As a tennis coach, you have the opportunity to nurture and prepare future champions. With that opportunity comes a large responsibility. Athletes, and often their parents, are putting a huge amount of trust in you to provide the leadership and guidance needed to produce the right result. That means that you have got to be on top of every aspect of preparing the athlete for competition.
In this article, I will lay out for you a comprehensive guide on how to take an athlete from novice player to the competitive arena. We will cover everything from match nutrition to the periodization program, game day tactics, and helping your athlete win the competition mind game.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- The Periodization Plan
- Competition Mindset
- Game Day Tactics
The Periodization Plan
The term periodization in regard to tennis players refers to the manipulation of training variables over the course of the year to promote optimal performance and decrease the risk of overtraining. Every competitive player should be on some sort of periodization plan.
Here are the major components of a periodization plan;
Each player should be on an individualized plan based on their own strengths and weaknesses. Don’t be the type of coach who gives the exact same routine to every athlete. As well as tailoring the training to the on-court needs of the athlete, you also need to know how an athlete is able to respond to physical stress and recovery.
Specificity refers to how closely the training simulates what the athlete will experience during match play. The more closely the player is able to go through the same movements, feelings, and situations that they will encounter at a tournament, the better prepared he will be.
A periodized program also allows for specific times throughout the year when more general issues will be focused and other times that are more centered on specific areas to improve match play. This helps to get the right balance between general training to improve strength and cardio fitness and tennis-specific movement patterns.
In my experience, a lot of tennis coaches still do not appreciate the physiological and biomechanical needs of their athletes when it comes to selecting modes of general adaptation training. I still see coaches who have their athletes running at a slow, continuous pace for 30-45 minutes to build aerobic endurance. This type of training will not prepare the athlete for the work-to-rest ratios of a tennis match. As a result, there is a very weak carry-over to on-court performance. In fact, it could actually hinder performance due to the development of slow twitch muscle fibers.
The goal of any training program is to make positive adaptations in terms of such things as improving body composition, increasing ball velocity, and decreasing recovery time. If an athlete pursues these goals in an unstructured, non-periodized way, he is likely to end up in an overtrained state. This will result in poor on-court performance.
A key purpose of periodization is to avoid overtraining. This is achieved by cycling work volumes, intensities, and work periods.
Periodization involves manipulating the volume and intensity of training over a period of time. Before a structured periodization plan is put together, you, the coach, should carry out a needs analysis on the athlete. Part of the needs analysis will be determining the times of the year that the player wants to be competing at his highest level. For example, a college player will probably want to be peaking for competition during the conference tournament.
Your needs analysis should test the following:
- Tennis specific aerobic endurance
- Reaction time
- Tactical proficiency
- Recovery ability
- Time constraints, involving work, school home commitments
Before you begin driving your athlete toward competition success, you need to determine whether he or she really wants to go there. You need to determine whether the athlete has the inner fire to succeed or whether they are doing this simply to please their parents or other people.
You should sit down with the athlete and formulate competition goals together. In doing so, you need to be realistic. Determine whether he has the genetic tools for success at the chosen level. This includes body shape, muscle fiber type, height, and aerobic capability.
The two of you also need to take a close look at the player’s time commitments. If you devise a plan that is going to leave the athlete running ragged, it will inevitably lead to burnout.
The periodization timeline is divided into cycles. The macrocycle is usually the yearly plan, but for younger players, it may be appropriate to have two macrocycles per year. The macrocycle is broken down into between two and ten mesocycles.
Here is an example of what the mesocycles might look like for a player on the pro circuit:
- Jan/April – hardcourts
- April/June – clay courts
- June/July – grass courts
- July/September – US hardcourts
- September/November – indoor
- November/December – offseason/preseason
A microcycle covers a much smaller period, usually seven days. Each microcycle has a specific training goal.
Here are the most common training phases of a periodization program:
General Preparatory Phase
The general preparatory phase is the introductory phase of training. This could be for a brand-new player or someone who has taken some time off from the game. The focus is on building a base of tennis-specific aerobic endurance and low-intensity high-volume resistance training to prepare for the tennis-specific training to come in later phases.
This phase may be appropriate for the following situations:
- The player needs to lose a considerable amount of weight to be faster on court.
- The player needs to change their grip.
- The player needs a structured strength training program to increase ball velocity.
During this phase, any major flaws in the player’s game should be addressed. This could be an improper grip or improper stroke mechanics. This phase typically lasts for 5-8 weeks.
