Matt Little's Physical Guide To Returning To Action
Editor's Note: Andy Murray’s strength and conditioning coach, Matt Little, shared his thoughts with players and coaches in the weeks leading up to the return to tennis to help them physically prepare safely and successfully. Below we share Little's advice.
With ATP players expecting to return to competitive action, it is vital for them to prepare for this in the correct way. Returning to elite-level competition after having several months’ layoff is something that is common in tennis players who have been injured, but for those who have been fully fit for the majority of their playing career, getting the balance between preparing in the correct way and not injuring themselves before the tournament is an important balance to strike.
The first aspect of a players’ on-court training that needs to be built-up is the volume of hitting that is going to be required to play a best-of-five set tennis match. This isn’t just with regards to the duration of a five-set tennis match, but more the actual loading on the player’s body. The loading can be measured by GPS devices. You may be surprised to hear that it only takes between two and a half and three hours of tennis practice to replicate the same loading on the muscles and joints of the body as a best-of-five set match. Given that there are practice days in between matches at Grand Slams, you may want to consider having a light day after you’ve had a day of two and a half to three hours, if you are looking to replicate this loading.
This for me is the number one factor in whether or not players get injured when they return to competition. We know that it is impossible to replicate match scenarios in practice, purely because the intensity is not the same. In the Battle of the Brits [exhibition] tournament, we noted high-intensity changes-of-direction more than 100 times during two-set matches, therefore tennis players need to perform at least 100 to 150 high-intensity change of directions in order to replicate three-set matches and so on.
A high-intensity change-of-direction can be defined as when a player is running into a shot fast, then decelerates and runs back out of the shot. For example, if a player volleys into the forehand corner of their opponent and then volleys immediately into the backhand corner, their opponents would have to execute a high-intensity change-of-direction — in the forehand corner — to do this.
Players need to make sure that their practice sets are as close to Grand Slam match intensity as they can possibly be. in order to have exposed themselves to the level of intensity that this level of competition would bring. I would suggest increasing intensity at a moderate rate so as not to cause too much muscle soreness as they build up to tournaments. This would look like taking three weeks from starting practice sets, to playing your first match. Whilst this may seem like a longer time than you would usually take, it is really important to build up slower than normal because the break has been longer than normal.
Tennis players need to replicate movements at extremely high speeds in practice. The best way to begin doing this is with planned agility exercises where the player knows exactly where they are going to move to and how they are going to change direction. Because this is predictable movement, they can execute this at higher speeds than they could do if it was an unpredictable movement and know that they are going to be safe in doing so. This would be the first type of speed movements that I would introduce to the tennis player who is building up to competition. An example of this type of drill would be the fan drill.
Reactive Or Open Agility
These are the most intense forms of movement on the muscles and joints of the tennis players body because of the reactive nature and unpredictable nature of the muscle contractions. These would cause the most damage to muscle tissues and the bodies joints because of the fast, reactive contractions muscles and connected tissues are having to withstand. These would be the last element of speed and movement training that I would introduce to a tennis player. An example of this type of movement would simply be points play or points-based drills.
Players will also find it beneficial to do some very simple straight-line maximal speed sprints on the baseline to the net. This will have benefits not only for the speed that their neuromuscular system can operate at, but also it will expose again the muscles and connective-tissues of the body to fully explosive maximal movements. Players won’t experience these movements very often in a tennis match, but they will experience them occasionally, therefore this must be added in to the training program to get some exposure.
Lockdown Training History
A key factor in how quickly a player will be able to build up to maximal intensity training will be how much training that they continued to do whilst being in lockdown. Players who chose to recover and relax during this period should take longer and be more cautious in building up both the volume and intensity of training. Players who maintained a good level of fitness and movement whilst they were in lockdown should be able to return to this type of activity a little quicker. There are no set rules or guidelines as to how players should build up but, common sense suggests that the less active you have been, the slower you should build up. The more active you have been, the faster you can build up.
One of the key risk factors that I have already seen from players returning to tennis from a period of sedentary activity has been the risk to injury of the shoulder girdle and the surrounding muscles and soft tissues. If players have not been serving or performing this type of action with their arm during lockdown, they should build up the number of serves that they hit very slowly. Even simple muscle soreness is very high when returning to serving having had a break. I believe this is purely down to the violent and complex action of the serving motion on the joints and its muscles which are all very small and interconnected.