Earlier last week, I posted the following on Instagram:
It was pretty popular. I mean, anytime someone like Roger Federer reveals that they spend more time working on fitness compared to tennis (when preparing for tournaments), it’ll get folks interested.
While many agreed with Roger’s comments, others were quick to point out some of the realities that most tennis players face in terms of scheduling, defending points, travel concerns and so on.
Here's the typical trainer's concern; it's believed that players outside of the top 100 have worries that a guy like Federer doesn't - i.e. travel expenses, points to defend and so on. Many of these players perform a concentrated physical prep block for 4-6 weeks in Dec/Jan (just prior to the start of the new season) and then a number of 1-2 week blocks during the course of the year. These same trainers will also agree that this isn't enough - performing one 4-6 week block along with 2-3 smaller blocks during the year is an insufficient amount of time to develop a quality like explosive power, for instance.
But is this true? Do players not have enough time in their schedules to plan 2-3 extended training blocks during the year? Blocks that focus on developing the underpinning physical qualities necessary for elite level play? And that allow players to stay healthier throughout the course of the season? And what about time for rest? Is that something we’re just going to put to the side for a rainy day?
In this post , I’ll attempt to uncover the so-called ‘realities’ of pro and semi-pro tennis. We’ll also briefly explore the benefits of focusing on an area we tend to take for granted - rest & recovery (something that top players meticulously schedule into their yearly plan).
Revisiting Sport Science Basics
At the most basic level, human improvement of any kind (whether it’s a biological process or a muscular adaptation etc.) can be succinctly summarized by the following equation:
Stress + Rest = Growth
Here are a couple examples. Want to improve your serve? Well, you’ll need to serve. But more than that, you’ll have to challenge yourself to create a stimulus which is greater than what you’re accustomed to. In this example, you may serve more (either by increasing the number of serves per session, per week etc.) or perhaps you practice to smaller targets than normal in order to create specific objectives - both aims pushing the boundaries of your abilities.
The growth equation is easier to define when using an example from the weight room. Want to increase strength? Easy, over time, add more weight to the bar. This of course is a simplified example but one that showcases that for growth & improvement, stress is absolutely necessary.
If you’ve been reading carefully, you would have noticed that I’ve only tackled one side of the above equation - the stress component. For a player (or athlete for that matter) to ‘grow’, they’ll need to abide by the second part of the equation. They will require rest.
So let’s consider for a second that you know nothing about the adaptation process (in fact, none of us ‘truly’ do...it’s EXTREMELY complex). Does it seem logical to perform multiple tennis sessions in one day, topping it up with fitness? Or how about practicing and/or competing 45 weeks out of the year? Does that seem like a good idea?
Any sane person will tell you, emphatically, NO.
But are there really players that are doing this? Believe it or not, there are! I’ve seen them. And these are the players that rarely improve. You need both STRESS and REST.
What I failed to mention in my instagram post was that Roger also took some time off - which included vacationing with his family. After talking to many coaches, from a variety of sports, this seems to be more and more prevalent - athletes taking multiple breaks a year COMPLETELY away from their sport. Not only does this help with recuperation & healing but it facilitates growth (physical, mental, spiritual etc.).
How Many Tournaments are Players ACTUALLY Playing?
The next question I asked myself was - why aren’t players more strategic with their schedules? Can they really not find the time to both train appropriately and take the necessary time off for rest and recovery? The only thing I could think of was, they must be playing lots of events - traveling to and from, defending points, chasing points etc.
Is that true? Let’s take a look.
Below are several charts, highlighting players on both the ATP & WTA tours when it comes to the number of tournaments played over the course of 12 months.
ATP & WTA Top 100 - # of Events in last Calendar Year (as of July 5, 2018)
ATP & WTA 401-500 - # of Events in last Calendar Year (as of July 5, 2018)
ATP 901-1000 - # of Events in last Calendar Year (as of July 5, 2018)
WTA 901-1000 - # of Events in last Calendar Year (as of July 5, 2018)
While I didn’t look at the entire ranking list, the above graphs provide a good representation of tournaments played by players of varying rankings. As you would have noticed, players in the top 100 are actually playing more events than players between 401-500 and 901-1000 - with less events being played as a player's ranking drops.
