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Worth a Look
Tennisology is an intellectual analysis of the game of tennis from some new angles (sorry, pun intended!).
Recommended for: Competitive Tennis Players. Although it is intended for players who are serious about the game, other tennis players might find this book useful as well.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
• Thomas W. Rowland, MD is a pediatric cardiologist (Baystate Medical Center, Springfield, MA), a professor of pediatrics (Tufts University School of Medicine), and a competitive tennis player and runner. In the past, he was an adjunct professor of exercise science at the University of Massachusetts, the editor of the journal Pediatric Exercise Science, and has served as the president of the North American Society for Pediatric Exercise Medicine (NASPEM).
This 196-page text is organized as follows:
- Chapter 1: Evolution of the Sport
- Chapter 2: Court Lessons for Life
- Chapter 3: Tennis Skill Development
- Chapter 4: Nature Versus Nurture on the Court
- Chapter 5: Player Development
- Chapter 6: Physics of Tennis
- Chapter 7: Tennis Technology
- Chapter 8: The Trained Tennis Body
- Chapter 9: Visualization Techniques
- Chapter 10: Match Mind-Set
• Chapter 1 (13 pages): In this chapter, the author provides a brief summary of the evolution of tennis since its beginning. Readers who like history will like this chapter, but, I found it boring. The author weaves some statements into the discussion that seem completely irrelevant ("Edward Beard Budding invented the lawn mower in 1830"). Instead, reporting on the hours of annual TV coverage of tennis and how that has impacted its popularity -- ie., how many households in the US have access to and/or watch The Tennis Channel? -- would have been revealing. Summarizing recent statistics on, for example, the sales of tennis racquets, or, the funding of tennis programs at the collegiate level would have made this chapter more interesting. There's nothing in this chapter that the player can use to improve his/her game.
• Chapter 2 (13 pages): Here, the author attempts to relate a player's intrinsic personality to how they play the game. He brings up the issue of a passive vs. an aggressive style of play and states: "...the top players can't compete without a well-rounded, highly aggressive game." While this certainly seems applicable to the men, it doesn't seem as applicable to the women (note the controlled, consistent styles of players like Chris Evert, Martina Hingis and Caroline Wozniacki, each of whom reached world #1 status). On p. 17, the author suggests that a player's on-court style reflects their inner personality...ie, an aggressive style of play comes from an aggressive personality. This is debatable, too. Steffi Graf had an aggressive game but not an aggressive personality. Some players might play aggressively because they are worried about losing...ie., they might hit hard and rush the net because they are impatient. Personality-wise, they might also be insecure....quiet, reserved, or even timid. On p. 17, the author states: "...not much documented scientific evidence backs up the assumption that on-court and off-court behaviors are linked." Thus, the reader is left wondering what to make of this discussion. On p. 24-25, the author explains that reducing errors is more important than hitting winners. This is a critical concept that club players should keep in mind (assuming, of course, that it really is true!) The author points out that John McEnroe made only 4 unforced errors when he beat Jimmy Connors in the finals at Wimbledon in 1984. This is a powerful statistic.
• Chapter 3 (18 pages): Chapter 3 is titled "Tennis Skill Development." It should have been titled: "Neurophysiologic Adaptations to Repetitive Training"....and then deleted from this manuscript. While changes in axons, dendrites, and levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor in response to training might be fascinating to the author, this content is so esoteric that only a neurophysiologist can appreciate it.
• Chapter 4 (22 pages): In this chapter "Nature vs. Nurture", the author explores a fundamental question: ie., are top players born, or, developed? Unfortunately, it's difficult for the reader to obtain any take-away thoughts. In his explanation of how nature impacts athletic performance, on p. 50-54, the author summarizes how DNA and RNA work, and the "Power Law of Training." This content is over the head of most readers. VO2max is discussed next. VO2max is a critical element in sports performance. Here, VO2max is only discussed in general terms (eg., how it changes in relation to training); more specific details on the VO2max values of tennis players is provided in Chapter 8. Arguing in favor of nurture, on p. 62-63, the author identifies the research of Anders Ericsson, PhD. Dr. Ericsson's research has shown that "focused training regimens" and not "innate genetic talent" is the key for developing elite performance. This is provocative research, however, it's questionable if research on music performance is relevant to tennis performance. Playing music doesn't require rapid hand-eye coordination, doesn't force the person to deal with intense physical fatigue, bad line calls, etc.
