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Design Your Own Personalized Training Program Using Graduated Phases of Training
by Michael Grace

A common goal shared by most tennis players is the improvement of ones own tennis skills and abilities. Although almost everyone wants to improve, few players have an organized plan to accomplish this goal. Also, the realities of school, work, and family responsibilities may impose time constraints that can overshadow your potential to become a better player. However, by using Graduated Phases of Training you can organize your training, maximize your training opportunities and play your best tennis.

Graduated Phases of Training is a method of training that categorizes practice sessions into three phases, Technical, Tactical, and Strategic. To assist you in identifying your particular training needs in these three areas, it is important to objectively evaluate your game. A teaching professional can analyze your game to recommend areas where you need improvement. Or, because no one knows your strengths and weaknesses better than you do, critique your own game. Videotape of one of your matches will provide priceless insight and will give you a perspective of your stroke technique that you could not otherwise see. You might even ask an opponent, after a match, to suggest areas where you can do better.

One of the best ways to help guide the focus of your personalized training program is to review the National Tennis Rating Program (NTRP) classifications and work on the techniques, tactics and strategies needed to attain your next higher level on the NTRP scale. After identifying the specific areas where you need improvement, it is necessary to devise the drills and exercises you will use to customize your Graduated Phases of Training.

The Technical Phase, the first of three areas of training, is where you select the basic drills and exercises designed to focus on the technique of an individual stroke such as a spin serve or a forehand drive. The purpose of the training drills in this phase is to develop timing and muscle memory through repetition of a specific stroke. Except for the serve, a ball machine is an ideal practice tool for the various strokes used in a tennis match. Generally, it is better to practice the easiest and most common strokes first before progressing to more difficult or less often used strokes.

In addition to using a ball machine, another good method to improve your ground stroke technique is to rally down the line or crosscourt with a training partner. Start at a slow pace and try to create a rhythm in the rally. The form on each repetition should look and feel the same as the one before. Once you have attained a high level of consistency and technical proficiency in this drill, add more movement. This is accomplished by returning to the center baseline area after striking the ball. This movement simulates getting back in position against an opponent who could hit anywhere (even though your training partner will continue to hit the ball back to the same place deep into the corner of the court). Generally, the sequence of progression is to first achieve placement consistency, then greater spin and lastly to increase the speed of the shot. When you do not have the luxury of a ball machine, and no one is available to practice, you can still practice this phase of training. Simply serving a bucket-of-balls or rallying against a wall can do wonders for those strokes.

The Tactical Phase, the second phase of training, incorporates a number of tennis strokes into one exercise such as hitting ground strokes and volleys. The goal in this phase of training is to give you confidence and competence in the tactics of winning a point. This is accomplished by utilizing drills that allow for the fluid transition of the different tennis strokes. For a player who is practicing an aggressive all-court style of play, here's a good exercise to practice with a training partner: start a ball in play with a baseline ground stroke and try to hit deep by keeping the ball in play and beyond the back service line. Either player can finish the rally by hitting an approach shot and coming to the net after any weak or short ball that lands in between the net and the back service line.

For doubles partners, particularly when you can not find opponents to practice against, here is a great serve/volley and return/volley tactical training drill. In this two person doubles drill, the receiver sets up so as to return from the side on which he/she normally plays (deuce or add court). The server starts the ball in play by serving from the corresponding doubles service location on the other side of the net. The receiver must try to hit the return toward the server who will rush to his/her doubles net position after serving. Ideally, the receiver also approaches his/her respective net position after the return. Whenever either player has an easy put away volley, hit a winner to the open court. By switching the role of server and receiver every 10 points, this drill can easily be maintained for a half-hour or longer. Using the example drills given for the Technical and Tactical Phases, devise a few drills of your own that will enable you to accomplish your goals.

While the Technical Phase concentrates on specific stroke technique, and the Tactical Phase emphasizes individual points, the Strategic Phase focuses on the stresses of match play and the greater importance of some points over others. The training in the Strategic Phase is designed to mimic stressful situations encountered in a match by creating a competitive environment similar or exactly like a real match.

In a tennis match it is natural to feel more stress as the importance of the points increase. Deuce points and advantage points are more important than the first point of a game and they are usually more stressful. Service break points will really rattle the nerves especially if you have not been able to break your opponents serve and are tied at 4 games a piece in the final set. However, if your mind and body has "been there - done that" it will respond to the stress of a situation with a more positive outcome. This mental tenacity to win the big points is often referred to as "match toughness." An easy and effective way to develop your match toughness is to play more matches. If time is a great concern, use no-ad scoring, or play a set up to a score of 4 with a tiebreaker at 4-all. Or, just practice playing tiebreakers. Try to find a practice opponent at your playing level so you can bring out the natural stresses of a close match. If no one at your skill level is available to play, then find someone who will play a practice match with slightly modified rules. Some methods to make a match competitive between opponents of differing skill levels include; allowing an extra serve or taking one away, starting the game scores at 30-love, or even doubling the value of points and games for one of the players. Be creative and you will find a way to develop and improve your match toughness.

The amount of time devoted to each specific phase of training is generally dependent upon your level of play and time available. Novice players should use the majority of their practice time in the Technical Phase and the least amount of time devoted to the Strategic Phase in order to gain the greatest improvement in their level of play. The converse holds true for advanced players; the majority of practice time for advanced players should be spent honing their match toughness with less time devoted to specific stroke techniques.

Drills and exercises categorized as being in the Technical and Tactical Phases of training will physically and mentally fatigue most players in less than an hour. A training drill such as hitting crosscourt forehand drives from a ball machine will usually create exhaustion very quickly, particularly when movement along the baseline is added. In fact, when hitting against a ball machine it is a good idea to stop for a minute break every 2 to 3 minutes. This break will allow you to catch your breath and refocus your attention on the specific stroke being practiced. Use your time wisely and plan these training sessions when you have time constraints that would otherwise limit you from playing a match.

Always remember that tennis is a great sport largely because of the enjoyment derived from the simple pleasure of playing the game. While many people will enjoy the drills and exercises associated with Graduated Phases of Training, others may not. The bottom line is that we practice so we can play, and not vice-versa. Do not become so obsessed with training that you lose your passion for the game.

Be creative, and make your practice sessions fun and exciting. Utilize the examples of training exercises provided and expand upon them to create customized drills that will enable you to improve your tennis skills and abilities. Devote practice time to each phase of training based on your personal needs and level of play. Adopt the Graduated Phases of Training philosophy to design and implement your own personalized training program and you will be playing your best tennis!

Michael Grace is a USPTR certified Professional. He works at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) as a Program Specialist where he designs and implements training programs for 72 partner agencies. He was previously a Senior Instructor in FLETC's Physical Techniques Division where he taught and revised instructional lesson plans regarding arrest techniques, defensive tactics, and physical conditioning.

The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, the Department of the Treasury, or the United States Government.

If you wish to provide a comment to the author of this Wild Cards column, please use this form. Tennis Server will forward the comment to the author.

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