May 7, 2021
Developing Effective Training Routines In Tennis Players
Emilian Iankov, strength and conditioning coach Vanderbilt University

It was the summer of 2015 in Cincinnati, Ohio when I saw Roger Federer training a day before his opening match. He had three sparring partners on the court. They rotated against him in increments of three to five minutes. It lasted roughly fifty intensive minutes for him. I was impressed by the physical component of his performance and his undiminished focus. 

That was an unexpected type of training with less than 24 hours before a match — cover the whole court running, reaching way out of the sidelines, jumping, hitting powerfully, one or two-sentence instructions, no breaks. That performance left an everlasting impression on me, greater than winning that tournament. As a former Olympic weightlifter, a coach for the Bulgarian National Juniors team, and, currently, for the Vanderbilt tennis teams, I always ask myself what makes some athletes consistently great winners, but ever since that day I ask this question about them.   

My experience of 36 years in coaching and, definitely in 34 of them, tennis players taught me results are a function of years of uninterrupted, effective training. After seeing Federer training that day and knowing his statistics as of March 2020 — an 82.1% winning percentage from 1513 matches since 1998 — I summarized my observation to two points: 

  1. Great results come from effective training routines that prepared him to train consistently; 
  2. His training routines prepare him to compete better than his opponents and to win.  
Photo: Wesley Sykes / Great American Media Services

The key term to dissect is effective training routines. It serves two purposes: preparation for following a training session and a tournament. The experts use terms to describe training as deliberate, purposeful, mindfulness, among others. I use preparation and training as interchangeable terms in sports. Training or preparation always has two main aspects: first on a personal level is the player’s mind and body before a training session, at the start of a training session, during a training session, and at the end of a training session; and second, on an organizational level, what it includes and how it is organized. 

An athlete’s mindset should be directed on improvements in all performance domains — all physical qualities, technical, emotional, and cognitive skills. This mindset is the key to an athlete’s preparation for the next training session and for the next tournament. Second, the content and the organization in a training session must have a period for repeating old skills and improving them, for learning new skills and improving them, for combining old and new skills, and improving them as one. That is the preparation to begin the next session at this new improved level. To be able to train with this intensity and recover for the match the next day, all previous training must gradually condition the athlete for that. 

That concept confirms my first conclusion that A) great results come from effective training routines that prepare the athlete to train consistently. This is my cornerstone opinion for training/preparation — the accumulation of improvements and repeating them. It’s a concept known in the business world as the process of continuous improvement. Well, an athlete has to understand and embrace that concept. It is universal, regardless of its tennis or strength and conditioning, physical or intellectual activity. 

Preparation for the next tournament is creating a competitive environment by presenting challenges that are pushing a player beyond what a normal contest demands of physical qualities, technical, emotional, and cognitive skills. Simply put, preparation for competition is amplifying what a real competition demands. This is what Federer was doing — preparing himself by playing rested players over and over and not taking a break himself. 

The second conclusion to which I came was B) His training routines prepared him to compete better than his opponents, and to win is logically confirmed.   

That day is still vivid in my mind and brought back a memory from my psychology class about the theory of motor learning, developed by Richard Schmidt. It has been used effectively over the years and has great applications in sports training. It’s a theory that operates on the basis of a Generalized Motor Program (GMP) containing invariant features which remain the same regardless of the situation, and variant features which change according to the situation. There are two states of memory in this theory. First, recall memory — responsible for a particular movement production in relation to a stimulus, especially in fast-positioning movements. Secondly, recognition memory — responsible for evaluation, compared to a standard. This is exactly what happened on the court: Federer, first, was automatically responding with gross motor skills as a movement to the ball and, second, recognition skills and polishing fine motor skills with his responses in a difficult situation, playing a fresh player under accumulated fatigue. 

It was far and beyond what a competitive environment demands.

In summary, on that particular day what Federer did was exceeding the effort and the intensity compared to a tournament match. Changing and having a fresh opponent every few minutes put greater pressure on him physically and cognitively. All of that put his technical skills against the fresher and rested the neuromuscular system of the opponent. He put himself in a situation that demanded repeating and improving under accumulated fatigue. The quickness and speed of his gross motor skills — his sprinting, shuffling, running backward, jumping, and swinging the tennis racket — was preserved to the end. The quality of his focus, decision-making process, and fine motor skills at the same time improved. He won most of the points by hitting accurate shots. On that day he trained as he played and, probably, he still is training as he plays. 