Specific Preparatory Phase
During this phase,more specific training and tournament related goals will be worked towards. Training intensity increases as does the volume of training. Gym workouts become more tennis specific with exercises selected that simulate on-court movements to enhance strength, power and agility.
This phase should last 6-8 weeks.
During the pre-competition phase there will be an increase in training intensity, along with a decrease in volume. There will be more match-play-specific drills and training. The length of this phase will vary according to the competitive schedule.
Tennis is rather unique in that it, rather than having a competition season, it involves year-round competition. The only exception is at the collegiate level, where the competition season lasts between February and May.
During the competition phase, as much strength is retained as possible. Training involves moderate intensities and moderate to low volumes.
The major competitions for peaking at the three main competitive levels are:
- Junior: regional, state, national
- Collegiate: conference and nationals
- Pro: four grand slams
During this phase, there should be a further decrease in training volume in order to be fully recovered and rested for competition.
Here is a sample periodization plan broken down into four phases:
|Beginner Phase||The player is learning the basics of the game – there is no focus yet on match play.|
|Skill Phase||The player has acquired the basic skills. During this phase the focus is on skill consistency, especially during pressure situations.|
|Competition Phase||With skills cemented, the player now trains to use them consistently under stressful tournament conditions.|
|Tournament Phase||The athlete should be in peak form. Results are the total focus of this phase.|
The nutritional needs of competitive tennis players are different from the normal population. It is recommended that the diet of a tennis player has the following macronutrient breakdown:
- Protein – 25%
- Carbohydrates – 55%
- Fats – 20%
Tennis is one of the most physically demanding sports that exist. During the course of a match, a player can burn as many as 1300 calories. In order to meet the demands of the game, competitive players can consume as many as 4000 calories per day.
The timing and composition of pre-training meals are very important. You should train your athlete to have two meals before their training sessions. The same pattern will apply prior to competition. A large meal should be consumed 3-4 hours beforehand. Then, within two hours, they should have a lighter, snack-type meal.
The following carbohydrate guidelines for athletes have been formulated by the American College of Sports Medicine:
- During general training with moderate to high intensity, athletes should consume 5-7 grams per kg of body weight. That works out to about 480 grams for an 80 kg tennis player.
- During the 6 weeks prior to competition when training is increased, that ratio should increase to 7-8 grams per kg of body weight. For our 80 kg player, that would boost their carb intake to 680 grams.
Taking in a high-carb meal 3-4 hours ahead of training or competition will increase muscle glycogen stores for maximum on-court energy.
Topping up glycogen levels with a light meal, such as mashed banana on toast ensures that the athlete’s glycogen levels are topped up and that the athlete feels nutritionally satisfied at the start of the event.
I do not recommend consuming carbs within 45 minutes of competition. The ingestion of liquid or easily digestible carbs within 45 minutes of competition will result in a quick rise, followed by a sharp decline in blood glucose levels. This will see a consistent drop in blood glucose levels in a rebound effect known as reactive hypoglycemia. This could lead to a detrimental effect on performance.
If the competition only allows for short rest periods between matches (less than 45 minutes), the athlete should consume easily digestible food in very small amounts (less than 10 grams of carbs per serving) every 10 minutes during the match.
Make sure that your athlete has their favorite inter-gam snacks in their tennis bag courtside. This could be in the form of dried fruit, a muesli bar or gummy bears. By the time their first competition rolls around, the two of you should have identified what those snack foods are.
Some athletes may not like to eat between games. In that case, you should encourage them to consume an easily digestible energy gel. Alternatively, they could drink 600-1000 ml of a solution containing 4-8 ml of carbs per 100 ml over the course of the match.
It is my experience that many athletes prefer to drink their calories rather than eat them during a match. The majority of commercially available sports drinks contain 60-80 grams of carbs per liter. If the athlete consumed between 600-1000 ml per hour, they would be adequately topping up their glycogen levels.
Studies have shown that there is no difference in performance whether a tennis player eats or drinks their inter-match meal. However, taking them in liquid form will also help to keep the athlete hydrated.
Dehydration will cause a negative effect on carbohydrate levels. Muscle glycogen use is not as efficient when a person is dehydrated, so it is critical that the athlete keeps up their fluid level between games. If they are going to eat their carbs, they should also be taking a swig of water.
The American College of Sports Medicine Recommends that athletes consume between 30-60 grams of carbs during exercise or competition. These carbs can be in the form of glucose, sucrose, maltodextrins, or high glycemic starches. Fructose, the form of carbs found in fruit, should be limited due to the possibility of gastrointestinal discomfort.
