This guest post is courtesy of Aleksey Zharinov, creator of the Russian System. Enjoy!
There is a reason why watching professionals on TV or YouTube is hugely beneficial for learning how to play tennis at a high level. The answer is mirror neurons. Mirror neurons came to be known relatively recently with the rise of medical technology and now we can see how important they are in learning a skill. Here is how they work on a very basic level. When a person watches an activity being performed, in his or her head, mirror neurons are triggered. What’s interesting is that these are the same nerves that are used for actual skill-performing. So, in essence, mirror neurons translate watching skillful performers perform a skill into a person actually learning how to do it themselves. It all happens on a nerve level and almost seems like scientific voodoo, almost like how Neo in The Matrix could learn kung fu in a few minutes of it being downloaded straight into his brain. In reality, it doesn’t happen nearly as fast as that, but, crazily enough, it does happen.
In Moscow’s club Spartak Larisa Preobrazhenskaya made younger kids spend their first year or two just performing Imitatsiya (shadow stroking) behind older kids never touching a single ball, thus achieving two things simultaneously: building myelin over the right nerves and employing mirror neurons by watching better kids performing it. It’s a double whammy! Spartak with its one indoor court far away from Moscow’s center is known in tennis world for raising more top twenty professional women’s tennis players than the entire United States. When my family in Siberia got our first VHS in the ’90s, my dad taped tennis matches from TV and made my brother and I watch them all over and over again. I swear we knew every point and every announcer’s comment in the Sampras v. Agassi US Open final in 1995. Dad would often join us, click pause right before the shot and do frame-by-frame analysis of their strokes while slowly clicking through it. After years of that, I can tell you this: I learned tons of footwork patterns that are very hard to replicate in training and many small but hugely important things here and there by just watching pros on TV, not to mention optimal shot selection and all the patterns there are in tennis. I have a two-handed backhand, but by watching Sampras for thousands of hours and just copying him, I learned how to hit a one-handed backhand pretty dang well! Without taking a single lesson! And yet, I would honestly say that right now it’s pretty comparable to my two-handed backhand. I’m a huge believer in watching as much tennis as possible if you are trying to get somewhere with your tennis. As you can see from the above discussion, it turns out there is solid science behind it. I don’t know if my dad or Spartak’s Preobrazhenskaya knew this science or if they just arrived at it using good old common sense, but the fact remains. They used it and used it A LOT!
The Russian System Secret Weapon: Watch, study, and imitate your favorite players
One of the most effective ways to learn the game, in my opinion, is watching professional players perform it well. Watching tehnika in slow motion is tremendously beneficial in understanding the entire stroke, learning its components and sequence or even modeling your own strokes after a certain player (it worked for Grigor Dimitrov who copied the strokes of Roger Federer!). Also, studying and analyzing playing patterns that pros use during a match will really up your tennis IQ and help you avoid making many wrong choices on court. You will have to sacrifice some time and really become a student of the game in terms of tehnika and in terms of shot selection. Watching professionals on TV will help you with both.