Category Archives: Fitness

Ending The Early Specialization Debate

I was just talking to the parents of a fairly elite 10 year old swimmer in how to deal with the issue of early sport specialization. They were concerned their son is spending too much time in the pool but at the same time worried he will lose his edge if he does not swim enough.  I immediately saw the parallels to what tennis parents and coaches experience and it inspired me to write this post to help those of you out there going through the same issues.

In tennis it is without a doubt true that early sport specialization is linked to overuse injuries, prematurely peaking careers, and plateaus in player development.  It is fairly common to see the best tennis players at the age of 10 go on to later be plagued by injury, hit a roadblock in development, and burn out.  While at the same time it is also true that you must be a fairly decent player at younger ages and regularly play tournaments if you want a shot at doing something special.  If you understand tennis you know how important technique is and that players must hit a countless number of balls to lock in their strokes.  The end result is that we end up at the paradox of “how do I hit a lot of tennis balls and not specialize early on?”

Being both a tennis and physical preparation coach I have a unique perspective because I see both sides of the argument.  I am actually not against deciding on one main sport early on provided a long-term athletic development approach is taken from the beginning.  I believe the odds are good that you can specialize in making tennis your main sport at a young age, remain injury free, and continue to break through to new levels of physical and tournament performance.  The key to doing this is to understand the role strength and conditioning plays in tennis player development.

As I said before tennis is a sport that requires a lot of time spent hitting tennis balls.  If you spend a lot of time on the court you will get very good at tennis specific skills.  The goal of a tennis player is to then accumulate as much tennis-specific volume as possible on an annual and multi-year basis.  To clarify, by tennis-specific volume I mean hitting tennis balls or playing matches because being on the court is as specific as it gets.

This would lead one to conclude that specializing early and spending as much time on the court as possible is the way to go.  However, you must understand that in order to accumulate as much tennis-specific volume as possible a player’s body must have the fitness to support such a high volume of training.  This is where most people miss the boat.  They have juniors accumulating a ton of volume hitting balls and playing matches but their bodies cannot handle it.  The high levels of specific volume lead to better and better tennis but at the same time all the stress slowly but surely accumulates, wears down the body, and injury occurs and/or performance suffers.  This is why strength and conditioning or general physical preparation is so important.

The ultimate goal of strength and conditioning in tennis is to achieve a high enough level of fitness to support all the necessary specific training volume and recovery from it.  Sure strength and conditioning will make a player bigger, faster, stronger, and allow them to express their strokes at a higher level.  However, in a technical sport like tennis the best way to improve your skills is to hit tennis balls and lots of them.  The trap people fall into is that they think if they keep hitting more and more tennis balls they’ll continue to improve and they will but without a strong base of fitness to support that amount of specific volume, and the ability to recover from it, it is only a matter of time before injury or burnout occurs.  Achieving this level of fitness takes a long time and it is only achieved through a variety of movement patterns and training methods.

So to answer the paradoxical question of “how do I hit a ton of tennis balls without specializing in tennis” is to take a long-term athletic development approach from the very beginning.  Begin with the idea that tennis is going to be the main sport and hit a lot of tennis balls while at the same time working on all aspects of fitness (coordination, balance, strength, conditioning, etc.).  Over time you will gradually build up the fitness to support hitting more and more tennis balls and the ability to recover properly from doing so in order to stay injury and burnout free.

If you really want to do this right you have to educate yourselves or get with a coach who truly knows what they are doing because strength and conditioning looks very different at different ages and the process is unique to each child.  For example, strength and conditioning in general for an 8-year-old involves playing tag, crab walking, climbing, and free play to improve conditioning, agility, coordination and strength.  While strength and conditioning for a high school junior will involve running to develop the aerobic energy system, lifting weights to develop strength, or doing more of what comes to mind when you think of traditional fitness.  But making an 8 year old run hill sprints or hit the weight room isn’t going to get the job done.  In fact, inappropriate training will only increase the odds something bad will happen.

Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments below and if you have any questions add them as well, I’ll be happy to answer them.

For those coaches and parents out there who are looking for more information the International Youth Conditioning Association (IYCA) is launching a product this week called Long-Term Athletic Development.  It is a darn good resource to have if you are working with kids and thinking long-term in developing them.  It also happens to be on sale this week for $99.

Off-Season Training for In-Season Performance

This is an article I wrote for a sports publication that is set to go out over the summer.  Even though it is not tennis-specific its worth a read…

“The more you sweat in times of peace, the less you bleed in times of war,” is a saying that is certainly full of wisdom. Training in the off-season is one area where athletes can get a tremendous bang for their buck. This article aims to provide wisdom, based on knowledge and experience, for training in the off-season.

Coach & Mrs. Slezak's Home Gym

Coach & Mrs. Slezak’s Home Gym

Before we get into specifics we have to define what the off-season actually is. The off-season is a period of time when an athlete is not participating competitively in their sport. Team sports like football, basketball, and baseball have a clearly defined off-season. Other sports, such as tennis, have a much harder time defining one. And with the oftentimes overly intense youth sports industry, many young athletes jump from travel to all-star and then varsity high school teams hoping to get ahead and never actually have any off-season.

It is critical for all athletes, professional to youth, to have some sort of off-season built into the year. Playing sports at competitive maximums is taxing on the human body. It does not take much searching to find a sharp increase in overuse injuries for young athletes recently. High school pitchers having Tommy John’s elbow surgery, tennis players with wrist and rotator cuff issues, and knee/ankle problems from the stress of jumping and landing 100+ times on the basketball or volleyball court. It is common sense, you cannot race a car hard every single day at the track without something eventually breaking down and the human body is the same way.

If you cannot play your sport in the off-season then what can you do? First, I am not going to tell you that you cannot play your sport in the off-season. What I will tell you is that you should not be competing in your sport in the off-season. In fact, competing in your sport is the definition of being in-season. This downtime is an opportunity to perform technical skill work or practice but at a much lower intensity and volume then during your competitive season. For example, this would be the time a basketball player could improve dribbling skills or a tennis player technical stroke work. The key take away here is you are not playing your sport at competitive max or “racing speed.”

The off-season is also the time to improve foundational movement patterns, general strength and conditioning. In fact, this should be the bulk of the work done in the off-season. This work done in the off-season builds the base for the future. Improving fundamental movement patterns like squatting, hinging at the hip, pushing, and pulling all improve overall athleticism. The conditioning work done to the aerobic system in the off-season provides the base for the higher-intensity demands to come in the pre and competitive seasons. The improvement of general strength will allow for the athlete to sprint faster, jump higher, and throw harder during the competitive season. You simply cannot build these qualities in the middle of a competitive season. You must build these qualities in the off-season so they can be expressed during the competitive season.

Each sport and athlete has specific needs and if you are serious about getting the most out of the off-season time I would hire a knowledgeable and experienced trainer. The gold-standard for anyone working with youth is to be certified by the International Youth Conditioning Association (IYCA) but the bottom line is do your homework and find someone who thinks long-term and has your best interest in mind. With that being said in a 6-8 week off-season 3 of the most common goals are to develop the aerobic energy system, improve general strength, and clean up fundamental movement patterns.

Regardless of the sport a well-conditioned aerobic system is essential. Obviously a well-conditioned aerobic system will benefit someone like a distance runner or soccer player. However, what most people do not understand is that a fine-tuned aerobic system provides benefits in almost all sports. This is because the aerobic system (energy with oxygen) is responsible for replenishing the fuel for the anaerobic energy system (energy without oxygen). That means football and tennis players need their aerobic system to replenish the anaerobic systems that allow them to perform bursts of high-intensity performance intervals. This is a tremendous advantage late in the game during the competitive season and it can only be accomplished by doing some work dedicated to improving the ability of the lungs, heart and circulatory system to deliver oxygen to working muscle.

