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Active Prevention: How fitness trainer Daniel Pohl combines physiotherapy and conditioning to create elite athletes
Having worked with the likes of Maria Sakkari and Kevin Anderson, the former boxer is currently at work getting Australian Open finalist Jennifer Brady back in fighting shape.
Published Apr 19, 2022
WATCH: In between recovering from injury, Brady has been a guest host on TC Live.
When 70-odd players found themselves stuck in hard quarantine ahead of the 2021 Australian Open, physio and fitness coach Daniel Pohl refused to let two weeks go to waste. Once he and client Jennifer Brady settled in Melbourne, Pohl quickly turned the limited space they were sharing into a makeshift gymnasium.
“Luckily for us, we organized our rooms to have a connecting door so that our space was still considered ‘one room,’” Pohl recalled, “so I was able to train her in person throughout the 15-day quarantine period.”
Brady was riding high after a breakthrough 2020 season saw her reach a maiden major semifinal at the US Open, and where other athletes emerged from their hotels a step slower, Pohl ensured the American was able to hit the ground running.
“I always travel with different kinds of training equipment so we had some things in the room to work on," Pohl says. "We mainly worked with jump ropes, boxing gear—I use boxing a lot for my athletes because it improves conditioning and rotational power & speed—a ratchet strap, which I use for training certain positions isometrically, and a small medicine ball.
“With those tools, combined with a ton of plyometrics and bodyweight-based movements, we were able to cover all that’s needed. In terms of tennis practice, we removed all furniture from one room and set up a mattress against the wall to hit against. I was feeding her balls with different height, spin and angles, and we practiced multiple shots in different intensities and duration. We also engaged in a lot of back-and-forth volleys, which was great for me to improve there as well!”
The hard work paid off, as Brady surged into her first Grand Slam final, finishing runner-up to Naomi Osaka. A left foot injury would sideline her later that season, presenting Pohl—who has previously worked alongside Donna Vekic, Kevin Anderson and Maria Sakkari—with his biggest challenge yet: bringing a player back from an extended layoff.
“The biggest priority is to make sure that I help the athlete keep all the relevant physical attributes of the sport with as little loss to strength, speed, mobility or endurance as possible," he says. “We not only focus on the injured body part, but also aim to keep them ‘ready’ for the return to their sport at all times, so that other muscles, tendons or joints stay basically unaffected by the time off.”
Pohl was an unlikely candidate to become one of tennis’ most prolific trainers. A former elite boxer, the German first got into track and field at the encouragement of his father, and later took up cross-country and soccer with his twin brother. Personal experience with injuries inspired him to make prevention his profession.
By 2015, he had opened a clinic with business partner Florian Zitzelsberger—Integralis Physiotherapy & Sports Performance—and were the go-to physios for Eckert Tennis, the top-ranked team in the country’s Bundasliga league system.
“There were some high-profile players on the team over the years, such as Karolina Pliskova, Julia Görges, Kirsten Flipkens, Johanna Larsson, Barbora Krejcikova, Angelique Kerber, Tatjana Maria and some others," he notes, "so it was an incredible chance to join these teams that early in my ‘tennis’ career.”
Tennis allows Pohl to best employ his fitness philosophy, one that combines physiotherapy with athletic training and strength conditioning.
WTA players are not bad athletes, but some of them can compensate a lack of athleticism—judging from overall speed, power, strength, conditioning—by being extremely talented and strategic ball-strikers, and with some it seems that their athletic development growing up was focused mostly on being good at tennis itself, not so much general athleticism. Daniel Pohl
“By working hands on with the athletes in both gym and recovery, I get the best chance to optimize their health and performance while also being monitoring fatigue, training volume, and making allowances for joint or injury specific training.”
Maintenance becomes essential during a 10-month season that can require long weeks and grueling matches of his athletes.
“As in most sports you need a solid aerobic base to work from: matches can range from 60 to 180 minutes—and even longer on the men’s side—while being able to recover fast from high intensity outputs," Pohl says. "Looking at the other athletic abilities, power, strength, acceleration and change of direction all play a huge role, but it can be unnecessarily straining on the body if you’re pushing just for the sake of getting much stronger or more explosive.”
Having worked with both ATP and WTA athletes, Pohl notes the men’s players’ stronger physical base, allowing him to focus on areas of improvement as opposed to setting an entirely new foundation.
“WTA players are not bad athletes,” he clarifies, “but some of them can compensate for a lack of athleticism—judging from overall speed, power, strength, conditioning—by being extremely talented and strategic ball-strikers, and with some it seems that their athletic development growing up was focused mostly on being good at tennis itself, not so much general athleticism.”
Famed for her dedication to physical fitness, Sakkari is not only an exception to the rule, but has set the standard for players who can channel superior athleticism into an elite career and Top 3 ranking.
Brady has long had similarly obvious potential that she at last unlocked after an off-season with Pohl and former coach Michael Geserer. Blessed with big weapons and flanked by a hands-on physio, the former world No. 13 is bound to be force when she returns to action.
“It was a great experience coming out there and seeing her moving well feeling prepared for the Australian Open," Pohl says. "She obviously had an amazing result, the biggest achievement in her career so far.
“Her recovery is going well. We had to push the return to play back some more time to ensure she’s not taking unnecessary risks after being out for that amount of time, but I’m very confident that coming back from the current injury, she will do really well again.”