Many of us who play the sport do so in a somewhat more recreational way. We probably play more tennis in the warmer months and put the racquets to rest during the depths of winter. We come back to our sport in earnest as spring returns, and hope to pick up where we left off. Actually taking a bit of a break from playing our wonderful game is not at all a bad idea!
More serious and competitive players may find that a hiatus of sorts does help us to maintain a high level of enthusiasm whenever we do practice and/or compete. You don't have to abandon playing completely, but you may want to consider scaling back your normal tennis, on-court regimen.
Needless to say, the winter months almost always impact the amount of "real" tennis you can practice or play. If you are a faithful reader of this column, you are probably a tennisphile who ultimately wants to improve the level of her/his game. So, I would like to take this December column and put forth some suggestions for your consideration this winter. (Fortunately for those readers who live south of the Equator, things should be warming up by the time you read this. Still, these are useful goals.)
Whatever commitment you make to our game (recreational or competitive), the winter months can be a time when you can maintain and possible advance the level of your play.
So with this goal in mind, I offer the following:
Play tennis at least two or three times per week
Regrettably, this may be a close to an impossible goal for many. Assuming that you have access to indoor facilities, winter tennis may be possible. But, playing indoor tennis is also a great way to break the doldrums of winter. Usually, tennis clubs will have packages that make playing three times per week reasonably affordable... particularly if you are willing to play the "early bird" slots. Leagues are a great way to meet new players and to compete. USTA sponsored leagues and competitions abound across the nation, and almost every indoor club I've seen has interclub competitions, as well. Winter is a great time to improve your doubles game! Control is extremely important in doubles. Volleys (which one may rarely use in singles competition) are the norm in good doubles. A player can solidify her/his volleys by playing doubles! In addition, the cost of court time being shared by four rather than two players usually makes the cost of playing winter tennis more affordable.
Another way to practice and play during the winter months is to use a wall or backboard. I will often times find myself spending a day or two per week using a gymnasium wall or a racquetball court wall for backboard practice. (I am fortunate in that I am a college professor and have access to both.) I find that this type of practice is an excellent way of introducing new grips to my game, or perfecting the finish on my strokes. Whenever I hit on these walls, I make certain to really focus on hitting every ball with proper form. Groundstrokes, volleys, overheads, and even serves can be practiced when using a backboard. Their added advantage is the fact that you can hit lots of balls in a very short period of time.
I have a friend who actually uses a wall in his basement as a backboard for winter hitting. Now, not everyone will have such a space in her/his residence, but if you look around long enough, you can probably find a location somewhere that can serve as your winter backboard. It is well worth the search!
In my youth, I was never one who spent lots of time training with weights or engaging in any other form of strength training. As I have aged, I have learned how important such training can be.
Every pro on the pro tours, male or female, works throughout the year on strength conditioning. However, during those rare times that they are not actively involved in competition, the level of this type of training is usually increased. I always expand my strength-training regimen during the winter.
Strength training will not only make you a stronger player, it will help you prevent injury. The more conditioned all of your muscles are, the less likely it is that you will injure them during tennis play. This kind of conditioning is even more important in preventing injury when you are not playing tennis every day.
Join a gym, buy some free weights and/or start a calisthenics program. Two to three times per week is usually best for most tennis players. If you are inexperienced in this type of physical conditioning, find yourself a personal trainer who can make certain that you get the most out of each workout.
Improve your speed and footwork
Imagine how many points you could have won last summer if you were one step faster. Let's face it. Speed is as important as endurance in the game of tennis. Yet, most players I know simply run mile after mile on roads, tracks or on treadmills. This type of running will build some endurance, but will not really make a player faster. In fact, too much of this kind of training may actually slow down some players. Distance running will provide aerobic benefits, and will help with respect to your overall endurance. But, too much of a good thing can actually be counterproductive.
Ideally, the off-season tennis player mixes anaerobic exercise with his/her aerobic training. The former type of exercise forces one's body to literally "scream" for oxygen. This is exactly what our wonderful game demands at times. If a player is scrambling back and forth throughout a point, it is easy to get "winded." Doing lots of sprints this winter will greatly help reduce the "gasping for air" effect that these types of points can create. Generally, 30 to 50 yard sprints are the right length. Run a sprint, and then, jog back. When you reach the original starting point, run another sprint... jog back... and so on. Do as many of these sprints as you can. Try to increase this number by one sprint every time you resume this type of practice regimen.
I prefer to do all my running outdoors whenever possible. I find the fresh air, albeit cold, seems to help me avoid sickness during the winter months.
When the weather prevents me from heading outside to jog and to run sprints, I will "run in place" at my home to replace distance running Of course, elliptical devices, treadmills and stationary bikes are great alternatives that may be in your home or at a gym. But even without this equipment, you can always "run in place." I recommend doing this "running" on a soft rug to help absorb some of the "shock." I will often "run in place" for a half an hour while watching TV. I find the TV a nice distraction from the monotony of "running in place."
For anaerobic training, I will do sets of 50 "jumping jacks" at a very fast pace. (A jumping jack is a callisthenic where one jumps up while spreading one's legs apart and bring one's hands together over one's head.) Then, I will jog in place for two minutes and repeat with another set of 50 jumping jacks. I repeat this alternating "running" and "jumping" for as long as my endurance will permit. Each time I come back to train in this manner, I will try to increase the number of these combined "running and jumping units."
Take a personal audit of your game.
