In the last couple of posts, we explored two key sport science training principles, progressive loading and variation. These training principles were linked to both off-court as well as on-court training for the elite/developing tennis player - in hopes that they could provide the astute coach or player with more insight into the organization of practices and long-term training schemes. But the principles don’t stop there. There are other of equal - or perhaps even greater - importance, especially when it comes to tennis training.

Specificity is this week’s topic of interest. It’s a term that’s been somewhat of a buzzword for the better part of a decade (or longer). Often times, tennis coaches, players and parents are brought to believe that to be a successful tennis player, one must be subscribed to a physical development program that is ‘tennis specific’. When these same tennis folks see programs that include a variety of plyometric work and ballistic lifting in the weight room instead of rotational band work, quick footwork drills, and other movements that ‘mimic’ tennis play, they think to themselves - “this isn’t tennis-specific”. I’ve got news for you though, there’s only one training component that is truly specific to tennis play and that’s...wait for it….TENNIS!

This is what we’re going to explore in today’s post. We’ll define specificity and provide examples of what it is and what it isn’t. Lastly, while tennis specific fitness, in terms of how it’s normally perceived, doesn’t really exist, there is a way to tailor off-court training schemes to improve or ‘potentiate’ on-court tennis play - with exercises that are more or less specific to the demands of actual tennis play. This will also be tackled in today’s post.

Specificity Defined

Specificity is often referred to as the SAID principle - or, Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. This essentially means, when a stimulus is administered, it will elicit a specific response to THAT stimulus. Here’s an example. If I want a tennis player to improve their work capacity (endurance/stamina) I wouldn’t make them run 5k - there is simply no specificity with the training task of long distance running compared to actual tennis play. Recall that tennis players rarely move beyond 3-5m (usually less) per change of direction (COD) - and there are between 1-15 CODs per point (depending on rally length). If we use the SAID principle to program tennis specific work capacity drills, it may be more appropriate to perform exercises that reflect the demands of the sport. Here are some ideas - from less specific to more specific:

  1. Repeat Sprint Ability (linear with COD) - 5-10m sprints back & forth with short recoveries

  2. Repeat Sprint Ability (multi-directional) - Spider Drill with varying distances

  3. Basket Fed Tennis Drills (more closely reflect ‘actual’ tennis play)

  4. Live Ball Drills - with high intent, appropriate recovery movements etc.

  5. Tennis Matchplay - the most specific form of developing work capacity

As a side note, this is why I often don’t prescribe much ‘conditioning’ work (points 1 and 2 from above) - if players are already training on-court 10-15 hours a week, performing a variety of drills and matchplay scenarios (points 3-5), there’s nothing I can do off the court that will come close to providing a ‘specific’ training stimulus. It’s already done on court.

The Principle of Specificity in More Detail 

Let’s provide a bit more detail (and context) to the term specificity. Here’s what some of the pioneers of sport science (Siff 2003), consider when looking at this topic:

  • Type of muscle contraction

  • Movement pattern

  • Region of movement

  • Velocity of movement

  • Force of contraction

  • Muscle fibre recruitment

  • Metabolism

  • Biochemical adaptation

  • Flexibility

  • Fatigue

It’s not the scope of this post to look at each individual component presented above (although if you’ve been following my posts, you’ve probably noticeed that we’ve touched on all of these in one way or another). Rather, I am highlighting these components for a couple of reasons. First, it’s impossible to target only one component at a time - in fact, all of them are acting to some degree during all athletic movements....which is why physical development for tennis (or any sport), can be quite perplexing. And why only tennis play can truly fulfill all of the above components in the most specific manner.

Specificity in Tennis: What It Isn’t

Below I will try to offer a simple way to categorize movements/exercises in a way that takes into account all of the above specificity factors but without the complexity. Before I do, there’s one critical topic we must address here before we continue. In a nutshell, it’s best said like this:

Simulation IS NOT Specificity!

Whenever I’m programming, I always come back to a paragraph in Mel Siff’s text, Supertraining, which aptly describes this point. It goes like this:

In the context of training, specificity should not be confused with simulation. Specificity training means exercising to improve in a highly specific way the expression of all of the above factors in a given sport. While simulation of a sporting movement with small added resistance over the full range of movement or with larger resistance over a restricted part of the movement range may be appropriate at certain stages of training, simulation of any movement with significant resistance is inadvisable since it can confuse the neuromuscular programmes which determines the specificity of the above factors”.

