Sunday, September 30, 2012

Really Good Forehand (and General Tennis) Concepts from Florian Meier

Florian Meier has some excellent advice for improving your forehand in this video series:

There are three videos and they are all quite useful. The important take-aways are:
  • Go down (knees bent) and up (knees extend) on your groundstrokes for power.
  • Turn fully (off arm parallel to baseline) on groundstrokes for power.
  • Hit through the ball (extension) for depth on groundstrokes.
  • Slow things down and do shadow swings to teach your body the right movements.
Very concise and sound advice.

Monday, August 20, 2012

If there was a magic 'Play Better' Pill, Would you take it?

Of course you would! Or, you might ask: "What is the catch? Does it give me an irregular heart beat or features of the opposite gender?" That is a good question, and I hope you would at least ask it before swallowing any magic pills.

Let's talk about what a "pill" is. A pill is something you eat which helps you play better tennis. Obviously, you don't want to take a pill that has horrible or life threatening side effects; but would you take a pill to play better if it tasted bad? I bet you would. Would you take a play-better pill if you had to take it at a specific time before your match? Yeah, that's not too difficult. Would you take a pill if you had to experiment with which type and dosage worked best for you? That requires a little work; but if it means you'd win more, you'd do it.

Magic Pill #1: Proper 24-hour Pre-Competition Meals
You can improve your athletic performance if you come into the event with your body in the following state:
  • Fully hydrated
  • Mostly empty stomach
  • Muscles loaded with glycogen (fuel)
Here's a plan you can follow to arrive at the net in that state.

The Day Before Competition
  • Force yourself to drink nothing but water. If you are a caffeine user, you are allowed one caffeinated beverage (12 ounces); caffeine withdrawl starts 12-36 hours after stopping usage and you don't want to enter withdrawl. Other than that, you should drink only water, and in the amount of 48 to 64 ounces (based on your size) throughout the day. Start with a big cup when you first wake up. Drink water with lunch. Drink water with dinner, and not after. You don't want to have your bladder disturb your sleep.
  • Eat meals high in complex carbohydrates and low in fat. Complex carbohydrates get converted to glycogen which is the fuel for your muscles. The more complex carbs you eat, the more glycogen gets packed into your system. Fats leave the stomach slowly and slow down the digestion of other foods. Examples of complex carbohydrate foods are: rice (brown is best), pasta (spinach, whole grain, rice are maybe best), oatmeal and other whole grains products (e.g. whole grain bread), beans, potatoes, peas, vegetables, and fresh fruits. Here are some sample food ideas:
    • Breakfast Ideas: whole grain cereal with skim milk, instant unrefined oatmeal, whole wheat toast with apple butter, whole wheat apple bread or raisin bread, bran muffin, buckwheat pancakes (no syrup!), banana, prunes, raisins.
    • Lunch & Dinner Ideas: baked potato (no butter! can use plain yogurt to top), sweet potato, raw or steamed vegetables, brown rice, pasta (with low fat sauce like marinara), soup (split-pea, bean, or lentil).
The Day Of Competition
  • Six hours prior to competition, eat a high carbohydrate meal. Use the guidelines from the "Day Before" rules. Drink 8 ounces of water with this meal.
  • Two hours prior to competition, eat a small meal that consists of half your weight in carbohydrates. So, if you weigh 150 pounds, eat 75 grams of complex carbohydrates. You can find the amount of grams of carbohydrates on the nutritional info label on your food. For instance, whole wheat pasta has around 20 grams of carbs per ounce. Whole wheat bread has around 15 grams of carbs per ounce. A large baked potato has around 60 grams. Don't eat ANY Fat with this meal. Everything should be plain. Eat one piece of fresh fruit (apples are great). Drink 8 ounces of water with this meal. You should still be hungry.
  • 45 minutes prior to competition, if you are a caffeine user, drink your caffeinated beverage.
  • 15 minutes prior to competition, drink 16 ounces of water.
  • During competition drink 8 ounces of water every 30 minutes - not all at once - but gradually.
  • During competition eat 2-3 ounces of fresh fruit every 30 minutes. Banana, apple, and raisins are great.

Magic Pill #2: Caffeine
Caffeine is a commonly used drug that has physiological and psychological affects. Generally it has positive affects when it is administered and withdrawl symptoms for regular users who stop taking it. Excessive use (see below) is banned by collegiate associations (NCAA, NJCAA, NAIA).
  • Caffeine in excess of 15 micrograms/ml in urine is illegal in NCAA & NJCAA (perhaps NAIA) competition. You have to drink around 8 6oz cups of coffee to reach that level (800 milligrams of caffeine). But be careful, some coffee is stronger (up to 200 milligrams/6 ounces), so, never drink more than 4 cups in a 6 hour period of time.
  • Caffeine reaches peak blood levels at 45-60 minutes and takes up to 6 hours to completely leave the system.
  • Caffeine withdrawl symptoms begin 12-36 hours after the last dose and peak at 20-40 hours. Withdrawl symptoms will generally end after a week. Your mental and physical performance will suffer if you are experiencing caffeine withdrawl.
If you are a habitual caffeine user, you will for sure want to make sure you have caffeine in your system when you are playing. You may be a habitual caffeine user and not even know it because it is found in so many products - soft drinks, chocolate, energy drinks, etc.

