Are you a high-performance player or coach? If so, this post is for you.

You see, I’ve coached in a number of high-performance settings. From academies, to federations and in private settings. One common characteristic that has struck me time and again is training schedules. The typical schedule sees players training Monday to Friday. On rare occasions, some take part in Saturday morning sessions - but this is certainly not the norm. As you can see, these settings follow the regular school and work week schedule.

But is it the most ideal option when developing an elite performer?

Before I answer that question - and state my position on the matter - let me briefly re-define the principle of specificity. As it pertains to our biology, we adapt to the specific demands that are imposed on us (also called the SAID principle). And the demands not only reflect the type of work we’re doing in the gym, on the court etc but also when and where those demands are imposed on an individual. In other words, the time of day, the time of the week and so on.

Why is this important? Because we know that how we practice will largely determine how we perform. So during the pre-competitive period, what are you doing when Saturday and Sunday roll around? Are you on the practice courts? Or watching Netflix on your couch?

You see, 99% of tournaments follow a similar structure, the most important matches occur on the weekend - Sat & Sun. That happens at the junior level, the pro level and even in certain college settings.

And if we look deeper, many of the matches in juniors and on the futures tour are early morning matches on weekends. On the pro tour, night matches are the norm. Pro players, however, will often adjust their training schedules to reflect their match schedules. If they know they’ll be on after 7pm, they practice later in the day and begin adapting their sleep/wake rhythms accordingly.

Practice on Weekends!

By now, you’ve probably guessed my stance on this topic. But to be really blunt here, I strongly believe that as tournaments approach, the weekly training structure should reflect the tournament structure. Instead of taking Sat and Sun off, schedule practices (and more importantly, practice matches) at that time. And perhaps take Mondays off (as this would normally be a rest day after a tournament anyway - at least for players playing on Sunday).

Now obviously, there’s no guarantee you’ll play the weekend - you have to win opening rounds to get there. But believe it or not, preparing as if you will play the weekend, will likely give you a better shot at getting there.

Let’s say, however, that you have a tournament in 2 weeks time and you’re taking the weekend off, simply continuing your Mon-Fri schedule. Your body will adapt to what you’re doing on those weekend days - typically that means relaxing, shutting down and disconnecting. But the reverse is also true (I’ve lived it and seen it) - if you want to feel full of energy, strong, explosive, match tough, practice on weekends. Further to that, make the weekend sessions the toughest of the week.

For juniors, this is often better than always practicing after school, as stress tends to accumulate throughout the day, making many feel wiped by the time practice begins.

We can also go one step further when it comes to practice scheduling. Are you often playing a tournament match on Friday night, beginning at 8pm? Better schedule some night practice matches leading up to that. Trying to find the energy at that time of night, when your normal body rhythms aren’t accustomed to it, is a recipe for disaster.

Did the ITF (International Tennis Federation) schedule your semi-final at 9am on Saturday morning? Given that you need to fuel yourself, prepare your bag (if you didn’t do that the night before), get to the site, warm-up, hit some balls and then be ready to go just before 9, you probably need to be up at least 3 hours beforehand, if not more than that. How often do you do that during pre-comp training weeks?

Now I get it, from a coaches perspective, many want to spend time with their families (I’m no different). But if it’s required, I’m on court or in the gym on both Saturdays and Sundays. If that’s what it takes to get players prepared for tournaments, then that’s what I’ll do. That’s the price to pay for wanting to be involved in high-performance.

A recent look at the IMG courts on the weekend - while we practiced Sat & Sun, the courts stayed empty…

A recent look at the IMG courts on the weekend - while we practiced Sat & Sun, the courts stayed empty…

The Science of Biological Rhythms

And by the way, there’s science to support this - it’s called chronobiology. Most have likely heard of the term ‘circadian rhythm’ - which defines our biological rhythms over a period of 24 hours. But there are also ‘ultradian rhythms’ - defining periods of less than 24 hours - and infradian rhythms - defining a period of more than 24 hours.

Circadian rhythms have been studied more extensively -  we now know that they differ from one individual to the next and performance markers - like strength, power, flexibility and reaction time - follow similar individualized fluctuations throughout the day.

But the importance of these rhythms cannot go unnoticed. Tennis is a sport that requires travel, hectic schedules, multiple matches in a day, scattered game times and so on. Knowing that, we should probably adapt our training environments to reflect these attributes - and that means adjusting our biological rhythms accordingly.

These days, sports chronobiology consultations exist to help athletes:

reduce impairments of sports performance related to circadian adversity (eg, early morning, early afternoon or late evening dips in performance, jet lag) and seasonal and menstrual rhythms, and to prevent and minimize sleep debt. Both goals can be accomplished with appropriate schedules that integrate practice, rest/activity, sleep/wake, meals, travel, and, for shifting biological rhythms, timed light exposure and avoidance.” (Postolache 2005).

I understand there’s a practicality component to all this, but if you truly want to be elite - whether you’re a player or a coach - you should rethink how you’re preparing for tournaments. The best coaches and players I’ve worked with have always done what’s necessary. They are dedicated to the process. And if that means holding weekend practices or spending an extra hour on the court after a 3-set match while the sun’s going down, or practicing late at night - then they are prepared to do so.


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