From a practical perspective, the following can be said. If we use a heavy implement, let’s say a cable pulley system or a heavy band, and we ‘simulate’ a tennis groundstroke, this could negatively influence actual tennis groundstroke performance. In this particular example, we’re not adhering to the specificity principle - in other words, the velocities of movement are not the same, the range of movement is not the same, the forces of contraction and recruitment patterns differ, and so on. What may, to the casual observer, look like ‘specificity’, is in fact NOT.

Even heavy med ball training may be detrimental - the heavier the ball, the further away we get from the specific factors outlined above. When the implements are lighter, the velocities, ROMs etc of various key joints are more reflective of what a tennis player would encounter during tennis play. In Siff’s quote, he also warns the well intentioned coach that simulation with light loads be used with caution. For tennis, I interpret this as weighted racquets (between 5%-20% of actual racquet mass), for example. There’s even some research in both tennis and baseball that point to increases in skill speed with this form of training. While I see this as plausible, I’d advise it to be used at certain times of the year with more advanced/older players ONLY. The verdict on this form of training is still not out so caution must be taken (both from a performance and injury perspective).

From Specific to General - Exercise Classifications for Tennis

A number of years ago, I was fortunate to attend a conference where Dan Pfaff and Derek Evely (Olympic track coaches) presented. While I already had some initial thoughts on this topic, their theories on specificity and exercise classifications helped direct my line of thinking to develop a system for tennis. Before I present my system for tennis, here is Derek Evely’s breakdown of the 'Exercise Hierarchy' - which is based off of the work by legendary coach and sport scientist, Anatoliy Bondarchuk.

altis bondarchuk exercise classes.png

Courtesy of Altis

One point to consider is the pyramid on the far left. All it’s telling us is that once you make your way up the pyramid, there are less exercises to choose from. In other words, when it’s CE, it’s simply tennis match-play while GPE could be swimming, long-distance running or any other sport for that matter. Also, Evely often says that there are grey zones in terms of where we choose to insert various exercises - with that said, there’s no perfect answer, as long as we have a rationale for where we place the exercises.

Dan Pfaff has a similar setup but refers to them as generational exercises and has about 5 classes. Generation 1 is the most specific (the actual sporting movements) and generation 5 is nonspecific (activities that are general and not related to the sporting movements/actions). From my understanding, both systems were originally designed for athletics but as the both Evely and Pfaff submit, can be adapted to any sport. Because of the complexity of tennis - i.e. a lot to keep track of - I have used a bit of a hybrid between Pfaff’s generational exercises and Evely’s classifications. Based on the work of these two modern coaches and the specificity factors of SIff, here’s how I’ve organized the system to fit the development of tennis (note - this hierarchy has evolved over the years and has recently been vetted by both Pfaff and Evely):

Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 1.51.57 PM.png

As a coach or player, you know that nothing replicates competitive matchplay like tournaments. This is why, for me, placing competition as first generational, makes more practical sense. As you move down, the exercises/drills become less specific to tennis matchplay (true specificity) and it’s various force/velocity requirements.

Final Thoughts

While I am by no means an expert here, I found that this way of classifying training was extremely simple and logical - especially considering the principle of specificity. Bare in mind that this is a general overview of the system. Even within each exercise class, there are varying degrees of specificity. Further to that, the way in which the system is implemented will vary substantially depending on the chronological age of the player (any child below the age of 12 should do mostly gen 5 activities, as a supplement to their sport - if they’ve already specialized), their training age, time of year, training time/availability (if you only have 4-5 hours a week of tennis practice, most of it should be spent at the top of the pyramid) etc. While you don’t have to follow this system, understanding where various components lie on the general to specific continuum will help the organization of training in a highly beneficial way. It’s generally the mismanagement of training (poor proportion of time spent in various components of training) rather than strength deficits, that lead to injury. It’s my belief that getting this right is one big factor that will help decrease the incidence of injury, overtraining and burnout.

We'll explore this topic in more detail in future posts - as it's one that probably has the most applicability to elite sporting performance. In next week's post, we'll shift our focus to individuality, another key training principle to consider - and one that becomes difficult to manage in group/academy settings. 

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