Anyone Serious About Training Needs a Heart Rate Monitor

Anyone Serious About Training Needs a Heart Rate Monitor

Another benefit of aerobic training in the off-season, which would include long runs, swimming, or biking at a heart rate of 130-150 beats per minute, is that it promotes recovery. Delivering oxygen rich blood throughout the body aids in rebuilding tissues that take a beating during the competitive season. In addition, it is relatively easy on the nervous system. The nervous system takes a beating during the competitive season with all the quick movements and maximal muscle contractions and aerobic training gives it time to de-load and recover.

The off-season is also the time to lift heavy things and put on some muscle mass. The force a muscle is able to produce is directly related to its cross-sectional size. If you want to be able to run, jump, and throw harder next season then strength training is essential. Strength training simply means you are going to stress the muscle by lifting something heavy and your body will respond by making it bigger and stronger. An athlete does not have to go to the weight room or have access to fancy equipment to strength train. In fact, for most youth athletes bodyweight is the best place to start. After all if you cannot move your own body weight appropriately adding 50lbs on top of your back is asking for an injury.

When strength training the focus should be on movement patterns not on specific muscles. For example, you want to improve strength in fundamental movement patterns such as squatting, hip hinging, pushing, pulling, and core stability. This is easily done with body weight, free weights, sandbags, and resistance bands. It is not easily done with the machines you find in most gyms that isolate specific muscles and joints.

Building a solid foundation of strength in the off-season is then followed up with learning how to expressing that new found strength during the pre-season and then fully in the competitive season. The key here is to understand that to focus on improving general strength in the off-season and then working during the pre and competitive season to apply it.

Figure 1 - Pyramid of Athletic Development

Figure 1 – Pyramid of Athletic Development

The final objective of the off-season is to clean up fundamental movement patterns. This is the time to make sure you can squat fully, hip hinge correctly, and have good posture. This aspect of training is becoming even more important in today’s society. Think about the amount of time children spend sitting on the computer, texting on their phone, and sitting in classrooms. It is causing an epidemic of bad posture and moving in those compromised positions or even worse training and competing in them is a major contributing factor to youth sports injuries such as spondylolysis (stress fracture in the lower back) and shoulder injuries. It is common sense, when you spend all day hunched over and your lower back is in excessive curvature you develop poor posture as your default. Look at the pyramid of athletic development (figure 1) and it is clear to see the base for all of sport is movement. You cannot layer fitness and sports skills on top of dysfunctional movement without eventually paying the price.

It is impossible to prescribe a general workout for the off-season because the needs of each athlete and sport are unique. Some athletes may need to spend more time on developing strength and others improving conditioning. However, below is a very general yet insightful look at the typical week of training in the off-season. Planning training or periodization is a science in and of itself, but one of the biggest things to notice below is how the training is spaced out. An athlete cannot work hard 3 or 4 days in a row and then take 3 or 4 days off. Training is nothing more than applying stress to the body. The body then adapts to the stresses placed on it during rest and recovery. The real physical changes happen between workouts, not during them. Understanding the importance of rest and proper nutrition between workouts will maximize success and allow you to train both hard and smart.

Sample Week of Off-Season Training

Sample Week of Off-Season Training

If you look at everything I presented about off-season training and put it in the context of the bigger picture it becomes clear how important it is when thinking long-term. If you understand that, then I will let you in on a little secret about developing champion athletes. Most parents and coaches are only concerned with the short-term. They want to win the big game next week, the tournament this weekend, or make the U12 all-star soccer team. They may achieve those things but they take shortcuts to get them, such as skipping the off-season. Those shortcuts eventually catch up. On the other hand the true champion athletes are focused on the long-term from the very beginning and they never take shortcuts. They do the work in the off-season and over the course of years develop outstanding conditioning, strength, and stay injury free. They also are the ones who may have missed out on winning the championship in 7th grade but eventually end up with scholarship offers and notable accomplishments when it counts.

To conclude, I hope this article sheds some light on just how important off-season training really is to in-season performance. If you pay the price of time and sweat during the off-season you certainly will reap the benefits during the heat of the battle in-season.

