Top junior development coach Harold Solomon of the Harold Solomon Tennis Institute in Fort Lauderdale, Florida addresses the problem of cramping in this installment of a regular Zootennis feature.
Q: I've heard that cramping isn't just physical, that it also has a psychological component. Do you think the stress of a big match in an important tournament can contribute to a player cramping? If so, what can you do to prevent this?
A: There are definitely two main components of cramping: physical, nutritional depletion and a form of psychological trauma which players inflict on themselves.
Physically, most cramps in tennis players are caused by the loss of fluids or the depletion of sodium in the body. For many years doctors and nutritionists insisted that the loss of potassium was the leading cause of cramps, but we now know that is not true. Most physical cramps can be avoided by properly hydrating both the night before and during matches, and making sure that foods is heavily salted, especially when players are playing in excessive heat and humidity. Adding a tablespoon of salt to a large bottle of a sports drink like Gatorade should be enough to avoid cramping in most situations.
Cramping can also have a psychological component. I have seen many players who get so tight and do not understand how to relax that they actually start to cramp on the court. These types of cramps usually begin in the hands where a player will be unable to pry his or her hand off of the racket to change grips. From there the cramps can spread to the legs and stomach making it almost impossible to finish a match. This type of cramping comes from the stress that is created in the body when a player is consumed with everything other then actually playing tennis. They are focused on the result and the consequences of the result instead of working with themselves to play one point at a time and focus on what they need to be doing in the moment to be successful.
Everybody gets nervous; it's how you deal with your nerves that separates top players from the rest of the pack. Helpful hints to stay on track include staying with your routines. For some players, that's turning their back to their opponent after each point and playing with their strings or bouncing a ball; for some it's doing deep breathing between every point or at the changeovers; for others it's making sure that they exhale after every shot (many players hold their breath when they hit the ball which never allows the body to relax during the points).
You may see some players who actually do meditation breathing on the changeovers. They close their eyes, breath and use imagery to focus on how they want to play. The quest is to be able to enjoy the challenge, enjoy the competition, and have fun with the adrenaline rush that you get from playing in a big match or a big tournament. I thought there was nothing more fun then playing a Davis Cup match in another country with 15,000 people going crazy against you, so I think loving the battle-internal or external-is what makes playing this game so much fun.
Do you have a question for Harold? If so, please send it to clewis[at]zootennis[dot]com with the phrase Coach's Q and A in the subject line.