The title will make sense nearer the end of this blog.
I am ambitious, always have been, always will be. I am competitive, always have been, always will be. I want every single player to reach the level they deserve to. I want more British players to be self-sustaining tennis professionals.
Never, in my time in tennis coaching, have I witnessed there being more focus on ‘producing’ professional tennis players. Let’s get one thing straight, you don’t produce professional players, they present themselves. If anyone can lay claim to ‘producing’ a player, it is the parents. They do the important part, they, literally, give life to the child 😉
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some coaches out there who are in the business of helping aspiring professional players. They work in roles, or academies, with the sole purpose of providing an environment for such players. What we need to ask ourselves is, what age are these players? Normally 16+
I am witnessing a worrying trend of very young players being paraded around social media for all to comment on. In a lot of cases, these children are aged 6-10. In many occasions, there are comments about the player’s status, what squads they train in, what level of competition they have won and the coach , blatantly, attaching themselves to the young child as a badge of honour.
This may be a slightly controversial statement but I believe you can be a national level 12 and under player by having relatively average skills. To try and illustrate this, I am going to take you back to school.
I want you to imagine back to your primary school races.
There are around 21,000 primary schools in the UK, housing around 5,000,000 children under 12 years of age. In every class there is always 1 kid who is the fastest at running. However, even just using the figures above, we can see that is, 1 fast kid out of 21,000 other classes, 7 kids per school that are fast. This gives us a total of 147,000 fast kids around the UK. These are all hypothetical by the way.
Even within these vast numbers the realities could be, there is a huge range of ‘fast’. The percentile scale is applicable for everything. The other fact could be, ‘this is a poor year for running’. Sometimes, for inexplicable reasons, you get vintage years.
Now let us fast forward to when these children are around 16-18 years old, how many of these 147,000 children are still the fastest in their class?
Now let us fast forward to when these children reach the age of 22-23, how many of these children are international level speedsters?
See, being fast and being ‘fast enough’ to be an international level athlete are two very different things. It is very defined in athletics as it is all time based. Tennis is way more complicated.
Now. let’s apply the same, school races, analogy to tennis.
Let’s dream for a second and imagine that every primary school class in Britain had a tennis competition. There would always be that 1 kid who would win the competition. They would be the champion of their school class. The only issue is, they would be 1 of 21,000 school class champions. Now imagine all of these children stayed in tennis, how many would still be the class champion at 16? Now imagine, all of these children still played tennis at 22-23, how many would still be the best? In most cases the champions would change as the children get older.
The four most common factors which lead to someone being a tennis phenom are incredible physicality, incredible mentality, incredible tactician and incredible racket skills. Even at the very top of the game each player would fall on to a percentile scale for each of these skills. However, the very top are off the scale in all four.
Out of these four skills, you could have exceptional racket skills, average physical, tactical and mindset skills and be national/international level. That may sound controversial or disrespectful but it is true. I have seen 100’s of juniors who have been national/international level when they are U12/U14 age who fall off the radar due to physical and mental limitations.
When do all of these skills truly begin to emerge to the point where we have an inkling they may be in that phenom category? It is different for everyone but I can tell you, it is not 8 years old. It is not 12, 13 or even 14. From 15+ you may start to see something but, in most cases, it is 16+. It can be younger in the women’s game but the days of 14 year olds mixing it at the top of the women’s game are over.
It is not about being good enough to cut it in the juniors. As soon as kids (yes, they are still kids) leave the juniors, they are in a much bigger pool of players. Now they are mixing it with all the best players from 18-36. Some of the best players in the world have been on the tour longer than they’ve been alive. It is not even a step up, it is almost another sport.
Now, let’s think of drop out rate in tennis. We all know this could be down to other interests kicking in, academics getting prioritised or burn out but I believe the biggest reason is, there is no place for them when older. If not deemed good enough, they are cast aside, and worse still, made to feel like they are cast aside.
For the UK to be considered a tennis nation, it must house activity for all ages and stages. We need the base to be as huge as possible. I want to be clear here, the base IS NOT MINI TENNIS!!
The base of tennis is EVERYONE that plays the game from 4-94 year olds. I love the expression ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. Metaphorically, it takes a village to raise a tennis player. We need strength and depth at every age and stage if we are to help the real cream rise to the top.
Now, you may be wondering why I came up with the title to this blog. Earlier this week, I listened to Ian Broudie, from the Lightning Seeds, being interviewed on Tim Lovejoy’s podcast. Tim asked him, what he thought was a stupid question, ‘how do you write a hit record?’
Ian’s response was quality. Excuse the paraphrasing, ‘I don’t think about writing a hit record, I think about making the best song I can. If it is a hit then so be it’.
This instantly hit home with me. Too many tennis coaches are trying to produce a ‘hit record’. We need to focus, solely, on writing the best songs we can. You will write a pile of songs that are bang average but, every once in a while, a hit presents itself.
So, coaches, let’s just focus on the controllable. Let’s work on creating environments where everyone and anyone can experience what tennis has to offer. Realise where your speciality lies within this and write as many great songs as you can.
Thank you for taking the time to read this.
BTW, link to Tim’s excellent podcast is below.