As the coach, it is up to you to make sure that your player does not experience a drop-off in performance as a result of a lack of glycogen for energy. During long physical activity such as a tennis match, there is an increase in carbohydrate oxidation. This increases the risk of the athlete becoming hypoglycemic. This risk increases when the match is played in hot, humid conditions.
Carb Timing During the Match
The timing of carb ingestion during play should have the aim of providing a consistent flow of carbohydrates from the gut into the bloodstream. The increased stress of competition appears to speed up glycogen uptake, requiring more carbs to be taken in during competition than during training.
The athlete achieves this by consuming small amounts of carbs through the match. However, if your athlete takes in too many carbs during play, his performance will be negatively affected.
Most sports drinks combine carbs with electrolytes. The inclusion of electrolytes will help to prevent exercise induced muscle cramps.
Post Competition Nutrition
In a tournament situation your athlete will be playing multiple matches on multiple days. The major goal of post workout nutrition should be to replenish the glycogen levels that have been used up during the match. Glycogen synthesis rates are the highest immediately after exercise. This is believed to be due to the insulin-like effects that exercise has on our muscles.
Taking in high glycemic carbs has been shown to result in a 48% higher rate of muscle glycogen resynthesis than consuming low glycemic carbs. It is recommended that players consume 1.5 grams of carbs per kg of body weight in the first hour after a match. So, a 75 kg player should take in around 113 grams of carbs in the hour after the match.
Combining post-match carbs with protein has been shown to improve muscle glycogen by as much as 27%. Protein is also vital for post-match muscle repair. A high glycemic carb and protein supplement are recommended to hit both the carb and protein needs of your player post match.
The best form of post-match protein is whey. This form contains all nine of the essential amino acids. It is also easily digestible and has high concentrations of brain chain amino acids (BCAAs). However, whey protein does contain milk sugar lactose, which some people are not able to tolerate. If your athlete has an intolerance to lactose, you should make sure that they are using a whey isolate, which removes the lactose.
The ideal carb-to-protein ratio of a post-match supplement is 3:1 in favor of carbohydrates. It would also be a good idea to look for a supplement that contains the amino acids leucine and glutamine as well as vitamin E.
Here is a sample post-match shake that covers all the bases:
- 200-350 calories in 12-16 oz of water
- Whey Protein: 20 grams
- High Glycemic Carbs (glucose, sucrose or maltodextrin): 60 grams
- Leucine: 4 grams
- Glutamine: 120 mg
- Vitamin E: 500IU
A tennis player will sweat, on average, about 1.75 liters per hour during a match under hot, humid conditions. If no fluids are replaced, an athlete could lose as much as 15 pounds of fluid over the course of an extended match.
Most points in competitive tennis last for no more than 10 seconds. Rest periods during games last for an average of around 25 seconds. This work/rest ratio can cause large changes in body temperature. However, this does allow for plenty of opportunity for fluid replacement during the match, especially during the 90-second period after every two games.
You need to have a structured hydration plan for your athlete during competition. The best way to do this is to weigh the athlete before a training match. Then put them through a two-hour match simulation session. Weigh them again after the workout. Subtract the post-exercise weight from the pre-match weight and the amount of fluid consumed during play. This will tell you how much fluid the athlete has lost. You can then use this information to work out a specific hydration schedule.
Let’s say that your player’s pre-match weight is 80 kg. During the two-hour match, he ingests 2 liters of water. When weighed afterward, he weighs 77 kg. His approximate fluid loss will be 5 liters in two hours or 2.5 liters per hour.
What is going on in your player’s head on game day is, arguably, more important than the quality of their forehand or backhand. While you cannot control what your athlete is thinking during the game, you can influence it.
Teach your athlete that everything he does comes down to a choice. Rather than just reacting, they have the ability to control how they feel about a situation. Being mentaally prepared means that the athlete has the ability and the choice to react to a bad decision or a lost point in a way that is not going to drain their energy or focus for the next point.
Train your player so that when they miss a ball, rather than getting angry, they analyze what they need to do so that they don’t miss it again. They need to have the mental strength to take on that responsibility to fix the situation.
Just as the athlete goes through a physical warm-up before the match, he should do the same mentally. I recommend giving your player books to read on positive mental attitude and encouraging him to get into the habit of repeating a positive mantra to himself in the hour before the start of the match.
Here is a positive mantra that many players repeat to themselves before heading into a tournament …
I’m strong, sharp, and ready to conquer.
In the hour before the match, your athlete should also use visualization to keep themselves locked in. This should involve running a mental movie of the first game of the match. They start the game with an ace and then go on to effortlessly win every point and take the game without conceding a point.
