Jan 29, 2015Covering the Court
From short volleys to powerful serves, the strength and conditioning program for the University of Georgia men’s tennis team prepares the players for whatever a match will bring.
By Katrin Koch
Katrin Koch, CSCS, is the Director of Strength and Conditioning for Olympic Sports at the University of Georgia. She works directly with the men’s and women’s tennis, men’s and women’s swimming, and women’s soccer teams and can be reached at: [email protected].
When I took over strength and conditioning for the University of Georgia men’s tennis team in 2004, I had zero experience with the sport. My first step was sitting down with the coaching staff to get a sense of how they wanted their squad’s strength program to be run, and Head Coach Manuel Diaz offered me this piece of advice: “Get to know our kids, get to know our sport, and give us the best effort you have.”
Like any strength and conditioning coach, I had already planned on meeting their first and third requests. But since my knowledge of tennis to that point came from supervising the work of a prior assistant of mine, I knew I had some work to do on the second task before I could create an effective training program.
I decided the best course of action was to seek the input of colleagues who were in the know about the sport. The advice I received was to combine agility and sprint work to reflect a tennis player’s quick movements on the court and develop workouts focused on strengthening rotational movements used during a tennis swing. I also reached out to the athletes themselves, who suggested some sport-specific conditioning drills they had done previously.
Georgia’s men’s tennis schedule includes a nontraditional fall season followed by the spring season, so I knew a traditional periodization model wouldn’t be the best fit. Ultimately, I settled on three phases: fall preseason, fall in-season, and spring in-season.
Through implementing this regimen and by getting input from knowledgeable colleagues, our athletes have reached their goals and helped Georgia continue as one of the premier men’s tennis programs in the country. In the past 10 years, the team has won 11 Southeastern Conference titles and two NCAA Division I national championships.
STARTING OFF RIGHT The squad’s strength and conditioning program begins during the athletes’ summer break. Every team member gets an e-mail from me six weeks before the start of the fall semester outlining the running and lifting regimen they are expected to follow until they return to campus.
This plan includes three lifting and three conditioning workouts a week. The first two lifting sessions contain combinations of dumbbell snatches, cleans, high-pulls, and double- and single-leg squats. To add variety on the third day, the athletes complete a bodyweight circuit of sit-ups, pull-ups, push-ups, lunges, and various jumps six to eight times.
The conditioning work involves both agility and sprinting components. For example, a sample workout entails figure eights, side shuffles, front-to-back shuffles, and a 300-yard shuttle run.
The e-mail also serves as a reminder that the players are expected to return to campus with a basic fitness foundation already established. We repeat the last week of summer training during the first week of fall practice, so if the athletes can’t walk after the initial day of conditioning, I know they didn’t do enough work in the summer. This sets the tone for our player-coach relationship and gives me an idea of each individual’s work ethic.
After the athletes return to campus but before assigning any sprints or reps in the weightroom, I put all of the players through a functional movement screen (FMS). Most of the limitations or asymmetries that we see occur in their hips, lower back, shoulders, elbows, wrists, and ankles.
We use the FMS because it helps locate the root of a physical problem that might otherwise go unnoticed. For instance, upper-extremity issues are common in tennis players, but they can often result from an unexpected source, such as a bad ankle, rather than overuse or muscle problems. An unstable ankle can cause poor movement on the court, which results in the player hitting shots while using less than ideal positioning, leading to bad biomechanics in the hitting arm and injury. But through the FMS, I can catch weak ankles that might predispose athletes to upper-extremity problems and restore them to full health.
In addition to helping individuals, the FMS has team-wide benefits. Each year, I calculate the squad’s average score in each test and add corrective prehab activities for the lowest two to our warm-up. Typically, I find the lowest scores in shoulder mobility and the hurdle test. To address shoulder stability, I’ve added prehab wall sits with a shoulder press, scap push-ups to downward dog, YTWL’s, and straight or angled pull-aparts. For hip flexibility, I use three-way piriformis table stretches, piriformis to lunge, and half-kneeling adductor dips. With consistent implementation, these warm-up exercises have cut down on some of the team’s shoulder and hip issues.
The squad’s fall preseason runs from the beginning of August through mid-September, and the in-season phase lasts through November. The length of this nontraditional in-season revolves around how individual players perform in tournaments, so it’s never clear how long each athlete will be competing. Regardless, I put everyone through the same preseason strength and conditioning regimen three days a week, twice a day. They have running workouts at 6 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, followed by afternoon lifts.
