Tennis is a game which you can continue to play for your whole life. There are people still competing at the age of 100, so there is no question of ever becoming too old to play. Having said this, the way in which you play, practice and train does need to change as you get older. As your physical capabilities evolve, you must become more efficient and put a high level of importance on looking after your body. In this article I will look at some of the best tennis tips for older players.
How Often Should Seniors Practice?
Enthusiastic young players think nothing of playing every day. They feel that this gives them the best chance of producing consistent shots and making technical improvements. Once you get past the age of 40, however, it pays to be a bit more cautious. Of course, if all you are doing is playing a gentle game of doubles with your friends on a soft court surface you can probably continue to play as often as you like. If, however, you intend to play competitive singles at a reasonable standard, your preparation will need to be fairly intensive. As you get older, training every day will tend to be less helpful, as the risk of injury can outweigh the benefits. This is particularly true if you play on hard courts, as the repeated impacts can be bad for your joints. As a result, many older players avoid playing on hard courts when possible, preferring to play on softer surfaces like clay or artificial grass.
Tip#1: Practice regularly and sensibly on an appropriate surface.
A sensible training programme for older players who aim to play competitively will probably involve practising every other day on a low-impact surface like clay. Extra sessions can be included if you are preparing for a tournament, but the key is to allow your body time to recover. Several years ago, a national tennis coach suggested to me that junior players are like rubber bands: you can stretch them and push them through intensive training, and they will quickly spring back and recover. This is probably a little simplistic, but, using the same analogy, older players are a bit like older rubber bands. They can still be stretched and will recover, but if you stretch them too far, they will break. With caution, they can still last a very long time.
Can Seniors Still Improve Their Tennis?
There are a lot of players out there who play the game regularly but have stopped improving. The effects of ageing can mean that many older players are steadily getting worse, not better, despite spending a lot of time on court. The bad news is, your standard will inevitably drop as your physical abilities decline. If you are still playing at the age of 80, you will not be as good as you were at 40 due to the loss of strength, speed and flexibility. The good news is, that decline in playing standard need not be steep, and it is perfectly possible to improve your game in middle age.
Aside from the direct effects of ageing, there are two principal reasons why many older players do not improve. Firstly, they tend to put on weight and do not do enough work on their physical conditioning. If you are getting heavier and slower all the time, it is unlikely that you will be able to play tennis as well as you used to, as you will struggle to get in position for shots that you used to play with ease. In addition, carrying extra weight around the court means that more pressure is put on your joints, increasing the chance of injury. Secondly, many older players have become very comfortable with technique that is far from perfect, and they make no effort to improve it.
Developing Better Technique
If you have realised that you are one of the 95% of older players whose technique is not as effective or efficient as it might be, the next question you have to consider is whether you are prepared to improve it. That may sound very simple, and, certainly, if you could simply go to a coach with a modest amount of money and buy whatever shots you wanted, everyone would do it. In reality, it takes a lot of work to make technical improvements, and not everyone is prepared to make this investment.
The traditional way of improving your game is to book some individual lessons with a coach. He or she will assess where you can make improvements and help you to practice alternative techniques. This is great, but you have to be prepared to practice what you have learned independently in order to make progress. To do this, you need to invest a lot of time, as well as finding a practice partner who is happy to help you carry out the necessary drills. Unfortunately, many players are prepared to commit themselves to an expensive sequence of individual lessons without putting in the practice between these sessions. This results in very little improvement, and the player ends up repeating the same learning points over and over again. Whilst the coach may earn a significant amount of money from this, the slow progress can be frustrating for both them and the player.
If you would find a sequence of individual lessons expensive, there are other sources of technical advice online. There are both affordable online courses and free YouTube videos which can help you to develop your game. If you are to benefit from these, however, you must have a plan for putting in the necessary practice. Simply watching Federer hit a few forehands is not going to make any difference to your own shot, but choosing a specific learning point and putting in 50 hours of focused practice might. So, whatever your budget, if you have the motivation you can improve.
Tip#2: Don’t be afraid to work hard on your technique.
Do Seniors Really Need To Make Technical Changes?
Later articles in this series will cover the technical developments which might be most helpful. Critically, however, you will need to avoid falling into the trap of complacency. As I suggested earlier, many club and tournament players have a fixed way of playing which they make little effort to change. They know that this method can get them results up to a point, and they are very aware that, if they make significant changes, they will play worse for a time before any improvement manifests itself. For players who win virtually every match this is a reasonable situation to be in, but most of us are not so fortunate- yet still we persist in playing the same way we have always played. The players who make the big improvements are the ones who were not afraid to drop down a level for a few months while their new technique was bedding in. Can you be that brave?