During the match, you should train your athlete on what they should be focusing on. In the weeks and months leading up to the competition, they should be focused on winning, accepting the trophy, and shaking the loser’s hand. But none of that should be in their mind on the day of the competition.
The athlete’s competitive mindset should be on executing the things that they have been practicing, the mechanics of their fundamental strokes, and competing well. If they start thinking that they’ve got to get through this round, and then the next one, they will be putting too much pressure on themselves. They will also be pulling themselves out of the present so that they will not be in the zone.
Your athlete has to learn to play in the moment, point by point. To help him be at their strongest mentally, you should help him develop a mindset game plan. A lot of coaches don’t give attention to the mental side of the game. That is a serious mistake.
The key to helping your athlete have a winning mental attitude is to keep it simple. Here is a three level checkpoint system that comes from pro Jack Sock. Jack focuses his mind on the first level at the start of the game. Nothing else matters. If that doesn’t work he goes to the next level. And if that doesn’t work, he goes to level three. Here are Jack’s three levels of mental focus:
- Hit at the middle of the court and don’t make any errors.
- Move your opponent around the court.
- Press and attack the opponent.
From Jacks’ example, we learn the importance of focusing on the basics first. Then, if the opponent forces you to do so, you simply move it up to the next level. Don’t worry about the little things you can’t control or worry about doing anything fancy to counter what the other player is doing.
What Should A Player Do During Game Breaks?
After every two games, players get a 90-second rest period. Here’s what your athlete should be doing during that minute and a half:
- Drink and eat in accordance with the guidelines provided in the nutrition section above.
- Stay focused; they should not look at the crowd or go into a state of mental relaxation. They need to keep their mind in the game.
- Analyze the last two games, and use that analysis to help them focus on the next two. They should know their plan before stepping back on the court, but also be ready to adjust it
- Discipline themselves not to allow their emotions to affect their performance. Negative emotions will cause the athlete to overhit, play too aggressively or question their strategy.
- Staying in the flow rather than thinking too much about how to fix their strokes. That 90 seconds is not the time to be immobilized by analysis paralysis. After all, it is too late to change strategy or technique at this point in the game.
Game Day Tactics
Before we start looking at the game-day tactics you should focus on with your athlete, you should spend some time in the days ahead of match day to analyze the opposition. Hopefully, you will have video material of them recently playing that you can sit down and check out together. Here are the key things to take note of:
- Grip style; do they use a western, eastern, continental or hybrid grip? Once you have identified that, you will know what type of strokes to expect – flat from an eastern grip and more topspin heavy from a western grip.
- Playing style; there are four basic playing styles;
- Serve and volley
- Aggressive baseliners
- Counter Punchers
- All-court players
Having identified the opponent’s playing style, work out a plan to break up their rhythm.
- Identify the opponent’s weaknesses and plan to exploit them.
If there is no video, it is your job to watch a second or third round opponent on match day and identify the points above. Then work out a game plan with your athlete.
The on-court warm-up will also provide both you and your athlete a further opportunity to size up the opponent. However, if you’re facing an experienced opponent, he may give out false signals as to his playing style in order to confuse your player and take an early advantage.
Another responsibility that you have is to stay on top of the weather conditions. Have a backup plan ready in the case of adverse weather conditions. Prepare your athlete for a rain delay on interruption mid-match and provide mental training to help them stay focused in spite of these complications. Prepare, too, for wind, scorching sun and oppressive humidity.
Developing a Game Plan
It is your job as the coach to do as much research on your player’s opponent as is humanly possible ahead of the match. Your goal is to identify his strategies, strengths and weaknesses. Develop a scouting report and rely on it to develop your player’s offensive game plan.
Help your player to identify cues from the opponent that will signal him to unleash his main strike weapons, be it his backhand, volley or forehand slam. Discuss what opportunities your player can make to expose and capitalize on the opponent’s shortcomings.
Does your player have a height advantage? Can he force the other player to play weak short balls? What can be done in order to neutralize the strengths of the opposition? Emphasize that a solid constant defense will wear the opponent down and force errors.
Always talk through a Plan B just in case your player is unable to impose his game on the opponent.
The day before the match, you need to ensure that your athlete is taking it easy and getting plenty of rest. They need to get a good night’s sleep so you might want to take away their phone and other technology before they retire.
Instruct your athlete to prepare their tennis bag the day before the match. Here’s what they should include:
- 3-4 rackets
- A couple of reels of strings
- Two pairs of tennis shoes
- A change of clothes
- Resistance bands for warming up
- An electrolyte mix
- Snacks such as muesli bars, trail mix and energy gels
- A hat
The match bag should include everything you need for your post match recovery, including foods, liquids, supplements and equipment such as a foam roller and massage gun. There isn’t much downtime between matches so you don’t want to waste it running around looking for gear.
