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Spin of the Ball: Application to Coaching Sports Involving a Ball

By Wilbur Braithwaite on July 16, 2014 tennis article Print

Bill Tilden, the dominant tennis player of his era, wrote the book, SPIN OF THE BALL. Once the techniques involved in play were incorporated in his game, it became much more effective.

In analyzing his defeats, Tilden decided sliced or chopped backhands floated up to a net rusher and were easy to kill, like the proverbial ducks-on-a-pond.

A friend gave him access to a private indoor court. For one full year he worked to develop a top-spin backhand. This presented net rushers with a major problem.

Over-spin is valuable in tennis. There are many occasions it is useful.

Currently, Roger Federer is the reigning world champion. Some aficionados, even those of by-gone days, consider him to be the best player in the history of tennis. This Swiss star has won 10 Grand Slam men's titles, was the first man in the Open Era to win three of these coveted titles (French, Wimbledon-Great Britain, Australian and the United States Open) in three consecutive years. He has been ranked No. 1 in the world since February 2,004 and holds the all-time record for the most consecutive weeks as the top-ranked player.

One of Utah's best-ever tennis players, an 11-year old boy, broke his hip. This also broke his heart. All of his older brothers had been football players and this was his dream. The break stunted the growth of his left leg. As he grew older, it became four inches shorter than the right leg.

His father gave him a tennis racket thinking tennis was a gentile sport.

In watching this future NCAA singles finalist one thing was apparent: The opponent did most of the running. Using heavy top-spin, he angled the ball well wide of the baseline. Delicate under-spin drop shots forced a mad dash to the net only to be followed with a top-spin lob that bounced away from the rusher.

Let's take a look at the value spin in an understanding of sports played with a ball. A key principle to keep in mind is that whenever a ball hits an object such as a floor, golf green, baseball diamond, rim of a basket, baseball or softball bat or other objects, it reverses the direction of its spin. Thus under-spin changes to over-spin and visa versa.

Coaches usually define under-spin (or reverse spin) as rotating backward while over-spin goes forward.


  • A pass thrown directly to another player with over-spin is easy to receive. It resembles tossing a ball into a curtain. The ball becomes pliable and soft in the hands.
  • Over-spin passes that hit the floor about two-thirds of the distance (with proper lead) between the passer and the "back-dooring" receiver, imparts reverse-spin. Such passes stay low, sit up, and are difficult for the defense to get down enough to deflect or intercept. 
  • A foul shot, if aligned to the center of the rim when released with reverse spin (no sidespin), often climbs over the edge of the rim into the basket by virtue of the forward force of over-spin. This principle applies to other angles and shots. Announcers frequently refer to this phenomena as the "shooter's touch."
  • One of the best offensive rebounders in the history of basketball was Adrian Dantley, the former star at DeMatha High School in Maryland, and the Utah Jazz. Although standing a scant 6'5", Dantley used a one-handed release of the ball to the backboard with side-spin that, like a magnet, tended to drag the ball into the basket. A quick jumper, at times he would have the ball in the basket before the defense could react. At other times he "froze" opponents with a head fake and then went up for the "put-back." Dantley got good position on the side of basket away from the shooter. This spot gives the offense rebounder the advantage of being difficult to block-out.
  • A long pass thrown to a "cherrie-picker" ahead of the defense down court is best thrown from the palms, like a shot putter pushes a heavy metal ball. Little spin should result. The law of physics that the angle of incident equals the angle of reflection goes into effect. This enables the player to run under the ball and shoot a lay-up. If thrown with reverse spin, the ball tends to jump forward. A one arm bullet pass, released like a football quarterback employs, is extremely difficult for the basketball receiver to handle.
  • A useful ploy for a shooter is to use reverse spin and flip the ball close to the body. It will come back to the player as if a teammate had thrown him a pass. It is often called a simulated pass. The footwork involved in shooting can be worked on such as squaring shoulders, stepping into the shot, imparting reverse spin, et al.