The conditioning emphasis for the fall preseason is developing stamina through long sprints. On Mondays, the players complete a series of 16 120-yard sprints. They have 18 seconds to finish each one, with a 42-second rest in between. Because the athletes’ legs take a pounding on the hard tennis courts, we do all of our fall preseason sprint work on the turf of Georgia’s football practice field.
On Wednesdays, the team does eight 150-yard cone shuttles and eight 240-yard sprints. The cones have to be completed in less than 35 seconds, with 30 seconds rest in between, while the 240s need to take less than 50 seconds, with a 60- to 180-second break after each rep.
I like to mix things up on Fridays, so the athletes don’t always do the same activity. Some of my favorites include resisted 50-yard sprints and a ManU test, in which players complete a series of 90- to 120-yard sprints in less than 25 seconds and have 35 seconds to jog back to start.
My fall preseason focus in the weightroom is increasing strength, muscle mass, and stability. I typically superset a lower-body exercise with an upper-body movement to make the most of our time in the weightroom. The NCAA rules for our fall preseason only allow for six hours of prehab, conditioning, and strength training a week. Supersetting lower- and upper-body exercises saves time and allows the athletes to push themselves without enduring back-to-back sets on the same body part.
During the fall preseason, we also do a lot of single-leg or split-stance lifts to reflect the change of direction required in tennis and medicine ball exercises to help develop the rotational movement integral to the sport. However, I think the players’ favorite exercise in the fall preseason is the last lift of each session–our competition of the day. They do everything from kettlebell farmer’s walks to plank holds to striving for the fastest mile time on the stationary bike. I keep a running tally of the winners throughout the preseason to hone the athletes’ competitive edge.
Once the fall in-season phase hits in mid-September, I scale back the running and switch the morning conditioning sessions to quick workouts after practice. The focus also shifts to agility and short-burst conditioning. Therefore, instead of the 120- and 240-yard sprints of the fall preseason, a sample in-season workout might include a ladder circuit, a series of side-steps into sprints, suicides, and down-and-backs.
Because the fall in-season is centered on individual achievements, the corresponding agility and conditioning program varies from player to player. Those who progress further into tournaments condition during matches, so I focus on keeping their agility sharp during practice. But athletes who don’t advance come in for extra interval sprints on the treadmill to keep up with their cardio. Toward the end of the fall, that might mean workouts only have two attendees because the rest of the players are still competing.
When it comes to lifting during the fall in-season, we do more work in the transverse plane to help with the players’ rotation. We have med balls ranging from four to 30 pounds that we use to do explosive plyometric throws in conjunction with a lunge or jump.
Another goal of the fall in-season lifting regimen is to make the weightroom movements more sport specific. I like to do upper- and lower-body movements concurrently through a lunge with a rotation or a reverse lunge with an adduction. And although I don’t completely imitate a tennis stroke in the weightroom, I like to work muscles in a similar fashion to how they are used on the court. For example, instead of completing a normal lat pulldown, I’ll have the athletes do a crossover lat pulldown. In this exercise, the arm follows a high-to-low motion, much like a player’s arm when hitting a slice shot.
We dive right into the spring in-season less than a week after players return from winter break. The focus of our conditioning sessions during this time shifts to agility. Some of the exercises we do are ladders with bands, lane drills, Murray drills, slalom step-throughs, side-steps, call-outs, triangle call-outs, and court-tempo runs. The athletes complete four to six sets of each activity, with one to two minutes of rest in between.
Due to the increased practice volume during the spring in-season, I put a greater emphasis on athletes’ proper execution of these activities. When the squad conditions following a two-hour practice, I know the players have likely used up most of their glycogen stores and might get sloppy with their form. However, forcing them to do each drill correctly when fatigued helps them become more disciplined, which should pay off during long, grueling matches.
Occasionally as the season goes on, players are “modified down” and don’t perform the full amount of agility work. This often occurs when athletes are coming off a particularly strenuous or draining match and Coach Diaz wants them to recover. These individuals typically complete the initial footwork and agility drills but switch to foam rolling and stretching once the more intense work begins.
The team lifts twice a week during the spring in-season, and the aim is to maintain the strength gains made in the fall. I usually run the players through a strength exercise supersetted with an explosive movement in the same muscle group to increase their power outputs. (See “Strong Spring” below.)
As the spring in-season progresses, I gear the workouts and exercise selections to how the team is developing and performing on the court. If the players tend to have long matches, the athletes are getting enough conditioning on the court, so we focus more on lifting in practice. However, if we have a dominant team that powers through matches quickly, we’ll run more in practice.