48 Hours Before the Match
- Make sure the athlete drinks plenty of water. You want their pee to be clear; if it’s not, they need to keep drinking.
- Make sure he gets at least 8 hours of sleep, ideally without interruption – that means no technology in the bedroom.
- Ensure he eats clean, with meals every 3 hours following a macro ratio of 55% carbs, 25% protein and 20% fats.
- Make sure that all match day gear is in tip top condition.
- Taper training down to short focused sessions that deal with the strengths, not the weaknesses, of your athlete. That will help him stay focused on positivity right through to match time.
Evening Before the Match
- Sit down with your player and watch any video that exists of the opponent. Develop your game plan.
- Make sure your player gets 8 hours of sleep.
- Get up at least two hours ahead of the match.
- If possible, have a decent meal 3.5 hours before the match.
- Eliminate all distractions and allow your athlete to relax. If music helps them, make sure they have created a favorite playlist.
An Hour Before the Match
- Turn up for the warm-up 60 minutes before match time. Have a hitting partner available and plan for around 30 minutes of warm-up hitting time.
- Include some dynamic stretching warm-up work, as well as light resistance work with a resistance band.
- By the time that the 5-minute warm-up rolls around, your athlete should already be 100% warmed up.
The 5-Minute Warm-Up with Opponent
The warm-up with the opponent is not the time for your athlete to warm up. This has already been accomplished, allowing the athlete to use this time to size up the opposition. Tell your player to hit a variety of shots during the warm-up, including high shots, short balls and wide shots. Where does he seem most comfortable and where is he most ill at ease?
What if Your Player Has an Early Morning Match?
It is quite possible that your athlete may have a match at 8 am. That can present a challenge for some players. But others may not be used to being at their mental and physical prime at that hour of the day. If that’s the case for your athlete, you need to get them used to waking up at 6 am.
I advise having your athlete set their alarm clock for 6 am a week ahead of match day. They should take a cold shower straight away in order to fully wake themselves up.
Have them get used to eating a meal of oatmeal, protein powder, walnuts, blueberries, and milk as soon as they have finished showering. Then have your athlete listen to their favorite playlist, turning up the volume to pump them up for the match ahead.
Make sure that your athlete gets to the venue at least an hour ahead of time and then get them straight into their warm-up, consisting of dynamic stretches, light resistance training with a band and 30 minutes of hitting practice. By the time the official warm-up time is called, he’ll be primed for action.
Between Match Strategy
It is quite possible that your athlete could have more than one match scheduled in a day. If he’s entered into both singles and doubles competition, it is conceivable that he could even have three matches. Here are some tips to optimize your player’s recovery between matches:
During the match, there will be a build-up of lactic acid in your athlete’s muscle cells. Unless this is removed, it could result in muscle weakness and even cramping. Static stretching will help to remove lactic acid at the same time that it loosens up the muscles.
After a match, a massage gun therapy session will give your athlete’s muscles a percussion-based massage. These tools resemble a cross between a jackhammer and a hair dryer. They offer a fast-paced continuous massage that cannot be matched by hand or foam roller massage. Recurrent massages like this one are excellent for easing post-tension tension and muscular aches.
The vibrational nature of a massage provided by a massage gun significantly improves blood circulation, allowing nutrients to be given to the target area while toxins are being flushed away. I strongly recommend that you invest in a massage gun and learn how to use it.
Within 30 minutes of the match, your athlete should have a carb/ protein shake that has a 3;1 ratio in favor of carbohydrates. An hour before the next match, have them eat another snack meal that is high in carbs, such as mashed banana on toast.
Within the hour after the match, your player should drink about a liter of water. An hour before the next match, you want their urine to be clear. If not, have them keep drinking.
In the days after the match, you should allow your athlete time to unwind without any scheduled training days. After a couple of days, get together and have a debriefing session. If you are able to get a video of the match to go through with the player, that would be ideal. Otherwise make sure that you’ve taken good notes during the match.
Talk through the game with the athlete. Allow them to fully express themselves about how they feel about each game, what they were pleased with and what they can see they should have done better. Then add in your comments from your notes. Use the session as a constructive way to formulate your focal points for your next training phase.
In this article, we have taken a deep dive into how to prepare an athlete for a tennis match. Use it as a guide to get your athlete in the best condition both physically and mentally to bring it on match day.