What is athleticism? You cannot define the term on one individual characteristic. One athlete may have more power, more speed or more conditioning, etc. but each individual junior player’s game should be molded around their talents. Whether they can do six push-ups vs. 10 push-ups, run one mile in six minutes vs. seven minutes should not be your goal. It is important to understand that they are training to be a tennis player, not to be on a weightlifting or track team. What they need to be able to do is “fill those buckets.” Run a mile, check. Do some push-ups, check. Do a chin-up, check. Have a good vertical jump, check. Body rotation, check. Being a good athlete doesn’t mean they will be a great tennis player, but it will give them a set of tools to increase their chances to be one. When you find a missing link, or “empty bucket,” do not look at it as a weakness, but rather, as an opportunity to challenge them to become even better.
Tennis is a sport of skill, but its basis lies in movement, hence the ever-growing emphasis on strength and conditioning. Traversing a tennis court requires tennis IQ, speed, reaction, time, strength and conditioning. Each match played, whether a win or a loss, will show you, the coach and the athlete what aspect of their game needs improvement.
Most recently, tennis has become a sport of volume. If a player didn’t win a tournament after 10 hours of practice, the next week they practice 14 hours. While those hours are important, the quality of each minute spent during those practices is of even greater importance. Every moment should be spent with a specific goal or purpose in mind (that includes FUN). If the task at hand is to hit 50 serves, but after 40 you can tell the player is fatigued, stop, step-back and assess why this happened. Your next step should be to work on building a plan so that the following week, the player has an opportunity to hit 50 powerful serves.
Today, athleticism is on equal grounds with the art of tennis itself. The goal for each player and ourselves, as coaches, is to create greater opportunity for success both on and off the court. The faster they can run down the ball, the more movement they have on court, the stronger they are, then the more opportunities they will have to elevate their game. The key is having the ability to take a two-hour lesson and feel strong throughout, working hard the whole time, as well as being able to better “fill each bucket” with regards to their strength and conditioning goals, every time they are asked to attack it. They must have the opportunity to beat a better opponent because of increased energy and clearer thought process four rounds into a tournament. Two hours of tennis working at 100 percent effort is more valuable than four hours at 80 percent.
The objective here is not to be the best in the gym, but to create the most athletic version of themselves, and for every person that will vary. Every time they have the chance to train, take that opportunity to improve them by making it count and doing what their personal curriculum needs. Whether that means spending an extra 20 minutes practicing their return game, or in the gym improving their conditioning, what is right for them may not be right for someone else.
Talk with the athlete, list their strengths and weaknesses, and make sure you are building a program around them, not fitting the athlete into yours.
Andy Wegman is the Associate Director of Performance and Junior Athletic Development for the John McEnroe Tennis Academy and SPORTIME Randall’s Island. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Exercise Science and his Master’s Degree in Athletic Training from the University at Buffalo, and is a licensed NYS Certified Athletic Trainer. He also volunteers his time working with the USA Wrestling Team, and has worked USA Track & Field Olympic Trials and Championships Meets in Eugene, Ore.