A young lady on a Manti High School volleyball team was very short, probably barely five-feet tall; however, she used spin to compensate for lack of height. Her serve was heavily topped making it difficult to "dig-out" because of over-spin created as the ball struck the opponent's hands.

  • If a volley ball going out of the court is lofted high with reverse spin to a teammate, the resulting over-spin brings the ball back into play.
  • "Spikers," who are tall and good jumpers, can hit the ball with power and little spin and pound down into the opponent's side of the court. If hit on an angle away from the defensive "blocker," lightning-like reflexes are required to make a save.
  • While serving on the left side of the court (add court in tennis) if reverse spin and top spin are imparted and the volleyball strikes the floor, it angles wide off the court. If the opponent hands hit the ball in the air before it bounces, the over-spin is hard to handle.
  • A useful tactic for tall spikers is to fake hitting down hard then deftly touching off the ball over the net with over-spin. Upon hitting the floor, because of resulting reverse-spin, the ball then jumps back close to or into the net and is very difficult to return.
  • Spikers can hit a ball with little spin into an open spot on the court. The law of Physics that the angle of incident (with a spinless ball) equals the angle of reflection. Boy Scouts are taught to take a mirror on wilderness hikes so that they can signal for help when stranded. Rays from the sun reflect back to the sky. Like-wise, power balls bounce high off the court toward the ceiling.
  • Under-hand servers hit the ball below the net with over-spin. These softly hit serves become flouters and are easy prey to "kill."

Baseball or Softball 

High school softball is an evolving sport. Originally the pitcher lobbed the ball up like a lollipop ready to be "licked."

Now-a-days pitchers deliveries have velocity, side-spin or change-of-pace slow action. Hitters are kept off balance.

The main ingredient, assuming both teams can field and hit with equal success, is the quality of play of the pitchers and catchers.

It is common for softball pitchers to throw three-hitters, or on occasion, no-hitters. What ever is said about baseball, in this article, applies to softball.

My older brother lived in Boston and often saw Ted Williams play at Fenway Park. Williams, he thought, was a joy to watch. Even when he struck out the crowd was mesmerized by the beauty of his swing.

This wonderful hitter, batted .406 in 1941, won six American League batting championships and had a life-time batting average of .344, all in the "dead" ball era.

At the height of his career, Williams missed nearly five full seasons. Three years were spent flying fighter planes in the military. Two of the five years he was on the disabled list because of major injuries.

He hit 522 home-runs. Hitting home runs was not his goal. He strived to make solid contact on the baseball with the "meat" end of the bat. Possessing an analytic mind, Williams became an astute guru of hitting. A level swing gave him a better chance to whip the bat at the last second. Many line-drives resulted.

There are innumerable cases where spin is used in softball or baseball. Some are indicated below.

  • Pitchers like to keep the ball low to the ground. Such a location often results in ground balls being hit that dribble slowly onto the field. It takes an upper-cut swing, like in golf, to get a hold of the ball and this is very difficult to execute.
  • Pitchers use a wide variety of spins to foil the hitters. A ball thrown hard toward the strike zone with reverse-spin often jumps above the hitter's comfort zone area at the last milli-second. This principle of physics is referred to as Bernoulli's Law. If the air pressure below the wing of an airplane, for instance, is greater than the pressure above, the plane will rise. Eagles float without flapping their wings because of this phenomenon. As the wing of the plane moves through the air, molecules move rapidly to the top of the wing causing the pressure to greater below than above the surface. If pitchers execute this fast ball delivery correctly, they are said to throw a "live" ball.
  • A slider crosses the plate on an angle that slices away from the hitter. Some players become very adept at throwing this pitch for strike-outs.
  • The so-called "knuckle ball," gripped with the knuckles, has a slow, lazy pace. Batters geared up to hit a fast ball are thus thrown off-pace and swing too early. The energy from such a pitch is practically zero forcing the batter to generate all of the power. Older hurlers have extended their careers by throwing this pitch.
  • "Fork-balls" are held between the first and second fingers. This grip will impart side-spin from both fingers from different angles simultaneously and baseballs tend to "dance" through the air. It is also effective as a change-pace pitch.