Winter can be a great time to come to terms with what you really do well in tennis and with what you do not do well in tennis. When you play during the winter, take a camcorder out to video your practice session... even if all you are going to do is use a backboard. Believe me, when you play back the video, your true strengths and weaknesses will be evident. Weaknesses become more obvious when you are not playing every day. The key is to be honest with yourself. Deficiencies can be remedied if you truly learn what needs correcting.
It certainly would be helpful to take a few lessons with a certified teaching pro. She or he will be able to give you a frank assessment of what needs work and what does not.
Once you know your weaknesses, you can come up with a game plan to address them. Now, most of us think that virtually every one of our strokes could be improved in some way. Of course, this is true, but you need to prioritize what is really causing you to lose points, sets, and matches. If you can change one thing in your game this winter what should it be?
Hopefully, you will be able to make some changes that will result in more than one improvement. However, one improvement is better than none. I highly recommend Bob Litwin's "Focused Approach" to the game of tennis. He travels the country giving lectures and seminars in addition to his tapes, and publications. I think he has it right when he promotes taking each section of your game and improving it one step at a time.
From time to time, readers send me videos of themselves playing matches or practicing strokes. For a small fee, I review the tapes and offer what concrete suggestions I can to change and improve what may be going wrong. Believe me, I have seen some unusual strokes... your stroke will not surprise me. Just send me a message using this form and we can arrange for a "consult." Payments are made to me through PayPal.
Of course, certified teaching pros are a great resource in getting answers to the problems you are facing in your game. Find a pro who wants to develop the game that you want. If it doesn't feel right, move on to someone else. Each summer, a dozen or so readers, who follow my column, will take the trek up to New Haven for a private lesson with me. All too often, they will tell me stories of how a teaching pro has insisted they do a stroke a particular way... even when it causes them pain to hit the ball in the "corrected" manner!
Not everyone hits the ball the same way. Look for the literature, audio programs, instructional videos or teaching pros that mesh well with your strokes. Don't be afraid to change a grip or stroke, but only do so when it meets your objectives. But remember... if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Private lessons, clinics, learning websites, literature... there are many possible resources to improve your game. Just make a personal commitment to finding the "right" resource for your game. Then, take the time to work on the necessary changes. For some, the really hard work of "change" may have to wait until the outdoor season returns. But, now is the time to learn what needs to be done to improve.
Straighten out your mind
This winter spend some time looking at how you strategically approach the game of tennis. Break out those videos of past WTA and ATP professional matches and watch them over and over again. If you don't have any, DVR some of the winter-based matches that appear from time to time on television. The Tennis Channel is a great way to see present and past matches.
Turn down the volume. Forget the color commentary. Watch the matches and figure out for yourself... what is happening... why is it happening... and what could be done to change it. There is a wealth of information to be learned from answering just these three questions.
Try to craft at least three different game plans this winter... and make certain you write them down. Try to match these game plans to surfaces and/or specific opponents that you are likely to face.
Start working on your mental game. There are many books that address the mental side of the game. I am working on what I hope will be the "definitive" book that addresses in a process manner how to become stronger mentally. My previous e-book, Perfect Tennis sold over 1000 copies! If nothing else, make a commitment to yourself to work toward a stronger mental approach to competitive tennis. The longest journey begins with a single step!
The old adage, "You are what you eat" couldn't be more true than in tennis. Working with your physician, and perhaps a certified dietician, develop a realistic and consistent dietary plan. This plan should be designed to provide for the energy needed to compete without compromising the weight that works best for your body. Fad diets in the spring may provide some short-term benefits... but what serious players need to do is commit to a healthy dietary plan... one that will serve not only their games, but also their lives.
The holidays present a great challenge to proper diet. We all enjoy the food and treats that abound in this time of year. Enjoy these in moderation! Take your weight every day. Try to minimize the "binge" eating associated with the Holiday Season.
The best way to avoid having to lose weight is not to gain it!!!
Understand why you play the game
In his seminal work, The Inner Game of Tennis, Tim Gallwey raises the question of why a person plays tennis. Although I believe he presents a list of possible player types that is too narrow in scope, I do think he is wise to ask, what kind of player are you? This is a critical question to consider if one wants to move forward in his/her game.
Are you one who uses tennis as a recreational and social vehicle? Is tennis mostly a means of achieving some physical fitness? Is tennis primarily a means to allow you to enjoy the thrill of competition? Is tennis a means to a college scholarship, or perhaps a career as a pro or teaching pro? Is tennis a sport you choose to play or is it a sport that others "impose" upon you? If you never were to win another match, would you still want to play tennis? Why or why not? Does doubles play provide more or less satisfaction? Why or why not? How much of your own self-identity is involved in your tennis play? Do you prefer practicing to competing? Why or why not? What is the best thing about tennis? What is the worst thing about tennis?
I am not proposing that there are any right or wrong answers to these questions. Rather, I am merely suggesting that you take some time to reflect on these questions in a totally honest manner. This reflection will almost always lead to clarity of purpose that is essential if one wants to move forward... however you define forward.
Write down your thoughts and answers. Let your mind percolate a bit on these key questions. Honest and inspired answers will go a long way toward helping you "map" a viable plan for the coming tennis year.
So, this Holiday Season take the right kind of "winter hiatus." You may not be able to play as much tennis during the next several months, but you can advance your game on and off the court. I am confident that if you do give attention to the eight areas identified in this month's column... you will become a