With Wimbledon having started this week, we are in the most exciting stretch of tennis of the year. For the first time in over 10 years it seems conceivable that neither Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal will win one of the 4 major tournaments of the tennis season. Their dominance over the competition throughout the past decade has been spectacular to watch, but almost more fascinating are the drastically different styles of play they have employed. This contrast is reflected in the injury histories of these two legends, and from this we can gain insight into how the way we move can impact performance and long-term health.
Arguably the greatest player of all time, Federer’s playing style is the epitome of grace. He makes every move seem effortless – from how he glides around the court to his iconic one-handed backhand. It appears as though every movement is completely purposeful, using the exact minimum amount of energy needed to generate the desired shot. This efficient movement has helped him miss very little time with injury over the course of his outstanding career.
Nadal’s playing style deviates greatly from the smooth, graceful game of Federer. Nadal is a broader, stronger player and uses his greater muscle mass to his advantage as he chases down shots that most others couldn’t get to. He throws his entire body into every swing, creating a powerful, high-arcing shot as his arm finishes high above his head. His unorthodox style has reaped great benefits, but has contributed to nagging knee, back, and wrist injuries throughout his career.
Despite their highly contrasting styles, both Federer and Nadal were able to win over a dozen Grand Slam titles and rank No. 1 in the world for extended periods of time. Yet Nadal, the more physically athletic player, has had most setbacks related to injury. We can look to differences in movement efficiency to account for some of this discrepancy.
There are many ways to complete a given functional task – such as a tennis swing, a deadlift, or getting up from a chair – but there are more or less efficient ways to do so. The less efficient movement may incorporate extra muscle use, direct forces to tissues unprepared for such load, or generate increased reaction forces with the ground that must be absorbed by the body. The more efficient movement evenly distributes forces amongst the tissues best able to handle them and produces as little impact as possible, while using as little muscle activation as possible. Many of us get away with inefficient movement patterns for a long time, and then suddenly we can’t. We lift heavy, awkward things until we injure our backs. We throw baseballs with poor mechanics until we develop shoulder or elbow issues. We allow our knees to come forwards when we squat until we suffer from knee pain.
However, this process starts a lot earlier than when symptoms start to show up. With repeated inefficient movements, we force our bodies to adapt at a physiological level. Genetics, history of activity, previous injuries, and metabolic factors impact the degree to which your body can adjust to these extra demands. We can use this to our advantage with regards to training, but if the demand is greater than the body’s ability to adapt for a prolonged period of time, we can run into trouble. Eventually this leads to some combination of limited function, symptoms, and tissue damage.
There are a couple of great strategies to reduce the stresses on the body while continuing to participate in the activities we love. First, do a variety of different activities that challenge your body in different ways. This distributes forces to a wide range of structures and tissues, reducing the likelihood of overload of any single area. Second, train yourself to move as efficiently as possible. Running assessments, personalized exercise programs, and sport-specific coaching give you access to experts who can evaluate your movement tendencies and provide cues to help with this. Effective treatment involving functional assessment, manual therapy, and acupuncture is an excellent way to fine-tune the neuromuscular system, allowing the body to better adapt to the forces being applied.
There are still several chapters left to be written in the great careers of Federer and Nadal. Let’s hope that we can continue to marvel at their potent, distinct playing styles for years to come.