Here we are in December. For those of us who live north of the equator, we will experience the day of the year that has shortest daylight and longest nighttime: winter solstice. In many ways, I believe that tennis players should take a cue with respect to this abbreviated daylight period.
On the professional level, it is my firm opinion that players compete far too often. If you are a professional player on either tour, you could theoretically compete 11 months out of the year. Most professional sports realize that there needs to be a "downtime," when teams and/or players are not expected to be in competition.
Fortunately, high school and collegiate tennis teams have "seasons" which are reasonably compact. Student-athletes are given the opportunity rest and take breaks from this wonderful sport of ours. In my opinion, taking time away from tennis is absolutely essential from physical, mental, competitive, and even, spiritual levels.
But taking time off does not mean that a player should give no attention to her/his game. Rather, downtime should be a period in which different training methods and practices are in emphasis.
So this month, I am writing about how I use the month of December to take a respite from this game that I love... albeit, I do still "train" to some degree.
December is a great month for a "vacation" from competitive tennis. First for many of us, the weather is too cold to play outside. Add to this the likelihood of snow accumulations, and there is no possible way in which the diehard tennisphile can play outdoors.
There is always the possibility of competing on indoor tennis courts, but this may be cost prohibitive for some players. USTA league competition offered through indoor tennis facilities is a great way to play during the winter months without breaking the bank. In addition, these leagues emphasize doubles competition. Every singles player can benefit if he/she competes in doubles!
Second, December is a time for holidays, family gatherings, and quite frequently, wonderful meals and food. It just seems appropriate to take a break from the tennis regimen and to enjoy this festive time of year.
During December, I do indeed take a major hiatus from my normal tennis routines. My body (I am a senior player with some knee problems) truly needs to take a rest from the pounding associated with match play. I compete on mostly on hard courts which certainly exacerbates my knee problems.
My competitive mind needs to be rested in order to become refreshed. By December, the emotions associated with my constant training, teaching and match play are a bit exhausted and strained. Thus, I need to take a break and allow my tennis "passion" to be rekindled.
Now, it is important to realize that I do not go into total hibernation during December. Rather, I have a different set of objectives, employ different training methods, and do not allow myself to play any competitive tennis... except for doubles play. I must confess that this latter restriction is at times difficult for me.
So, what do I do?
First, I set some very strict goals for myself with respect to flexibility, strength and speed.
Most of us probably do not stretch enough both prior to physical exercise, and more importantly, after exercise. During December, I make it a point to spend at least 15 to 30 minutes per day stretching my body. Legs, arms, wrists, shoulders and even my fingers get some stretching attention each day. Whenever my schedule permits, I do my stretching exercises twice per day... first thing in the morning and last thing before I retire to sleep. Of course, these are in addition to stretching that I do prior to any physical exercise I may do during the day.
Some years back, I dedicated one of my columns to the kinds of stretching that I like to use in my training. Readers can access this article at: Turbo Training: Stretching it to the limit, but not beyond!.
I do not pretend to be an expert on stretching, but these are the stretches that I find work best for me.
Also during the month of December, I make it a point to do my heaviest strength training. It is my belief that strength training in tennis is not emphasized enough. During the summer months, I do less rigorous strength training and I probably strength train only twice per week. But in December, I try to truly increase my overall strength. I perform more challenging resistance training and I strength train more frequently... 5 or sometimes 6 days per week.
I like to use free weights (particularly dumbbells) when strength training. I work upper body one day and lower body the next. Each week, I increase the amount of weight associated with each exercise and I increase the number of repetitions associated with each exercise.
Many of us may belong to a gym where either free weights or resistance machines are available. Still, one can perform quite a bit of positive resistance training at home using traditional calisthenics such as squats, lunges, pushups, pull ups, etc. In addition, the cost of a weight bench and free weights is usually within most budgets.
Strength training will increase your power when playing tennis, improve your endurance on the court, and will most importantly build muscles that will help prevent joint injuries. With my problematic knees, the strength training exercises that develop my quadriceps are absolutely necessary. The more time I spend working on improving my leg strength, the less discomfort I experience in my knees.
If you are not familiar with the specifics of strength training, I would highly recommend the book, Power Tennis
Training by Donald A. Chu. This book is an excellent resource!
Concurrent with my strength training, I attempt to use December as a way of improving my foot speed, agility and anaerobic capacity when playing tennis. For me, one important aspect associated with foot speed is increasing my "wind." Working on your anaerobic capabilities is critical in the game of tennis and has a direct bearing on your footwork.