The Strength Deficit as it Relates to Tennis

WeddingMy wife and I workout together in our cozy little home basement gym.  She has been crushing it for some time now and getting strong!  She normally doesn’t ask too many questions and just does what I program for her.  And I do have a method for programming workouts that involves what I am about to tell you about.

However, the other day she decided to do one of those follow-along video workouts. There was a lot of plyometric jumps involved which sparked some conversation over dinner about a little known concept called the Strength Deficit.  I am going to simplify the concept for you and if you are a tennis player it is absolutely critical to maximizing performance through off court training.

There are two kinds of strength you need to understand before we can move on to defining the strength deficit.

The first type is Absolute Strength.  This kind of strength is the absolute maximum amount of contractile force a muscle is capable of producing involuntarily.  In a laboratory setting we could stimulate your nerves with an electrical impulse causing the muscle fibers to contract.  In doing this experiment one could theoretically measure the absolute maximum contractile force your muscles are capable of producing.  Absolute strength is closely related to the size of the muscle fibers.  In other words, the larger the muscle is the greater the absolute strength potential.

The second type of strength is the Competitive Maximum.  This is the maximum amount of contractile force a muscle can produce voluntarily.  In other words this is the force you are capable of creating under your own control.  The competitive maximum is related directly to your central nervous system (CNS).  The stronger the impulse your can send through your nerves to the muscle fibers the more forcefully you can get them to contract.

So now that you understand that the absolute maximum is involuntary and the competitive maximum is voluntary we can get to the Strength Deficit.  The strength deficit is simply the difference between the two.  It should be noted that the absolute strength will always be higher than the competitive maximum because you will always be able to involuntarily contract muscle fibers to produce more strength compared to what you can do voluntarily.

Strength Deficit

What the strength deficit tells an athlete about their current state is amazingly insightful.  And if you know how to interpret the information it gives you a roadmap for how to continue making strength gains.

Here is how to interpret the strength deficit…

If the competitive maximum is close to the absolute strength you have a small strength deficit. A small deficit means that an athlete is able to send strong messages to the muscles and stimulate a strong contraction.  This is a very good sign because it means they are capable of utilizing most of their capacity for strength.  If an athlete with a small strength deficit wants to improve they need to focus their efforts on muscle hypertrophy or growth in order to raise the level of absolute strength.

If the competitive maximum is further from absolute strength you have a large strength deficit.  This means the potential for strength is there but the CNS is not capable of creating a strong enough signal to excite the muscle fibers to utilize it.  This tells an athlete they have room for strength gains without putting on more muscle.  Gains can be made by specifically designing explosive training sessions to stimulate CNS development.  Focusing on gaining more muscle mass will only increase absolute strength and the strength deficit further.

Now before I go any further the strength deficit is a fairly advanced concept and I do not want you running out and applying this to kids or beginners.  You really need to know what you are doing and this is just a overly simple blog post explaining the bigger concept.  If you want more information I recommend reading a highly complex book translated from the work of Russian Sport Scientist Yuri Verkhoshansky, Super Training.  With that being said if you are just getting started lifting weights you will see improvements in both absolute strength and competitive maximums quickly.  Beginners just have more room to make adaptations and improve.  However, if you are hitting plateaus, it is a good idea to look at your strength deficit and see if you should focus your efforts on gaining more muscle size and absolute strength potential or finding ways to stimulate the CNS and its ability to maximize muscle fiber contractibility.

Now think about a competitive tennis player’s needs…

First, tennis players need explosive and powerful muscle contractions.  They need to swing the racket with amazing accelerations and speed.  Players need to be able to sprint, change directions, and reaccelerate again.  These skills require a great deal of power without having an enormous body building style muscular frame that can slow an athlete down.  By now you should be able to guess that tennis players should have a small strength deficit.  Tennis players want to be able to maximally contract the muscle fibers they have.  That is not to say that there is never a time to build bulk and absolute strength because there is.  However, once muscle hypertrophy or mass is gained it should be followed up with a block of training to stimulate the CNS to utilize that new found strength potential fully.  Players like Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer are incredibly strong and I would bet they also have a small strength deficit.

