The split step is an essential tennis movement that is often misunderstood, poorly-performed and misapplied. With a little knowledge of WHY, WHEN and HOW to perform the split step, you will move quicker and faster, and have better balance on the tennis court.
WHY do we need to Split Step?
All movements have three segments: The Start, The Acceleration and The Stop. Acceleration movements can also be in any of four horizontal directions: right, left, forward and backward.
If you know you are moving in only one direction or linear like a sprinter, you will have a narrow base so that you maximize your stride length and turnover. However, if you must prepare to move in any of the four directions or multi-directional, as in tennis, you must have a wide base to maximize stability and versatility.
All starting movements can be made in two vertical directions: downward or upward. Downward movements in tennis are inefficient because they are slow and ineffective since they must be corrected with an additional upward step. Non-vertical, sideways steps, or "slides", are useful for The Stop, but not efficient or effective for starting. Upward first steps are the quickest and fastest movements and, in order to move up, you must first gain ground force greater than your mass by pushing down. This is Newton's Third Law of Action and Reaction.
The split-step, therefore, is a movement which provides a wide base and a downward push or "load" into the ground so that the next multi-directional step can be a quick, fast upward-step.
WHEN do we need to split step?
All movements need ground force as a part of the start. The split step is nothing more than a loading movement that pushes our body mass into the ground so that the ground pushes up with greater force than our mass which helps us move up. The goal is to time the split step at the moment when we need to make a movement decision. As tennis movements are multi- directional, the split step might be thought of as the "decision-step."
HOW do we split step?
Since the goal of a split step is to push force into the group for the next transitional movement you must widen and lower your base. This is done first by pushing your knees outward so that it lines up to your fourth toe, since your base is only as stable as how wide your knees are, not how wide your feet are.
Concurrently, think of driving your quad's upward to your chest without raising the top of your head. The goal is to disconnect your feet from the ground without gaining height. It helps to bend or hinge from your hips and if you are moving forward fast, to push your feet forward and to land on the "balls" or mid-foot and not the toes as is commonly misunderstood. This is because while a toe landing helps for acceleration movements during a run, a mid-foot landing is a more stable base for stopping and redirecting force.
Remember, the end of one movement is always the beginning of the next movement. The split step is the best way to transform a linear movement into a multi-directional movement to manage the uncertainty of handling a shot in tennis.
Steven Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation and executive director and founder of Serve & Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally-ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.