Tennis itself is primarily an individual sport. Even if you play mostly doubles, individual differences between players exist at all levels of the game. This concept is known in sport science as the principle of individualization. Research studies and coaching experience tell us that all athletes respond differently to training. That’s why many fields of study exist - from psychology, to motor learning and strength & power training - each attempting to answer questions that help us better understand human behaviour and the stress-adaptation process (and why there is so much variation in responses to the same training stimuli!).
From a practical perspective, knowing that a variety of factors contribute to the overall makeup of an elite performer; programs, practices and training schemes should reflect, in one way or another, the individual differences that exists amongst us. In this week’s post, we’ll take a closer look at individuality and offer examples of factors that contribute to this principle. The list below is by no means an exhaustive one but hopefully it provides some insight into this topic.
This principle, is pretty self-explanatory at it’s base. It simply says that each athlete is different, and will respond to training in a different manner - so training should reflect this by adapting practices and programs for each athlete. That being said, I believe there’s more complexity to it than that. The way I’ve interpreted the science is as follows; while individualizing training programs for athletes is part of the principle - each athlete has a different physical makeup, different limitations, different gamestyles & technique (in tennis) and so on. So not only is designing training programs that reflect the individual, important, but how we approach an athlete also needs to be individualized.
Before we can aptly manipulate training variables for each individual player, we should have a clear understanding of some of the factors contributing to this principle. The following is a non-exhaustive list of factors (others surely exist) that one can consider when working with elite tennis players (or any athlete for that matter).
When it comes training males and females, there are obvious differences. I’m currently coaching a number of young male and female players - all of which are looking to make a living playing tennis - so this point is on top of my priority list at the moment. When working with females players, for instance, we should note that they have close to 20 times less testosterone compared to males (yes women also produce the hormone testosterone - which has been shown to increase with strength training). This fact alone suggests that if the same training stimulus were to be applied to both a male player and a female player, their response to that stimulus would be highly different. Bompa and Buzzichelli (2015) mention that because of these testosterone differences, females will have a harder time gaining mass when performing the same physical program as males. They further mention that females shouldn’t worry so much about ‘bulking’ as their physical makeup doesn’t lend itself to large gains in mass very easily.
On the other hand, when it comes to gains in strength, males and females can have similar increases (Evertsen et al 1999). This is a good thing for tennis players as the main adaptation a player should seek is increases in strength via neural factors, instead of muscular ones (hypertrophy).
Physiology and Morphology
Whether male or female, each player will have distinct differences when it comes to their physiology and/or morphology. For instance, males (for the most part), have greater lean muscle mass compared to females. But beyond that, even within sexes, individuals will have genetic differences in the proportions and size of various muscle groups - and genetic differences in how quickly physiology can change via training (more on that below). When it comes to work capacity/endurance, a similar story exists. While training has a big influence on all biomotor factors, genetics still have a role. This is why many researchers argue that the inherent physical makeup of an individual is what gravitates them to one sport versus another. In the case for tennis, this may also be one reason why some players prefer one gamestyle over another (my hypothesis).
Each player will obviously have differences in terms of their height, weight, limb lengths and other features relevant to anthropometry. If one player has longer arms, in theory, they’ll have a greater capacity to generate power - a longer lever provides them with more time to develop velocity through impact. This type of knowledge may also affect the way in which a coach programs both on-court and off-court training sessions. For instance, let's say a player is relatively short, in terms of tennis standards (they'll likewise have shorter limbs). Let’s assume this player has a higher jumping action when serving (the aim being to have a higher impact point). Knowing this, the tennis coach may emphasize this by cueing a greater leg drive during serve practices. The physical coach, on the other hand, may have to program their off-court work to help improve their vertical leap - but not only that, because they’ll attempt between 80-150 serves per match, they’ll need to this ability in an endurant manner as well.
Individual differences exist when it comes to psychological skills. Some players have the mental ability to push themselves in practice, while others need a push from a coach or training partner. Many other mental skills can impact the approach a coach takes with a player including self-talk (what players are saying to themselves between points, sets, matches training sessions, in the shower etc.), resilience (how they bounce back and deal with adversity) and grit (can they stick to their athletic pursuits in the long-term or do they waver and give up) - just to name a few. Regardless of their mental strengths and weaknesses, gaining info into these various areas may help in 2 primary ways - a) designing practices to improve a certain (or several) mental factor(s) and b) providing feedback/speaking to the player in a specific manner. While there are likely common mental traits that all elite competitors possess, individual considerations cannot be overlooked.