The frequency of matches picks up around spring break, which is when our strength and conditioning program goes on a hiatus. There are weeks where we play on five different days, so if I do anything with the players, it’s prehab, injury prevention, and soft-tissue work.
WORKING WITH COACHES
When I first came to Georgia, I wanted to develop a positive working relationship with the men’s tennis coaches. I know from experience that a good rapport with your sport coaches can make all the difference in the world when it comes to the success of your strength and conditioning program. Athletes don’t always work as hard for strength coaches because we don’t decide playing time, but when the players know the head coach values our opinion, their effort changes.
One of the keys to developing this positive relationship with a coaching staff is communicating openly and often. To establish and maintain this at Georgia, I’ve made it a point to check in with the coaches every Monday. I also make a habit of swinging by practice to chat with them, even when I don’t have to be there. It’s a simple way to keep up with how things are going.
Another ingredient to a good relationship is being open to new ideas. It’s easy to get a little territorial and not let someone else have input into how we run our strength and conditioning programs. However, getting the tennis coaches involved in designing the program at Georgia has been a great success. If I do something they like, they tell me. If they don’t like a particular drill, they let me know, and I take it out of our routine. Coach Diaz is great at coming up with ideas for tennis-specific exercises. When he finds something he thinks is interesting, he’ll show it to me, and I frequently incorporate his ideas.
Having a positive working relationship with the tennis coaches has made implementing my strength and conditioning program easy. And the players buying in to the training regimen–during all seasons–has helped contribute to their success. Only when your athletes and coaching staff know and trust you can your plan reach its full potential.
SIDEBAR: AWAY, NOT OFF
When the men’s tennis players at the University of Georgia go home for winter break, they are reminded there is no spring preseason once they return. We begin competitive play following vacation, and the athletes are expected to maintain their strength and conditioning over the six-week break using a program I design.
I’m never sure if our players will have access to a gym during winter break, so the workout regimen includes an abundance of training options. One is a bodyweight circuit composed of push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, bodyweight squats, lunges, and squat jumps. These exercises can provide a quality workout, and the athlete can perform them at home.
If I know a player has access to a training facility, I’ll assign him a winter workout centered on weightlifting exercises. I ask for any form of a squat–front, back, with a kettlebell, or even a leg press. I call for a lunge variation, whether it is with a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, or weighted vest. The workout also requires a pull variation in the form of lat pulls, lower pulley rows, or chin-ups, and a pressing exercise, such as a dumbbell, incline, or bench press.
I keep the movements pretty basic, and the athletes know ahead of time what exercises can be used as substitutes. In addition, I give the players ranges of percentages they should be lifting at, which typically don’t exceed 80 percent of their one-rep maximum. Lifts are scheduled for twice a week, with the bodyweight circuit mentioned above done on the third day.
It’s impossible to know how hard athletes are working when they are away from campus. But I make my expectations for winter break clear: Give me something every day, and maintain what you have. Even if I don’t get 100 percent, I will get effort.
SIDEBAR: STRONG SPRING
The following is a sample workout week from the University of Georgia men’s tennis team’s spring in-season training.
Prehab TRX Single-leg squat……………2×5 TRX rows……………………………2×6 Purple band ankle series………..x8 Miniband walk……………………….x6 Pillar push-ups………………………x8 TRX YTWL’s……………………….2×5 Keiser hip pull-throughs………..2×8
Exercises Box jumps……………………………..4×6 DynaMax ball snap-down…………3×5 Dumbbell snatch…………………….3×6 Keiser with pull down………………3×8 Single-arm landmine press………3×5 45-degree split-jumps……………..3×4 Keiser standing abs………………..3×10 Med ball crossover abs…………..3×10 Split-stance Keiser bar-chops….3×8 Abs (30 sec. on, 10 sec. off)……6 min. Foam roll or partner stretch
Prehab Piriformis to lunge……………………….2×6 Single-leg squat unilateral reach…..2×3 Figure four stretch……………………..20 sec. ea. Wrist roll……………………………………x2 Physio ball single-leg glute bridge…2×6 YTWL’s on physio ball…………………2×6 TRX squat…………………………………2×6
Exercises Bike at 16 mph for half-mile……………….x5 Crossover step-ups………………………….x8 Slamdowns……………………………………..x8 Bench squat jumps…………………………..x10 Full sit-ups………………………………………x20 Alt straddle jump………………………………x8 Burpee to chin-up…………………………….x3 Single-leg rear foot elevated squat…….x6 Foam roll or partner stretch