Other Examples 



Obviously golfers use a wide variety of spins to slice, hook, or position the ball on the course. A ball lying in the rough of a fairway presents a far different action than a chip shot out of a sand trap. Golfers are not playing on an even surface like a basketball court or softball diamond. Adjustments must be made for subtitle undulations on a green. A ball lying in the rough off the fairway is far different than one in a sand trap. Balls in a sand trap are chipped with under-spin. Upon striking the surface, the ball assumes over-spin and comes back toward the target.

In nearly identical situations one golfer may use a putter that imparts over-spin to roll the ball toward the green while another uses an iron to under-spin the ball and have it spring back toward the target.

Add to the above discussion of spin the different angles on the face of irons and woods and it becomes evident how important spins are in golf. As a consequence, spin in golf is not as controllable as it is in a sport such as tennis.

Of course in all sports there are stand-outs with "touch." Touch is hard to define but you see it in every sport with players such as Tiger Woods in golf, Federer in tennis, Wayne Gretsky in hockey, Pele in soccer and Williams in baseball. A player with "touch" handles a golf club, tennis racket, hockey puck, or baseball as Michael Angelo handled a chisel or paint brush.


The application of the principles of spin may not appear to be as obvious in football as in afore mentioned sports. The age-old consensus that "a football can take a lot of crazy bounces” is true. However, similar to all sports played with a ball, spin does enter the picture.

A ball kicked off a tee at the start of the game has some under-spin. If it strikes the gridiron, the under-spin changes to over-spin and a "friendly" forward roll ensues. If the receiver catches the ball, it tends to jump out of his hands. Fumbles frequently result. This is why only specialists are used by coaches to return kick-offs. In performing a "Statue of Liberty" play, the quarterback should not flip to the fullback, but let the driving player take it out of his motion-less hands.


Although at the start of this article, tennis was used as an example of why spin is important in sports involving a ball, by no means did it give more than a glimpse into the usefulness of spin.

  • In serving from the deuce court with maximum speed and power, the servers should hit the ball flat, imparting a minimum amount of spin to the near side of the opponent's box. In the same court, the serve can be hit with slice. As it strikes the far side of the court, it will force the receiver well wide the boundaries. Invariably, the return will angle back to the server. In the duce court it can also be hit with over-spin "kick" thus jamming the receiver.
  • If a player is stationed near the net ready to volley, the returner has several options. One is to use a top-spin shot that upon hitting the court changes to over-spin that bounces away from the opponent. An almost unreturnable shot results. This shot is hit to just clear the reach of the net rusher. As the ball hits the court. it changes to over-spin and moves away from an opponent trying to run it down. Another type of lob is a defensive "moon shot." Such a deep lob gives the off court retrievers time to recover position.
  • A high-bouncing serve to a two-handed receiver is a prime shot in the server's arsenal of weapons. It is difficult to return because of two main reasons. One is that upon bouncing the top-spin shot changes to over-spin when contacting a gripping surface. Clay courts tend to absorb the spin of the ball because of their relative softness. Therefore, the "kick" serve is not as effective on this surface. However, on a hard-court, a two-handed-receiver must step-in and intercept the ball on the rise. This places a premium on timing, a difficult feat to accomplish. The other unenviable option is to play deep behind the baseline and stroke the ball after the spin has dissipated. Then the opponent can close-in on the net and put the return away.


Coach Pete Newell, the Gold Medal coach at the 1960 Olympics held in Rome Italy and the winning NCAA coach in 1959, said this about basketball: "For every offensive move there is a defensive counter." To paraphrase this logic it can be said, "For every spin in sports played with a ball, there is a counter-spin." Newell also said, "It is important to know why a coach asks certain things of his (her) players."

The why deals with the mind and the how with the technicalities of a game.

Hopefully this glimpse into the why will open up windows of application of the how.

Improvement is the key. Loving the game is the key-stone.

Good luck as you venture forward in the intriguing world of coaching sports!