All the Split Steps of the rainbow
One of the most over-analysed topics in the footwork world is the variations of Split Steps. And there are many beliefs and theories which need to be put to rest. It is very easy to view a professional, highly skilled athlete and make assumptions on what a 12-year-old should be doing. More needs to be considered here, tennis is a process, and many things need to be developed before we can start trying to execute what the professionals are doing. Just like strokes, volleys, and service actions, steps are required to ensure a player develops progressively. It is no different in the case of split steps and all footwork for that matter.
Let me explain.
Research into skill acquisition has proven elite athletes have far better cue reading and perceptual skills. This makes sense, they should be able to read the play better than anyone. But they weren’t always this way. They too spent years learning to read the direction of play, technical cues of their opponent and learn about the various patterns of play in tennis.
This is a vital scientific piece of information that explains the reason why you may see a flow step or jap step (or whatever you may refer to it as) used more in elite tennis. If we look at the timing of split steps it occurs as an opponent strikes the ball – however, if you have amazing perceptual skills like the pro, then as your falling into the split your cognitive system(brain) may have deciphered all information and there is no time to waste, so you, of course, turn the inside foot outwards and move out to the ball through a flow step or other maneuver. If you don’t have the perceptual skills to decipher this information rapidly then you may need more time, hence, to ensure you can move in both directions you will land in an even split step (both feet facing forward) to hedge your bets on a direction. This becomes even easy when you have time.
This is one reason why I have a problem with coaches teaching alternative steps too early in athlete development.
Think of this, if you do coach an athlete to implement, for example, a flow step, perhaps instead of a split step, then 2 things can happen
- They will start flow stepping later to gain the extra time to read the cues to determine direction. So no real gain in performance or taking time.
- If their timing of the flow step is on right on opponent ball contact (as it generally should be with most of these variations), they will have to guess as they do have not the skills to process the information quickly enough to make the correct decision. In this case, they may be wrong and will have to change foot position – taking up more precious time, which defeats the purpose.
For this reason, I like to teach an even split step with young and developing athletes. It’s not to say I don’t ever teach variations of split steps. I just place a great emphasis on developing a quality split step at a younger age. In my experience, an amazing thing begins to happen as they learn more about reading the play and split steps… they begin to bring the variations in without prompting and sometimes without too much coaching. But from a young age, it’s so important to coach an even split-step – balls of your feet, toes facing the net, feet parallel, hips and shoulder facing the net, and head still. Symmetry is important – it allows them to be prepared for any direction and creates a consistency of movement, the platform so to speak for variations to develop in the future.
The other reason why I see coaches teach the flow step early on in development is that they are mistaking how it is used in professional scenarios. I previously alluded to the fact it’s used as an elite player determines the direction of the ball early and begins moving to it without needing to land and determine direction. But variations are also used because the player doesn’t have the time and/or is out of position. The opponent has taken their time and they are forced to move in the direction of the ball late. These instances often occur after the ball has been struck and the players’ recovery isn’t optimal (they are still recovery to the best position). They are essentially still sidestepping back into the best possible position, but the ball is coming and they need to move or the point is over! They need to move rapidly, and a split-step would actually slow their acceleration to the ball. Do not mistake this for the best footwork pattern in all situations. The player using it is in a situation where they have either not recovered well enough and/or are in poor court positioning and are forced to move.
So, what does this all mean? What can we learn from this?
The Flows Step and other variations are used when you perceive the direction early (prior to landing in your split step) and you move into the first step acceleration position phase rapidly. They are also used when you don’t have time, recovery is limited and your split step is late, hence need to get moving to the ball swiftly.
>Best to coach more developed athletes who have perceptual skills so they are not left chopping and changing direction out of the split. Let them develop their perceptual skills and slowly implement them over time.
The (Even) Split Step is used for all ages and is adopted when you have time to be sure of direction or require slightly longer to perceive direction or haven’t developed the necessary cue reading and perceptual skills quite yet. It is also used prolifically in the return of serve and at the net volleying. Which explains why it’s such a great footwork pattern for those who are in position but need to make rapid decisions to move in multiple directions.
Next time your watching professional tennis, look and see what split steps are being adopted. You’ll be surprised how often the even split is used. Both feet will more often than not land at the same time, then a foot will turn outwards in the direction of the ball rapidly after. The biggest difference between and even Split Step and variation is an even split-step land even on the first contact then moves from here. A true variation will land one foot first then the other. So perhaps the only reason people bicker about split steps is that they do not know how to determine one from the other.
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