• Chapter 5 (20 pages): Chapter 5, "Player Development," brings up some fascinating issues. Here, the author explores what is the "right" formula for creating an elite tennis player. In Chapter 4, the author introduced the concept of "delayed specialization" (in the training of a young athlete); he expands on that in this chapter. He cites some intriguing sports psychology research and refers to the opinions of Professor Tudor Bompa, who was a famous coach of Olympic athletes in eastern Europe. While the question of "when in a child's career is the right time to specialize?" is not clearly answered, Bompa argues in favor of "later" rather than "sooner". But, the author overlooks personality traits, something that would seem to have a large impact on success in tennis. Unlike the personality traits of "aggressive" or "passive" discussed in Chapter 2, here, I am talking about what I will call the "happiness quotient"...ie., how much does the player actually enjoy playing and competing? (Chapter 10 addresses mental aspects of tennis, but doesn't go into depth regarding this issue of "happiness.") For example, Andrea Jaeger and Bjorn Borg quit playing abruptly at the height of their careers. Borg was only 26 and burned out. Jaeger was only 19. It was claimed that her retirement was due to shoulder injuries, but, she had stated that tennis didn't motivate her enough. At the professional level, tennis is an enormously stressful sport. You're out there totally alone. Even the place-kicker in football, or, the last batter in the bottom of the 9th in baseball likely doesn't feel as much pressure as professional tennis players. Further, tennis has no off-season like those sports. Thus, pressure is relentless. Borg and Jaeger eventually succumbed to it. Conversely, Jimmy Connors thrived on it and competed at the top level until age 41. Another personality element worth exploring might be the relationship tennis players have with their fathers: how does that impact on their enjoyment of the game? For example, Mary Pierce had a combative relationship with her father, whereas the Williams sisters had a much better relationship with their father. Each of the Williams sisters have had greater success (Grand Slam wins, overall won-loss records) than Mary Pierce has. On the men's side, Agassi's father was a drill-sergeant, whereas Roger Federer's father is more laid-back. Agassi has stated in his recent book that he didn't like tennis, whereas Roger Federer states that he still loves the game. Thus, while Dr. Rowland and Professor Bompa are concerned that sport specialization could backfire if it occurs too early in a young athlete's life, perhaps a more significant factor determining success in tennis is how well players handle stress, and/or their interaction with their fathers, ie., more successful players might simply be happier players. Last but not least, Robert Lansdorp, who is renowned for developing junior players (he coached Tracy Austin, Lindsay Davenport, and others), has claimed that one-on-one coaching is more critical for producing world-class players than are tennis academies. An analysis of different coaching formats (eg., one-on-one, vs group) is missing from this discussion of player development.
• Chapter 6 (19 pages): Chapter 6 is titled "Physics of Tennis." The first 9 pages are a mind-numbing discussion of physics principles with names that the reader will forget in less time than it took to say them ("angle of incidence," "errors of laterality"). In this section, the author also manages to cover the Bernoulli principle, how fast the earth spins, and a brief history of Sir Isaac Newton. The author then discusses how a player's height and the height of the ball toss affect the speed of the serve. The chapter concludes by discussing reaction time and returning serve. Some of this information is useful. Surprisingly, there is no discussion of grip style (eg., continental, western) and how it affects ball trajectory, a concept that is certainly more relevant than these mundane laws of physics.