Rate of Recovery and Lifestyle Factors
How a player responds to training will be highly individual. I’ve had many athletes over the years perform the same training routine, with the same relative loads...one gets crushed while the other feels fine. Part of this may have to do with inherent individual differences but a big part that many in tennis should consider is lifestyle factors. Is the athlete still in school? How are their eating and sleeping habits? Research even suggests that ‘emotional involvements’ can play a huge role in an athlete’s ability to recover from training (this could include their relationship with a friend, parent, coach or significant other). Overall, getting a sense of the athlete’s ‘non-sport’ stress (I like to use weekly or daily questionnaires to get an idea of this factor), can help when prescribing training.
Some athletes simply cannot perform certain movements because they haven’t done them in the past. If for instance, one athlete played soccer as their second sport to tennis growing up, while the other did gymnastics, their physical capacities may be completely different once they reach their teens. Having this information can be helpful - perhaps the player who played more soccer needs additional mobility/flexibility work, compared to the ex-gymnast. While the ex-gymnast may be have an overdeveloped upper-body - managing the strength training workouts would likely be high on the list of priorities for this athlete.
This one shouldn’t come as a surprise - if a player has a history of shoulder pain, their program will likely differ. In other words, the volume of practice may be modified to manage an existing or recurrent problem - or a specified program to help improve joint function and strength in that region may be implemented. This can go beyond simply sport related injuries and may extend to illnesses or other trauma in their lives to date. A comprehensive questionnaire and assessment may help - but I've often found that athletes share and open up more after some time. Adapting the program on the fly may be necessary in certain circumstances once more information is revealed.
Here’s what elite track coach Evely has to say about junior athletes; “Young girls are as fast, as strong and have the same relative endurance capacities as boys prior to puberty! It is only upon the onset of puberty, that the performance level of boys steeply accelerates relative to their female counterparts”. So once puberty hits, that's when you’ll start to see big differences between youngsters (even within sexes as maturation differences do exist - until then, programs and practices can be relatively similar.
One age group which is often overlooked, is the older player (above the age 25). Elite coaches from various sports suggest that these athletes “guard their energy like gold”. If you’ve trained and competed at a high level, you know what I’m talking about. Once you get above 25 (on average), the rate at which you can recover just isn’t what it once was. You often hear of successful older athletes referring to things like “cleaning up their diet” and “getting more sleep” as contributing factors to their longevity. Apparently Roger Federer routinely sleeps upwards of 9 hours a day (or more)! Research on this subject is irrefutable - older athletes require more sleep than their younger counterparts.
Why is it that when players are younger they train in larger groups and as they get older, seek individual coaching? It’s partly due to many of the reasons we’ve outlined already but a big part has to deal with the way in which they play the game (or the way they wish to play it). While many players on both the male and female tours, have evolved to more of a baseline style of play, there are still differences amongst each of them. Some play more aggressive from the back of the court, looking to move in on any opportunity - this requires different movement abilities (more explosive/reactive to take the ball early). Others play more consistently from the back of the court - this necessitates a greater capacity to endure. And believe it or not, some still serve and volley (especially when looking at doubles players - or those that play both doubles and singles). These players need to have greater first step and acceleration abilities when moving linearly. These are just a few examples (others exist) of how individual gamestyles may influence training.
Effort During Practices
This is an important factor and often overlooked. I’ve seen this in academy settings over the years - two players perform the same duration of work, but one gives more effort on a consistent basis. While behavioural strategies may be warranted towards the less effortful player, it’s critical to manage the volume of practice for the other, more effortful player. This is especially true when tournament time is on the horizon - the intense player doesn’t know how to tone down practice and should therefore reduce volume pre-tournament. This is called a taper and most research (along with experience) suggests that maintaining intensity but decreasing volume or density, is the most effective way of ensuring readiness for competition.
Whether you believe it or not, there’s a large body of evidence that suggests we all learn skills in different ways. I’m not convinced there’s only one way each athlete/player learns a new skill or task - it’s likely a combination of different methods that contribute. I do, however, believe it’s important to continuously find the ways in which our athletes respond to novel tasks. Whether that’s through feeling (kinaesthetic), a story (cognitive/auditory), watching their favourite player do it (visual) or a combination of any of these styles - this is the art of coaching individuals at play. Likewise cueing may differ between players - some preferring internal cues (relating to the movement of a limb or body part) while others preferring external cues (relating to the outcome of the racquet or ball, for instance). While research supports the use of external cues, the results are still highly individual.
This post hopefully shed some light on some factors that could contribute to the individualization of training in the elite tennis player or athlete. It was not the scope of this post to highlight how this can be done, however, that topic will be explored in the future. In any case, I encourage coaches reading this to explore ways in which they can individualize their approach to certain players (instead of writing them off as uninterested, unfocused, not intense and so on). I too have done this in the past (and still catch myself doing it at times) - but studying these various topics, I have uncovered that individual differences exist at every level and because of this, it's my belief that coaches should adapt to the athlete, instead of the other way around.