Tennis is a sport where there are many misconceptions on how to train the athlete off-court. It is an extremely challenging task as Strength and Conditioning Coach to ensure the athlete will peak before each tournament year round. Regardless on what training program the athlete is focusing on, I have seen an abundance of off court training mostly concentrating on aerobic conditioning. A majority of colleges and academies include the 1-mile run as part of their mandatory testing protocol. If I recall correctly, tennis is a power sport that requires the athlete to be explosive, fast, and agile. This test for example, focuses on the wrong component in fitness applying to the game of tennis. With the game changing steadily, professional players arrive stronger and faster each year requiring shorter rallies in a point. Yes, the athlete has to be able to sustain three plus hour grueling matches, but that is what on-court practice is for. Train the athlete on-court using an interval approach targeting the aerobic system. It is imperative to spend time focusing on the anaerobic side of training which includes sprints, plyometrics, and agility. Speed develops endurance and endurance does not develop speed. Including sprint training in off-court training, the athlete will then apply their new speed on court to advance to the next level in tennis. After all, the faster you become, the quicker you are to the ball to end the point. Point, set, and match!
To begin sprint training, Technique first!
Technique is crucial if your goal is to get to the ball as quick as possible. When the game of tennis is about taking away time from your opponent, your priority is to focus on getting to the ball with the right technique. Here are the basic steps to become a faster tennis player:
Setup phase: Hands should be directly underneath shoulders, head should be looking forward tunnel vision and in line with the spine, back straight abs tight, forward leaning position approximately a 45-degree angle between the hip and shoulders.
Acceleration phase: First thing to focus on when you start the sprint is the arms. Immediately move the hands where you want it to go, elbows should be at 90 degrees at all times, relaxed shoulders, smooth forward and backward of the arms. The hands come from the hip to eye level and should not cross the center of your body but straight back and forth motion. Optimal position in a sprint is to draw an imaginary straight line from the head to the back foot. Do not raise your head; it drops your hips and center of gravity allowing for less power drive.
Maintenance phase: Strides should be relaxed and natural to the athlete, should not wobble side to side. Arms should be leading the legs in the velocity of the sprint. Strides should not be forced but focusing on a nice and relaxed jaw. Any further attempt to apply more force on the ground will result in losses of straight length and shorten foot strikes. Keeping hip height high, maintains the power output on strides. Higher hip also keeps foot contact closer to body allowing the athlete to not over stride. Stride length increases during the early phase of acceleration and decreases as the sprint continues. Shorter ground contact will result from proper mechanics. Hip rotation, around 3 degrees on each side is what the goal is and must be natural. The athlete reaches their highest stride frequency before top speed and reaches their highest stride length after top speed. The focus is to try to improve stride length with a reduced ground contact force is the key to train the demands of the sport.
Realizing the importance to incorporate a sprint program in your training program is crucial to become a better tennis player. Remember, technique is everything especially in a short distance travelled such as tennis. If you find yourself moving into the next phase with bad technique, start from the beginning phase and practice makes perfect. Sprint drills do not compare to a challenging aerobic drill where there is extreme perspiration. At the end of a sprint session done correctly, you will feel fresh and explosive. The point of speed training is to become faster on court and to avoid any overtraining done off-court. Smart training ensures the athlete can achieve longevity in the sport and throughout tournaments and to avoid any future injuries. Sprint training is very demanding on the body as well, incorporate a foam roll and stretch session for at least twenty minutes after the session.
S.M, Sabrina and Piazza J Stephen. “Built For Speed: Musculosketal Structure and Sprinting Ability. The Journal of Experimental Biology: Journal 212 (2009): 370-377
Kristensen, Gier and Vandent, Roland. “ Velocity Specificity in Early Phase Sprint Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Journal 20.4 (2006): 833-837