Questions or comments leave them below and I will be happy to answer them.

Younger Next Year!

Book & note saying it was the best tennis lesson he had ever had!

Book & note saying it was the best tennis lesson he had ever had!

This post starts with a background story…  In November a gentlemen from Washington D.C. was coming to Pittsburgh to visit his family over the Thanksgiving holiday.  He was searching the internet for a place to play tennis while in town, found my website, and was intrigued so he setup a private lesson.  I was also intrigued because my main work is with youth but I very much enjoy training motivated adults.  Long story short, he loved his lesson and we talked for some time after.  A couple of days later I get this book in the mail, Younger Next Year, with a thank you note saying it was the best lesson he has ever had!

So I read the book and am blown away at how these two authors, Chris Crowley & Henry Lodge, M.D., simplify some very complex subjects into a really fun and easy to read book.  I thought it was so good I ordered 4 copies for Christmas presents!

So let me summarize the book and how you too can become Younger Next Year

Modern medicine has done great things for us and it is relatively safe to say we are going to live for quite some time.  The problem is the quality of life deteriorates as we get into the last third of our lives.  Most people think this is just the way it is but the truth is that it does not have to be this way.  Their is no reason someone in their 70’s or 80’s cannot experience the same quality of life as someone in their 50’s.  Your body just does not have to deteriorate if you send it the right messages.  This is the premise of the book and being a fitness expert I know how very true it is.  I have read some hard core science books on this stuff but this book states it all so elegantly.

People must understand humans evolved over the course of 100’s of millions of years.  We share much of the same parts that bacteria, reptiles and other mammals do.  However, perhaps the most difficult thing to comprehend is we were hunters and gathers for millions of years and evolved to be that way.  Exercise was a daily aspect of life necessary for survival.  Farming, the grocery store, cars, and all the modern comforts we take for granted every day are brand new in terms of evolution.  So our body was designed to hunt, gather, and eat food without refined sugars and carbohydrates.

In fact, our body’s are so smart when our ancient ancestors would go out and expend energy getting food it would send a cascade of messages for our body to grow and expend energy.  When our ancient ancestors were sedentary it meant there was no food and our body would send a completely different cascade of messages to decay and conserve energy.  Our entire body was built to function around listening to the messages sent by our daily activity levels.  You can either tell your body to “grow” or “decay” every single day of your life.  When I put it in that light I hope you are seeing how important daily movement and exercise is!

So here we are today, we live in a world with plenty of food and conveniences that discourage physical activity.  However, we live in a body that evolved to be physically active for survival.  Physical activity and food went hand-in-hand.  Today we have the food but no physical activity.  It is quite an interesting paradox.  Now you understand the obesity crisis in a nutshell, our body speaks the language of physical activity not calories.  When you are sedentary, regardless of how much food you eat, your body thinks it is starving because it never gets the cascade of messages from physical activity telling it to grow along with all that food.  There was no such thing as exercise for our ancient ancestors, they only spent energy when they had to for survival.

So what does it all come down to.  If you are sedentary you consistently send the message to your body to decay.  If you are physically active you consistently send the message to your body to grow.  Growth or decay messages are sent consistently over the course of a lifetime.  Guess who will have the low quality of life when they are in their 70’s?

I highly recommend Younger Next Year as a must read for anyone who wants to take charge of their health in 2014!  It is a game changer and has so much more information than I posted here on how to live a long and high quality life.

I am thankful for the gesture and gift of that kind man from D.C.  If you are a science nerd you may want to check out Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky.  This book goes deep into our stress response and what it meant for survival and what it means today when we are not being chased by a hungry lion trying to eat us.