Photo: Wesley Sykes / Great American Media Services

Now back to my line of work — strength and conditioning training/preparation (S&CT/P). In order for S&CT/P to support the main activity for a tennis player, which is tennis training first, S&CT/P should be looked at as preparation for the next workout. Secondly, S&CT/P is preparation to compete and win a match. Training on a court and S&CT/P collectively by different means must have the same goals. 

Organizational concepts for advanced tennis players in strength and conditioning training/preparation:

1) Strength training considers two main tennis motions — movement on the court and strikes. Strengthen the strongest and the weakest muscles with a goal to keep them in balance. This is always the best way to help an elite-level athlete stay fit, to be injury-free, and to keep improving their game. The precision of motion in tennis is balanced work between small and large muscle groups, between force and speed, from beginning to the end of a trajectory of a strike, and in movement from point A to B on the court. It is coordination and collaboration between all body systems. Those motions, mechanically speaking, include gross motor skills such as running, jumping — a task that relies on large muscular groups (or the whole body) — and fine motor skills, which rely on the small muscular group(s). They work with great effectiveness and precision for small, fine tasks.

Tennis performance is based on proper patterns, starting with perception, decision-making, and movement — a gross motor skill which usually is completed by fine motor skill. Coordinating and combining all of that creates precise responses. Disturbing the balance by making weak muscles stronger or strong muscles much stronger disrupt this fine balance of strength, the speed of muscular contraction, and muscular elasticity. That confuses the central nervous system and performance deteriorate. The repetitive motions in tennis create disbalance in muscular groups between the body’s opposite sides and opposite muscular groups. This developed disbalance, or ratio of strength, is needed to execute properly gross and fine tennis techniques. A technical skill fluently executed is observable and revealed by graceful and effective strokes like Federer’s style of play. Strength training should preserve the strength ratio between the opposite muscles. 

One-sided strength improvement should be avoided. Developing the right amount of it or preservation of the ratio of strength by increasing both sides is beneficial. 

» ALSO SEE: Basketball Strength Training — Make Your Next Season the Best Season

2) Training movements by using mostly whole-body exercises rather than a single muscle with the intention to have effects and gradual adaptation of multiple physiological systems is constructive. Organizing a high-intensity process based on a work – a rest ratio that challenges anatomical and physiological systems together is a productive strategy for preparation for both, following session and for winning a match.

3) An athlete’s performance has multiple characteristics in two groups, dynamic and kinematic. They are the main subjects for improvement. Dynamic characteristics of motion are force, speed, time, acceleration, and deceleration. The kinematic characteristics are distance, direction, type of trajectory, and range of motion. If an athlete moves, always consider improving both their dynamic and kinematic characteristics. This concept directly relates to quality improvement.

Photo: Wesley Sykes / Great American Media Services

4) Training/preparation organizational characteristics are, first, volumes of training measured by total time, kilograms, distance, repetitions, sets. Second, it is characterized by intensity – typically controlled by the work-rest ratio. By manipulating these two training measurements, specific metabolic demands on the body can be applied, and gradually adapted physiological changes will occur to that demand. The target systems are the cardiovascular, energy production systems, muscular-skeleton, endocrine, immune systems. Improving them is related to two key performance ingredients – endurance and speed of recovery.

5) Psychological positive adaptive changes in S&CT/P day-to-day in terms of resilience are important. Resiliency relates not only to toughness and also to the preservation of quality in terms of focus on a task and making proper choices under emotional and physical stress, and in time-limited situations. First, maintain focus on a task with not lowering the level of dynamic and kinematic characteristics of the performance. When Federer struggled against a fresh opponent, his technical skills improved. Second, for the decision-making process to be quick and accurate in the course of single and multiple training sessions. When he was under pressure from a fresh player, he grew to and above the opponent’s skill level. Resilience is manifested in preserving and improving over time and under stress. Targets for improvement in general terms are technical skills and reaction time in the weight room and on the court, during agility drills, and question-answer routines arranged at different times in a session. 

6) When it comes to young tennis players, there are no boring drills in a single session or in a season if the driving force in training and the focus is on continuous self and team improvement. Improvement is unlimited and the process endless.

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