The purpose of our book is two-fold: Explaining the biomechanics of playing tennis and sharing the tools it takes for players of all levels — from the amateur to the pro — to condition their bodies smartly, safely and thoroughly to achieve peak performance.
In this sample, Leigh and I discuss why flexibility is so critical to performing well, the optimal times to stretch and briefly touch on the four steps to successful stretching.
Love and chi,
Flexibility is essential for you as a tennis player to reach your potential. There are a very small minority of people today who have good flexibility naturally. However, if you are one who doesn’t have good flexibility, with the right guidance, you can achieve it.
Adequate flexibility is especially crucial for players who suffer shoulder, back, wrist, ankle, knee or hip pains during or after playing. Tennis flexibility is a general term for the amount of movement, uninhibited by range of motion restrictions that the player has to play tennis to his/her potential.
For the average tennis player, an understanding of the three planes of movement is useful. It is evident that these planes of motion are used in all tennis movements, possibly more than any other sport. Therefore, the ability to move freely in each plane is imperative.
If you have problems with your game — a lack of consistency, accuracy or power — stretching is likely to help when performed correctly.
How stretching helps the tennis player
Proper stretching allows the tennis player to develop and maintain optimal range of motion across all the joints in the body, allowing for freedom of movement. This is important, considering that the game of tennis is played in all three planes of motion.
For a tennis player to be effective in all tennis strokes without tearing muscles and ligaments or wearing out joints, he/she must possess good, or even great, flexibility.
The tissues that affect the way the body moves (including the swing path of the racket) are the muscles, tendons (the musculotendinous unit), ligaments and joint capsules. With the exception of the ligaments, all of these tissues have the ability to shorten and tighten.
Tight muscles can be very undesirable in the tennis player, in terms of the swing path of the racket-head and in shots that involve hitting a ball overhead, rotating the spine or reaching down low to retrieve a wide ball.
When a musculotendinous unit or joint capsule tightens, it affects joint mechanics, progressively altering general movement and swing mechanics. This is due to the fact that on almost every joint in the body, the muscles surrounding a joint work synergistically.
On one side of a joint, you might have muscles that medially rotate and, on the other side of the joint, you have muscles that laterally rotate the joint. See how this works in Figure 2.3.
When the balance, and therefore synergy, of these muscles is altered, so are joint mechanics, which will alter movement pathways of the joints and swing mechanics. The tennis player with altered joint mechanics will then have to compensate during movement.
Compensation will lead to a reduction in consistency. A lack of consistency will lead to more errors, and more errors will lead to more defeats! Not ideal for a competitive player.
To play to your potential, you need the ability to rotate almost every joint to its functional capacity. If there are restrictions in the shoulder girdle, torso, pelvis, spine or hips, there will be compensations elsewhere in the musculoskeletal system.
The resulting consequence of these compensations are likely to be seen in a less than optimal swing path of the racket, missing the sweet spot on the strings and/or possibly mistiming the shot (too early or late). These compensations may also lead to wear and tear on the body and, finally, pain and injuries.
For instance, if the scapulothoracic joint (the shoulder blade on the rib cage) has a limited range of motion, the glenohumeral joint (shoulder joint) will have to compensate. In this situation, it may affect the amount of top spin or slice on the ball, causing the shot to hit the net or go long.
Also, if the thoracic spine is restricted and, therefore, unable to fully extend for any overhead shots (the serve and smash), the shoulders and/or lumbar spine will be needed to compensate to generate maximum power.
This increases the likelihood of a shoulder injury (shoulder impingement syndrome, rotator cuff tear, labrum tear) or lower back injury (facet joint irritation or stress fracture to the pars articularis).
If the hip joints are restricted in medial and/or lateral rotation, there will probably be excessive rotation in the spine and/or shoulders during the serve and groundstrokes, again increasing the likelihood of shoulder or lumbar spine injuries.
If the player is unable to compensate, there will be less total rotation in the body, thereby reducing the amount of power being generated, which could make a substantial difference in your serving speed and the speed of your groundstrokes.
Any or all of these restrictions could be the difference between being knocked out in the first round and winning a tournament. By performing a well-designed, tennis-specific stretching program, injuries can be avoided and performance in almost all aspects of the game can be improved.
As flexibility improves, you are more likely to benefit from training sessions with your coach. If you have biomechnical faults with your shots, however, it’s unlikely that you’ll achieve long-term resolutions with your coach.
In reality, all that your coach can get you to do is compensate. So, you’ll spend a long time programming the nervous system with suboptimal movement patterns.
At some point in the future, these faulty recruitment patterns will have to be replaced by new ones. Breaking existing old habits is much harder and takes a lot longer than developing brand new ones.
In fact, I remember clearly when I got a coach. My backhand was so different from what I had done before. It was, literally, a new shot for me. Conversely, my forehand was just a little tweak from the continental to a semi-western grip.
It only took a few weeks to nail my top spin backhand (even though I hadn’t hit one previously), while it took me another year to get used to the “little tweak” on the forehand.
When to stretch for optimal tennis performance
There are five main categories of stretching. The tennis player must be familiar with all five (which are discussed in detail in Chapters 3 and 4):
- Muscle energy mobilization/technique
Understanding the science of flexibility and tennis mechanics is very complex. There are an almost infinite number of stretches available in books, DVDs and online, as well as many schools of thought in terms of the “best” way to stretch.
When it comes to stretching and exercise, time is always a challenge that needs to be overcome. If you were to perform every stretch required for tennis, you would have little time if any to actually play any tennis! It is imperative to prioritize the most important and effective stretches as a way to manage time and achieve the best possible outcomes.
To prioritize the most effective stretches is a four-step process:
Four Steps to Successful Stretching
- Identify the short, tight muscles.
- Select stretches to restore optimal tennis flexibility and mechanics.
- Correct flexibility with developmental stretching.
- Once the normal range of motion is restored, maintain flexibility with a combination of maintenance and pre-event and post-event stretching.
With this sample, you have a brief taste of the detailed information in Leigh’s book, including self-tests that will help you formulate a personalized, step-by-step exercise plan to optimize your performance on the court. If your tennis game has hit the proverbial wall, The Tennis Biomechanic’s Manual is an essential guide full of proven methods that will help you master your body and your sport.
If you want to learn much more about tennis conditioning and how to help your tennis clients reach their potential as players, join Leigh Brandon for his upcoming Tennis Conditioning Series Level 1 live course in San Diego, Feb. 17-19, 2017.