During December, I will do less distance running and lots more sprinting. If weather conditions do not permit me the opportunity to run sprints outside, I may resort to using an elliptical machine or skiing device at a gym. When I do use these devices, I try to literally go as fast as I possibly can, which means that I am using a setting that offers the least amount of resistance. In this way, I am building up my anaerobic stamina.
Some of you reading this may not be able to run sprints or have access to elliptical machines, etc. Well, there is one training device that will work wonders with respect to footwork and with respect to your "wind." This is the jump rope.
Jumping rope is a great way to get lots of anaerobic training done in a very short period of time. Boxers clearly know the advantages of jumping rope. But, I have seen many of the pros on the tour using the jump rope. It is probably the single best training tool of its type!
Stretching, strength training and sprinting are the mainstays of my December workouts. My goal is simple. I want to get my body as physically well prepared to resume competitive tennis. Of course, as is always well advised, I would encourage each reader to make certain that any new exercise regimens are approved in advance by his/her health care provider. It is always better to err in the direction of caution.
My second set of goals involves improving my stroke timing and my stroke form. To achieve these, I do less playing on indoor tennis courts and more time hitting tennis balls against a wall/backboard.
My favorite location for "wall work" is a racquetball court. In as little as a half hour, I can hit 800 to 1000 balls. I hit groundstrokes, half volleys, volleys, serves and overhead smashes using the racquetball court wall.
Earlier this year, I dedicated an entire column to how I use a backboard/wall. The reader can access this article at: Back To The Board.
Wall work really does improve one's timing when hitting any stroke. But additionally, if one focuses upon form, then major improvements, and even corrections, can be made in existing strokes. I know many players who use walls in their basement to practice in this manner. Other players I know use a wall in their garages. If you search a bit, you can probably find a suitable location for wall practice that is convenient, and which also may not require any fees or expenses.
In addition to wall work, I will play lots of "shadow tennis." Dennis Ralston is credited with pioneering this training technique. Essentially, a person hits strokes without an opponent or even a tennis ball!!!
I like to head to the college where I teach, and use the dance room in the Athletic Center for the purpose of playing "shadow tennis." This dance room has large mirrors which allow me to see how I am executing my strokes.
When I play "shadow tennis," I take a racquet cover and place it on my racquet. I have cut off the grip portion of this racquet cover. I am able to grip the racquet handle as I normally would, but when I am swinging the racquet, the racquet cover provides resistance. If this resistance if too severe for you, you can cover the string bed with a tee shirt or a plastic bag, and avoid using the heavy racquet cover.
I literally "imagine" that I am playing points when practicing "shadow tennis." I execute my strokes using the aforementioned racquet with its racquet cover attached. I try to play these points out in both real time and in slow motion. For example, I may pretend that I am receiving serve and "act out" the strokes that would be associated with a fairly long groundstroke-based point.
By having mirrors, I will watch how good my stroke production form is. I observe how far back I am taking my racquet. I make certain that I finish my strokes fully. If I am pretending to volley, I make certain that my racquet head is above my wrist, and that I am making "contact" with the imaginary ball well in front of my body. Also, I make certain to include some imaginary low volleys that force me to bend my knees.
Sometimes, I will include some points where I keep my eyes closed and imagine myself playing points on a real court. I "see" myself hitting strokes, recovering to the center of the court, moving to my opponent's reply, etc.
Shadow tennis can be played in your garage, your basement, or even in your living room. The resistance caused by the racquet cover will actually help you develop muscle strength needed for each stroke. If you play "shadow tennis" for 10 to 20 minutes per day, you will find that your hands' calluses do not fade, and that you get quite a workout.
If you ever have watched martial artists practice, you may have seen them practicing "forms." I find that shadow tennis is very similar in nature. By going through the motions of stroke production and court movement in a controlled manner, our muscle memory is perfected with respect to these critical areas in our game.
A great aspect associated with wall work and with "shadow tennis" is that neither requires a hitting partner. Thus, you are able to practice these without regard to anyone else's schedule.
One thing that I have often envied with respect to those who play golf is how easy it is to practice one's putting. Frequently, golfers will set up a putting area in their homes and offices. Although this kind of putting is never quite the same as putting on a green, it is certainly better than not putting at all.
Inspired by these golf practice possibilities, when I am at home watching television, I will be seen with a tennis racquet in my hands. I am practicing my grip changes. During December, I am training differently and playing less "real" tennis. But, I do not want to lose my ability to find my groundstroke and volley grips quickly and surely. So for me, these "mindless" grip changes are very helpful.
