This post will touch on one of the most important qualities for the modern tennis player - reactive ability. Being reactive will help all elite players possess a better set-up and track down tougher balls without having to run any faster than they already do. Now before I get into the nitty gritty details I think it’s important to distinguish between reactive ability and reaction time (no they are not the same thing...although also not mutually exclusive).
Here’s the main difference - the way I see it anyway - reaction time is based on an external stimulus that catalyzes movement. For example, a player waiting to return a 120mph serve has a better chance at returning the ball with a shorter reaction time versus someone who sees the ball late. Consequently, when you see the ball earlier, you're better able to initiate movement at a faster rate.
Reactive ability, on the other hand, is a physical quality that nearly all movements in tennis require. Reactive ability can be defined by expressing the necessary amount of force to produce movement in the SHORTEST possible time frame. This quality is so vital in my opinion that it trumps speed qualities by a country mile. Where do you see this? How on every split-step. And when do tennis players make a split-step? Basically on almost every single tennis shot! Although we'll mainly focus on how reactive ability can help the split-step, it's important during other movements as well - like making a quick recovery after you've raced down a wide ball. In any case, I’d say this quality is quite relevant for high performance players.
Before I provide ways that we can train this quality, let me help you understand it in more detail.
A Pro Example
I’ll use Simona Halep, world number 2, as an example - Simona isn't the hardest hitter in the women's game so she has to make up for it in other ways. For Simona to have success, she has to move well - she does a tremendous job of being reactive off of every split-step. Watch the video below - specifically, isolate Simona at the bottom of the screen. Her reactive split-step helps initiate a more explosive & dynamic first step - this enables her to get to the ball sooner, take away time from Cibulkova and gain control of the point with her movement. Her ability to react off of that split-step is so impressive that it almost looks like she’s getting hit by a jolt of lightning. The reality, her intention to be reactive is so high that she coordinates her lower-body to move in the appropriate direction as soon as she knows which direction the ball is heading. Before she lands from the split-step, she’s already beginning her movement. Contrast this to what you see with most kids these days - they make a split-step just to do it, landing in the same spot they were in when they started (if they even do split-step to begin with!!). I've even had to break this quality down with pro players - some have gone the majority of their tennis careers not knowing how to optimize their movement via reactiveness!
Again, it’s NOT running speed or acceleration that are important here, it’s reactive ability. Tennis players rarely have to run more than 5m in any given direction during a point and even more rarely do they run 10m or more. The majority of movements are within 2-3m. But the pace of the game is so high that literally getting off to a good start on every movement is of paramount importance - and it first starts with the split-step.
The 3 Main Underpinnings of Reactive Ability
Within each of these qualities are sub-qualities but for the sake of simplicity let’s leave it at these 3 for the time being. The most specific way to train reactive ability is on the tennis court. But most developing players won’t have the physical abilities to perform this quality on court, so they have to train it off-court first. Below I’ll briefly touch on each trainable quality while providing examples on how train them.
First and foremost, tennis players will need the necessary lower-body strength as this is a precursor. Because reactive ability is highly dependant on explosive strength - and explosive strength requires recruitment of type 2 muscles fibres, we must improve our ability to call upon these muscle fibres. The only way to do so is to provide enough stimulus to fire these fast-twitch fibres is to lift loads that are above 80% or so of an athlete's 1RM. Squats, deadlifts, lunges (even Olympic lifts) and all forms of variations of these movements will help here. YES it’s ok for developing athletes to lift weights and NO it won’t stunt their growth (but more on this in a later post). Of course there's a learning curve with these lifts but I’ve found that with the tennis players I’ve worked with, they learn these movements rather quickly. Perhaps this is due to the amount of technical work they’ve done on the tennis court over the years - their motor control is quite good. Regardless, get your tennis players strong and when appropriate, don't shy away from heavier loads. Lower-body strength will accelerate the development of other more important qualities....like the ones coming up.
In the tennis community, explosiveness is a term often used to refer to power (i.e. the ability to express force quickly). We'll refer to it as explosiveness as it paints a better image and is a quality more specific to the initiation of force (which is what we're after). You can train both explosiveness and strength simultaneously. In other words, these qualities can be touched on within the same training session, weekly microcycle or mesocycle. In fact, with very young athletes (under 12) working on jumping ability for example, can be both a power exercise and a strength exercise (because they may have very little strength abilities that even a low box jump can work both force & power generating components). In older athletes - who already possess the necessary strength - using a variety of fast and slow component plyometrics will augment explosive strength and hence reactive ability.
Remember though, when training for explosiveness, you want to produce the highest amount of force in the shortest amount of time. For example, jumping onto a box that’s quite high will work force qualities a lot more than speed qualities. Why? Because the height of the box is acting as the load (or weight) - the higher the box, the more force required to get on top of it. On the flip side, if the box is too low, the stimulus may not be challenging enough to facilitate enough force production. Because we’re talking about reactive ability and how it relates to tennis specific movement, when working on explosiveness, we must keep in mind the mechanical demands of tennis. For instance, within one point, you may move forward, backward, laterally, diagonally - you’ll lunge, you’ll push off, you’ll jump with both legs, change direction etc. It’s safe to say that a multi-directional approach is necessary. So train explosiveness in all directions (vertical, horizontal, lateral etc) and all planes (sagittal, transverse, frontal). This could mean forward box jumps, side jumps, single-leg jumps, jumping and rotating in the air (videos above). The possibilities are endless.
Most of us don’t usually associate stiffness with athletic performance. But I’m not talking about stiffness from a flexibility perspective. Djokovic is an extremely flexible athlete but when it comes to being reactive, he’s as stiff as can be. If you’re a tennis coach reading this, the easiest analogy I can provide is through racquet technology. A Babolat Pure Drive racquet is very stiff, and if you’ve ever used one, you know how much power it can generate. On the other hand, if you’ve ever used an old Wilson Pro Staff (ala Pete Sampras), you know you’ll swing for the fences but the ball just won’t come off the racquet with any zip - because it’s quite flexible compared to the Babolat. This same principle can apply to your muscle-tendon complexes - in the case of reactive ability for tennis, you’ll need stiffness primarily in the ankle/calf area. If your athlete can manufacture this quality it means that very little force is leaking and the movement will look crisp. The best way(s) to develop this quality is through reactive hops and drop jump training. In other words, you start on a low plyo box, step off and as soon as you make contact with the ground, quickly jump onto another, higher, box (videos below). The cue - the athlete should feel as though he or she is beginning to jump before actually landing on the ground so that when they do land, the ankle/calf region is stiff. Now before attempting this, make sure the athlete can at least jump rope reasonably well and work on creating some stiffness by performing low level plyometrics like bunny hops.
Training doesn't have to be complex but it must be highly targeted and specific. Questions you should ask yourself is, what quality am I truly looking to improve and what are the best ways to train them with my athlete(s)? A variety of simple jumps in multiple directions are more than enough to get the job done, IF they are done with purpose and intent. Building reactiveness before adding an endurance component is also critical - if you're doing lots of exhaustive type drills, you'll never tap into the right muscle fibre types and although you might get conditioned, you won't be very explosive and reactive.
Here's my last comment on this topic...don't train reactive ability too often. It's draining. If you're just starting out, maybe 3 times a week with low level work will do it. If you're a competitive tennis player and you're doing some box jumps, drop jumps etc., 2 times a week might be enough. Basically, the more power you can produce, the more taxing the training becomes and the more recovery time you'll need.