I recently heard that periodization is dead. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, it can be defined as the division of training & competition into various phases throughout the calendar year (this is of course a simplified definition - articles, books etc have been written on the topic but for our purposes, that’s all you need to know for the moment).
Before we tackle the statement from above, let me provide the background story. There was a once a time when athletes - primarily those competing in the Olympics - only had to (truly) peak once every 4 years. Because of this, early sport scientists (Matveyev, Bompa etc) created various divisions of training based on Hans Selye’s 'General Adaptation Syndrome' theory. The aim was to maximize an athlete’s potential at the right moment in time - in this case, for the Olympic Games.
To do this, they divided the annual plan into 3 primary phases - preparatory, competitive and transition. These phases were then further divided into 4 sub-phases (image below). We will explore these various phases below but first, let’s go back to the initial statement from the opening. Is periodization dead?
Is Periodization Dead?
Many coaches argue that the traditional way Matveyev and others organized training is no longer feasible. In other words, being able to know every detail of training - from what a specific session will look like in week 1 vs week 32 to what volumes and intensities these sessions are prescribed at, and so on - is simply not possible. I won’t argue with that. The commercialization of sports has changed the way athletes prepare for competition. I mean, how is it possible to know exactly which loads to use in subsequent training session, after a tennis player played 5 matches and over 10 sets the previous week? If you know, please tell me.
That said, do you or your players go through a 3 week off-season training cycle? Do you schedule a month long tour? Do you take 2 weeks off at the end of that tour? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you are essentially ‘periodizing’.
In its traditional sense, it’s impossible to schedule every detail of the calendar year beforehand. There are just too many variables to take into account. But at the very least, we can have a general idea. In tennis, unlike other sports, most players have some flexibility in how they schedule their competitive calendars. The periods in between, then, act as either training blocks, or rest periods.
Periodization is NOT Dead!
Sports periodization isn’t what it once was, there’s no debating that. But periodization is far from dead. It’s merely different. Changed. Coaches and players have to adapt and modify training on a day to day, session to session basis; taking into account the player’s previous training and match history, their health and nutrition status on that day, along with a host of other factors. It doesn’t mean planning is no longer necessary. It’s still vital but NOT exact.
If you take my word for it (and I hope you do), then let's briefly explore each of the phases that were presented earlier, offering examples along the way.
Tennis Periodization: It’s Still Important
Within the preparatory phase, there are 2 sub-phases - general preparation and specific preparation. Let’s tackle these individually.
General Preparation Phase
Traditionally, this phase is performed during the off-season in most sports. In collegiate (and in some cases, high school) tennis, for instance, this phase would begin in the late summer and carry through into the early fall. In this environment, anywhere from 6 to 20 weeks may be prescribed. But most training settings don't have the same type of schedule as college tennis does. In almost all other settings (tour level, academy settings etc), players cycle through various training phases which are interspersed with tournament play. Because of this, the general prep phase is usually much shorter - anywhere from 10 days to 12 weeks - and can be revisited several times during the year, depending on the player's schedule and developmental age.
When it comes to training, this phase includes items that are more general in nature (hence the term general prep). In fact, in high school and collegiate settings, many athletes from a variety of sports will perform the same type of general prep program. With large groups of athletes, this approach may be unavoidable (and in fact, can be very successful). That said, I still believe there should be a bias to the sport in question - in our case, training should still be slightly more geared to items that are relevant for tennis.
For example, a typical field or court sport (like american football and basketball) may perform acceleration drills between 30-40m (and perhaps longer). While there's no question this could, in theory, benefit a tennis player, it's likely too long of a distance to develop this quality in the most appropriate manner. A football wide receiver is still increasing his running velocity through this distance while a tennis player likely reaches their max running speed between the 10m and 20m mark (you can tell by their body positions, they become more upright as they stop accelerating and reach max velocities). This is due to the adaptations that are manifested over years of playing your sport. More appropriate distances for tennis players to develop acceleration are distances of 5m to 15m - even during general preparation phases.
Specific Preparation Phase
Once a sufficient level of general preparedness is reached, a player will then transition to a more specific phase of training. This phase should STILL occur during non-competitive periods. To use the same example from above, in collegiate settings, this phase would run anywhere from 3 weeks to 16 weeks. Note, these time frames depend on the fitness level of the athlete (which is why there's such a large range in the amount of weeks) - someone who has a high levels of general physical proficiency would spend less time in the general prep phase and more time in the specific prep phase (and also more time competing - i.e. the next phase).
