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Ask the Lab: Acceleration and Agility

PLEASE NOTE: The medical opinions in USTA.com's Ask the High Performance Lab are responses intended for the average player. Please consult with your primary physician before beginning any new exercise program.

From: Corey, Missouri: I was wondering if there are certain things I can do to increase my acceleration and agility. I am pretty muscular and I'm fast for my size but I am almost at 0% for retrieving lobs when I'm up at the net. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Dr. Mark Kovacs: Corey, what you are describing is rather common. Many good athletes, even some great ones have certain limitations. Rarely does any athlete have superior levels of strength, power, acceleration, deceleration, maximum velocity and agility. These are all important components to being a successful tennis player and each component needs to be trained. Firstly, it is important to understand the different definitions for the components mentioned above.

Strength: Is defined as the ability to generate force. In simple terms this is the amount of weight an athlete can move, irrespective of the time it takes them. An example would be in the gym when an athlete attempts to lift as much weight as possible one time. This is termed a 1RM or 1 repetition maximum. This type of test measures how much weight is lifted, but is not measuring the time it takes to lift the weight.

Power: Is defined as the amount of force generated in the shortest amount of time. Unlike strength, which is just a measure of how much an athlete may be able to lift, power is the combination of strength and speed.

Acceleration: Is the rate of change of an individual’s velocity. In practical terms it is how quickly an athlete increases speed. Acceleration only occurs over short distances (typically no more than 40 yards) and is a major factor in a tennis player’s on-court movement.

Deceleration: Is the opposite of acceleration and it is a measure of how quickly an athlete can decrease speed. Deceleration ability is major factor in slowing down in preparation to hit the ball and also to aid in change of direction movements.

Maximum Velocity: Is when an athlete is sprinting at their fastest rate possible. This usually takes between 20-40 yards to build-up to and is rarely maintained for more than 20-40 yards. It is interesting to note that no athlete (even the fastest human on earth) is able to run more than about 70-80 yards before they start to decelerate. Maximum velocity is never reached on a tennis court, and therefore does not need to be a focus of a tennis players training program.

Agility: a rapid whole body movement with change of velocity or direction in response to a stimulus. In tennis, this is one of the most important components to effective and efficient on-court movement.

A research study was conducted a few years ago that found that acceleration, maximum velocity sprinting and agility were independent physical components and athletes need to train all three components regularly and separately as there is very little carry-over between them. This means that running 30 X 20 yard sprints will improve your acceleration, but it will not help your agility. It is not surprising that you are rather fast running in a straight line, but due to your muscular size, it requires even more strength and training to slow you down and change direction. Your difficulty retrieving lobs when you come into the net shows that you may need to focus more training on your ability to decelerate quickly and change direction (agility) to retrieve the lobs. It is important to work on movements that mimic or simulate those where you currently are not as strong as you would like. A good recommendation is to work on-court sprinting forward, then split-stepping and retrieving fast. This type of work can be done with a racket and can be incorporated into your hitting session. You can also dedicate specific time to this type of work before and after practice and work with a coach or trainer who has experience with tennis specific movement to help your movement technique. Hope this information is helpful and good luck tracking down those lobs.

About the Author

Mark Kovacs, PhD, CSCS, is the USTA Manager of Sport Science and is a tennis researcher, certified strength and conditioning specialist and certified tennis professional. He was a former tennis All-American and NCAA champion. The USTA Sport Science department is responsible for testing, training and tracking top junior and professional tennis players as well as producing, evaluating and disseminating sport science and sport medicine information relevant to tennis.

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