While professional player DJ Howard calls himself the “technique guy”, he doesn’t emphasize this idea when teaching new players. In fact, he helps students by focusing on what they should accomplish with the ball. This idea even extends to serving where the focus is on what they are trying to accomplish with the ball. He said, “They want to envision a target in X location. And I want them to envision the trajectory required to get the ball to that specific target. Then that frees up their body to be able to try to execute the stroke and do it in a way that they’re comfortable with. They won’t be perfect at it, but I like to allow them to try to see if they can get the ball to that location first because then they can develop their own style and I can give them feedback on technique if necessary.”
When working on the serve, DJ places targets on the court so players can visualize where they should hit the ball. Otherwise, it’s like hitting the ball into a vast open space. By using targets, you get better feedback as to how close you are serving to a specific area of the court. If you are serving short of the target three times in a row, then you need to make an adjustment.
DJ likes to ask his students questions when they need to re-calibrate. For example, he might ask how do you shift the ball to right when you are serving if it is consistently going left? Students then have the opportunity to give a variety of correct answers. He said, “It might be they need to just turn their hand a little bit. It might mean they turn their stance completely. It might mean they shouldn’t be swiveling their hip too quickly through the stroke. So there are a number of solutions, but I would like them to feel what that solution is and come up with the answer themselves rather than me just telling them one particular option.”
DJ likes to place targets on the court for serving in aggressive positions. So, rather than placing them in the center of the service box, he puts them deep in the court often near the corners. But he will also position a target right beyond the kitchen line and near the sideline. DJ will place the targets in aggressive positions regardless of the skill level of his students. The reason for this is because it teaches them to be less afraid of risk if they are within six inches of the target. Even if the ball goes long or wide, it is still a successful result if they are close to the target. The advantage of this type of mindset is that at higher levels of play you have to be willing to take more risk if you expect to be successful.
One of the new provisional rules for 2021 allows players to hit a drop serve where the ball bounces on the ground before making contact with the paddle. While few players use this technique, DJ likes to offer it as an option to his students. He said, “I think it is a good option for a lot of people, especially newer players. They feel more comfortable with it. So I encourage each individual to try it out and see what they think. Some people are going to like it better. Some may not like it as well, but you don’t have to use it exclusively. That’s the nice thing about it is maybe use it 25% of the time. Maybe use it 75% of the time. You still have other options.”
Regardless of the type of serve you are using, remember it’s more about hitting targets rather than technique. If you are serving within six inches of the target then consider it a success and don’t worry about technique.