By Gabriela Paz, Tennis Coach
Many young players tend to think that what they do on the court is ultimately what matters in their tennis career. They don’t begin to comprehend that what they do off the court can have a major impact in their future and their success. There are numerous talented young players who never make it to the professional tour due to injuries, being burned out, lack of preparation, ignorance and sometimes, uncontrollable hardships. Getting the body ready to play and to perform at a high level takes more than just hitting tennis balls. When it comes to off court training, every player should be thinking about: injury prevention, strengthening, fueling the body, mental preparation and having a balanced personal life. Getting prepared outside of the tennis court is definitely something that every player can control and that should take very seriously.
Injury Prevention & Getting the Body Ready to Step on the Court
Injuries are a common factor in tennis players. There are certain precautions that a player can take in order to avoid injuries and to keep the body in good condition.
It all starts with a good warm up. Why are kids rushing to get to practice these days? Getting there just on time to rush a warm up is just not good enough. Players need to make sure they arrive on court at least 15 minutes prior to their practice, so that they have time for running, dynamic stretching, bands and even some footwork exercises. Making it to the pro tour involves being a professional in every way.
As a former junior and professional tennis player, I got used to hearing the word “stretch!” all the time from my coaches and parents. I don’t think that young players seem to understand the importance of it. Stretching is not something people do to act professional; it’s something that’s necessary for the muscles in your body. Muscles get tight! Especially after several days of tough practice or long matches. Stretching avoids tight muscles, maintains flexibility and prevents common muscle injuries.
Another one of my favorites, and this is something I tell my students a lot: make sure you ice if you are having some pain. Icing reduces inflammation; it’s just that simple. Players who are too lazy to ice when they have pain end up having to miss a lot of practices due to injuries. It’s also important to know that the body is not a machine and when we are having long and hard weeks of practice it’s always good to go to the trainer and get a massage. Don’t let the muscles get so tight that they contract. Take care of yourself.
Consequently, eating properly before practices and tournaments is key to a good performance. Tennis players burn a huge amount of calories that requires them to have a diet high in carbohydrates in order to stay on court for long periods of time. Don’t let your body get to the point where it’s starving. Eat a snack during practice and make sure you keep drinking enough water. Dehydration’s first symptoms in young players are having headaches and lack of energy. Don’t let it get to that point. Drink water on and off the court.
Lastly on injury prevention is strengthening. Tennis is getting more and more demanding with time. Players who are successful are in phenomenal shape. They strengthen and get their body ready to reach their maximum potential. Are you doing enough fitness? It’s not enough just to hit the tennis ball. In fact, it’s more beneficial to train fewer hours on court and have a very good fitness session almost everyday. During pre season time, professional players spend more time doing fitness and getting stronger than on the actual court.
Every mind is a different world when it comes to competing. There are players who are natural competitors, others who develop into great competitors and others who struggle to control their nerves in important moments. Players express their nerves differently as well. Some of them get really angry and frustrated when they miss, some of them get extremely anxious and tight, some make up all kinds of excuses to avoid the pressure, others acts like they don’t care in order to cope with their nerves, and many more situations that may not make much sense when we are looking at it from the outside. No matter the type of competitor, all players should be provided with mental tools early on so whenever their time to flourish comes, they know exactly what to do. Meditation, visualization, breathing techniques, practice and match analysis and on court routines are examples of tools that players should be learning and applying. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the mental side of this sport. The tougher the players are mentally, the bigger their chances are at succeeding against adversities and competition.
This last point may seem a bit less relevant, but it really isn’t. If a player is not feeling good in their personal life, they will reflect it on court. It is important that young players keep a social life where they can disconnect from tennis for a little while and have some fun. Having other hobbies or other activities that make players excited is healthy! Professional players who are still on tour have enjoyable lives where they choose to keep playing tennis because they are happy doing it. A lot of others who had traumatic upbringings with their tennis career ended up quitting before they even reached their full potential, and some of them quit even after making it to the professional tour.
Last but not least, tennis players are not machines and they do need to rest. More is not always better. Most injuries come from over training and overdoing it. Players who train 7 days a week in a full time schedule are NOT more successful than players who train 5 and half days with rest in between. In fact, the second kind of players end up training a lot more effectively, because their bodies have a chance to recover. Sleeping well and resting enough is key for good performance.
You thought tennis was just about hitting the tennis ball around? There is a lot more to it that people don’t see. Professional players devote their whole lives to keeping their body and mind in optimal condition. Will you do what it takes?