Developing the Junior Tennis Player: Components of an Effective Program

Dave Mayo, CSCS

Although strength and conditioning programs have been a part of tennis for over 20 years, these programs have not evolved much during that time. I was reviewing the USTA website recently and noticed that most of the sports science information was significantly outdated. The overall approach to strength and power training has been to be as sport-specific as possible. The problem with this is that strength and power are general qualities. If you take a fast, strong, and powerful football player and put him on the tennis court, these abilities don’t just magically disappear. His stroke and court coverage abilities would be lacking, but with the proper skill training, he would become a fast, powerful tennis player. Taking this approach, here are a few tips for developing a junior tennis player in the weight room.

1) To get fast, you must do tennis specific agility training AND strength training.

There is no doubt that footwork and agility training have their place in developing a tennis player. The initial focus on developing the athlete should be to teach the athlete how to cover the court without wasting energy. This works 1 part of the puzzle: Efficiency of movement. Once the athlete develops proficiency in covering the court, she needs to get stronger. Athletes who are stronger recruit more muscles fibers which, in turn, generate more force against the ground. Combining these two approaches with plyometric training leads to an athlete that covers the court quickly and efficiently.

2) Every athlete should go through the functional movement screen at least once.

The functional movement screen is a tool used by strength coaches to identify areas of concern for an athlete. The athlete performs 7 movements that are scored on a scale of 0 to 3. Athletes who score 15 or below are at a higher risk of injury than those who score 16 or above. In addition, asymmetries are identified as these also tend to lead to injury. The information obtained from the functional movement screen gives the strength coach invaluable information for designing the mobility portion of an exercise program.

3) Don’t look just at strengthening, look also at mobilizing.

Most athletes will start a strength program by introducing resistance training exercises. While strength is certainly something that tennis players should train for, most often neglect mobility. This is a mistake that often has bad consequences. Some joints requires stability (movement restricted in 1 or more planes), while others need mobility (Allows for movement in all planes).  When you look at the kinetic chain (A fancy word for the body), you notice that the joints of the body alternate between needing mobility to needing stability. For example, the ankle is a joint that requires mobility, the knee requires stability, and the hip requires mobility, etc. It is this alternating fashion that allows for a wide range of movements. What becomes a concern is when a joint that is mobile becomes restricted. When that happens, there is often pain and dysfunction at the joint directly above or below the affected joint. In the case of the lower leg, if the ankle becomes restricted, there is often more movement that occurs at the knee. In this situation there is typically some pain at the knee due to the hypermobility that now occurs there as a result of the dysfunction at the ankle. Most people will attack this by trying to strengthen the knee, but until the lack of mobility in the ankle is addressed, the pain will continue. This can also be seen in tennis elbow. Tennis elbow is often caused by a restriction in mobility of the shoulder. The shoulder requires mobility while the elbow requires stability, but when mobility is restricted in the shoulder, more mobility creeps in to the stable elbow, causing pain.

4) Classify muscles by movement, and balance those movements.

Rather than basing your workouts around working each muscle, base them on movements. The current methodology in classifying muscles is:

Upper Body Push

Upper Body Pull

Lower Body Knee Dominant

Lower Body Hip Dominant

Anterior Core

Posterior Core

Anti-rotation/Side Core

You should perform full body workouts 3 times a week. Full body workouts tend to work better for tennis players because splitting them typically leads to soreness in specific muscle groups which affects stroke mechanics.

5) Perform single-leg unsupported exercises.

Squats, lunges, step-ups, and Romanian deadlifts are all great exercises, but there is not much of a balance component. Single leg squats, single leg RDLs and other single leg unsupported exercises work the primary movers, but also require greater activation of synergist and stabilizing muscles. If you were to break a tennis player’s court movement down, you would realize that this movement is a series of single leg movements with the other leg not being in contact with the ground. Strengthening the stabilizing muscles in the manner in which they are used will reduce injury and improve efficiency of movement.

6) Every program should contain a prehab component.

Every athlete should take care to prehab potential injurious areas. The shoulder and hip should be given special attention because of their requirement for mobility and the large forces that occur there. Wall slides, rotator cuff strengthening exercises, and YTWUs are good examples of shoulder prehab; while straight leg marches, leg swings, side lunges and rotational squats are good examples of hip prehab. Outside of the shoulder and hip, any other areas that are identified as problem areas during the functional movement screen should be given attention on an individual basis. A proper strength and conditioning program is a vital component in help athletes’ stave off injury and enhance performance. Hopefully these 6-tips will help you keep your young tennis players healthy, injury free and playing at the peak of their ability for years to come.