Caffeine can have quite different effects on different people. For instance, for me, it greatly improves my mood and mental clarity if I get about 200 mg (1-2 cups of coffee), but makes me overly nervous if I drink 4 cups of coffee. I've also noticed that I don't get the same effects from other sources of caffeine as I do from coffee.

Caffeine can be a magic pill in two ways.
  • Always avoid caffeine withdrawl if you are a regular (3 or more times a week) caffeine user. Give yourself at least a small dose 45 minutes prior to competition.
  • Even if you aren't a regular caffeine user, you may find that a dose from a particular product at a particular amount improves your tennis game. Start with something like a 5-hour energy drink (200 mg) or a cup (6 ounces - approx 120 mg) of coffee 45 minutes before a match. Note how you felt and how well you hit the ball. If you felt a big difference in your balance, you may want to try a smaller dose. If you felt little at all, try increasing the dose, but be VERY careful once you get past 400 mg, and if you are a college player, never go over 700 mg. Keep a notebook of what you took and in what amount and then how you played and felt.
  • Since caffeine causes you to process more water out of your system, make sure you are drinking plenty of water - perhaps an extra 8 ounces for every 200 mg of caffeine.
Scholarly Articles on Caffeine
Dr. Roland R. Griffiths, John's Hopkins, 2011 Publication
Dr. Roland R. Griffiths, John's Hopkins, 2003 Publication

Magic Pill #3: Pineapple
Almost everyone who plays a sport competitively will have to deal with some sort of "itis" like tennis elbow, jumper's knee, and thrower's shoulder. "itis" means inflammation which is usually accompanied by pain which is almost always accompanied by a loss of performance. Usually what is inflamed is a tendon where it attaches to the joint or in its sheath or one of the bursa (sacs of fluid) that cushions a joint. These types of injuries often occur because of overuse of a particular joint or sudden use after months of inactivity. Whenever you feel any pain, the first thing you should do is see a trainer or a doctor. However, among all of the advice you are going to get on how to fix the problem - rest, ice, heat, massage, specific strengthening, bands, anti-inflammatory drugs like naproxen sodium - eating pineapple may never be mentioned and is perhaps your most effective option.

Eating pineapple reduces swelling and promotes healing. It's that simple. Google it and you'll find articles talking about how it has enzyme Bromelain which plays a major role in the body's healing process. I have personally found that it is more effective than taking over the counter anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, Nuprin) and Naproxen (Aleve). In one accidental experiment, I found that eating pineapple the night before made it less painful for me to count out numbers with my fingers to my 6-month-old son. It was easy for me to see the difference because I did the same thing every morning and experienced the same discomfort except on the days where I ate pineapple the night before. In another case, I injured my right knee playing basketball. It didn't hurt right away - only two days later, but the pain and swelling got progressively worse and lasted for two weeks. Taking Naproxen Sodium for four days helped but I was still barely able to walk into the third week. The fourth week I was at the NJCAA National Championship and had a hotel breakfast every morning. Each morning I ate about 8 ounces of pineapple chunks. After 3 days, I was walking without major pain and by the end of the week my knee swelling was much better. This was particularly amazing because I was not able rest much that week - a lot of walking at the tournament. When I got home, I got cocky and ran a 5k race with no training. The next day I could barely walk again when I first got up because I had strained my knee and calf muscle. Each morning I experienced the same pain and stiffness until the 6th morning after I ate pineapple the night before.

I would recommend eating 8 to 12 ounces of pineapple the night before any major contest. And heck, why not have some in the morning too. Being pain free and having less swelling and therefore more range of motion is going to help your performance greatly. And, if you are dealing with any sort of "itis", eat pineapple every day. It will help you heal faster.

Appendix A: Reading Labels to Determine Complex Carbohydrates
To determine how many grams of complex carbohydrates you are eating, you can look at the Nutrition Facts of any packaged food. The formula is as follows:
  • Complex Carbs = Total Carbohydrate - Sugars

Appendix B: Foods High in Complex Carbohydrates

Whole Grains
Whole grains are high in fiber, have moderate protein levels, are low in fat and are also a good source of complex carbs. Specific examples include millet, oats, wheat germ, barley, wild rice, brown rice, buckwheat, oat bran, cornmeal and amaranth. Any product that is made from these grains is also complex as well. Whole grain bread, bagels, buns and rolls are examples of these. Also pasta, macaroni and breakfast cereals that are made from whole grains are complex carbohydrates.

Fruits are high in water content, fiber, vitamins and they have virtually no fat at all. Fruits packed with complex carbohydrates include apricots, oranges, plums, pears, grapefruits and prunes.

Vegetables are high in water, low in fat, have multiple vitamins and minerals, and most varieties are complex carbs. Broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, turnip greens, eggplant, potatoes, yams, corn, carrots, onions, all types of lettuce, celery, cucumbers, cabbage, artichokes and asparagus are all examples of these.

