Have you ever been working on a player's forehand and thought "they're just not getting it". And instead of talking the player's ear off with detailed mechanics or trying every cue in the book, you decide to get them to throw a med ball.
All of a sudden, after just 1 or 2 cues - something like “thrust your rear hip” or “turn your torso, then release the ball” - they found the correct movement. You then return to hitting forehands and voila, they finally ‘get it’.
This type of tennis session - where we use a physical drill and relate it back to a tennis skill or movement - seems to be growing in popularity. I'm not quite sure if there's a name for it so let's just call it 'tennis-fitness integration'.
In principle, the strategy seems flawless. But here's the thing; it's not always as easy (or as effective) as our example from above. Sometimes, there's no immediate transfer. Other times, it doesn't work at all.
It's imperative that we remember it's still a training session. And very rarely is there an immediate (real) improvement during a session. Usually, to consolidate a technique, skill or movement, a period of 'training time' is required.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't use these sessions. In fact, they can be extremely beneficial. Not only to experience this 'aha' moment, like our med ball example, but to train a very specific quality and have the greatest chance of transfer - from physical to tennis.
4 Ways to Optimize ‘Tennis-Fitness' Integrated Sessions
1. Define the quality you're aiming to train. For instance, if your aim is to target a player's reactive abilities, then all of the drills, whether fitness or tennis oriented, must be designed to primarily train that quality. Not some other training item. And certainly not 5 or 6 items simultaneously.
2. Pinpoint the primary aspect giving your player fits, and train it. Let's piggyback off the example from above. You've noticed that your player has difficulties with the split-step. You look into it in more detail - observing the player, his opponent, the oncoming ball, using slow-motion analyses and so on. And you determine - while reactiveness does need work - the main issue is their initiation (or timing) of the split-step. It occurs 'after' their opponent makes contact with the ball (see image below). You must now design a drill (or drills) that have both a physical AND and a perceptual component, so that split-step 'timing' is the exact quality you're training.
3. Place the player into the specific scenario. Continuing with our split-step example, once the player can execute the movement in the 'fitness/physical' drill, bring the skill back to the tennis court. Keep in mind that the player needs to relate the physical part with the tennis part. That means the cues need to be the same. In other words, “react just before I toss the ball” should transform into “react just before your opponent makes contact with the ball”.
4. Experiment with a sequential versus a mixed approach. In certain cases, the player might 'get it' rather quickly. In those scenarios, you don't need to do more of the 'physical' stuff (doing it in real-time on the tennis court is your main objective anyway). But what if they don't 'get it' right away? Then what? Try a mixed approach. Basically, you'll do the physical drill, then head back to the tennis scenario and then back to the physical drill and so on.
Sometimes, ‘Getting It’, Takes Time
Once you try these tips, you might notice that your player still doesn’t ‘get it’ on the first session. That's fine, and actually, quite normal/common. Simply continue exposing them to this over the course of many sessions, weeks and months. They'll eventually 'get it'. Or maybe you’re lucky and they do ‘get it’ right away - all the better.
Either way, many tennis skills and movements can be addressed using this approach. To paint the landscape, I chose the split-step action because it has layers. But beyond that, it's an important quality. It facilitates a better movement towards the ball. It allows a player to be set before the bounce of the ball. And it can contribute to an early impact.
Do you get the point? It's that doing some sort of very specific, and deliberate, physical movement (one that doesn't require a racquet), can do 2 major things. One, it can provide a player with context - that "ah now I get it" moment. And two, it can train a highly targeted physical quality in a very specific manner. This doesn't ensure a training transfer...but it sure gives us a better chance at one.