Part of this post is an excerpt from my new resource, High-Performance Specialization (HPS). To find out more about HPS - and what a specific program for elite tennis is all about, click HERE.
Off-Court Movement & Conditioning - Is It Justified?
During the specific prep phase, as we’ve mentioned in previous sections, there is a greater emphasis on tennis play/practice - especially when compared with the general prep phase. Because of this, in my opinion, the need for conditioning work (in the traditional sense) is not as important - players, in effect, are getting a lot of their conditioning through tennis. Studies (Fernandez-Fernandez et al 2016, Kilit and Arslan 2018) are reaffirming this trend. See the ‘Learn More’ section for links to both studies.
The same can be said about acceleration and change-of-direction abilities. If players are doing many high-intensity hours ON the tennis court - where coaches are organizing drills with a variety of movement demands - it’s difficult to replicate a better environment to train these qualities OFF the tennis court.
That said, this is highly dependant on a number of factors - the type of on-court session performed on that day (technical, practice match etc), the intensity of the session, the work ethic of the athlete (especially in group settings where one athlete may be working while the other is not), the individual needs of the athlete (including their strengths & weaknesses) - and so on. If, for example, a player does a 2 hour tennis session with a multitude of movement drills, short rest ratios and high overall intensity, how much more quality work can they perform? In these cases, it may be more beneficial for the player to work on other qualities - like flexibility, structural strength or simply a recovery session.
On the other hand, if a player is working on mechanics OR doesn’t have the ability to push themselves physically on the tennis court because of various technical or tactical deficiencies etc., OR lacks acceleration & COD skills, adding these sessions is a must.
I will present a number of workouts in High-Performance Specialization (HPS) that target the most relevant qualities a player needs to train during this phase. It’s up to the coach (and/or player) to implement them accordingly, by determining if a tennis session already trained the qualities of interest or not.
Key Movement Qualities During the Specific Prep Phase
If you recall from HPP, the emphasis was on improving general acceleration and speed abilities, while also introducing some repeat sprint ability (RSA) tasks. While there was still a bias towards short & multi-directional movements, as we progress from the general prep phase to the specific prep phase, not only are movements being performed in a variety of directions, with varying starting positions, but we begin to introduce these movements in more ‘open’ environments. Essentially, we are now performing certain ‘agility’ tasks; because there is a greater perceptual component associated with many of the drills.
We will get to the details of each of the workouts below but here is a brief overview of each ability:
Change-of-direction: This includes acceleration and deceleration but, a greater emphasis is placed on the instantaneous moment a player changes direction - i.e. the transition phase.
Starting abilities: This differs slightly from acceleration as we’re mainly concerned with the initiation of movement and the first step or two.
Acceleration (tennis-specific): Trying to hit shorter distances in varying directions and using various movement modalities (shuffle, run, backward run etc.). Players need to hit their top ‘court speed’ as soon as possible when tracking down tough balls (drop shots, angled shots, wide balls, serve and volley etc.) so accelerating rapidly out of the gate is of prime importance.
Conditioning: Here, we are going even further away from the ‘traditional’ sessions that are generally prescribed in tennis and we’ll include short duration RSA tasks, on-court tennis-specific conditioning drills (TSD) and a more joint friendly alternative, power (and strength) endurance circuits.
General Comments on Movement Tasks During the Specific Prep Phase:
Before we get into the details of each workout, here are some general comments.
For all workouts, exercises and routines that are prescribed in this section, movement intent is key. Full out intensity for the prescribed distance is mandatory. Adequate rest between efforts is necessary but should be slightly less overall compared to the general prep phase - the aim is to endure these maximal, explosive efforts.
There are only a couple exceptions from point #1 above: a) if the player has a mechanical problem with the movement, it should first be corrected (check out the video example below). And b) if max intensity cannot be reached for some reason (player is ill, fatigued etc), the workout is simply terminated. There is no use in doing sub-max effort work when it comes to these tasks.