Strength Training for Coordination

Strength training has been around for a while and most people think its all about pumping iron to get bigger muscles.  Makes sense for football players but not always so for tennis players.  In fact, tennis players mistakenly fail to strength train for two main reasons, either they think because tennis is so skill-specific lifting is a waste of time and/or they are afraid to get big and bulky.  The truth is strength training is extremely beneficial to sports like tennis with high coordination demands.  That means a tennis player can actually benefit more from strength training than a football player.  It also does not mean you’ll look like a body builder either.

Let me explain why and in the process you’ll learn a secret about how strength training really works to improve performance…

Your central nervous system (CNS), brain and spinal cord, controls your muscles.  Understand that your skeletal muscles are not very smart they simply do as they are told and turn on or contract when the CNS tells them to.  Your muscles are made up of tons of individual fibers called slow and fast twitch respectively.  The slow twitch are the endurance fibers and the fast twitch are the power fibers.  Now here is something not so well known.  What people do not understand is the CNS does not activate all the fibers in a muscle at once.  It is not all or none activation which is good or we wouldn’t be able to use fine motor skills to write with a pencil very effectively.  For example, when you walk the CNS only contracts 10% of the muscle fibers at once and your CNS cycles through different fibers to avoid fatigue.  When you jog your CNS contracts about 30% of the muscle fibers.  Do something like working up to lifting a maximum weight and you are using around 50% of your muscle fibers.  You see you brain is smart and never fully activates 100% of the muscle fibers because it could lead to some serious trouble liking running out of ATP but that is a little deep in science for this post.

While you were thinking through the above example you were probably imagining just activating one muscle but the truth is no movement activates just one muscle, it is coordinated symphony of contraction, stabilization, and relaxation of all the muscles in your body.  Just like hitting a forehand.  The coordination necessary is truly amazing if you take a moment to think about it!

So why would strength training benefit a skill-based sport like tennis so much, because it develops coordination.  Strength training is a workout for the CNS as much as it is for the muscles.  The CNS gets better at coordinating contractions, developing the neural network to muscle fibers, and becoming more and more efficient.  In fact, when someone first starts strength training they’ll see gains in performance very quickly.  Those initial gains are directly related to the CNS because it is able to more effectively and efficiently coordinate the muscular contractions necessary to meet the demands.

On a side note this is also related to why elderly people are more likely to fall and have balance issues. Think how a young person catches their toe and regains balance while an elderly person cannot.  Its not so much that the muscles are deteriorating, it is because the neural connections between the brain and the muscles are deteriorating due to lack of use.  So strength training is not just for athletes, it can benefit everyone!

So the bottom line is one of the biggest bangs for your buck in improving at tennis or any athletic endeavor is strength training.  It will improve coordination which leads to improved athletic performances.  It is the mind-body connection in every sense.


I have a very inquisitive mind.  I am constantly in search or learning new information that I can utilize to become a better coach.  I have recently been digging deeply into the works of Coach John Wooden.  John Wooden is one of the greatest coaches of all time.  He built a championship basketball program at UCLA from nothing.  More importantly he had a profound impact on the men he coached.  What is even more interesting are his philosophies, principles, and viewpoints on coaching.


In his book, Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, the very first concept he discusses is “Industriousness.”  He defines this concept as, “There is no substitute for work.  Worthwhile results come from hard work and careful planning.”  I could not agree more.  In terms of coaching youth, especially in the sport of tennis, to become an accomplished tennis player it easily takes 10+ years of technical, tactical, physical, and competitive development.  Not only is this a tremendous amount of hard work (10,000 plus hours to be exact) but the development must be carefully planned and monitored.  Just working hard is not good enough, the work must be industrious.

In his books, Coach Wooden explains how deeply he studied the game of basketball and how much time and effort he put into planning practices.  He literally would spend 2 hours planning a 90-120 minute practice, no detail was too small.  It took a tremendous amount of industrious work and it was not easy but obviously it was worth while and only he knows how worth while it was.

As a coach his work inspires me to continue to work hard and improve my skills.  It also shows me how important it is to teach my players that attaining high achievements in the sport of tennis are not easy, in fact it is very hard and it is the price you pay that makes it all worth while.  Too often we are fooled by what is new or flashy or the quick fix.  The wisdom of Coach Wooden is that there is no quick fix or easy street for anything worth while.

