This is the second post on testing athletic qualities in tennis. In the first post, I outlined what to use with tennis players to determine their strength abilities, explosiveness and acceleration. Check out that post here. In this post we’ll look at 4 other athletic qualities every tennis player should train - max speed, agility/change-of-direction (COD), power and endurance - AND how to test these qualities.
Physical Tests for Tennis
Athletic Quality 4 - Maximal Speed
Although maximal speed isn’t a direct determinant of successful tennis performance, it’s still an important quality to possess, and improve upon. Many coaches get confused with what maximal speed truly represents. While acceleration is measured across a short distance (~10m or less), for an athlete to develop max speed, he/she needs more distance (between 20-40m). Having knowledge of this, we now see how rare it is for a tennis player to cover this type of distance in a match, especially considering that the distance from the back of the court to the net is about 20m. There are still instances where a player sprints 20m - when running down a drop shot or retrieving a lob, for example. Although max speed isn't a priority, there is a correlation between acceleration and max speed qualities - and knowing both provides further insights into an athlete’s strengths and weaknesses.
30m Fly Test
Although again, technology helps (in the form of timing gates), it’s still possible to carry this test out with a stopwatch.
- Set up 2 sets of cones, the first set 10m from the starting line and the second set 40m from the starting line.
- hen coach says “GO”, the athlete sprints 40m. The athlete MUST go all out during the sprint.
- The coach presses the start button on his stopwatch when the athlete crosses the 10m mark and presses stop when the athlete crosses the finish line.
This test takes out the acceleration component of the sprint and assesses only the maximum speed of the athlete - from the 10m mark until the 40m mark.
Athletic Quality 5 - Agility & Change-of-Direction (COD)
Agility and COD are of course both critical for successful performance in tennis - in other words, we don’t just run in a straight line, the sport is highly multi-directional. Before we continue, it’s important to distinguish between agility and COD. COD is simply the ability to move rapidly from one direction into another while agility entails COD in response to a stimuli - when returning a serve, or making a lateral movement during a rally situation. BOTH QUALITIES OCCUR DURING TENNIS.
During a match, a player may be recovering back towards the middle of the court to get prepared for the next shot. Once his opponent strikes the ball, the player will respond to the stimulus - the direction of the oncoming ball - and may or may not change direction (depending on where the ball is heading). If the player responds to a stimulus AND changes direction, this is classified as agility.
So what's the difference between the 2 qualities? Consider this. The recovery part of a movement in tennis is predetermined, we teach this to kids all the time - when you move out wide to retrieve a ball, you must recover back to a more favourable position to receive the next shot. This is COD, there's no stimulus, you just have to move explosively and recover. The better and more rapid your recovery, the higher your chance of being in position for the next shot. Hence why this quality is so important.
Spider Agility Test
If you don’t have a stimulus present, you’re testing COD, not agility. And because I haven’t yet found a low cost, reliable way to test agility (COD in response to a stimulus), I currently only test COD. I do however, watch my players practice and play matches so I have an idea whether they need to work on seeing the ball better, or changing directions more rapidly.
Some coaches also call this the Star Agility Test - either way, it works well for tennis players as it does a decent job in replicating the movements that occur during actual tennis play.
- Set up 5 cones on a tennis court, 1 at each baseline/singles line juncture, 1 at each service line/baseline juncture and one on the service tee.
- The athlete begins behind the baseline tee. The athlete is then instructed to touch each cone, one at a time while returning to the baseline after every cone touch.
- The athlete must always be facing the net (meaning that when returning to the baseline, the athlete will be running backwards - a necessary movement in tennis).
- The coach can instruct the athlete to either follow a specific pattern or let the athlete choose their own pattern.
Many movements in tennis occur in the frontal plane (to learn more about the specific movements involved in tennis, read this post). This means that moving laterally may be an important indicator for successful tennis performance. To test this more specifically, you would break down the spider test. The athlete begins in the middle of the court. Upon instruction, he/she move laterally towards the singles line (where singles line and baseline meet) and then returns to the starting position. This test would be done on both sides and then could be compared to see whether moving towards the forehand or backhand presents more problems for the player.
Athletic Quality 6 - Power
In this quality, we’re looking at how effectively the athlete can generate power in stroke production. In other words, how powerfully can the athlete hit a forehand or backhand. Serve can also be done here but the best measure of serve speed would be the use of a radar gun (here’s one that I’ve been looking into of late). Our interest however will be on groundstroke power.