Because these sessions are quite taxing from a nervous system perspective, they should generally be performed before any other type of work - this includes tennis sessions. Further to that, tennis sessions should be lighter during these days - in other words, less movement drills. It’s a good time to either simply have a light hit and work on flow (check out the Learn More section for details on flow) or to perform a technical session.
The exception here are Conditioning Workouts - these can (and generally should) be performed at the end of sessions.
Using bands and sleds may be warranted during this phase, however, I still recommend these methods employed with more advanced athletes (those that have done at least a couple years of dedicated off-court work). Furthermore, the best transfer to the tennis court occurs when tasks are performed in real-time.
Performing movement tasks with a racquet is a good idea during the later stages of the specific prep phase as the movement mechanics differ slightly and again, we are looking for the most optimal training transfer.
Distances are shorter in all workouts during the SPP compared to the GPP. Positions also vary more so, to account for the multitude of positions a player may find themselves in during a tennis point.
While COD has many underpinning qualities that can affect it (which is another reason we lift weights, do plyometric drills and so on), players must still learn to execute the movements in real-time.
In the specific prep phase, we vary the types of COD drills to accentuate a different part of the process. Recall that COD has 3 distinct phases:
Braking - the deceleration part
Propulsion - the re-acceleration portion
Transition - the moments between the 2 phase above
For instance, if we perform a ‘Shuffle-0-5 Drill’, we are essentially trying to place greater importance on the transition portion of the COD - because the entry velocity into the COD is lower. While the reverse is true in a 5-0-5 drill - the entry velocity is higher so there’s a greater emphasis placed on the deceleration/braking component. (videos are located below).
Note - the ‘0’ in each exercise name refers to a change in direction - ‘5-0-5’ for instance, means 5m sprint, change of direction, and a 5m return sprint.
Also, if some sort of cue - whether it’s auditory, visual or otherwise - prompts a player to respond, the task becomes agility-based (see 4-Cone Drill below). We use these later in the specific-prep phase after a player has developed the physical capacities required to change direction effectively.
COD & Agility Drill Examples
Conditioning: Tennis-Specific Endurance
Repeat-sprint abilities (RSA) - multi-directional
Similar to the general pre phase, the type of conditioning prescribed should be in the form of RSA tasks. These become even more specific to the demands of tennis as we get closer to the competitive calendar. For instance, instead of doing a long spider, we may do a short spider (video below) - the distances covered are much smaller and more reflective of what players would normally encounter.
Coaches can be creative with these types of drills, sticking to work:rest ratios that are logical - usually the work portion will be anywhere from 5 seconds to 30 seconds and rest ratios can range from 15 seconds to 30 seconds. Also, don’t restrict yourself to rigid work:rest ratios - like 20 ON and 30 OFF. Tennis rallies vary in duration from one point to the next; RSA drills can mimic this. On top of that, we can use COD drills from above to work on tennis-specific conditioning.
For instance, I often do a 4 cone drill, calling out the cone that needs to be touched while at the same time looking at the stopwatch. I will then randomly stop the rep at some time point (let’s say 5 seconds) and provide the player with rest. The next rep could be longer (15-20 seconds) with the same, longer or shorter rest interval - this would be called variable RSA.
An Aside: A Case for Performing Work Ratios that are Longer than Rest Ratios
Although it doesn’t happen frequently, some points do end of being MUCH longer than the typical average. You (or your players) may have even experienced this in the past. You play a long rally, feel completely gassed and lose the next 2 points because it takes you a couple minutes to recover after a point of that duration. This is very common. So perhaps you do a series of RSA drills that go beyond 30 seconds (even up to a minute) and give players only the 25-30 seconds of rest they’re allowed to have during a match. They will be better prepared for it.
To see the full section - which includes info on acceleration training, tennis-specific (on-court) drills, power/strength endurance circuits - check out High-Performance Specialization (HPS).
HPS also includes 11 additional, comprehensive sections that highlight the various training qualities necessary during the specific prep phase. From monitoring to optimal recovery strategies to weekly training recommendations, it’s an ideal resource for high-performance tennis environments.