So this argument that lower ranked players are playing more to improve their ranking and defend points etc., doesn’t hold a lot of truth (according to the numbers). Ok so perhaps some of these players are playing club matches and prize money events - but can you still really tell me that they can’t plan their schedules in a more effective manner? Whether male or female, if your ranking is between 401-500, you’re playing, on average 17-20 events a year. For those counting, that leaves between 32 and 35 weeks to take into account travel/prep (before and after an event), weeks off for rest and for training weeks. I’d say that’s MORE than enough time.
Tennis is a sport where traditionally, players are overtraining when it comes to on-court work, undertraining when it comes to physical preparation and in general, not resting enough.
If we look at other sports - take american football, basketball and hockey as examples - we’ll often see athletes from these disciplines going through extended training blocks during the off-season (yes I know they have a ‘predetermined’ off-season but we just proved from above that tennis players CAN also plan their schedules more efficiently).
What do these training blocks accomplish? The end result is that these athletes get better. You’ll often hear their coaches, teammates and announcers praising them - so and so “dedicated their off-season to getting better prepared physically, and it shows, they’re strong, explosive, more resilient..” etc.
Can tennis players strategically plan their schedules in order to have extended periods of training? I believe so.
Rest Means Rest
John Kiely, senior lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire’s Institute for Coaching and Performance exclaims the following; “more and more evidence suggests that stress is stress”. Here’s what Kiely means - if after a hard training session (a form of stress) you go right into studying for an exam (another form of stress), then you’re retarding the recovery process.
Let’s go back to Federer for a second - the 20-time Grand Slam champion takes regular breaks throughout the course of the season. He’ll take anywhere from 7 days to 3 weeks completely off - in other words, he won’t do any fitness and he’ll definitely leave his racquets in the closet.
It’s likely that the older you are, the more rest of this nature you’ll need but even younger players could benefit from some time away from training & competition. How many have taken a week or 2 off to let the body regenerate? An important side note - this is for players that ACTUALLY train and compete full-time. If your training is half-hearted to begin with, you’ll likely need to work on that first.
Federer’s not the only athlete that does this. A host of athletes across many sports have adopted this principle - extended rest isn’t just good for the body, it’s also good for the mind.
That’s on a macro level but what about on the micro level, the short-term? Back to Fed, he’s been on record to say that he also sleeps around 9 hours a night (not including naps). During last year’s run to his 8th Wimbledon title, he also stayed in a separate accommodation, away from his family and 4 kids - just so he could get some extra shuteye.
In the age of technology, young people are having more and more trouble getting enough rest - especially at the appropriate times. Research suggests that sleep prior to midnight is more beneficial then after midnight - so if you or your players are sleeping from 1am until 10am, that’s not the same 9 hours as 10pm-7am.
In a roundtable discussion, elite coaches from athletics suggest that high-performance athletes require around 10 hours of sleep a day (this can include both nighttime sleep along with daytime naps). Of course, this is an estimate - some need more while others need less - but if you’re training multiple times a day, sleep is your best form of rest (and ultimately, growth!).
Above was a brief introduction to a number of topics - topics I’d like to continue discussing over time. How should an overall yearly plan look like for an elite or developing player? While results are unpredictable, a framework must exist. How does stress effect each individual? There’s a lot of new & compelling research on stress that we’re only beginning to uncover. For instance, did you know that some of us have a genetic predisposition to handle stress better than others? Or that the perception of stress has a HUGE impact on recovery after sport and exercise?
I actually have a hypothesis that players who lose a tough match are so overwhelmed with emotions that it impedes the recovery process - vs players who win a tough match. Add all those tough matches together and you have a player whose maladapting.
We’ll explore these issues and how they relate to tennis in future posts. For now, what you should take away from this article is the following - tennis is a sport where traditionally, players are overtraining when it comes to tennisplay, undertraining when it comes to physical preparation and in general, not resting enough (which doesn’t mean you have to sit on the couch for 2 weeks). It’s not surprising that the players that do it right (and who have a team around them that understand the stress + rest equation) are the ones at the top of the game.