I’ve previously written about the split step and it’s importance to successful movement - and ultimately, shot execution - in tennis. But do we truly understand what factors contribute to an effective split step? Why we should devote serious attention to it? Or even more, how to best train it?
Before we get into the details, you should know that there are 3 primary components that make up the split step:
I’ve been asked countless times - from tennis coaches to players and even parents - 'how can I get more leg drive on my forehand?' 'Or more jump from the legs on my serve?' 'Or more explosiveness when moving laterally?' There’s no simple answer. It truly depends on a number of factors, including your strength levels, coordination, training age, biological age, training history, genetics and more. But if I absolutely had to boil my answer down to one form of training, I’d have to look towards plyometrics.
There are many terms to describe plyometrics including plyometric training, plyos, jump training, shock training (that’s what Soviets used to call it) & ballistic training. I may use some of these terms interchangeably throughout this article but they all refer to plyometrics. Whatever you call it, it’s general premise is to increase power output.
Medicine ball training is a widely popular training modality amongst tennis players at all ages and levels. More specifically, med ball (MB) training is primarily used to augment rotational power. For a review of the underpinning science and theory on this topic, please take a look at a previous post on this topic. Why augment rotational power though? Today's game is classified as power based - players are hitting the felt off the ball. The rationale from a training perspective is as follows: increase rotational power and you'll increase hitting speeds - whether that's groundstroke or serve speeds.
Last week we introduced reactive strength and its underpinning qualities. If you haven’t read that post, I strongly encourage you to do so, as it’ll provide a scientific rationale for what’s to come in this article.
Recall that reactive strength is effectively the fast component of the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) - SSC activity being a rapid change from an eccentric to a concentric contraction that produces more power than would be possible with a concentric only contraction. We also determined that reactive strength is quite important as it relates to change of direction (COD) in tennis. There are 2 reasons for this. First, it’ll improve a player’s split-step ability - effectively allowing for a faster first step initiation - AND it can help with movements - along with recoveries - that are short but require high levels of explosiveness (think of shots that are near you but are coming at you with speed).
The ability to respond quickly and efficiently to an oncoming shot, is perhaps one of the most important qualities a tennis player must possess. This ability is predicated on a number of factors including anticipatory skills, perception skills - picking up cues from the other side of the net, judging the ball appropriately etc. - along with physical qualities, one of them being reactiveness. Further to that, it helps when a player has tremendous change of direction (COD) abilities. Why? Because the player that can recover more efficiently after their previous shot, has a better chance to not only better 'see' the next shot, but also has the ability to respond to that shot with less ‘emergency’ - a term many coaches use.
There’s no question the shoulder takes a beating in tennis. I mean, players use it on every shot. Whether that’s to create lots of torque to hit a big forehand or to stabilize the shoulder when punching a volley...the shoulder has many functions and roles. But perhaps the biggest toll on the shoulder occurs in a movement you wouldn’t normally consider...the deceleration phase (aka the follow-through phase) of the serve. This is the moment after impact where the posterior muscles of the shoulder act in an eccentric manner to essentially stop the head of the humerus from being dislodged from the glenoid fossa (aka think arm dislocating from shoulder...that wouldn’t be fun). Ellenbecker & Kovacs (2008) call the deceleration phase “the most violent of the tennis serve”. That’s a pretty big statement, and probably something that needs to be considered in the training of the tennis shoulder. But why exactly is this phase of the serve so critical? What type of strength is necessary? And what kind of exercises can tennis players incorporate into their program to optimize the serve keep the shoulder healthy? We’ll explore all of these points in this article, so read on.