• Chapter 7 (15 pages): In this chapter, the author discusses tennis racquets and courts. Whether the information on racquets is useful will depend on the knowledge level of each reader. Personally, I think it would have been more revealing to learn what type of racquet, string type, and string tension current top players are using. In the discussion of string types, I think it would have been helpful to mention specific brands (eg., Luxilon, Techni-Fibre, etc.) within each general category.
• Chapter 8 (12 pages): "The Trained Tennis Body" covers exercise physiology. This chapter is well done. (Note that the author is a pediatric cardiologist and an exercise scientist.)
• Chapter 9 (12 pages): This chapter explores whether visualization (using your imagination) can help you play better. It's pretty interesting, though the animal/brain anatomy research summarized at the beginning of the chapter is challenging reading. More helpful are the practical tips on p. 161. Unfortunately, readers might end up being confused when they read the endorsement of visualization from a college tennis coach followed by an opposite opinion from Dr. Ericsson.
• Chapter 10 (12 pages): This chapter explores the mental aspect of being a competitive tennis player. The concept of "mental fitness" is introduced. There are some useful tips here, particularly the 8 suggestions on p. 174. These were obtained from a survey of 30 full-time tennis coaches and recommend what players should think and do during a match. Also useful are the suggestions on p. 176-177 which the author distilled from 2 books: The Inner Game of Tennis, by Timothy Gallwey, and Choke by Sian Beilock. This chapter is useful to tennis players at all levels.
What I Liked: Practical, "actionable" tips are always preferable to abstract theories, particularly when it comes to sports. For that reason, I liked chapters 8, 9, and 10.
What Could Be Better: The biggest criticism I have of this book is that there is too much discussion of abstract science and not enough reliance on tennis players, tennis coaches, and tennis programs as "evidence" to support the various concepts. In addition, the author chooses to include facts that are absolutely inane to the sport of tennis (how fast the earth spins??, how DNA and RNA interact??), yet, omits really practical concepts such as a discussion of grip styles (continental vs. western), or, whether one-on-one coaching is superior to group training.
Despite the extremely analytical approach the author takes to the game of tennis, there is a notable absence of detailed analysis of actual high-level tennis programs, such as those of Nick Bollettieri, Harry Hopman, Rick Macci, or, former players such as Chris Evert. What are the similarities and unique elements of training programs such as these? Where is the careful examination of top 10 players across several decades searching for the common traits that got them there? Tell us how Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic practiced. Instead, the author gravitates to arcane evaluations of students memorizing strings of numbers or practicing musical instruments. Perhaps some of this behavior/performance research is relevant to tennis performance, but, if we want to know what strategies produce the best tennis players, then shouldn't we look at tennis players, tennis coaches, and tennis programs first and foremost?
I noted several other significant omissions:
• "10 and Under Tennis": As I was reading this book, I kept expecting some discussion of the USTA's relatively new program called "10 and Under Tennis," particularly, since the author is not only a pediatrician, but focuses on "pediatric exercise." This USTA program was specifically created to increase the enjoyment kids have for tennis by decreasing the difficulty of swinging a racquet that is too big and spending 70% of their time chasing after balls. In effect, the 10 and Under program is intended to increase the "happiness quotient" of playing tennis.
Tennisology analyzes tennis from a variety of perspectives: historical, psychological, physics, technology, exercise physiology, and player development. Unfortunately, this is not a book that players and coaches can readily use.
The author is both a physician and an exercise scientist. This explains his desire to investigate these various dimensions of tennis from a scientific perspective. There's nothing wrong with that. But, while some good, practical insight is provided, this book is loaded with far too much neurobiology and theoretical concepts. Discussions such as these are over the head of most readers, and, quite honestly, irrelevant to improving tennis performance....which is what I was most interested in.
