Tennis Science: How Player and Racquet Work Together

Tennis Science: How Player and Racquet Work Together


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Tennis Science: How Player and Racquet Work Together by Bruce Elliott, Machar Reid, Miguel Crespo

If you have watched a Grand Slam tennis tournament in the past decade, you are probably aware that the game is dominated by just a few international powerhouses. At the conclusion of each tournament, it is likely that you will see Serena Williams atop the women’s podium and a member of the Big Four—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray—hoisting the trophy for the men. And while there is not a lot of variety in the outcome of these matches, the game of tennis itself has changed drastically over the decades, as developments in technology and conditioning regimens, among other factors, have altered the style of play. Underpinning many of these developments is science, and this book explains the scientific wonders that take the ball from racquet to racquet and back again.

Each chapter explores a different facet of the game—learning, technique, game analysis, the mental edge, physical development, nutrition for performance and recovery, staying healthy, and equipment—and is organized around a series of questions. How do we learn the ins and outs of hitting the ball in and not out? What are the main technological developments and software programs that can be used to assist in performance and notational analysis in tennis? What role does sports psychology play in developing a tennis player? What is the role of fluid replacement for the recreational, junior, and professional player? What rule changes have been made with respect to the racquet, ball, and ball-court interaction to maintain the integrity of the game in the face of technological change? Each question is examined with the aid of explanatory diagrams and illustrations, and the book can be used to search for particular topics, or read straight through for a comprehensive overview of how player and equipment work together.

Whether you prefer the grass courts of Wimbledon, the clay courts of the French Open, or the hard courts of the US and Australian Opens, Tennis Science is a must-have for anyone interested in the science behind a winning game.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226136400
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/26/2015
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 1,243,884
Product dimensions: 9.30(w) x 10.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Bruce Elliott is a senior research fellow in biomechanics in the School of Sport Science, Exercise, and Health at the University of Western Australia. He is the author of numerous articles and books on sports biomechanics. Machar Reid is the sports science and medicine manager for Tennis Australia and coauthor of several books on tennis sports science and coaching. Miguel Crespo is the research officer at the International Tennis Federation (ITF) Development Department, Spain. He runs the ITF’s education program and has coauthored and edited many ITF publications.

Read an Excerpt

Tennis Science

How Player and Racket Work Together

By Machar Reid, Bruce Elliott, Miguel Crespo, Nick Rowland

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The Ivy Press Limited
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-13962-3


learning the game

Machar Reid, Miguel Crespo, and Damian Farrow

Learning is commonly understood to permeate the careers of most tennis players rather than simply occur at a discrete moment in time, or stop soon after players are able to execute the game's basic skills. When conceptualized in this way, learning can be appreciated as a dynamic process, in which every interaction with the coach and the environment has the potential to shape progress. Individual idiosyncrasies, resulting from differences in physical size and learning styles, can also influence the ways in which players digest information, respond to coach instructions, process feedback and ultimately improve. This chapter therefore considers the growing body of evidence that allows us to explore the interaction between player and coach.

What factors influence learning a skill during practice?

What type of practice will best improve my tennis?

A coach's decision on how to structure practice depends upon factors such as the age and experience of the learner, as well as the complexity of the skill to be learned. Interestingly, research examining how to most effectively structure practice to improve player learning has provided some counterintuitive findings that challenge the accepted coaching practice of "drilling" or "grooving" a stroke — using large numbers of repetitions and minimal variation.

One way of structuring practice is to address the amount of mental effort needed to perform a skill. Low variability or blocked practice — repeating the same shot multiple times before doing the same with a different shot — means that a learner's mental effort to produce each shot is low (also known as low contextual interference). High variability or random practice — varying the shots — means that greater mental effort is required (known as high contextual interference). For example, if a flat tennis serve is practiced and then another flat tennis serve is hit from the same position, the mental effort for the second serve is not as demanding as the first. However, if the player were asked to hit a groundstroke instead of repeating the serve, they would use more mental effort to generate the new movement sequence.

Research into the contextual interference phenomenon reveals that practicing a number of shots in a random manner leads to improved retention of the practiced skills, compared with practicing each task separately for a block of trials. For example, blocked practice would involve practicing one skill (such as the forehand groundstroke) constantly for a period, and then following that with practicing a different skill (such as the backhand groundstroke). In comparison, random practice would involve practicing both skills randomly in the same block of practice attempts: for instance, hitting two backhands, then a forehand, then another backhand, and so on. At the end of practice, an equal number of forehand and backhand groundstrokes would have been performed by the learner.

Researchers have found that random practice does not improve the player's ability to perform the skills initially, but enhances their retention later on, as well as improving performance of the skills in more varied game situations.

