Tennis Players: Consider Yoga!
Updated: Sep 29, 2021
How I ended up teaching Yoga for Tennis might surprise you considering that when I first tried yoga, I didn’t like it one bit! At the time, I was suffering from a low back injury that I acquired a few months after graduating and playing tennis on scholarship at Miami University (OH). I began physical therapy, and upon the suggestion of my therapist, I tried some classes that were being held at their office in the evenings. I can still see it to this day: I walked into a dim-lit room with my beach towel in hand (not yet owning my own mat) and already felt lost at the back of the room. I was introduced to “postures” where I had no idea what I was doing, and I hated the feeling of being “bad” at yoga, naturally comparing myself to others in the room. I was slipping on my towel and surely, I wasn’t burning any calories because we were moving too slow to break a sweat! Because it was so different from what I had experienced in the past, it felt like it was a major waste of time.
It took me a while to try again, this time in a gym setting where I began to at first go once a week after workouts and I began to enjoy the challenge so much that I sought out classes with my gym pass all over the city whenever and wherever I could between teaching tennis for a living.
At first it felt so hard. Hard because I was still trying to find the balance between over and under-doing with regards to activity, teaching, and my previous injury…but also hard because with yoga, I was being asked to do the complete opposite (or at least as it appeared on the surface) from what I had learned on the tennis court. I was being asked to slow down and pay attention, and it slowly began to fill the void of all those hours I used to spend training for tennis, in an aging body that suddenly needed more care after years of abuse.
In the beginning, all I cared about was healing my lower back through postures that offered opportunities for strength and better range of motion. As yoga teachers we often say that you come into “the practice” for what you want out of it, but then later you find that you become interested in other facets of yoga and that’s exactly what happened for me. But let’s start with the obvious reasons you should give yoga a shot as a tennis player at any age and ability level!
Because of tennis’s repetitive nature for both recreational and competitive players alike, overuse injuries are common. According to a USTA Sport Science Committee injury tracking study, 861 Junior tennis players were studied to understand the most common injuries. In this order those are: low back, shoulder, ankle, knee, and wrist. Out of the 861 players, 41% of all players reported injury, with 1/3 of players reporting a second injury. This tells us that players don’t necessarily recover from the first injury fully before they suffer a second injury. We know how important the kinetic chain is, and if one area is injured, there’s a good chance of overloading another area in the body. Remember that you’re coming into the practice for what you’d like to gain. Where is your current tennis training regimen lacking? Is it strength, flexibility, balance, or agility you’re lacking? Yoga is here to help!
With yoga styles labeled as “hot” and “vinyasa flow” maintaining popularity, tennis players new to yoga might be fooled into thinking that rigorous styles of practice are “where it’s at” especially because as players, we’re used to keeping a quicker tempo, including training that is often punishing in nature. Instead, assuming you’re already taxing yourself physically, allow yoga to bring a balance to what you are already doing. In other words, just because you can stand on your hands, doesn’t mean you should. Take a different approach to yoga in alignment based and restorative style yoga classes where moving slower and passive openings are offered. In the latter, you’ll be encouraged to lie on the ground and use yoga props such as blankets, bolsters, and blocks. These poses are held for longer periods of time, working towards long term flexibility, allowing you to recover for the next time you practice on court. At first, your greatest challenge may be that you’re not being asked “to do” as much physically in lying still, but after a while the body/mind adjusts, and it feels like a glorious release (as if you’ve given yourself a massage) by the time your session is done!
Who doesn’t need to find better focus throughout their day? Maybe you’ve noticed that you need this improvement throughout the course of a tennis match or practice. Where does your mind go when you’re working on a stroke? Is it pulled in a million directions? Is it even on court with you? How do you respond to a bad call or when you’re not playing your best? Are you reactive and does this trickle into your ability to play? Are you using your time efficiently in between points and changeovers? Chances are, you’ve said yes to at least one of these.
The physical postures of yoga that you use to prevent injury and aid in recovery are a pathway to finding better focus as you become more aware of sensations within your body, as you connect with your breath, and as you get comfortable with slowing down. When we slow down, we have the opportunity, to notice the patterns of our mind and the stories we tell ourselves that are often unproductive to the game of tennis! The first step is in the noticing, and when we do, it’s a literal game changer, not just in tennis but in life! You may have heard the saying; you are what you think?! Think about how powerful this is and how beneficial it could be if you were to catch yourself before responding in a certain way on court or before going down the rabbit hole of negativity. In other words, the first step is recognizing the problem.
Here’s a simple Yoga for Tennis drill you can try on court: Practice a simple “mini tennis” drill with a partner with the only goal of watching the ball as closely as you can. Notice how many times your mind goes to something other than the task at hand. Your mind will naturally go elsewhere as it gets accustomed to what you are doing: the work is in the catching and redirecting of yourself back to what you are doing. You have now practiced a yoga in action!
Yoga for Tennis:
In summary, there’s a reason why tennis professionals such as Novak Djokovic have gravitated towards yoga as a way to improve their tennis lifestyle. Come into the practice for what you’d like to enhance within your game and surprise yourself by how much more your tennis world opens up to you!
Margit Bannon is both a USPTA Elite certified Tennis Pro & Registered Yoga Teacher with the Yoga Alliance.She teaches tennis, yoga, and Yoga for Tennis at her business:
Play Tennis. Practice Yoga.® located in Southwest Florida.