Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tennis for Now or Later?*

Tennis for Now or Later?* (or Should You Play to Win Today or Play for the "Long Run"?)

*Thanks to Ron Miller of for suggesting this great topic and these questions!

Tailoring your game for the NOW, or maybe for LATER
This topic is probably closely related to the topic of tennis and aging. The two (2) primary competing views or camps seem to be: Play to "win now" and get results today (or real soon) vs. play for the "long run" or the "long view", meaning play with measured intensity and pick your shots to go all-out for.

Many young people, juniors, high schoolers, college level, and lower-level pros on the challenger circuit, etc. might be playing to win now. Understandable. They are going for their goals now, be it college scholarship, ranking points, money, sponsors, shot at pros, etc. Temptations for performance-enhancing substances are also probably great.

As for the mechanics of how they might play tennis: well, it's probably "go-for-broke". Hit with power and spin, maybe that Far Western Grip or even that crazy Hawaiian Grip and blast away, shoulders, elbows, knees, joints etc. are a concern only for another day far into the future...Winning (and now) becomes the only issue...Thus, the biggest weakness of this camp might be the failure to properly recognize and heed the human body's limitations over time...

Older players, say those in their 40s, 50s, and older, might not have that option or luxury. If they want to continue to enjoy the game and enjoy it for more years, they know they will need to pace themselves, go for shorter rallies, perhaps play on softer surfaces to help protect joints and ligaments, and even ease off their intensity at times. etc. Aging forces maturity in many players in how they play...However, the biggest limitation of this camp might be that some less-intense older players may short-change themselves about the value of competition - it's challenges and lessons...

Can you nurse a minor injury but still develop your game?
Possibly. It may depend on the type of injury, and what body parts the injury might implicate. For example, in my case, I had a finger injury to my pinkie on racket hand last year. I am still taking hand therapy, and it's better. But in the interim, I still worked on other things such as footwork drills and shadow tennis.

Is there a time to stop on the court, listen to your body, and make healing your primary concern?
Probably so. In my mind, good health and longevity over-ride winning a point, game or set. If your body is telling you something is wrong and especially if a doctor, nurse or medical professional is advising you, your game-playing must be secondary to healing and recovery. That does not mean you still cannot learn, improve and advance your game while mending- today, we have videos, blogs, books, discussion forums, podcasts and even Internet liveshows to help learn from while healing...

What changes can you, or should you, consider making to add longevity on the court?
Tennis Magazine (October 2009) issue was dedicated to the topic of tennis and aging. Many people here probably saw it. Johnny Mac was on the cover smiling with the caption "Still Going Strong at 50". Can one's tennis get better with age? Can one make changes to add court longevity to their tennis game (no matter their age)?

The answer is probably a strong "yes". Age usually means more experience, more time to gather knowledge about good technique, proper strategy, etc. Some observers say that many repetitive tennis injuries are simply the result of repeated poor technique in strokes. Correcting technique problems can, by itself, prolong tennis play over the years.

Warm ups, stretches and balance exercises probably become more important for older players, especially since joints, knees, shoulders and elbows are often a source of trouble. Injury prevention exercises, including building-up core strength with for example medicine ball exercises, likely become more important. Core strengthening enables better use of the larger body parts, and lesser use of the smaller body parts, thus also prolonging one's tennis-playing years.

Possible on-court changes to one's tennis game to add longevity suggested in the article (regardless of age but especially if age is a concern): "shrink the court" by learning to play more in no-man's land (though this is contrary to conventional teaching), lobs, slices, change-ups in speed and spin, etc.

Should your physical age affect your shot selection or strategy? Quite possibly. The older a player gets, we know people lose endurance, reaction time, muscle elasticity and recovery. He or she should be mindful of their limits, and thus try to close a point more quickly, perhaps look to volley more rather than get into long baseline rallies, and lob more.

How much of a role does the mind play in your tennis age? There is probably a direct relation between one's mind and one's "tennis age". A mind-set of "go-for-broke" and blast away at the ball, without much regard for shot selection is many times a younger player's mind-set. Older players tend perhaps to use shot selection strategy more, use slice and dice more, vary pace and spin more, value constructing a point to conclusion.

There are exceptions of course. And no "value judgment" is being made here. Power is the way of tennis now, and older players probably need to handle and generate some power at least some of the time to even hit with more powerful young hitters.

Is the mind and tennis related? Some believe that tennis can sometimes be similar to a game of chess and the art of thinking 2 or 3 moves ahead, and that learning chess pays off to improve one's tennis game...

Should the pro game come with the disclaimer, "don't try this at home." Probably. Naturally, if we could all just "copy" the pros, the pros wouldn't be pros. However, we can probably observe and learn from the "big things" that pros might do, namely the fundamentals of good tennis - sound footwork, racket preparation, watching the ball, etc. - and benefit from watching that.

Best, Gary

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