Varying practice The skill level of the performer and the difficulty of the task to be practiced are two important factors that influence a coach's decision about how much practice variability to expose the learner to. In general terms, it is evident that traditional approaches to tennis coaching typically err on the side of less variability, providing a more manageable challenge for the learner. Interestingly, research evidence tends to suggest a more aggressive approach to practice variability is more effective. In this diagram illustrating the objective of increasing the forehand racket velocity, the coach increases the variability — and contextual interference — as the player's skill level improves.

Skill level and practice The amount of practice variability will be significantly reduced for children and beginners learning tennis. It is important to give young learners plenty of repeat trials in the form of blocked practice, with opportunities to either reinforce a desirable outcome or correct an error from the previous practice attempt. A basic movement pattern must be established before variations of that pattern or changing environmental conditions are experienced. Equally, a more skilled performer may also need to practice in a more blocked manner when re-learning a skill or making a modification to an existing skill. The table provides general guidelines.

Mental effort The more mental effort a player is forced to use when practicing a skill, or a combination of skills, the greater their chance of retaining those skills.

Do tennis skills benefit from task decomposition?

Should I practice parts of a stroke separately?

Many tennis coaches structure entire practice sessions around refining the mechanical consistency of their players' strokes, hoping to achieve the perfect, repeatable stroke. However, achieving this "stroke nirvana" is highly unlikely (and even undesirable). Furthermore, the practice methods that coaches regularly employ to achieve this are often counterproductive.

Players, at all levels of the game, have been instructed by coaches to break down a skill and rehearse it in its component parts. In coaching science, such an approach is termed "task decomposition." Perhaps the most commonly performed example of task decomposition in tennis is that which sees the ball toss and racket swing of the serve practiced independently of each other. This is done to enhance the movement consistency of the individual component parts, under the assumption that any improvements are carried over when the parts are reassembled and the whole skill is rehearsed. However, in sports like tennis, which involve lots of interceptive skills that rely on strong connections between perception and action for effective performance, the efficacy of this type of practice has been challenged. The notion of perception — action coupling can be traced back to the work of James Gibson, in the late 1970s, who described a reciprocal relationship between how we process sensory information and produce related actions.

Recent research has investigated the kinematic effects of breaking down the serve, by separating the ball toss from the racket swing. The results were contrary to what many coaches might expect and, most importantly, intend. Players tossed the ball significantly higher (on average, 9 in or 22.5 cm) when the toss was rehearsed independently from the racket swing, resulting in an increase of approximately 10% in toss time (from ball release to "impact"). Furthermore, players were no better equipped to achieve a stable or consistent toss without ball impact — if anything, the consistency of their toss deteriorated. Rehearsing the swing without the toss also appeared to disturb the link between perception and action that is critical to serving success. Specifically, players changed their timing and reduced the velocity of their racket swing at impact by about 22%.

Landing locations When trying to develop a consistent ball toss, players are sometimes asked to practice landing their ball toss on a racket placed on a position just over the baseline in front of the front foot. In a study by Whiteside and colleagues, eight professional players hit a combined total of 40 successful serves to a target placed at the "T" of the deuce court. Graph A shows the extrapolated landing positions of the ball had the serves not been hit, illustrating just how misguided this common placement of the racket is. However, even in adjusting this placement (to the left and forward), there is no guarantee that the target is more realistic given the variability inherent in the tossing action (shown in graph B).

Breaking down Coaches and players need to be mindful of the kinematic changes that can occur as a result of task decomposition and skill interventions more generally. Given that players typically toss the ball higher when practicing the serve independent of the swing, there are occasions when this may be beneficial if changes to the timing of the action (through a higher toss) are needed. More commonly, though, players may need to be instructed to consciously toss the ball lower or find other ways to preserve the connection between perception and action when rehearsing the toss.

Knee serve Consistent with coaching convention, some skills can be "decomposed" or constrained more readily than others. For example, asking players to serve from their knees (blocking knee and ankle extension) has been shown to increase vertical racket velocity and ball spin. However, whether those increases are transferred to the skill when the whole stroke action is "reassembled" remains unclear.

Kinematics The table shows the effects of the knee serve, as a practice intervention, on the body and racket kinematics that the exercise is intended to target (as compared to the kinematics of a normal serve). The knee serve does appear to reduce trunk rotation about the twist axis, as expected. However, this does not lead to a concurrent and subsequent increase in shoulder-over-shoulder rotation. It also produces greater ball spin through a more vertical swing path at impact, which is accompanied by significantly lower forward racket velocities.

How does learning transfer affect tennis skills?

Will playing other sports improve my tennis?

In the world of sport, fundamental motor skills such as throwing, jumping, and catching — often learned in early childhood — are presumed to be the building blocks for more specific sports skills. For instance, the overhand throw and side-arm strike are purported to benefit the tennis-specific skills of the serve and groundstrokes respectively. There have always been anecdotes about tennis players benefiting from playing squash, golf, or even soccer, as these sports contain movement patterns or thought processes that may improve tennis performance through what is known as "learning transfer." However, there is a distinct lack of empirical data to support such assertions.

