Without a doubt, one of the most important movement on the tennis court is a player’s first step. In fact, the majority of movements a player will make encompass a range of less than five feet. According to performance physiologist and coach Dr. Mark Kovacs, in order to achieve success in the sport, athletes must first learn to master the art of the first step.
Dr. Kovacs is the Executive Director of the International Tennis Performance Association (iTPA), the leading worldwide organization for trainers, coaches and specialists who have a passion for tennis-specific performance enhancement and injury prevention. He is also CEO of Kovacs Institute in Atlanta, Ga., a research and data based testing and assessment facility focused on optimizing human performance by the practical application of cutting edge science. He has also worked directly with more than two dozen Top 100 ATP and WTA professional players and is a consultant for the WTA, ATP and USTA.
Throughout his years working with top-level athletes, coupled with his own experiences as an All-American tennis player at Auburn University, Dr. Kovacs has gained a unique understanding of the importance of the first step in a tennis player’s game.
“On a tennis court, it takes three steps to basically get anywhere laterally. If you know that three steps is the major movement pattern for most players, the first step is at least one third of that,” said Dr. Kovacs. “The most important part of that first step is getting the next step to be really powerful, so it’s a stimulus effect. You have to get that first step right in order to move well, there’s no other way around it.”
Dr. Kovacs has developed a three-part philosophy in teaching the first step to his players. First, athletes must have the basic fundamental technique down to a science, and that technique must be reinforced each day. Next, athletes must develop strength and power to produce an effective first step. The final component is cognition, meaning players must be able to respond to their opponent’s ball appropriately.
To teach these three components, Dr. Kovacs has implemented a series of progressions for his athletes to follow, but ultimately, the execution comes down to each individual. “Every athlete has a different timeline of learning capability, how much they play, and how athletic they are. We don’t force athletes into a certain scenario. We observe where they’re at today, and then we’ll make sure that we put the right drills in based on what they can and cannot do at this point,” he said.
The first step acts as a base to an athlete’s movement on the court and sets them up to be productive throughout the course of a match. Dr. Kovacs and his team have put a great deal of emphasis into analyzing each movement, and have found that there are over 35 major movements on the court. Tennis players must be aware of their first step movement in each one of those scenarios.
While first step technique comes naturally to a select few athletes, most must continue to refine their skills throughout the course of their career. “Improving technique is very easy to do, but very hard to succeed in if you don’t do it the right way. An athlete can change technique for five reps and do it well, but once they get under pressure or are not thinking about it, that’s when they go back to whatever is most comfortable,” said Dr. Kovacs.
“The goal of our training is to develop unconscious competence within an athlete, meaning that they’ve done it so many times the right way, now that any time it comes up, they’re going to do it the right way,” Dr. Kovacs explained. “Getting to that place takes thousands of repetitions and there’s no easy way around it. Every athlete that we work with can make the technical adjustment in five or 10 repetitions and it will look good in a staged and closed environment, but they need thousands of repetitions to make sure that they can do the same adjustment when they’re at 30-30 or a big point.”
When teaching the first step, Dr. Kovacs looks to three different examples of movement. First, there are highly efficient movers who don’t take any extra steps, such as Novak Djokovic, Roger Feder or Sloane Stephens. Second, there a power movers like Rafael Nadal and Simona Halep, who take more steps than they have to, but are so strong and powerful that they are able to make the style work.
Lastly, there are movers who play very high, do not put extra force into the ground and take extra steps. These are many of the athletes that Dr. Kovacs hopes to train to become more efficient on the court. “Bad movers are trainable, and they actually make some of the best improvements because they have such a low starting point,” he said.
However, in order to achieve the highest level of success, players must learn to move efficiently. “In movement, there’s an efficient way and an inefficient way. You still get to the ball, but you if you take an extra step in the wrong direction or wrong angle, you’re going to be slower than someone who makes that same movement the most efficient way,” Dr. Kovacs reasoned.
“You can get away with a lot of things on the tennis court because there are a lot of variables, but our goal is to make every athlete as efficient as possible,” said Dr. Kovacs. “It also saves energy over the length of a match. You see a lot of players who are inefficient in their movements doing fine for the first set, but by the time they get to the third set, they start fatiguing pretty badly because of the inefficiency.”
Finally, Dr. Kovacs urges coaches to teach their players the significance of efficient movement. “Efficiency of movement is paramount., It’s about making sure that their step counts and their efficiency is taken care of. Just like technique in serves and groundstrokes needs to be optimized, technique in movement needs to be optimized,” he said.
For more information about Tennis Movement and Footwork, the International Tennis Performance Association has put together a coaches booklet on the language around Tennis Movement from dozens of experts and research over the past decade. It covered over 35 of the most important and utilized tennis movements. Go to www.itpa-tennis.org and sign up for the emails and you will receive the free booklet.