Dr. Mark Kovacs is a performance physiologist, researcher, professor, author, speaker, and coach with an extensive background in training and researching elite athletes. He currently runs a consulting firm focused on optimizing human performance through the practical application of cutting-edge science. He formerly directed the Sport Science, Strength & Conditioning, and Coaching Education departments for the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and was the Director of the Gatorade Sport Science Institute. Dr. Kovacs currently serves as the Executive Director of the International Tennis Performance Association (iTPA) and is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).
Freelap USA: For sports with a rotational, swinging component as a primary action (such as tennis, golf, and baseball), what are some key points of movement that apply across all, and where are there some specifics to look at?
Mark Kovacs: In all ground-based rotational sports, a similar sequencing of events occurs to transfer energy from the ground up and into the ball. Each rotational sport (golf, baseball, tennis, etc.) does have different mechanics, equipment, swing paths, and other aspects that require different training; however, some general aspects of training and movements are similar.
- Kinematic sequence: All rotational movements involve a transfer of energy comprising an effective sequencing of the lower body, the hips, the torso, and then the upper body.
- Hip and trunk movement: All great rotational athletes have a very good range of motion, stability, and the ability to generate power through an effective energy transfer progression through the kinetic chain from the ground through to ball contact.
- Loading: Every rotational sport emphasizes effective loading. Improvement in the range of motion in the various areas needed to store energy is very valuable. Secondarily, it is important to improve power output through the intended movement sequence and optimize the specific loading stage in the rotational movement.
Freelap USA: What is your approach to medicine ball training for tennis?
Mark Kovacs: I personally use medicine ball drills with all rotational athletes in a multitude of ways. The goals of medicine ball training focus around performance enhancement (specifically power production), as well as deceleration training and stability work in various stages of the hitting cycle. It is also a staple of my on-court tennis-specific conditioning circuits.Our medicine ball drills focus on performance enhancement, #deceleration, and stability work, says @MKovacsPhD. Click To Tweet
From a power perspective, the medicine ball allows for complete acceleration because of its ability to be released. The deceleration work focuses on the athlete catching and stabilizing during the most important movements needed during hitting and rotational movements. Specifically, the goal is stabilization during the loading stages as well as during the finish of various tennis movements and strokes. The benefits of sport specificity and immediate feedback for the athlete are why I use medicine ball training nearly every day with the developing athletes as well as the collegiate and professional athletes I train.
Freelap USA: What is your approach to shoulder injury prevention in tennis, or any repetitive swinging and overhead throwing sport?
Mark Kovacs: I and many of my colleagues have spent many years looking at injury prevention in tennis. At its highest competitive levels, the sport of tennis is challenging due to its year-round nature, limited off-season/pre-season time to train, and ranking systems that encourage extensive play, and because it’s a skill sport that is also physically very demanding.
As a result, overuse injuries are one of the biggest concerns from a health and long-term performance perspective. It specifically takes a heavy toll on the shoulder area in many athletes. The three main causes of problems are:
- Technical flaws/deficiencies: These technical flaws are usually due to a combination of physical limitations throughout the entire kinetic chain and poor biomechanical sequencing.
- Excessive volume: Overworked athletes are one of the most common areas of concern, due the high volume and repetitive nature of tennis. We understand that injury risk in the shoulder is due to technical deficiencies throughout the entire kinetic chain.
- Poor strength/stability: Tennis athletes need strength and stability throughout the lower body to ensure efficient energy transfer. The problem with most shoulder-focused training programs is that they spend a lot of time on the muscles around the scapula, without enough focus on the opposing hip and lower limb (including ankle mobility). Many upper body injuries and problems have an initial contributing cause from an earlier lower body limitation/injury.
In my programming, the way we approach the injury prevention aspects of training is highly individualized. The entire training continuum is part of the injury prevention paradigm, including the heavy strength and power training components. However, we do focus on traditional stability, neuromuscular control, and muscular endurance exercises a minimum of three days a week for the shoulder, hip, and ankle. We determine the specifics with our extensive tennis-specific screening process. For our top players, this will be as many as five days a week, with alternating intensities and volume determined via the periodization schedule of tournaments and training.
Freelap USA: For sports where maximal strength is not necessarily a key performance indicator, what are some ways to measure KPIs in the gym that don’t detract from the performance of the sport itself?
Mark Kovacs: Weight room training is a major component of the effective development of rotational athletes. In all rotational athletes, developing a high level of strength is an important variable. The question about how strong is strong enough is something that is debated. In my experience, developing strength is a vital component of a training program. Strength is very important, but it is strength in the right planes of motion and movements. The research data supports strength development for power and speed athletes.Strength is very important, but it needs to be in the right planes of motion and movements, says @MKovacsPhD. Click To Tweet
Tennis, for example, is very much a power- and speed-focused sport. In my personal experience working with more than two dozen Top 100 professional male and female tennis players, strength gains—especially in the lower body—directly translate to improved power production in the serve and groundstrokes. It also improves movement mechanics and speed around the court, especially in and out of the corners during change of direction movements.
In sports like tennis and golf, I may not back squat an athlete if their range is limited or they have compromised mobility or a history of back-related problems, but I will focus on developing great leg strength through various movements and variable resistance techniques. Also, I heavily utilize velocity-based training metrics to monitor and progress athletes, along with sport-specific movement metrics. If the athlete is not improving in their sport-specific testing numbers, then the strength training program is not working—no matter if the weight room numbers are going up.The true gauge of a rotational sport athlete’s training program is how they perform in their sport, says @MKovacsPhD. Click To Tweet
The only true measure of a training program for a tennis athlete or a golfer or baseball athlete is how they perform in their sport. The testing and monitoring of each athlete is performed on a strict schedule to ensure that each athlete is improving in the areas that were determined during the baseline testing periods.
Freelap USA: What is the balance between health and performance in a repetition-based sport?
Mark Kovacs: That is the million-dollar question. It depends significantly on the level of the player. To be one of the best tennis players in the world, you need to train at a very high level and you need to have a training base and level of resiliency that is rare. Most individuals have no idea of the amount of work and suffering that is required to be a top professional tennis athlete. It is truly one of the hardest sports in the world to be at the top of the game.
For most individuals, though, it is important to balance the volume of training and competition to allow for three to four quality training blocks throughout the year for the development and improvement of deficiencies. Playing through pain is sometimes part of the sport, but an understanding of the differences between pain and injury is very important to teach athletes. Nothing we do in the weight room should cause an injury.It is important to teach athletes to recognize the difference between pain and injury, says @MKovacsPhD. Click To Tweet
The goals and objectives of all weight room training should first be based around reducing the likelihood of injury for most players. The performance improvement aspect will certainly happen, but in an individual sport, if an athlete is injured, there is no backup, no teammates to cover until the athlete recovers. Therefore, caution is important, as well as making sure that an athlete has the mobility and stability in the appropriate areas before we add excessive resistance to movements—especially when we are talking about rotational movements and flexion/extension movements.
It is always a question of risk versus reward. The most important aspect is understanding the individual athlete and the needs of each athlete. No two tennis athletes should be trained exactly the same. That is why we use a very precise testing, training, and monitoring program that allows for daily and weekly alterations based on numerous factors on and off the court.
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