Genius or Crazy?

Mediocrity Quote

At my local Lululemon store, while shopping with my wife Jen, I saw this quote on their message board and took a picture of it.  I thought to myself…what a profound statement!

In my experiences people have a tendency to want to fit in and follow what the crowd is doing.  The masses are the definition of average and we have plenty of average to go around.  If you do what everyone else is doing you will get the same result as everyone else.

Those who are successful at the highest levels do something different.  It is that difference, whatever it may be, that causes them to stand out and become an outlier.  If you want to become the best it is scary to go against the grain and others will attempt to hold you back, call you crazy, and be negative, but it is the only way to truly get to the top of the bell curve.

Could you imagine if Dick Fosbury trained the high jump like every other athlete of his time?  We would have never figured out that going over the bar backwards was better than forwards.  Certainly people thought he was crazy but it was his difference that won him the gold medal 1968.

People like Dick Fosbury are either “genius” if they are successful or “crazy” if they fail.

Don’t be different just to be different, be different to be better!

Pyramid of Athletic Development

With fall high school sports season gearing up in Pittsburgh, PA it is perfect time to blog about a concept called the “Pyramid of Athletic Development.”  This concept is absolutely critical for athletes and parents to understand because it is the key to minimizing the chance of injury in the near and distant future along with optimizing athletic potential.

I was first introduced to this concept when reading a book entitled Movement by Gray Cook.  Plain and simple, Mr. Cook is a genius in the world of physical therapy.  The concept he presents in the book is simple, the foundation for any athlete should be their Fundamental Movement Patterns.  These patterns are things such squatting, pushing, pulling, stabilizing, balancing, and in general moving well.  Quality movement is paramount for the foundation of any athlete, regardless of their sport.  On top of that movement foundation General Fitness is laid.  General fitness are things like conditioning, strength, power, endurance, etc.  Finally, at the top of the pyramid are the Sport-Specific Skills an athlete needs to master.  In summary develop a solid movement foundation, layer fitness on top of that solid movement foundation, and finally layer on the necessary sport-specific skills.

Pyramid of Athletic Development


If you really take a good look at many young and old athletes you will notice that many of them do not move well.  You’ll also notice that most of what they are doing in practices has to do only with developing general fitness and sport-specific skills.  The result is you get a pyramid that ends up looking like the one below where general fitness and sport-specific skills are layered on top of poor fundamental movement patterns.

Inverted Pyramid of Athletic Development


Just looking at the visual of the pyramid and you can tell it is only a matter of time before it topples over.  This is exactly what happens to young athletes who layer fitness and sport-specific skills on top of dysfunctional movement,  eventually something gives and the athlete gets injured.  In fact, one of the things I remember vividly from Gray Cook’s book is to “never layer fitness on top of dysfunction.”  Even if the athlete is fortunate enough to not get injured, lacking a good quality base of movement causes them to leave something on the table in terms of performance.

Now if you think about the typical tennis athlete they spend tons of time working on the very demanding and necessary technical skill-set to play their sport.  This is perfectly fine if the fundamental movement patterns and some level of general fitness already exist.  However, is technical work really the best place an athlete could be spending their time if they are lacking a good quality movement foundation?  And we wonder why young tennis players develop so many injuries…

If you are wondering, “well this is great information but how in the world can I tell if an athlete’s fundamental movement patterns are dysfunctional or not?”  The answer to that question also lies in Gray’s book Movement in an assessment called the Functional Movement Screen (FMS).  The FMS is a qualitative assessment that looks at an athletes fundamental movement patterns, which by the way I have been utilizing for some time now.  If you are a coach and interested in learning more take a look at, buy the 400 page text book and start reading!

What To Look For in a Coach?

