Susan Carter's tennis game has never been better. Her secret? Yoga. "Yoga overall has made me stronger in all of my movements on the court. It helps me get my body behind the ball, especially on my serve and overhead," says the 37-year-old public relations rep, who played college tennis at George Washington University.
Carter has found what many tennis players, from the amateurs to the pros, are discovering—the combination of yoga and tennis makes for a win-win situation.
Unlike many sports that require simple brute strength or speed, tennis is a mental game as well. That's why yoga is perfect for cross-training. Jeff English learned this when he tried to strengthen his focus while playing tennis. "My tennis teachers always told me that mental focus came from experience, that when you've played enough matches you gain that focus," he says. "Well, there are players who have played a million matches and still lose it when the pressure is really on."
English, also a tai chi/qi gong teacher, liked yoga so much that he incorporated it into a class he teaches called "Tai Chi Tennis" at El Gancho Fitness and Swim Club in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He also teaches a movement class based on the principles of tai chi, qi gong, and yoga at Yoga Mandir, a local studio. "A big part of tennis is getting rid of inner chatter, which yoga does," he says. "So when you get into the match, instead of thinking, 'Oh, I have to win this point,' you have trained your mind to be still."
Jena Marcovicci, owner of Dance of Tennis center in Richmond, Massachusetts, also uses yoga to create focus. "The greatest way that yoga helps your tennis is with a pre-match ritual," he says. "Practicing the asanas is a crucial way to ignite your endorphins and get you ready to play. A pre-match ritual is helpful in centering your focus, which will help you in your game."
Sometimes even the pros need help with their mental game. That's why tennis stars such as Monica Seles, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario come to train with LGE Performance Systems, Inc., in Orlando, Florida, which incorporates mental training techniques into the program. Steve Gray, director of corporate fitness at LGE, describes his focus-building drills. "We use breathing techniques to relax the athletes," he says. "We teach them to look at the strings of the racquet and go completely internal, so they will breathe and concentrate between points. Using the yoga breathing techniques relaxes them and makes them feel like they're exerting less effort."
Power through the Poses
Yoga can also help your game by making you stronger and thus less prone to injury.
"When I started practicing, I used to ask, 'How do you generate power by moving so slow?' and my teachers said, 'We just practice slow so we can move fast,'" says English. "And I found out what they meant when I tried it. I learned how to create power through relaxation, rather than muscle tension. When you practice yoga regularly, you're bringing energy into your body, so after a match you feel better instead of feeling depleted."
According to English, yoga can also strengthen a tennis player's injury-prone joints. "Tennis players often have problems with their knees, ankles, shoulders, hips, and wrists, so they really need to spend some time on those areas to get the tension out."
This means that you'll be more likely to keep on truckin' if you practice your poses off the court. While tennis players are often considered over-the-hill at age 30, English has found that older athletes are able to continue when they add yoga to their mix.
"What I've found is that older people with knee and shoulder problems are still able to play if they do yoga, when otherwise their injuries would have kept them out of the game," he says. "I have a 44-year-old client who is hitting the ball extremely hard now. I've noticed it with myself, too. I'm 35, and I don't even feel like I've reached my prime yet. I feel like I'm getting better!"
Marcovicci has found that most players are in the game for the long run. Therefore, "they want to keep their bodies supple and flexible, which is a key in longevity, and yoga can help them achieve this," he says. "Yoga and tennis go hand-in-hand, because your body takes a beating from tennis."
You may not think flexibility matters much on the court—after all, you don't exactly need to perform the splits in order to serve a point. But, as Gray explains, "Flexibility is one of the most important things in tennis. When you look at top athletes, they have to leverage their bodies every square inch to reach a ball, and they have such spinal arch when they're serving. Yoga can help them achieve this."
Brooklyn, New York-based freelance writer Megan McMorris does yoga once a week to strengthen her game of choice: running. Her articles have appeared in Fitness, Self, Sports Illustrated for Women, Glamour, and Teen People.