Legumes are oftentimes called pulses. These are characterized by seeds that have an exterior pod surrounding them. Beans are a type of legume that is a complex carbohydrate. Specific examples include lentils, kidney beans, black beans, peas, garbanzo beans, soy beans and pinto beans.


Friday, August 17, 2012

Doubles Rock, Paper, Scissors

We all know that Rock beats Scissors, Paper beats Rock, and Scissors beats Paper, but did you know that a similar relationship holds true for doubles formations?

There are three basic doubles formations: Both-At-Net, 1-Up-1-Back, and Both-Back. We'll call any formation where a player is in no-man's-land a transition, because you don't want either player to stay there because deep volleys and half-volleys are low percentage shots. Here's what-beats-what:
  • Both-At-Net beats 1-Up-1-Back
  • Both-Back has a chance against Both-At-Net
  • 1-Up-1-Back beats Both-Back.
Simple, eh? If you can remember these simple rules, it makes decision making easy in doubles. Notice that Both-At-Net never completely loses, and that's why conventional wisdom says to try to get to that position. However, there is a transition cost every time a player has to move through no-man's-land. Also, 1-Up-1-Back is better than Both-At-Net against the Both-Back formation.

Both-At-Net beats 1-Up-1-Back because the guy at net in 1-Up-1-Back is useless. He can't react quickly enough to volleys from the other side to be anything other than a target. The guy at the baseline has to cover the entire court and hope his partner doesn't get hit outright.

Both-Back has a chance against Both-At-Net because both players on the baseline can react to volleys and overheads and split the court. How much of a chance depends on how good the baseline players are at lobs and how good the net players are at overheads. To a lesser extent it is also a matchup between the baseline players ability to hit passing shots and the net players ability to volley against pace.

1-Up-1-Back beats Both-Back because the net man can selectively pick off any weak shots and short lobs that come his way and protect half of the court. The net man can let hard hit shots toward the middle go (something that is not an option in Both-At-Net) because his partner can still get to it. And his partner on the baseline can deal with even well hit lobs aggressively. Every time the Both-Back side hits the ball, they have a good chance of messing up and giving the net man a sitter. Because of that major disadvantage, they lose.

Once you have those simple rules in mind, the rest of the strategy in doubles is about minimizing the affect of your transitions and taking advantage of your opponents' transitions. For example, serving and volleying is a transition from 1-Up-1-Back to Both-At-Net and therefore has some disadvantage to it. It comes down to a matchup between the net rusher's volleying/half-volleying and the returner's ability to hit with pace and keep it low. Also is it a test of the returner's ability to lob the net man. If you can't find serves that force weak enough returns to allow you to hit the transition volleys consistently, then you should stay back and see if your groundstrokes can match up better with the returner's. By the same token, if you can't prevent the returner from lobbing the net man (by serve choice or by moving the net man back a little), you should probably stay back.

Let's say you are staying back on the serve, though. If the returner can hit a return and transition to the net, now you are in a losing position (1-Up-1-Back vs Both-At-Net). You have to find ways to prevent the returner from doing that by looking for serves that make it harder for him to do it or having the net man do more poaching if the return is more of a chip.

Keep in mind that transitions are about having the time to cross no-man's land before you have to hit a shot. You can successfully accomplish a transition by being closer to your target (e.g. standing closer to service line if you are the returner so you have less distance to get to the net position) or by hitting a shot that takes longer to arrive at its destination (e.g. a high lob that lands deep giving you lots of time to rush to the net or for your partner to retreat to the baseline). You can also manage your transitions better if you recognize the need to make one quicker. If you keep the simple rules of what-beats-what in mind and think about how you want to transition, it is the basis for very high percentage doubles.

Move Your Feet! Practice Requirements

Getting to the right position to hit the ball is perhaps the most important part of hitting a good shot. If you know where you want to be on the court and are quick to get there, your positioning will be superior and therefore your shots will be superior.

You've heard this so many times; it starts to lose its meaning. But, it cannot be overemphasized. If you are not in the right position on the court, you will have to adjust your balance and your swing and that leads to inconsistency and weak shots.

Let's also be clear that there are two parts to this:

1) Identify where to be on the court.
2) Get there!

#1 is tricky because you are tracking a moving object. The computations that go on in your head to ascertain the ball's velocity and trajectory as well as your own to determine a target location for you to be to hit the ball is something that must be done unconsciously but learned through practice. That is a subject for another time.

#2 is easier. Move your feet! Improve your speed through training! Learn techniques to keep your feet moving in pressure situations.

Here are some things that I REQUIRE at all times during practice to help with #2.
  • No double bounces!
    In groundstroke drills you are NEVER allowed to let the ball bounce twice. Letting a ball bounce twice gets you in the habit of just standing there. We want to immediately react when we see a ball is going to be short.
  • Bouncing is resting!
    During drills where you have to wait your turn you are NEVER standing; you are always bouncing on your toes like you are jumping rope - both feet coming off the ground at once. This not only tones your legs and helps cardio but also reinforces the habit of being on your toes and keeping your feet moving at all times.