Recovery rituals essential to game plan

by Jack Groppel, Ph.D.

This is the second installment of a two-part article on recovery.

Adequate fluid consumption is necessary throughout a match.Question: I continue to hear the word recovery discussed in seminars. However, I hear it referred to in many ways. There seems to be recovery by taking days off from playing, recovery between matches, recovery on the changeover and even recovery between points. Can you clarify what recovery is during these various situations?

Answer: In my last column, I responded to this question with thoughts about macrocycles of recovery such as time off, sleep, etc. In this second part, I will address microcycles of recovery and will discuss the psychological as well as the physiological components. By definition, microcycles are those very short time periods that we find in tennis, especially in between points, on changeovers, and even immediately after a match.

Psychologically, I believe we have to go back to the mid-1980s and the pioneering work of Jim Loehr, Ed.D., who examined the between-point time of the world’s greatest players. In his work, Jim identified four distinctly separate, but interconnected, aspects of the between-point time: positive physical response, relaxation, mental preparation, and rituals. He even observed that all four stages could occur in as little as 16 seconds, thus his project was called "The 16-second cure." Let’s briefly break down what Jim found in his research, again remembering that all this occurs in extremely short time intervals.

The positive physical response serves to clear the player’s "computer" of anything negative (a missed shot for example), by replacing the image with one that is positive (imaging the correction of the missed shot). Once the brain is cleared, the player goes into relaxation, when the racquet is placed in the nonplaying hand and breathing is controlled. In this stage the athlete is taught to have the walk of a confident fighter, with head up, shoulders level, and arms loosely held at the side. The third stage is mental preparation, when the player images where he wants to hit the ball on his serve or return. The final stage of rituals, according to Jim’s research, is a process that helps the player shift into a state of readiness. This could include bouncing the ball a certain number of times before serving and making it a precise and structured action, thinking, "What I am preparing to do is important." Numerous players have benefited from these findings, which have paved the way for further research in the area of psychological recovery.

As for the physical aspect, I consulted two people who are leaders in their fields of hydration and nutrition, Mike Bergeron, Ph.D., director of the Environmental Physiology Laboratory at the Medical College of Georgia, and Page Love, a registered dietitian and owner of Nutrifit in Atlanta. Both of these experts have extensive experience in working with tennis players of all ability levels. I asked them the following questions and I follow with their answers. My first question might surprise you, but I ask it given the research on how quickly the body adapts after exercise.

Assuming that most of our competitive students are involved in weekend tournaments, what would you recommend immediately after a match? Both experts noted that the emphasis has to be on sufficient water, carbohydrates, and electrolytes (sodium and chloride). However, Dr. Bergeron was quick to point out that recent research indicates that a certain amount of protein should be ingested as well for more complete muscle recovery. He mentioned that an appropriate amount could be found in a liquid carbohydrate-protein recovery drink that has a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein. This will also likely help to reduce the feeling of hunger that a simply carbohydrate solution may not achieve. Both Bergeron and Love noted that additional fluid and electrolyte intake might be necessary depending on how much the athlete lost through sweat. Going beyond nutrition, Dr. Bergeron explained that the athlete might need to promptly get out of the heat and take a cool shower (if playing in the heat).

The major train of thought over the last couple of decades in this area of study has been that athletes need to recover nutrients within the first two hours after a bout of intense exercise. The idea was that the active muscles could bind more glycogen and recover energy stores more effectively. The most recent work seems to suggest that the athlete should begin recovering nutrients even earlier (i.e., within one hour or sooner) to synthesize more glycogen. Based on this new evidence, Dr. Bergeron recommends that athletes begin ingesting nutrients right away (within 15 - 20 minutes), especially if the next match is very soon, in order to have less in the stomach and some measurable degree of nutrient recovery before returning to the court.

I then asked the two experts if they had any thoughts to add about recovery between points or on the changeover during a match. Before telling you what they said about hydration, etc., I am compelled to cite the obvious as Dr. Bergeron pointed out. Many athletes play "fast," and, in doing so, do not take the full time between points. From a physiological perspective, this can create a problem. Dr. Bergeron stated that if the athlete has played a long point and is feeling fatigued, hurrying to prepare for the next point (e.g., within 10 seconds), means there will not be nearly as much muscle energy recovery and metabolic byproduct removal as when the athlete takes the full 25 seconds allowed.

As for nutrition on the changeovers, Page Love immediately wants us to tell our players that thirst is not always a sufficient stimulus for maintaining ample hydration. Adequate fluid consumption is necessary throughout a match. She encourages athletes to drink fluids on every changeover and says that they should drink at least five to 10 ounces of liquid, depending on sweating rate, body size and tolerance. Both experts felt that energy (carbohydrate) drinks would be ideal during this time period. The sport drink should contain carbohydrates and electrolytes (primarily sodium and chloride), because consuming carbohydrates has been shown to help players maintain more power and accuracy with serving and groundstrokes during match play and the salt helps to retain the fluid. Dr. Bergeron does not feel that the energy drink consumed during a match should have very much (if any) protein, as this might delay energy and fluid absorption.

In summary, there are many ways we can teach our students about recovery. As each of us knows, teaching students about competition involves so much more than just hitting great strokes. A major key is to understand all the limiting factors that can prevent players from accessing all of their talent and skill, thus preventing them from being as good as they could be. That’s one challenge before us.


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