So how do a tennis player's previous experiences influence the learning of a new tennis skill? There does indeed appear to be a positive transfer of learning between activities involving similar motor tasks, the underlying reasons for which are the physical similarity of the skills (for instance, overhand throwing and serving) and the processing requirements of the two tasks.

With this understanding in mind, coaches and commentators often note how players with good "throwing arms" have a head start when it comes to developing prowess in the serve. The inference is that there is a mechanical similarity between the two tasks that allows players with good throwing technique to develop more competent service actions. Independent biomechanical assessments of the two skills suggest that they do indeed share a number of important mechanical similarities, such as transverse plane trunk rotation and upper arm external and internal rotation during the respective wind-up and forwardswing phases. While these linkages are borne out by independent samples of expert throwers and tennis players, more recent work has compared the kinematics of the throw and serve within an expert tennis- playing population. This suggests that the skills share a similar sequence of proximal — distal joint rotations and enjoy moderately positive associations between the speed of transverse plane trunk rotation and ball velocity. Interestingly, the magnitude of peak upper arm internal rotation velocity was quite different, suggesting that this correspondence may not be as definitive as supposed.

Racket games Competitors in one racket sport occasionally participate in another as a form of recreation or with a specific performance motive in mind. In essence, however, any benefit is likely to be limited — with some potential for positive transfer in cognitive and perceptual skill, but not necessarily in movement kinematics.

Learning transfer There is evidence to suggest that there may be some positive transfer of learning between overhand throwing and the development of the tennis serve. However, the benefits of this are likely to predominantly exist in the early stages of learning when a player is first developing the tennis serve action. As skill level develops, the specificity of the serve action is likely to reduce any further transfer. Athletes involved in overarm throwing and hitting sports all arrive in similar positions of maximum external rotation of the upper arm, which enables these athletes to produce the forceful internal rotation movement about the shoulder that is so important to generating high ball speed (see Chapter 2, here). Additionally, as highlighted above, overarm throwing and tennis hitting actions are characterized by similar alignments between the upper arm and trunk at impact and release — these alignments have been shown to produce favorable velocity and joint loading profiles.

Does court size affect learning?

What size court should a young player use?

A standard singles tennis court is 78 ft (23.77 m) long, 27 ft (8.23 m) wide, and with a net height of 3 ft (0.91 m). These dimensions are fixed in the rules of tennis, and were historically derived with the adult game in mind. Logically, it stands to reason that, as players mature, the court size and net height should take account of changes in the players' physical stature. In other words, if standard singles courts are constructed for the typical adult — an average height of 5 ft 9 in (1.76 m) if male and 5 ft 4 in (1.62 m) if female — then children should play on courts that are smaller in size and with lower nets.

In recent times, the game has enthusiastically tried to embrace this notion, yet the recommended dimensions of the court and net remain arbitrary or loosely based on anthropometric differences. For example, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) recommends that children aged between five and eight play on courts measuring 36 × 20 ft (10.97 × 6.00 m) and with net heights of 2 ft 8 in (80 cm), before progressing to courts 60 × 27 ft (18.23 × 8.23 m), with net heights between 2 ft 8 in and 3 ft (80–91 cm) at the age of eight to 10. Interestingly, different scaling factors are applied to the size of the court as compared with the height of the net.

Without much evidence to support scaling recommendations, Timmerman et al. used a scaling ratio (based on a comparison of the average time between shots hit by adults against 10-year-old boys) to assess the effect on the characteristics of matchplay of a court and net that were 76% of the size of the standard court and net. When playing with just the lower net, the children hit more shots from a comfortable height, played more volleys, and hit more winners, but committed more errors than with a standard net. When both the net and court were reduced in size, the tempo of the rallies was closer to that of the adult game. In conclusion, this study suggests that net height may be underestimated, as compared with racket length or ball compression, as a factor in helping young players to learn the game.

Court short Most children of eight years old or less will find it difficult to play properly on a full-size court — rallies tend to be much shorter and play will occur well within the court area, and require more running to cover the court area. A typical crosscourt groundstroke from the baseline travels a longer distance toward the opposite corner as the court size increases. The recommended dimensions for court sizes to be used for Tennis10s (the ITF's modfied program for tennis for players under the age of 10) for each age group are shown on the right.


Excerpted from Tennis Science by Machar Reid, Bruce Elliott, Miguel Crespo, Nick Rowland. Copyright © 2015 The Ivy Press Limited. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Chapter One: Learning the Game
Chapter Two: Technique
Chapter Three: Performance Analysis and Game Intelligence
Chapter Four: The Mental Edge
Chapter Five: Physical Development
Chapter Six: Nutrition and Recovery
Chapter Seven: Staying Healthy
Chapter Eight: Equipment and Technology

Notes on Contributors
Tables of Measurements

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