Speed can be defined as ‘the skills and abilities needed to achieve high movement velocities.’
One’s speed is influenced by a number of factors throughout different periods of physical development. These factors include motor development and neural activation during a child’s early years through to an increase in muscularity, limb length and metabolic anatomical changes which occur during puberty. All these factors are additionally determined by genetics and muscular structure, including the degree of fast twitch or slow twitch muscle fibers an individual possesses, which will in turn have a great effect on one’s ability to gain speed. Therefore it is difficult to pin down a single main mechanism responsible for personal improvements in speed.
Let’s look at the main factors contributing to linear speed:
- One of them brings us back to the relationship between strength and power and relates to our ability to push against the ground. The greater the force we can exert by pushing against the ground in the shortest time possible, the faster we move.
- Another factor involves stride frequency and its length. The greater the stride and the more frequently it occurs, the faster one’s speed will be.
- A greater frequency of stride can only be achieved by minimising foot contact with the ground. Thus when we minimize the time with which we make contact with the ground, the quicker we move.
*We can also consider the position of the body and technique during acceleration and sprinting, which can be greatly affected by posture and flexibility.
The speed of our reactions depends on our reaction time and reactive ability. The former element – reaction time — relates to the length of time between stimulus and a first response. It is much more difficult to make significant changes to this and some studies show improvements are relatively untrainable. The latter – reative ability — relates to explosive strength and the short stretch cycle when you are initiating any movement. Reactive ability can be significantly improved with the right training through plyometrics or Olympic weightlifting.
Interestingly Usain Bolt, the fastest man on earth, has one of the longest reaction time amongst the best sprinters, but in spite of this, he is still first at the finish line!
We can distinguish 3 main phases in straight line sprinting: (1) acceleration, (2) attainment of maximal speed and (3) maintenance of maximal speed. Tennis players will never achieve maximum speed during a game, hence players should learn to develop acceleration within the first 5, 10 and 20 meters of sprints which is a crucial skill.
How do we work on acceleration in tennis?
We should focus on improving our ability to produce force within the short stretch cycle which, as discussed above, can take the form of a split step. Establishing strength through resistance training is the first step improving this ability. Once you have achieved a certain degree of strength, we can convert strength into power via plyometrics (in particular those exercises which reduce foot contact with the ground) and Olympic weightlifting training. The next stage in improving acceleration in tennis involves working on the technique of acceleration and biomechanics. We should consider here distribution of body weight, foot placement, arm action and posture.