looking a single video can usually tell you if there is a fatal serving problem. This has huge value! The OPs may have been serving for 35 years - as happened to me - and don't know that their serve technique was all wrong because they did not understand this very simple checkpoint.

You have the checkpoint to alert you to look for ISR before impact.
 
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Mr_Zorg

New User
Hey everyone! Another big thanks for the tips you've shared!

Earlier today I bought a $5 racquet and started smacking it at the fence as explained in the "Breaking down a serve hitch" video. I'm still totally tensing up whenever the ball is in the air, but at least I know that I'm not alone! Having legit progression steps (i.e. knowing what to do) also helps immensely.

I also did a few shadow swings while being more focused on ISR and can definitely feel how it contributes to racquet head speed! It's not something I'm going to worry about at the moment as getting rid of the hitch is the priority, but it's definitely something I'll keep in mind for the future.
 

Wurm

Semi-Pro
In observing that awful serve I concluded that one of my biggest issues is the fact the racquet doesn't drop at all.
Being harsh for a moment, that's like concluding the top of a tower leaning over is one of the biggest problems with the building when the foundations are collapsing.

The fact is that you are getting some racquet drop so that part of the motion is already present, which is a decent start.

However, the problems start with the ball toss (the tossing arm is still bent at initiation and the whole body is lifting as you do the toss), the lower body simply isn't properly engaged in the service motion, your whole body is too square to the target the entire time, your shoulders are basically level with the ground through the trophy pose, hence there's no sense that you're going up to the ball you're just largely patting at it...

I recommend you take all motion entirely out of the picture and just work on holding your whole body in the correct trophy pose and getting yourself used to how that feels - oh, and you want to do it with your head looking up to where the ball should be else you'll not get the full picture of how it should feel.

Unfortunately there's not one quick fix to make you serve like a pro, it's going to take a pretty concerted effort over months (probably) to get everything to come together and if/when it does your racquet drop will magically be much better without ever specifically working on it.

A good coach would be invaluable but I appreciate they're not always easy to find, or affordable.
 
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