On the topic of improving performance, here, the author attempts to answer some really provocative questions: eg., can elite tennis players developed, or, are they just born to be great?, can focusing only on tennis too early in a child's career back-fire? On p. 74, in Chapter 5, the author states that there is an "abundance of research surrounding the scientific aspects of developmental training programs" yet he doesn't really examine much (any!) of it. Instead, the author refers to the research of a psychologist (Anders Ericsson, PhD) and the opinions of a coach-turned-professor (Tudor Bompa).
Certainly, Dr. Ericsson is an authority on the relationship between practicing and performance: he has devoted more than 25 years to studying this. In 2006, he published Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. He studied not only musicians, but athletes as well. His research has shown that "focused training regimens" and not "innate genetic talent" is the key for developing elite performance. This is an enormously important concept. However, why the author chooses to summarize Ericsson's research on violinists and not his research on athletes is quixotic. Even if the athletes are not tennis players, it would seem that research conducted in athletes would be more relevant. (Perhaps I should read Dr. Ericsson's book. While it appears to be a provocative tome on this subject, at 920 pages -- is this a "handbook?" -- I doubt that I will.)
Ericsson's research revealed that the best violinists practiced 10,000 hours while those who practiced 4000 hours were clearly less-skilled. However, on p. 67, the author states that elite wrestlers and figure skaters only required 4000-6000 hours to reach the "elite" level. So, then, is 4000 hours of dedicated practice the goal for elite athletes? And, if so, does this refute the research of Ericsson? I'm confused. On p. 68-69, the author summarizes a variety of reasons why Ericsson's research doesn't hold up. He also states: "No research surrounding the role of sustained deliberate practice (the philosophy of Ericsson, which is mentioned throughout this book) has been performed in tennis players."
Thus, I don't know what to make of Ericsson's research....as it applies to tennis players. Dr. Ericsson claims that the concept of dedicated practice is relevant for a wide variety of tasks. But practicing for 10,000 hours is no guarantee of becoming an elite tennis player. Were tennis players part of Ericsson's research? If not, then what percentage of the best players in the world followed that formula? Do the best tennis coaches in the world follow that formula? Robert Lansdorp and Rick Macci are famous for turning junior players into world-class players. How many hours of practice do players in these programs endure before achieving elite status? Here is where author Rowland should have applied his analysis.
It's likely that no "hard research data" exists on these specific tennis programs. Nevertheless, interviewing top tennis players and coaches may have revealed common patterns. Doing so would help to validate or refute the research of Ericsson, and would make this book nothing short of fascinating.
Dr. Rowland also embraces the coaching philosophies of Professor Tudor Bompa. Bompa argues that allowing (making!) a child specialize in a sport too early is not good. However, the author offers no scientific evaluation of Professor Bompa's opinions. A quote from Ericsson (p. 77) seems to refute Bompa: "Elite performers generally start training early, and are given access to superior training resources at very young ages." Rowland muddies the waters even more by stating that, by age 7, Agassi was hitting 2500 balls per day however Borg didn't even pick up a racquet until age 9. Rowland states that the debate of early vs. late specialization in sports has "spawned books, doctoral dissertations, and scientific workshops" (p. 74). Considering that, and the fact that the author cites scientific research to illustrate many other points throughout this book, it's perplexing why he didn't review some of this sports science research.
It seems to me, if we are to validate or refute the "sustained deliberate practice" theory of Ericsson (as it applies to tennis performance), or, the "don't let your child focus only on tennis too early" opinion of Bompa, then, we need at least a rudimentary look at how top-10 players have trained, what world-class tennis coaches put their athletes through, and the specifics of the training programs at leading tennis academies. Without that, then, all we have are philosophies and opinions.
Throughout Tennisology, the author presents many explanations of molecular biology and scientific research. Much of this is mind-numbing reading. One wonders: how is this relevant to tennis? More importantly, it becomes confusing who the audience is for this book: tennis players, or, molecular biologists? Unfortunately, there is very little "actionable" guidance as to what a player should do to improve their tennis game in this book.
|Reviewed by: Stan Reents, PharmD
|4/5/2017 8:16:54 AM