Sometimes, I can be seen sitting in my comfortable chair practicing my serve toss... Yes, my service toss. I try very hard to toss this ball to my precise "spots" for making contact when serving. In addition, I try to toss the ball with my fingertips to prevent the ball from spinning during the toss. I keep my arm straight without any elbow bend as I do these practice tosses.
I have watched and photographed some of the world's best professional tour players. Many of these who have the best serves seem to toss their balls in a manner that does not put much, if any, rotation on the ball. As the ball rises, it is completely spin free. If you are not holding the ball in your fingertips, tossing without rotation is virtually impossible. Using an arm movement where you do not bend your elbow helps stop the rotation associated with the serve toss, as well. I really try to focus on tossing the ball with a "locked" elbow and with the ball being held in my fingertips.
I find that when I serve with such a toss, my serves seem to be more consistent. Of course, this perception may simply be a figment of my imagination. But, practicing your toss without allowing the ball to spin or rotate is does in the end create a better toss. I encourage the reader to try this.
Readers may believe that practicing grips and serve tosses while at home may not be useful. I assure you that they are. If nothing else, practicing grip changes solidifies what is a necessary component in competitive tennis. Practicing the serve toss while seated in a chair helps to isolate elements in the toss and helps correct flaws.
Those who read my column regularly and/or have purchased my book, Perfect Tennis, know that I firmly believe in playing "imaginary" tennis. Simply going into a relaxed, meditative-like state, and using your mind's imagination to play points can truly help develop better strokes.
When I first took up this wonderful game, I read everything I could on the mental side of sports competition. I went from a rank beginner to a ranked competitor more quickly because I incorporated mental training into my tennis regimen.
The benefits of doing relaxation exercises go beyond tennis. Dr. Herbert Benson in his book, The Relaxation Response identifies how important this technique may be in helping reduce the effects of stress. You can access his method of inducing a relaxed state by going to http://www.stressmanagementplus.com/benson_relaxation_method.htm.
For me, I use a similar process to reach a state of deep relaxation. However once I am in this state, I guide my mind's "eye" toward playing perfect tennis points.
Almost every day of the year, particularly in December, I will go into a deeply relaxed meditative-like state, and gently guide my imagination toward playing points. By "seeing" myself playing points perfectly in my imagination's "eye," I find that the actual execution of more perfect strokes is easier to achieve, when I am actually on the tennis court.
Indeed during a typical day, I am often times prone to "daydreaming" and playing a few points or two. Unorthodox and seemingly bizarre as these two mental techniques may seem, I promise the reader that they really do help one to develop and solidify better tennis form.
Lastly, I use December as a month where I set out the broad strategic changes that I want to implement during the coming year. Literally, I use a notebook which is with me at all times. Every time I get an idea of how to improve my tennis game from a tactical or strategic perspective, I record the thought. When I am driving in my car, I have a digital audio recorder that I use to capture these kinds of thoughts.
For example, I may be inspired to craft a point with the following strategy. I serve wide from the deuce court to the opponent's forehand. (I am assuming he is right handed.). My next shot is designed to be hit high and deep to the corner of the ad court. I immediately follow this shot into the net where I hope to be able to hit a volley, or depending on the opponent's reply, a half-volley. I finish the point by hitting either another volley away from my opponent or with an overhead smash.
When I resume active practice and training in the spring months, I will try to incorporate this pattern during practice points played with a hitting partner. Some of the patterns may need to be amended. Some may actually be abandoned entirely, as they are not viable for me to execute. The point is, however, that by having some point patterns to test, I am better able to expand my playing options during the warmer months when I play my competitive tennis. Believe me, having burned a few more point patterns into my memory bank helps when I face an opponent who is giving me a difficult time. I start every match playing my "normal game." But, it is not unlikely that I may have to amend this game plan as the match unfolds.
My guess is that many of my readers really do not take the time to formulate new match point patterns of play. I assure each of you that on the professional level, coaches are working with players to incorporate more of these into each player's arsenal.
So, December is a month where I take steps back from competitive tennis and my normal training routines. My firm belief is that every tennis player (especially juniors) needs to take a periodic "vacation" from the normal rigors associated with the game. For many, December may be the perfect month!
Taking a break from actually playing this wonderful game while training to stay fit, strong, fast and flexible allows for rest and recuperation in addition to laying the foundation for a stronger and better tennis game.
I am sure that if the reader takes my advice and uses December to train differently, she/he will certainly be a tennis overdog in 2009!!!