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For Good Footwork, Train As You Play


Rafael Nadal© Getty ImagesElite players like Rafael Nadal on average change direction between four and five times each point.

In training to improve footwork, a common mistake made by recreational and advanced players alike is to focus on developing foot speed in just one direction. Tennis is the ultimate multi-directional sport and we need to train accordingly. Research has found that players change direction between four and five times every point at the elite level, so when training for tennis we should focus on drills and specific movements that involve direction changes.

In tennis, the body is subjected to many eccentric contractions: the tensioning and lengthening of muscles. When you hit a forehand running wide and then you change direction to go back into the middle of the court, the leg you’re pushing off undergoes an eccentric contraction. By doing drills with this need in mind, we train the body to get better at these direction changes.

Drills: Don’t run from one end of the court to the other. Put out a number of balls and go back and forth rapidly to pick them up. Try alley hops: Jump sideways from one side of the doubles alley to the other. Place your feet together and parallel with the outside doubles line. Push off one foot and land on the inside doubles line on the other foot, then push off to jump back to the outside doubles line. On landing, absorb your body weight in a controlled manner.  Be sure to stay upright and look straight ahead just as you do when playing tennis; don’t look down as that will make you bend over at the waist. Do this for 15 to 20 seconds and then rest for 25 to 30 seconds to replicate the work/rest cycle your body undergoes during matches.


Direction Changes
Although a player may cover several kilometres during the course of a match, he seldom runs more than 10 metres in any one direction.  So tennis players should include drills with short, multi-directional movements, stopping and starting back in the opposite direction in a rapid manner.

Drills: Stand on the baseline and have your coach or partner take one ball in each hand. The coach bounces the ball to the player’s left to get the player moving sideward. The player catches the ball and rolls it back. The coach then rolls the other ball in the opposite direction, so the player is moving a few metres side to side to get the second ball. For variety, have your coach roll the ball back in behind you.

Bursts Of Activity
Studies suggest that during an average tennis match a player will have 300 to 500 burst of activity. So when you’re working on drills, keep them short. You want to simulate a burst of footwork with direction changes of fairly short movements and then take a little time (such as the 20-second break you’re allowed between points) for rest and recovery. Then you want to do another burst of activity, rest and then go again. If you train like the way you play, you’ll be ready for your match.

Drills: Using the example above for direction changes, have your coach roll balls to your left and right five or six times, then break for 20 seconds. Then repeat 10 or 15 times and then move onto another exercise to stay motivated and interested.

Written with the help of Todd Ellenbecker, Director of Sports Medicine for the ATP World Tour. Ellenbecker is also featured on Fit To Hit on the Tennis Channel.

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