In this phase, more emphasis would be placed on tennis play versus off-court training. Off-court training should NOT be terminated but rather transitioned into exercises that are more specific. That doesn't mean to start mimicking what's done on a tennis court - it simply means that the angles, velocities and muscle actions will be more reflective of what's seen on a tennis court. For example, if a player performed full back squats (thighs reaching below parallel) during the general prep phase, they would now perform a half-squat. The angle of knee bend is much more specific to the angle that a player would encounter on a tennis court - this is the specificity principle at play.
As the name implies, this phase will be heavier on matches and tournament play. In some sports, this phase can be divided into pre-competitive (or pre-season) and the main competitive season. In tennis, it's not as important to do it this way although it can still be done (less important events or practice/club matches can be classified as pre-competitive, for instance). Again, in the collegiate setting, the 'main' competitive season begins in the later parts of winter (end of January/beginning of February) and ends sometime in April or May. Usually, this phase will be 12-20 weeks in duration - depending on the program and how well the team performs. Tour players will have a number of competitive cycles throughout the year. They usually aren’t longer than 4 weeks - give or take 1-2 weeks.
During this phase, players must still engage in off-court training. But the proportion of this off-court work is much lower ALONG with the intensity. If we take our squat example from above, we'll likely reduce the depth of that squat again - go from half-squat in the specific prep phase to a quarter squat in this phase AND we'll have to reduce the overall training load (less reps and sets compared to previous phases). Still getting some good work done during this phase can help maintain the qualities that were developed previously - and in some cases (like with novice players), an increase in certain qualities without the accompanied fatigue of heavy training is attainable.
The transition phase begins after a competitive block. Another way to call this phase is simply the 'Rest' phase. It's an important phase which is poorly understood. What I have seen over the years are 2 extremes: 1) players who don't take any time off after a lengthy block of training/competition and get right back into training (often going into another specific block instead of a general block) 2) players who take WAY too much time off and do nothing at all. Both of these scenarios can be extremely dangerous and detrimental - both from a performance and injury perspective (I've experienced both of these situations as a player and a coach, and neither had a positive outcome).
Control Training Gaps
The key to consistent success, from my perspective, is to control the duration of training gaps. Too long and players will lose a lot of what was gained previously. Too short and there's not enough time for rest and recovery (from a physical, psychological and emotional standpoint). Typically, 2-3 weeks is sufficient. Now, it's also critical to stay active, eat right and sleep well during this phase. I have no problem with players continuing to hit the practice courts or the weight room. The key though is to allow for unstructured play. Let players do what's fun for them. Don't count sets, reps or perform specific on-court drills.
On the other hand, if you or your player is someone who wants to stay as far away from a court or gym as possible, there are alternatives that can be implemented. Swimming, biking, jogging, hiking, walking, playing other sports etc. are all beneficial. The one thing I would still continue to include is some form of mobility and flexibility work. This can be done in the evening in front of the television - but still important as it will promote articular and tissue health (valuable items considering you just finished playing several weeks of tournaments!).
Final Comments on the Various Phases
I’d like to make one final point - which is extremely important (and often confusing for many coaches and players). Simply because we are emphasizing one type of training over another (general over specific for instance) DOES NOT MEAN that we can't train specific means during this time frame. On the contrary, we should STILL train specifically.
For example, tennis itself is the most specific type of physical training there is (for tennis development, that is) - let's not forget that. Just stop playing for a while, come back to 2 days of hard on-court training, and see how sore you are.
During the general prep phase, it's still vital to continue practicing tennis! However, to get the most out of your off-court program, the duration and/or the intensity of those tennis practices will likely have to be reduced. To bring this point home, just think of it this way - each phase will include ALL training types but the proportion of work spent in each training type will vary depending on the phase in question. During preparatory periods, more time and energy will be allocated for off-court training but that DOES NOT mean players should stop performing on-court work altogether.
Unlike other sports, it's my belief that tennis players spend far too much time in specific and competitive phases - and at ages that are far too young. This is one primary reason why injury rates are on the rise in our sport (and the main reason I created High-Performance Preparation - so that more players can be truly prepared to engage in the rigours of tennis play, injury free). It's impossible to protect the tissues from injury if all we do is repetitively grind them out - like many academy settings do.
High-Performance Preparation is a general preparation program designed with the competitive tennis player in mind. It develops the biomotor qualities all athletes need - with a bias towards items that increase on-court performance.
The accompanying High-Performance Guide was created to account for the unique settings many in the tennis world find themselves in. Whether you’re a player, coach or trainer, the 11 section guide will act in a supporting role to help adapt the program to fit the needs of each individual player.
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