Medicine Ball Side Throw
Using a relatively light medicine ball (could range from 2kg to 6kg depending on age and strength levels of your player), the athlete will throw for distance from both the forehand side and backhand side. There are 3 main positions that we can place the athlete in to assess power that will relate to actual tennis play. Open stance, semi-open stance and neutral/slightly closed stance).
Let’s take the neutral stance as an example - during a neutral stance the athlete is standing with their chest parallel to the line of action and toes pointed perpendicular to target.
- Set up a long measuring tape (you’ll likely need more than 15m).
- The athlete is holding a ball before the starting line and when instructed, turns his hips, torso, shoulders and then releases the MB forward.
- You’re looking at 2 things here, distance thrown, as well as technique of the throw***.
***You’ll be able to see whether the athlete uses their body well (efficient use of their kinetic chain) to obtain power or whether they ‘muscle’ the throw.
Using all 3 stances will allow you to distinguish between power abilities between them and help determine weaknesses/strengths.
Athletic Quality 7 - Endurance
Tennis is an intermittent sport. You go all out during a point, then rest, then go all out and repeat. Longer breaks are taken in between change overs and in between sets but this is the general pattern of a match.
Over the years, I’ve seen the Beep Test, Yo-Yo Test & other running based tests administered with tennis players to determine endurance abilities. These tests require athletes to run 20m (or more) towards a target and 20m back (40m in total) with a certain amount of rest in between each run. I’ve seen kids that are incredible at this test, but have no explosive abilities on courts (nor the ability to endure those explosive abilities). More and more, I’m re-thinking whether this test provides any insight into a tennis player’s sport specific endurance qualities. How often does a tennis player run 20m or more? The average distance per shot is less than 3m. Yes, the Yo Yo test may provide a good baseline to assess an athlete’s anaerobic capacity, but after speaking to several coaches, there may be better ways to test endurance in sport-specific fashions. In tennis, we want to know if the athlete can reproduce explosiveness under fatigue, and during complex movements - similar to what the athlete will encounter during a match. I've been experimenting with the following test - one that was introduced to me via a mentor.
Power Snatch EMOM +2
EMOM = Every minute on the minute
+2 = Every new minute, add 2 reps to the movement
The athlete will use 40-50% of their Power Snatch 1RM. For one of my former 13 year olds this is roughly 20-25kg. Let’s use this number as an example.
- After a thorough warm-up, the clock starts and the athlete begins by doing 2 reps at 25kg
- If it takes the athlete 10 seconds to perform 2 reps, he/she will have 50 seconds of rest before the next set begins.
- At the 1 minute mark, the athlete begins set 2 and adds 2 reps to the movement (the load stays the same). If this set takes 20 seconds, the athlete now has 40 seconds to rest.
- At the 2 minute mark, the athlete begins set 3 with 6 total reps to complete. Let’s say it takes 30 seconds, the athlete has another 30 seconds to recover.
- Let’s say this athlete gets to the 6 minute mark but cannot complete the set (14 total reps) - to keep things simple we’ll take the last set that the athlete fully completed as his/her score (in this case it was 12 reps).
If you’re working with a younger population, and they’re inexperienced with Olympic style movements you may have to resort to a beep test - at least to give you some sort of idea. In any case, young athletes will have a more general training program compared to older athletes so their results aren’t (and shouldn’t be) scrutinized as heavily.
There are millions of tests out there. The ones presented here are merely a few that can be used (and that I have found reliable, accurate and don’t require expensive equipment). Here’s about all you need (I use something similar to this equipment):
- Measuring tape → Must be long enough (30m or so).
- Stopwatch → I prefer an old school stopwatch versus a smartphone/tablet. Maybe it’s because I have fat fingers.
- Med ball → Remember, you need a variety as each player has different strength levels. Just make sure to use the same ball with the same player from one testing session to the next.
- Cones → This is just an example, any type will do.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to perform all of these tests every time you test - this will likely depend on your phase of training/time of year and ultimately the goal of the program. You may want to track COD ability closer to a competition so a few weeks out you decide to test this quality. Probably not a good idea to test max strength at this time as it a) isn’t as relevant and b) you probably will decrease the amount of lifting your athletes are doing during the competitive portion of the season. You may also incorporate these tests into a training session, I’ve found it sets the tone for the session and gets enhances competitiveness.
Although testing isn’t the end all be all, it’s still something that should be done regularly. I believe in the art of coaching - and being around the game for so long, I have a decent eye - but there’s no way I can gauge all qualities all the time. Having some objective feedback provides insight not only for programming but also tracking - how’s that athlete progressing over time. Tennis is a time-constrained sport, gaining fractions of a second here and there over time may have a huge impact on the outcome of a match.