The making of a tennis champion is attributed to many factors that we see on court: technical efficiency, shot selection and superior athletic capabilities.
One aspect that is often neglected especially among junior tennis players is athletic development. Tennis involves a multifaceted set of bio-motor abilities such as strength, power, acceleration, deceleration and jumping performance. However, many coaches still recommend that endurance training is a fundamental component of tennis performance and among other misconceptions that strength training should wait until they have reached adolescence.
It is important to have a sound analytical understanding of the movement involved and also the energy systems utilised during a point. Players may accumulate a total distance of 5.6-9.6 km over the course of a match which we can assume is one of the reasons why coaches believe that their athletes would mainly benefit from aerobic training. However, we must consider what is occurring during the point rather than what happens during the entire match.
The average length of a point is 4-7 shots involving an average of four directional changes per point. Furthermore, most ground strokes are played within 2.5 meters of a player’s position. From this data, we can assume that tennis taxes the anaerobic energy system which provides energy for short intense bouts of movement. Therefore, it is fundamental to any sport that you train based on the energy and movement demands.
Given that the data is telling us that tennis points are short with high intensity bouts, we can postulate the need for strength training to meet these movement demands. Why is strength training deemed so important among many strength and conditioning professionals? Developing strength in athletes forms the framework that underpins other athletic abilities such as power development, acceleration, changing direction, jumping and landing; all which are vital to tennis performance.
What kind of exercises should juniors be doing?
This all depends on your level of development. In younger athletes, the major focus should be developing movement competency as a prerequisite before transitioning into more tennis specific movements. These movements should consist of upper and lower body exercises that involve multi-joint actions (e.g., squat, lunge, overhead press). As the athlete becomes more competent, they can progressively transition to unilateral (single leg) exercises while still accommodating bi-lateral exercises (both legs).
Tennis Specific Loading
There is generally more body weight loaded on one leg compared to the other when preparing for a shot. This is because the body is coiling or storing energy before releasing that energy into the ball. Higher levels of single leg strength allow an athlete to utilise this stored energy from the ground which initiates the kinetic chain of all shots. Proficient single leg strength is able to then transfer and thus have a positive effect on all shots regardless of the stance (i.e., open vs closed stance, foot-up vs platform stance on the serve). Therefore it is highly recommended that athletes are developing single leg strength due to its high transferability and specificity to tennis. Tennis is really a one legged sport!
The fundamental principle is to train like you would play a point based on the movement and energy system requirements. In other words, train for performance! Please note that strength training should be implemented pain-free, and if the athlete is experiencing any injuries should consult with a medical professional before initiating a strength and conditioning program.
Lachlan is the host of The First Serve's new podcast, Play USA, which goes inside the journey of many Aussies going down the college pathway as an entry point to professional tennis.
You can listen to it here!