By Dr. Mark Kovacs, CTPS, MTPS; CEO, Kovacs Institute; Executive Director International Tennis Performance Association
Whether you play once per week or five times a week, movement on the tennis court separates the good players from the great. Tennis movement encompasses so many components and directly impacts stroke production, swing paths, and contact points of every tennis stroke except the serve. Therefore, it is arguably the most important aspect of tennis training for improving performance.
On a tennis court, it takes three to four steps for a competitive tennis player to cover most strokes laterally. The older you get the more steps it takes to cover the same distance — if you don’t train to maintain your speed. If you know that three steps are the major movement pattern for most players, the first step is at least one third of the entire movement from first visual response to ball contact. The most important part of that first step is getting the next step to be powerful, so it’s a stimulus effect. You must get that first step right to move well and setup appropriately for the next stroke.
From a coaching perspective, our three-part philosophy in teaching the first step is a helpful guide for all players looking to improve tennis movement. First, athletes must have the fundamental technique (staying low, taking bigger steps rather than shorter steps, and being as efficient as possible); that technique must be reinforced consistently. Next, athletes must develop strength and power to produce an effective first step. The final component is cognition, meaning players must be able to respond to their opponent’s ball appropriately, read the opponent, and consistently work on anticipatory skills.
To teach these three components, we want to incorporate a series of progressions for each athlete, but ultimately, the execution comes down to you. Every player has a different timeline of learning capability, how much they play, and how athletic they are. We don’t force athletes into a certain scenario; we observe where they’re at today, and then make sure that we put the right drills in based on what they can and cannot do.
The first step acts as a base to a player’s movement on the court and sets them up to be productive throughout a match. We know that hundreds of movements can exist on the tennis court. However, through the International Tennis Performance Association we have determined that approximately less than 40 movements are seen consistently on the court by competitive players at all levels. (Here is a great, free resource we provide on tennis movement and footwork: https://bit.ly/3xFxjOd.)
While first step technique comes naturally to a select few athletes, most must continue to refine their skills throughout the course of their career. From my experience, improving technique is easy to do, but hard to succeed in if you don’t do it the right way. Athletes can change technique for five reps and do it well, but once they get under pressure or are not thinking about it, that’s when they go back to whatever is most comfortable. It takes consistent work, especially the older someone is, to change behavior and technique.
The goal of your training is to develop unconscious competence, meaning that you have done it so many times the right way that any time it comes up, you are going to do it properly. This is the real objective of quality training. Every player that we work with can make the technical adjustment in five or 10 repetitions, and it will look good in a staged and closed environment, but most tennis players need thousands of repetitions to make sure they can do the same adjustment when they’re at 30-30 or breakpoint down.
However, to achieve the highest level of success, players must learn to move efficiently. In movement, there’s an efficient way and an inefficient way. You still get to the ball, but you if you take an extra step in the wrong direction or wrong angle, you’re going to be slower than someone who makes that same movement the most efficient way. Continue to work on your tennis-specific footwork and movement and it will help you win more matches.