A couple of years ago, a club pro asked me if I thought it was possible to teach the split step as a way of moving off the T. I said yes and he said no. Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of video of top players and working with couple of students on their footwork, and although I still think I’m right about the teachability aspect, I’ve come around to the idea that the split step is not the most important factor in moving off the T. Whether you are successful in teaching your players to use it explicitly, as opposed to simply moving to the ball in their own way, the critical factor is not how, but when.
The split step, to refresh your memory, is a footwork technique. It refers to a particular way that some players come out of the crouch and begin the explosive movement that will allow them to intercept the ball at the most advantageous moment. In practice, it means that the off-side foot – the one away from the direction in which the player is going to go, moves first. It is picked up and put down with a very short, almost stutter step in the opposite direction, as the stop against which the player’s motion towards the ball begins.
It’s a great technique. One that I see over and over from players (Shahier Razik, for example – one of the lightest and quickest players around). But it is just that: a technique. The important thing is how to train your players to make the transition from that ready, slightly crouched position, through the rise onto toes that accompanies the opponent’s downward swing and into the first two driving steps towards the right place on the court.
Myself, I use several drills where I move my player on the diagonal with a volley position at the T in between. Initially, they move to these in sequence, but once they’ve got a sense of what the drill is about, I take the option, so that they have to stop wherever they are and be ready to go in one of three directions. And to help, I will shout something helpful, like, “Get set!” or “Watch!” as I start my stroke. This is the cue for them to stop that mad rush back to the T, or over to the side they think I am going to choose, put both feet on the ground, sink, rise as I strike the ball, and then drop again to push towards the intersect point.
How they take those first two steps isn’t so much of a concern for me any more, as long as it’s not leaving them facing the back wall trying to hit a cross court, or bunched up in the forehand front corner. We’ll take this one thing at a time…