As a physiotherapist with a background in coaching tennis, I have developed a particular eye for the way that tennis technique relates to movement development. One thing that any tennis coach will tell you is don’t try to teach a kid a serve until he can throw a ball. You can’t expect to be both high performing and injury free, if you don’t have the base.
Understanding conditioning and technique
So here are a few things that need to be looked at for the tennis player.
Tennis is a whole body activity. So when a tennis player hits a serve or a forehand, he drives from the lower body first. When people refer to ‘kinetic chain dysfunction’ they mean that there is something going wrong in the sequence of movement, which leads to that movement being inefficient.
There are many reasons why this sequence can be broken. The most basic reason is that the person hasn’t spent enough time developing their technique in order to co-ordinate the parts. This is why you can’t just try to copy Roger Federer’s serve, it doesn’t work.
What you teach, and the cues you use for a beginner player, are not the same as what you are using for an advanced player. Conditioning, which traditionally relates more specifically to physiotherapy, also dictates the techniques which can be taught.
The fact is that conditioning and technique heavily overlap and an understanding of each, is required to both improve performance and reduce injury. There are a lot of bad kick serves out there, and people who are setting themselves for injury.
Assessing technique and external factors
When I am looking at a clients video of their tennis form in a physiotherapy consult, there are a couple of basic things that I look for and ask clients about (this is certainly not an exhaustive list).
The first is always footwork. You build your technique from the ground up. Whilst it is possible to play from a disadvantaged position, you want to set yourself up so that you can drive from the legs. When players are out of their depth, one of the problems is that they simply don’t get in position. The position is dynamic, and attention needs to be payed to how the body moves in and out of the position. This includes the points and direction of force generation and how the rest of the body follows.
The court surface and the shoe compatibility also play into this. Clay court shoes are different to hard court shoes, and the effects can add up over the course of a match.
The racquet and stringing. A change in racquet tension can make a big difference, and is dependent on the type of string used, the pattern of stringing and the frame that it is in. Adjustments to your racquet need to be made slowly, particularly if you are playing a lot.
Managing the body’s kinetic chain
Tennis players have nice looking legs, and they certainly need them. Yet to drive these lower limbs, generally you need a base of trunk control. Therefore hip mobility is important, but particularly in relation to how the player uses the hip mobility to generate power in the stroke. If you don’t use your hips, then you are probably overusing your upper body.
Thoracic (upper and middle back) mobility is important, but once again, in the context of how well a player can stabilise his trunk. In the tennis serve you want to see a good body shape and arm position. But even with a good looking shape, that player may be straining their back because he or she doesn’t doesn’t control the position. When assessing thoracic mobility, you need to look at this kinetic chain of the body.
The neck. Issues here can be secondary and/or primary. Your neck and head movement guides the rest of your body movement and follow the eye movement. So if you are chronically avoiding certain positions you might generate overuse patterns in areas other then the neck and head.
Shoulder girdle joint mobility is crucial, and not just the Glenohumeral joint (the ball and socket of the shoulder). Shoulder pain is the most common chronic presentation that I see. Its important that specific diagnoses are accounted for because this will impact on the restoration of motor control and give me an idea about prognosis.
Forearm and other upper limb presentations come in a close second. However whilst the initial approach is a little different, commonly the bulk of the work (movement patterns) is often similar to how shoulders are managed. Another point to note is that your tennis elbow might be pain referred from your neck. You might find some quick symptomatic relief from addressing thoracic and neck factors.
One of the most common ‘breaks in the chain’, relates to how the shoulder blade is stabilised during the cocking phase of serving motion or transitions phase in the groundstrokes. This is particularly an issues for people who have done the basic shoulder exercises and manual treatment given by their physiotherapist, but are still having issues with their serve or groundstrokes.
These issues may be that the shoulder just doesn’t feel right or that there are problems with higher volumes of play. It could even be when pushing on the first or second serve. Tennis players need strength in a variety of movement patterns under load. The movements don’t have to look exactly like a serve or forehand, but they have to develop the underlying motor strategies which form the building blocks.
As an example, I have found kettle bells and suspension work to be good tools to develop some of these motor strategies. Of course, you might not start at this point. But to perform at even an intermediate level, you need this base.
Manual treatment can be an effective and important tool to help you develop these motor strategies, as well as provide some symptomatic relief. However, in terms of treating the root cause, you often need to dig a little deeper.
A focus on the role of the spine in tennis
At Backfocus we take a holistic approach to integrating treatment approaches, to get fast results and long term outcomes, with a particular focus on the role of the spine. The spine plays a central and complex part in the presentation of shoulder injuries and may have both a direct and indirect impact on symptoms or movement control.
If you have a specific complaint related to tennis, a throwing injury or just want to have your movement screened as a preventative measure, then you could start with an assessment to get you on the right track.
The clinic also has a clinical pilates studio and availability for group classes, the relevance of which will be dependent on your presentation. There is also the option for one on one assessment, as well as treatment at gyms local to our clinics.
Written by Chris Bentley
Chris is part of the physiotherapy team at Collins Street. With a background in tennis coaching and exercise science, Chris is interested in relating movement performance and injury management, whatever the activity.