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March 2002 Article

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Ron’s Hierarchy of Needs for Tennis

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Ron Waite, USPTR

Well, here we are in March. The warmer weather (for those of us north of the equator) is just around the corner. Last month, I addressed the question of whether one should purchase a new racquet…and if one should buy a new frame, what needs to be taken into consideration. Now, it is time to address developing a game plan for getting your game up to its maximum potential.

As many of my readers know, I am a full-time professor of Communications at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, CT. In many of my classes that deal with persuasion, I have occasion to introduce Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This pyramid model traces human needs from basic needs to self-actualization.

It occurs to me that many tennis players do not fully understand how to build the proper foundation necessary to achieve one’s maximum potential. So, in a somewhat Maslow-like manner, I am using this month’s column to put forth my thoughts on "Ron’s Hierarchy of Needs for Tennis."

Let’s begin by putting forth my pyramid-like model:


Strategies and Tactics

Visualization and Mental Strength

Proper Stroke Development and Stroke Variety

Strength, Foot Speed, Endurance, Flexibility, Balance, Aerobic Capability

In looking at this pyramid, we must begin at the bottom and work our way upward, if we want to develop fully. Having a strong foundation and building upon this foundation is the key to "turbo" tennis development. Still, many players approach their tennis progress in a somewhat disjointed and haphazard fashion.

The first and most important consideration is a player’s physical conditioning. I am not certain why this is the case, but it seems to me that many players do not give adequate attention to their overall physical conditioning. It is absolutely amazing how much better one will play if she/he is in better physical shape.

The key attributes are strength, foot speed, endurance, flexibility, balance and aerobic conditioning. It is my firm belief that players should spend an entire month, in advance of playing, dedicating themselves to improving their overall physical conditioning. My advice is as follows:

  1. Develop a strength-training regimen. Weights, traditional calisthenics, resistance training…all are desirable. Players should dedicate three days per week to strength training prior to beginning the actual playing season and continue with two days per week during the active season. Pay attention to both upper and lower body muscle groups.

  2. Foot speed is a critical aspect of the game of tennis. Sprints are, in my opinion the best way to develop this part of one’s game. I suggest spending three days per week prior to the beginning of the actual playing season running sprints of 30 to 50 yards. During the actual playing season, I would dedicate one or two days to this kind of off court training.

  3. Endurance is best developed by running longer distances and/or by biking. Usually, two day per week of this type of training prior to the beginning of the actual playing season is sufficient to develop proper endurance…presuming that you are engaged in a total program of conditioning. If running, 3 miles is a good benchmark. If biking, 5 to 6 miles would be desirable. During the actual playing season, I would try to maintain endurance by dedicating one or two days per week to this type of training.
  4. Flexibility is, perhaps, the most overlooked aspect of the game of tennis. Flexible players are usually the kind of players who get to every ball, and suffer the fewest injuries. It is critical to stretch before, and after, every training session…on-court and off.
  5. Balance is frequently overlooked entirely by the tennis player. Slow motion exercises (like those practiced by martial artists), Tai Chi, biking, roller blading, skiing, ice skating, skate boarding are all fun activities that can improve one’s balance. I would try to dedicate one or two days per week to these kinds of activities prior to the beginning of the active playing season. During the season, I would look to do as much of this type of training as my schedule will permit.

  6. If you engage in all of the above activities, you should experience a natural increase in your aerobic capacity. However, simply walking more during your workday, or taking the stairs instead of an elevator will help improve this aspect of your conditioning. Think about how many times you find yourself winded during a long point. This is an indication of poor aerobic conditioning. The idea is to develop a strong aerobic foundation before you actually begin to train in earnest on-court.

An added advantage to such a broad cross-training approach to tennis is that you rarely, if ever, get bored with your off-court training. For me, variety is key. If I can find lots of variety in my off-court training, I find that I do more of it. The more off-court training I do, the better my on-court training and competition becomes.

The second level of development is to broaden and perfect your stroke production. Unfortunately, this is where many players begin and end their training. The goal, here, is to hit lots of balls, but with proper form. Each player should seek to improve form by taking lessons, and/or by videotaping training sessions for self-analysis. In addition to perfecting the strokes you have, look to add new strokes and shots to your arsenal of weapons. Without these added weapons, your game will automatically become stifled and less likely to develop.

Be honest in your self-assessment. What are your weapons? Try to regain these as quickly as is possible…if you are hitting at least three times per week, these strokes should come back to form within a month or so.

What strokes do you hit that are not what they should be? Before you begin to renew these strokes, try to seek professional help from a teaching pro, or videotape yourself hitting for self-analysis. Virtually any stroke that you wish to hit has been addressed by one of my past columns, which are available through the Turbo Tennis Archives. Hopefully, reading or re-reading these columns coupled with some videotape self-analysis can correct the improperly produced stroke(s).