What Kind Of Conditioning Work Do Seniors Need To Do?
If you watch a few matches at an ITF Seniors Tour event, you will struck by how fit most of the players are. If you want to compete at this level, you will need to match their level of conditioning, or else they will simply grind you down. A similar argument applies if you want to play open singles events against much younger players. Teenagers and those in their twenties will always have an edge in speed and flexibility against older players. For those of us in our forties and fifties, the objective is not now to match the athleticism of players half our age, but rather to be sufficiently well conditioned that we can stay in the rallies long enough to apply our hopefully superior mental or technical skills.
Having recognised the vital importance of conditioning, what type of training is best for older players? This will be examined in more detail later in this series of articles, but the first thing to keep in mind is that we are all different. A forty year-old man will not be doing the same training as an eighty year-old woman, even if both are very keen tennis players. Muscle mass and flexibility will decline with age, and men typically have more muscle than women. Some players will be keen to continue strength training in the gym, on the basis that by maintaining their strength as much as possible they protect themselves against injury. There are those who like to run, on the grounds that it offers a quick, high-intensity workout for those who lack free time, whereas others prefer to protect their joints by undertaking lower impact activities like cross-training, cycling and swimming. Whatever your age and preferred training style, flexibility is crucial, so a typical training programme will include a lot of stretching and bending. Core strength is also vital in protecting against injury, so even the oldest players will benefit from activities like pilates.
Tip#3: Focus on appropriate conditioning.
Is Psychology Important In Tennis?
Many top players and coaches have suggested that the mental side of the game is more important than any other aspect. A lot of players have good shots and high levels of fitness, but they do not always play so well in the important moments. Some get angry and swear or throw things, which can bring a further downturn in their form. Despite this, very few players in club or seniors tennis work hard on their mental skills. This may be due to the fact that many of them learned to play during an era when sport psychology was less fashionable than it is today, and still believe that it either cannot help or should be reserved for those with mental health issues. Of course, this could not be further from the truth, and there are many areas in which working on your mental skills can make you a better and more successful player. I will write about these in greater depth later in this series.
Superior mental skills offer perhaps the biggest advantage you can get in seniors tennis, especially if you are playing someone too stubborn or lazy to work on their mental game. On occasions you can almost see your opponent’s composure unravelling, and that moment when you know that they no longer want to fight on can be extremely satisfying. Consulting a sport psychologist, who can teach you how to be mentally tougher, more consistent, and more effective on the big points, is very worthwhile for most players. In fact, it can be more valuable than consulting a coach, and is certainly something you should consider if you are looking to improve your game. The one proviso is that, like technical improvements, mental skill improvements need to be practised. You will need to put in a significant amount of work both on and off court to make meaningful gains.
Tip#4: Take improving your mental skills seriously.
Does A Specific Game Style Work Better For Older Players?
There will be much more on this subject later in this series, and no two players are the same, but there are certain things which apply to most. Firstly, remember that, whatever your style in your younger days, you will not get faster or stronger as you age. Your main quest should be for efficiency, so that you have the ability to finish the point relatively quickly. You do not want to rely on your ability to run down every ball, as eventually you will no longer be able to do so. In addition, you need to prioritise accuracy over power, as your strength will gradually diminish and your big shots will have less effect. You will want to aim for a smooth, well-balanced style. There are also certain types of shot which will help you to finish points off without performing improbable athletic feats, including volleys and drop-shots. You need to become comfortable playing these. The drop-shot is particularly useful in the oldest age-groups, when speed has seriously diminished.
Tip#5: Develop an age-appropriate game style.
Tennis is a great game for simply getting exercise and spending time with your friends. As with most physical activity, your abilities will become more limited as you age, although this should never stop you enjoying the sport. Nonetheless, you can significantly change the direction of this trend at any time by doing some of the things suggested in this article.
Focus on these 5 tennis tips for older players to get the most out of your tennis;
- Practice regularly and sensibly on an appropriate surface.
- Don’t be afraid to work hard on your technique.
- Focus on conditioning.
- Take improving your mental skills seriously.
- Develop an age-appropriate game style.
Do all of these things and you might just find yourself playing better than ever.