Today I want to give you some things to consider when selecting a tennis coach for your child.First, you should not taking choosing someone who is going to work with your child lightly.  This person is going to spend and enormous amount of time with your child over the course of years and more importantly have a tremendously ability to impact their life.  I know some kids who spend more time with the coach of their chosen sport on a weekly basis than with their parents.  It is critical that you get to know the coach and make sure you know about their character, integrity, and just the kind of person they are in general.  Take a look at how he or she interacts with their other students.  Do they yell a lot? Are they generally positive or negative?  Just take all of these things into consideration.

Second, it becomes important to have a conversation with the coach at some point and define their role in your child’s life.  A coach can have a tremendous impact on the character of your child and tennis certainly is a wonderful metaphor for life.  Do you want your coach to teach these valuable life lessons when the opportunity arises? Do you want the coach to simply stick to teaching the technique of tennis and that is it?  Is the coach the kind of person who is willing to teach more than just technique?  These are all important questions to ask and help to clarify roles and expectations.

Third, ask what is the level of knowledge and teaching experience a coach has?  Coaching is teaching plain and simple.  I always look at myself as a teacher first and foremost.  There are many coaches with decorated playing backgrounds but being a player is much different than being a teacher.  Look for the teacher first.

Finally, the game and athletic demands of a tennis player have changed significantly in the past 15 years and it is critical to have a coach who throughly understands the aspects of technical stroke production, shot selection, and athletic skill development.  Look for a coach who focuses on long-term athletic development.  What that means is do not look for the coach who offers to provide the quick fix, there is no such thing.  Instead, look for the coach who looks out for a player’s long-term development.  When you plan for the long-term you get the best results and less injuries if training volume and methods are appropriately accounted for.

To close, remember maybe the most important thing of all, make sure your coach genuinely cares about your son or daughter.  No one cares what a coach knows, until they know the coach cares.

Urgency Motivates Action

IMG_0322Have you ever had a great idea but never did anything with it?  What is it that separates a person with a great idea from the person who turns their idea into reality?  ACTION, plain and simple.  Action is the only thing that separates someone with a great idea into someone who turns a great idea into a reality.  So many people have great ideas but they are afraid to take action on them because they are afraid to fail.  I have had all kinds of great ideas like this website or my tennis camp and I would be lying to you if I said I was not afraid to put myself out there but I decided to take action anyway.  Sure I messed up a ton of stuff along the way, my old website alone looked archaic compared to this one and the instruction at tennis camp continues to get better each day.  In the process I have learned a ton and taking action on ideas has become easier and easier and my ideas get bigger and bigger.  For example, I will have a published book coming out on youth fitness this fall!

So you are probably wondering what does all this have to do with tennis or fitness?  Well I want to share with you my recipe for getting people to stop being fearful and take action.  My formula is simple, I create a sense of urgency to take action.

A very wise tennis coach by the name of Vesa Ponkka explains the environment he tries to create for developing tennis players as one where they have “plenty of time, but no time to waste.”  That phrase is pure genius because it provide the two necessary things to be motivated to take action daily, yet not be crippled by the fear of failure.  When someone feels a sense of urgency, like they have no time to waste, they take immediate action.  When your car breaks down you have to get around so you take urgent action to get it fixed.  It becomes the #1 priority.  When you know someone else is working hard and is competing to beat you to the finish line it becomes very clear you cannot procrastinate and must begin taking action right now.  A sense of urgency is a great motivator both short and long-term.  At the same time when you know that the finish line is not in the immediate future but a far off long-range one you also feel as though you can have setbacks and failures along the way without them being detrimental to your progress.  Collecting failures is a necessary part of the process, just as a baby fails many times before they can walk on their own.  It is this sense of having plenty of time that diminishes the fear of failing along the way.

So if you want to lose weight, get lean, become stronger, or improve your tennis game all you really need to do is take action.  Not just take action once but take action on a daily basis with a sense of urgency while at the same time realizing you have plenty of time to reach your goal and a failure or two along the way is part of the process.  As Coach Vesa Ponkka says, “take action as through you have plenty of time, but no time to waste.”