New strokes take time. So, set a goal of acquiring just one new stroke this season. Try to select a stroke that is one which will help your "natural" game strategy, but is not part of your arsenal. For example, if you are a groundstroker who likes to play off soft, slow surfaces like clay, a good drop shot will pay big dividends in your matches.

The third level of development involves the mental aspects of the game. I suspect that many of you who read this are saying to yourselves, "I don’t need a better mental game…I just need a better game." When Brad Gilbert was described by one of his coaches, the description went something like this: " No forehand, no backhand, a weak serve, adequate volleys…wins matches." His book entitled, Winning Ugly: Mental Warfare in Tennis-Lessons from a Master is aptly titled when one considers how his contemporaries on the tour described his matches. However, he was a very mentally sound and tough competitor.

The single best work on improving your mental competitiveness, in my opinion, is John Murray’s Smart Tennis: How to Play and Win the Mental Game. If you honestly want to look at how you compete, why you compete, and what prevents you from reaching your full potential, you need to read this book. It has helped my game and the games of those I coach.

In future articles, I will talk a bit about how I have incorporated some of John’s ideas into my everyday training regimen. For me, visualization has been a major key to developing a more consistent and stress-free game.

The fourth level of development deals with strategies. Players often times forget that, unlike Olympic skating, there are no style points awarded in tennis. One player or team wins…the other loses. No one really asks how.

Heady players will do anything necessary to win a match…including playing a style of tennis that is uncomfortable or unnatural. Pancho Seguro was one of the very best strategists ever in the game of tennis. His book, Championship Tennis, is out of print but well worth reading, if you can find it (check your local library). Bobby Riggs was essentially a hustler when it came to tennis. He actually played "matches" using a broom instead of racquet and won! Though he lost to Billie Jean in the Battle of the Sexes, his basic strategy of trying to lob her was well founded given her style of play and his lack of mobility.

Every player can add new styles of play to her or his game. The part of this game that I like the most is involves deciding upon a strategy that will beat my opponent (or more likely, help my opponent to lose).

Once your conditioning, strokes and competitive frame of mind are in place, you need to start considering different game plans. Look for patterns of play that win you points against opponents. Try different patterns on different playing surfaces. Break out of your normal mode of play and try to learn some new ways of combining strokes.

Reading books and watching tennis carefully on television are great ways to learn new combinations. Turn down the sound on the TV and simply watch the match. Ask yourself the key questions. What is happening, and why? What shots does a player try to put away, what shots does she/he simply get back? How is each player attempting to win points? Who is more successful? Why? If losing, does a player change his/her strategy? If so, to what and why?

If you want to be a competitive tennis player, you need to find many ways of winning. Searching for new ways to win is, in my opinion, one of the great things about this game…one that will never be fully answered.

Lastly, we come to self-actualization. This is where you put your hard work and preparation to good use. Plan a reasonable schedule of tournaments and/or club matches for yourself. Set goals for yourself. For example, go for a USTA ranking. Set your sights on the club championship. Look to beat that player who always cleans your clock, etc.

If you have spent the time preparing correctly, it doesn’t make sense to let the season take its own course and destiny. Work out a viable and challenging schedule of matches and/or tournaments that lead you to your goal. Set a time when you hope to be at your absolute peak performance and work matches and competition to help facilitate this peaking.

This planned and progressively more challenging schedule will allow you to fully actualize your potential.

So here we are in March. Let me give you my 6-month schedule:

March — Work primarily on physical conditioning with moderate hitting and on-court training.

April — Begin in earnest to regain the form of my strokes, refine poor strokes and add a new stroke to my arsenal.

May — Continue my stroke production improvement but begin to add more set competition to my training regimen. Make a deliberate effort to incorporate the benefits of mental training to my match training.

June — This is the time of year when I begin to work on strategic aspects of my game. I literally keep a journal of stroke combinations that work well against various opponents. I also make certain that I scout my opponents and add my insights to my book of players. I use my practice sets as ways of adding new tactics to my game plan.

July and August — These two months are the heart of my season. By now hopefully I am fully prepared to compete at my best level. I continue to work on refining strokes, but these are much more of a fine-tuning nature. I will experiment with different tactics when playing practice strokes and incorporate them into my game more frequently. I continue to train off court but at a less rigorous pace and intensity. I am using mental techniques that are designed to relax my body, and improve my visualization in practices and in matches.

This year, why not take the time to chart out an orderly and progressive plan for your active season? I promise you that taking the time to do this planning, and being disciplined about adhering to your plan, will pay big dividends by the time the season has ended. In fact, should you adopt this approach, I am quite confident that you will become a tennis overdog!

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


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