Injury prevention is key, even at a young age. By keeping in mind some of the following advice, you can dramatically decrease the likelihood of injury and also maximize performance.
- Don’t specialize too early: There has been tons of research out lately regarding early specialization. The kids who specialize early often limit their ability to become well-rounded and successful athletes. Yes, I know, who cares if they are well-rounded if they are great at tennis. But, developing all of their skills in multiple sports will prove to be of more value once they fully mature instead of just being a one dimensional athlete. Not to mention there was a study given to Olympic Athletes that showed they credited their success to playing multiple sports until around 14 to 15 years of age.
- Warm-up properly: Tennis players are infamous of hitting a couple short rallies before moving back to the baseline and slowly increasing the intensity. This is not adequate. The demands in tennis are high, meaning a proper warm-up is even more valuable. A tennis specific dynamic warm-up should consist of a gradual dynamic stretching routine that places emphasis on the ankles, hips, thoracic spine, and shoulder. Once these areas are mobilized and warm-up, the pace can be increased with locomotor movements. This includes: jogging, backpedal, short sprints, lateral shuffles, and change of direction. The agility ladder is also beneficial to prepare the nervous system for the quick responses that tennis entails. Here is a basic tennis-specific dynamic warm-up you can try.
- Know your body: At a young age, players often know strengths and weaknesses within their game, but not within their bodies. It is important to know which areas are tight, which areas need more stability, and how to address these things. Oftentimes, players stretch just to stretch, when maybe they had plenty of mobility in that area already and they should be stretching elsewhere. A movement screening and evaluation are keys to learning what areas in your body need what. Oftentimes, tennis players have greater thoracic rotation to one side and this needs to be addressed with specific exercises in the other direction to keep the body balanced. Currently, I have a young player that knows, through experience, when his hips aren’t level. We can then resolve the issue through muscle activation techniques to realign them. Not only will these things help prevent injury, but they can lead to improvements in performance too.
- Work core stability before rotation: When it comes to the core and the rotational demand in tennis, it is obvious we need strong core rotation to generate power and explosiveness with each stroke. But, before we teach joints to move, we must first teach them to stabilize. From an injury prevention standpoint, this gives a stable platform on which to create power and movement. Here is one of my favorite core stability exercises, called the pallof press. Try it by using a theraband or cable column within the gym.
- Do pre-hab exercises before each practice: Pre-hab is short for pre-rehabilitation. This means addressing areas that are commonly injured in tennis to get them in a stronger and better functioning state. Some common areas injured in tennis are the ankles, shoulder, and elbow. Some keys to focus on are: single leg stability exercises that emphasize balance and control, ankle stretching to prevents a loss in dorsiflexion from constantly being in an athletic position, rotator cuff strengthening and stability with therabands or kettlebells to offset the high demands from different strokes, and forearm strengthening and flexibility exercises to prevent tightness and fatigue from constantly gripping the racket. This goes back to knowing your body and where you may have issues before having them. Prevention is key.
- Cool-down and stretch after play: One of the most missed opportunities is not during, but actually following each practice and match. Once the match ends, you have a short window of time to prepare for the following day’s event. Or, often in tennis, your next match later that same day. Cooling down properly and stretching is a sure way to help relieve tension in the muscles, buffer lactate and waste products that were produced from high intensity exercise, and begin the recovery process. This should only take 5-10 minutes after each practice or match, but will improve not only how your body feels, but performs going into your next match. If you choose to walk off the court and jump in the car, some of your muscles will cool down in a shortened position that will eventually lead to tightness and possibly injury.
- Properly hydrate before, during, and after each match: Proper hydration is key to preventing heat related illnesses such as cramping, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Performing at optimal levels is all about preparation. You can’t expect to perform well in a dehydrated state. Our body needs a certain level of fluids and electrolytes to keep us mentally and physically sharp. The hydration process should begin several days before a match. Strive to drink a mix of water and a sports drink so that your urine is a light lemonade color. During match play, gatorade and other sports drinks are necessary to replace fluids and also electrolytes lost through the high intensity demand of tennis. Weighing yourself before and after play is also a good strategy. Since we will not lose much weight in a day, the majority of your body weight lost will be as a result of fluid loss. Try to replace to pre-match levels.
- Begin fitness training: Fitness training for young athletes is viewed differently by everyone. Junior players can start training to improve speed, power, mobility, and conditioning, as early as 9-10 years old. At this age, emphasis needs to be placed, not on lifting heavy weights, but learning how to control and move one’s own bodyweight. As junior players hit 14 years old, a periodized program structured around their tournament and practice schedule will produce significant results in their game. As the speed of their game increases as they age, off-court fitness becomes even more important to not only improve performance, but reduce the chance of injury. Finding a qualified sports performance expert will allow young athletes to learn and improve their weaknesses and ways to maximize performance.
By: Garrett McLaughlin, MS, ATC, CSCS, ART