Friday, May 25, 2007

Introduction to Conditioning Today's High Performance Tennis Player

After my discussion of Tennismetrics 101, I think that this is a good time to begin a discussion of my current thoughts about the fundamental principles of conditioning the modern, high performance tennis player.

Let’s start by considering what physical skills need to be emphasized to help today’s tennis athletes perform their best.

First, players need to demonstrate the ability to run hundreds of short sprints with an explosive “first step” toward each of their opponent’s returns as well as an explosive “first step” to recover court position after each of their own.

Second, players need to have high levels of speed(-specific) endurance because they may need to move explosively for the two or three hours required to complete a competitive singles match.

Third, they need to demonstrate the ability to move explosively in all directions: forward, backwards, sideways, and upward to respond to the types of shots that are encountered in tennis.

Fourth, players need to demonstrate considerable arm/shoulder/upper body power and endurance to consistently generate high racket speeds over a period of several hours.

And fifth, tennis players do not have to develop large amounts of muscle mass associated with protecting athletes who compete in sports that involve physical contact—impact, if you like—with their opponents.

I am specifically mentioning the fact that tennis isn’t a contact sport because it provides me with an easy transition to the heart of this discussion... Which is to raise your awareness of the fundamental inferiority of the methods used to condition the majority of high performance tennis players here in the US.

This fundamental inferiority in tennis conditioning know-how is most plainly apparent in collegiate tennis where one of two typical scenarios occur:

a) There is a football-focused conditioning coach who tries to adapt conditioning ideas and methods developed specifically for football to tennis, OR

b) If the tennis team has no access to the department conditioning specialist, the tennis coaching staff themselves will employ their anecdotal, and outdated understanding of conditioning methods for tennis that is typically based on the conditioning drills and exercises they did themselves as active players “back in the day”.

So, the typical collegiate tennis player is either trained in the image of a football player who happens to hold a tennis racket while chasing tennis balls or is trained using archaic and largely ineffective exercises that have become irrelevant to the current demands of today’s tennis.

How could this situation be remedied in the short term?

First of all, I would recommend to the vast majority of collegiate conditioning coaches that they should acknowledge that football-specific conditioning methods have only a very general application to tennis players, and football methods fail to completely address the most important performance requirements of tennis.

Second, they need to understand that tennis is a unique composite sport that requires the development and training of diverse athletic skills and attributes, well beyond that of any single sport. By definition, they need to look beyond football and begin examining conditioning methods and philosophies from sports that require similar, if not identical physical attributes as tennis.

For example…

1) To develop the ability to perform short sprints over extended periods, I would look closely at conditioning methods from:

Basketball, Soccer, Rugby, and Aussie Rules Football

2) To develop the ability to move explosively in all directions, I would look closely at conditioning methods from:

Basketball, Soccer, Badminton, and Squash

3) To develop the overhand and sidearm throwing power and endurance required for serves and groundstrokes, I would look closely at conditioning methods from:

Baseball pitching, Football passing, Javelin, Handball, and Volleyball spiking & jump serving

Bottom line is, the majority of conditioning programs for tennis at the collegiate level today are designed and implemented by football conditioning specialists and does not adequately prepare players for the actual demands of today’s high performance tennis.

All of the conditioning programs I’ve designed and implemented for my own players only scarcely resembles what college tennis players are currently doing. The programs I’ve designed for my own players address the specific demands of today's high performance tennis and generally follow the guidelines below:

a. We do extensive assessments of relevant, individual athletic attributes to determine individual strengths and weaknesses that impact tennis performance.

b. We educate players about the performance standards they need to meet or exceed to perform at an elite (“world class”) level in tennis.

c. We fully customize all training activities to address the specific needs of individual players.

d. We periodize all training activities according to individual player performance goals.

e. We focus primarily on variations on interval training for general endurance training and development.

f. We perform specific drills and exercises to increase first-step explosiveness.

g. We perform strength training that addresses stabilization, deceleration and muscle endurance.

h. We perform speedchain training (using the Tennis SpeedChain and the Torsoburner) to increase racket speed, explosiveness of the core muscles and lateral movement

What I’ve described here is a very basic framework that I use to evaluate, design and implement an appropriate conditioning program for individual players. The initial evaluation of fundamental athletic attributes (#1 above) itself takes 2 to 3 full days alone. The results of those evaluations are then integrated with the information I obtain through extensive conversations with the player about their goals, injury history, etc. to develop the initial program.

Developing an effective conditioning program for high performance tennis players is a very time-consuming, involved process, so don’t be fooled by coaches and trainers who claim that they can just hand you a rote program to follow without doing the legwork to determine what’s really necessary for you to maximize your physical performance on court. If your conditioning program is not customized to your specific needs, you will end up wasting valuable time doing things that aren't going to help you improve your ability to perform.

Conditioning today’s tennis athletes given the demands of the current—and future—high performance game is inherently complex, and it’s not surprising that there are only maybe a handful of players, coaches and fitness trainers in the US who truly understand the true physical basis of high performance tennis.

And until the majority of so-called conditioning coaches improve their understanding of how to properly train today’s players to meet or exceed the actual demands of the sport today, the vast majority of high performance tennis players won’t be fully prepared to confront the challenges that await them on the tennis court.


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At 9:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A tennis match is characterized by repeated bouts of high-intensity activity. However, a typical rally may last about 6 seconds and not much more than 10 seconds even on a clay court. Between points there is the luxury of up to 25 seconds rest - 90 seconds if it's a changeover. Hence, the overall physical demand is closer to prolonged moderate-intensity exercise (such as distance running) than a true multisprint sport (such as soccer)

At 8:29 AM, Blogger SpeedMaster said...

Your assessment sounds logical enough, but there's a fundamental problem in your analysis. As you correctly pointed out, tennis requires “repeated bouts of high intensity activity”. Just because a player “sprints” repetitively over a prolonged timeframe doesn’t make their overall physical effort moderate in intensity. Players must continually recruit fast-twitch fibers during play (unlike in distance running which recruits predominantly slow-twitch muscles), and the frequent breaks enable them to recover fully from their maximum intensity efforts. Therefore, a fundamental conditioning strategy for tennis involves high-intensity interval training which most closely resembles the physical demands of the sport.


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