1. Functional movement
The first step to improving a players’ speed is to assess and correct their functional movement limitations. It sounds unrelated to speed, but in fact, it is the foundation for building quality training programs, tennis mechanics and creating higher speeds on the court. Not only does it make the athlete more efficient in their movements (and improve their ability to perform tennis skills), but it will also help decrease the chance of injury.
Using a simple tool such as the Functional Movement Screen (FMS), a coach can accurately find out the weakest link in the players’ movement patterns. Left unaddressed by a qualified movement specialist or high-level coach, these weaknesses will hold you back from performing speed development drills, exercises and your movements in the match itself.
For example, if hip extension is an issue (which is very common among players; largely due to the fact that we sit down most of the day) the player will not be able to use the potential of range of motion possible when they push off the ground moving laterally or in a straight line.
To get a body at rest to accelerate in the direction of the ball at optimal speed, you need a requisite amount of strength. If leg and core strength is not in the correct proportion to your body weight you will be slower than you should be. As players age, their strength levels tend to drop or their weight increases. This could lead to slower starting speeds on the tennis court. Reaction time plays a role, but not as much as you think. Additionally, in adolescents, their bodies tend to grow disproportionately to their strength levels. Most times, a good dose of strength alone can be the fastest way to improve speed.
There is the age-old argument that you cannot teach speed, that you are born with it. If you have ever taught or been taught by someone to serve or hit a forehand, you would know that there is an optimal way to perform those skills. The same is true of speed. You can improve the skill of arm drive, leg drive, body position, shin angles, as well as how the foot interacts with the court. These skills, if done incorrectly, will make you less efficient and slower than you should be. There is no argument that some people have a greater potential for being faster. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach people to reach their “top” speeds.
Individual and age-appropriate power and reactiveness exercises will help increase the rate of turnover, as well as concentric “push off” to increase speed. There are exercises and drills to enhance the central nervous system, which will increase quickness and leg speed. This work can give you quickness, but not necessarily speed. It is like the roadrunner spinning his wheels but not really going anywhere. Turnover is important, but not nearly as significant as utilizing ground reaction force. Newton’s third law: “Every action produces an equal and opposite reaction,” guarantees that if you push into the court; the court will push back with an equal force to propel you in the direction that you want to go.
Power is a function of strength and time. Faster players display maximal amounts of strength in very short windows of time. In this case, someone who has a greater amount of power can utilize ground reaction force to create greater displacement with every step on the court. Plyometric drills done appropriately (exercises chosen conservatively with proper progression and age taken into consideration) help improve the explosiveness on the tennis court.