ITPA Master Tennis Performance Specialist, PTR Master of Tennis (Performance and Development), USPTA Elite Professional
As a Tennis Professional, I have been blessed to have some amazing educational opportunities in the last several years. None more so than my involvement with the International Performance Tennis Association (iTPA). I went all in with this organization and took all three of their courses, culminating with the Master Tennis Performance Specialist Course. All three courses were a deep dive into the science behind tennis specific fitness training, including injury prevention, power training, tennis specific endurance training, training 10U players, seniors, periodization and planning, tennis movement, stroke analysis and so much more.
The courses were a great chance for me to learn in great detail some of the more advanced techniques used by the top professionals in the industry. To learn from Dr. Mark Kovacs is an amazing opportunity in itself, but it was equally amazing to have the opportunity to learn from some of the other amazing professionals on the courses such as Jonny Fraser, owner of Science in Tennis and Satoshi Ochi from the USTA.
As I said, we took a deep dive into the detail but the one thing I noticed was the emphasis on getting the fundamentals correct. On the MTPS course for example, we discussed how some of the best 18U tennis players in the country couldn’t execute a simple box jump with the correct form, which would be an indicator of high injury risk later in their career.
We spent a lot of time talking about how important a good foundation and solid fundamentals are, and we also discussed how important it is to get the fundamentals trained early on but also that it is not too late to train fundamentals later in a player’s career.
I would like to go through three of the most common exercises that I feel that all tennis players should be able to perform and how to progress up to these exercises by getting the fundamentals correct from the beginning.
I see tennis players performing box jumps all of the time and it makes me cringe. Its often not the jumping up that is so bad, it’s the landing that looks so bad. I so often see players landing in a Valgus position (see below):
Here is my three-step progression that I have had good success with my athletes with:
1a. Can the athlete squat and pick up a medicine ball up off the ground with correct form?
Very simply, train your athletes to be able to pick up a 4-6lb Medicine ball up from the floor. The emphasis of course should be keeping the spine neutral and using your legs to do all the work while keeping the knees in the correct position. You will be amazed at how many of your BEST tennis players won’t get this right the first time! As I mentioned above, it may simply be an awareness issue that the athlete just needs to fix with correct training and consistent re-enforcement.
1b. At the same time that you are working on the first progression, you can also incorporate some lateral and forward monster walks into the fitness program. This will strengthen the hip Abductors, which will help your athletes keep their form in more advanced exercises. Make sure that you don’t apply too much resistance, start with lighter bands and work your way up. I even have my athletes begin without any resistance at all in order to get the form correct from the start. I would recommend 3 sets of 12 monster walks 2-3 times a week as part of their fitness routine.
2. Train your athletes to jump and land correctly. Without any boxes, steps etc, your athletes need to be able to start with their feet 12-18 inches apart, go into a shallow squat and jump 6-12 inches in the air and land with correct form. This exercise is to be done slowly and with an emphasis always on posture and correct form. When your athletes can perform this well, have them jump (slowly) over a 6-12 inch hurdle. Always remember, you can always go back and work on more simple progressions (regressions), if your athletes are struggling with form.
3. Before you progress to box jumps, work on box landings. Have your athletes stand on a low box or step and then jump down and land with the correct form. Your athlete must be able to perform this 10 times without losing their form before you move onto a traditional box jump.
Remember, don’t be afraid to go back and regress if your athlete loses his or her form and take your time with these exercises. It may take a few months to have your athlete box jumping efficiently.
Exercise #2 Forehand and backhand Medicine Ball Toss, Deep, Short and Wide.
This is a very common exercise and for good reason - it is great for tennis players if performed correctly! However, so often it is not. Here are the basic fundamental rules to perform an effective Medicine Ball toss.
- Don’t go too heavy!
Start with a lighter weight, even a soccer ball in order to get the form correct from the beginning. In fact, I wouldn’t even have the players catching and throwing at the beginning, rather, I would have them simply shadow the strokes with the light ball in order to work on PERFECT FORM.
- Posture is everything in this exercise:
As in the point above, overloading of the athlete, or, too many repetitions will cause athletes to lose their form and especially lose their posture. Always remind your athletes of the importance of good posture in all their exercises. This is especially true when you start to incorporate catching and throwing the weighted ball. Can your athletes keep good posture when they catch the ball as well as when they throw it back?
- Make sure they are in the correct stance for the ball they are receiving:
When they move to a shorter throw they should use a closed stance. When they move to a neutral ball, a neutral stance and when they move to a wide ball, an open stance. Be precise with your feedback and make sure the athlete is aware of this requirement.
In these kind of exercises the athlete knows what kind of ball they are receiving (closed skill training). Therefore, we must make sure we are getting the athletes working as accurately as possible and performing the skills as close to perfection as is possible.
Exercise #3: Cone Drills
Many of you will be using cone drills with your students such as figure 8’s, wide shadow strokes and forwards and backwards recovery drills. Again, these are great drills and you should use them often. But we MUST make sure we get the fundamentals right. Here are some tips to make these drills fundamentally sound:
- Make sure your athletes are in an athletic ready position before they begin the exercise. Do they have good posture? Are they on the balls of their feet and do they generally look ready to go?
- In the figure 8 drill, have your athletes do a split step at the beginning of every figure 8. I have found that this small detail makes the drill so much more tennis specific. To quote the iTPA study guide directly “The closer the athlete can experience movements, feelings and situations that will be experienced during competition, the better prepared the athlete will be.”
- When performing wide recovery drills, focus on the specific footwork that the recovery should have. For example, on a ball that you only have to move a few feet for, you make a simple side step to recover. For a ball that brings you wider, say 15 feet or so, you should have a crossover step as your first recovery movement and for a very wide ball that takes you outside the singles sideline, the athletes should be trained to turn and run a few steps until moving into a more traditional side step recovery movement phase.
These are all simple points that I have tried to make. I hope you will join me in teaching the FUNDAMENTALS well and not moving your athletes too quickly through the progressions of your exercises and workouts. Let them walk before they can run and in the long term, you will see better results than if you tried to build Rome in a day!