Tracking Physical Improvements

In High Performance Sport, it is not uncommon to hear about players undergoing physical testing. It often involves some type of speed, endurance and strength tests. These tests are performed after approximately 6 to 8 weeks, and are used to assess both the athlete’s improvement and the effectiveness of the program.

This philosophy works well in many sports, especially those with a genuine, and substantial, off-season. Tennis, however, is set up very differently. Players, even junior players, can easily enter up to 40 tournaments a year. There is very seldom a block of time that lasts the required 6 to 8 weeks for the program to take effect. And what happens when you have reached the end of that time period and the player has not improved as much as planned? What then?

At the National Academy Queensland (NAQ) the program is set up slightly differently. While we do have scheduled comprehensive testing dates, there is a greater emphasis on ‘tracking’ – performing exercises on a regular (weekly) basis that we believe show us how the player and the program are working.

While these tests might not all be valid and reliable in a scientific context, we have found them to be a great indicator of improvement on court. This article has been written after almost 4 years of working with some of the best junior players coming out of Australia.

The exercises we have chosen are listed below, with a short brief on how and why we use them.

Height & Weight

Working with developmental players we have found that tracking height and weight adds valuable information into the training programs. During growth spurts volume and/or intensity is reduced, and there might be a change in expectation in progression.

Since we know that we are taller in the morning, and shrink slightly during the day, we take height measurements as late in the day as possible. It is never recorded until a decent warm up, mobility, and gym or tennis session have been completed.

Due to daily fluctuations of weight we have found that taking weight more than once a week is unnecessary. We also only record to the nearest 100 grams.

Vertical Jump

Experience has shown that the Vertical Jump (VJ), or counter-movement jump, is an effective test to evaluate athleticism – the higher the VJ, the better the athlete. We have also found that improvements in the VJ have lead to coaches reporting that the player is a ‘better athlete’ or is ‘moving better’.

The VJ can also be used to evaluate fatigue. A sudden drop off of more than 10% may be an indicator that the player is slightly overtrained (or, more correctly, overreached). This is not necessarily a bad thing – often programs are designed with the intent of fatiguing the player, and then later to freshen them up. Just make sure that the expected VJ result mirrors the true VJ result.

We aim to have all our players reaching their Personal Bests (PBs) leading into their most important events.

Triple Hop

From a standing start, the player hops as far as they can 3 times. The distance from their toe (from the start) to their heel (3rd landing) is recorded. This is performed at least 3 times on each leg.

We are fortunate to perform this on a sprung gymnastics mat. This stresses the developmental bodies less than a hard surface, like concrete or a court. Rubber matting also works well, as does a flat grass surface.

The information collected should be in centimetres. We round off to the lower 5cm – i.e. if you jump 524cm it is recorded as 520cm – to reduce the human (eyesight) errors that might occur.

This is a great evaluation tool because it is not only used to assess performance and show bilateral deficits, it can also be used in a return from injury manner.

Take the case of an injury to the lower limb, or even the back. The coaching and rehab staff has access to the distance the player was hopping within a week of the injury. They will also have the player’s PB. Using this data, they can set some comprehensive goals and guidelines for the player. For example, they might say that the player can only return to hitting once their Triple Hop (TH) is equal to 60% of their PB; and return to match-play conditions when their TH is 90% of their PB.

All this information can be used to help the injured/recovering player return to full fitness.

Chin Ups

At the NAQ a ‘chin up’ is defined as having a supinated grip, while the ‘pull up’ has a pronated grip.

We use the chin up in our Tracking so that we can compare our youngest members of the academy with the older, stronger players.

We use the chin up to evaluate the strength of the ‘pulling muscles’. It also seems to correlate quite highly with speed too, probably due to the fact they are both related to relative strength (i.e. the ability to exert force in relation to body mass).

Some of our best performers in the chin ups have been our best performers on court:

–              Jason Kubler, age 15,  (former ITF No. 1) – 24

–              Ash Barty, 15,  (Junior Wimbledon Champion) – 13

–              Naiktha Bains, 13, (National u16 Champion) – 17

–              Priscilla Hon , 13, (National u14 Champion) – 18

30 Second Push Ups

The 30 Second Push is used to evaluate the power, strength and endurance of the ‘pushing muscles’. The weaker the player, the more this is a ‘strength’ test. For example, a player who can only perform 5 push ups, this is a test of strength.

As a player’s strength improves it shifts towards a power-endurance test.

We perform this test with the player’s hands gripping a barbell, which is lying on the floor. The idea behind this is that the stronger players actually pull themselves towards the barbell in an effort to increase their reps.

Just before Jason was transitioned to the AIS program, he was clocking over 40 push ups in the 30 seconds!

Other Evaluations

Over time, and depending on the ages of our academy players, we have also used the deadlift (with a trap bar) for 3 reps; the bench press for 3 reps; and a 1.3km run to track our players’ improvements. These tests have had some correlation with improvement on court, though not as strongly as the aforementioned tests.

You’ll notice that that the Tracking protocols are easy to perform and have limited equipment. They are also easy to record. This means that a coach or academy can monitor a large number of players in a very short time.

Good luck with implementing this, and if you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact me.

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