Last week a colleague and friend sent me a video of a young player’s forehand. It was, what I describe, a Frankenstein Forehand. Meaning, it looked like a science experiment where a coach had taken a piece of every forehand trend and meshed it all together to create this monster.
This forehand quickly lead to us having an exchange on how it was possible this had happened. The player had come through the mini-tennis age groups and, somehow, had emerged with this forehand. My friend and I quickly agreed, just because someone has the right tools, it doesn’t mean they can create a polished end product. Flip that and the opposite is also true. Give a skilled person average tools and they can still create a great end product. As someone very wise keeps telling me, it is not what you have, it is what you do with what you have that counts.
Of course, this got me thinking, has mini-tennis really made a difference in tennis. When I reflected, I could only come to the conclusion it has not really had the effect everyone hoped. I started to think what the issues were and I came up with 5 areas where I feel there could be significant improvements. So, to be clear, this blog is not a moan, it is to offer solutions. Here goes….
- JOURNEY – it is so much longer now
- NUMBERS GAME – coaches are using it as basic business model versus player development model
- INFRASTRUCTURE POST MINI-TENNIS – there isn’t one to support a healthy mini-tennis world
- SKILL DEVELOPMENT – some coaches think mini-tennis does the coaching for you
- PARENTS – they are not supported or educated on the journey
When I started coaching, players didn’t really get serious about tennis until they were around 9-10 at the earliest. You’d get the odd younger player but they were normally the youngest sibling from a tennis family. Fast forward 28 years and there are 5 year olds who are being labelled as ‘performance’ players. Allow me to talk candidly, a 5 year old has only been walking properly for around 36 months. My son will be 5 in 10 months and the idea of him being labelled ‘performance’ at anything makes me want to laugh….. or cry.
Kids are being exposed to competition at a much earlier age and, I fear, they are not mentally ready for it. It is mind boggling to think a child could have competed at tennis for 7 years before they play their first U14 match. The drop-out rate in tennis used to be mid-teens but now it is getting earlier. A child is normally ready to choose what they want to do by the time they get into secondary school. If they have played tennis for their entire school life and then go into a secondary school with new friends and peer pressure, it is obvious there will be temptations to jump ship and get out of tennis.
I understand why a coach would max out on a mini tennis programme. You can get 12 children on 1 court, more if you are skilled at big numbered groups. However, this creates a bottle neck issue from orange ball upwards. Unless you have unlimited courts, you will struggle to maintain the numbers from red to orange. If you cannot offer everyone at red an option in orange, you are losing numbers at 7-8 years old.
Mini-tennis is seen as the solution to most tennis issues. Let’s get into primary schools, let’s tackle the youngest classes, let’s run toddler classes, let’s work in nurseries and so on. The harsh reality is, we don’t have the infrastructure to support a healthy mini-tennis programme. The tip of the pyramid is quickly becoming green ball tennis. The drop-out from green to yellow ball is getting larger due to there not being enough competition for the, newly promoted, green ball players. Think about it for a second. Look at how many mini-tennis events you see up and down the country. There are so many options for minis. Now, compare that with how many U12 events there are. We are creating demand that we cannot supply. Ultimately, this causes bitterness with parents and players.
As mentioned at the start, tools do not make the product. Mini-tennis provides many of the tools you need to help develop a player but you still have to coach. Children still require reception skills to receive a sponge/red ball. You still require all the underpinning skills to be able to organise your limbs and body in such a way to efficiently send the ball back. You still need to understand space on both sides of the net. We have a duty to help accelerate these skills. Mini-tennis can assist with this but we still have to coach our butts off if we are to develop players who have the skills required to enjoy tennis for the rest of their lives.
I clearly remember Judy Murray delivering a session at our National Coaches Conference. It was around 15 years ago and she was using some of the best 10 and under players in Scotland. At the end of the presentation, someone commented ‘its OK for you, you always get the best players’. Her reply, ‘you think they’ve always looked like this?’
Remember, it is not about what you have, it is about what you do with what you have.
When you mix up the first 4 areas, it is easy to see why we have so many frustrated tennis parents. Imagine being told, when your baby is 5 years old, they have potential. Now, imagine you have zero sporting experience, never mind tennis experience. You don’t know how to play the system so what do you do? It’s obvious, you do what everyone else seems to be. We forget, it is human nature to copy. So many parents fall into tennis. When they don’t know what to do, they just copy the others in the same boat.
Believe me when I say this, parent education is the least thought of and the most important area of tennis player development. If we can find healthy ways to engage parents then we will have an army of people to help us develop our amazing sport. As things stand, it is dog eat dog between a lot of parents.
So, on to solutions….
Journey – this may come across as crazy, I believe if we are to have a healthier sport, we must have an adult-down approach. Way too much emphasis is placed on mini-tennis. In most walks industries, you start with the end in mind. Tennis is, truly, a sport for life and ‘the end’ is all about having a healthy adult competition structure. This would naturally provide a pathway from teenage tennis into adult tennis. If we have a healthy teenage structure, we naturally create a pathway from mini-tennis into the teenage years.
However, the biggest effect it could have is, to help parents see the bigger picture. If I could ban one word from tennis, it would be ‘chasing’. It is endemic in tennis just now, chasing 1* ratings, chasing ratings, rankings, status, funding. It feels like people think tennis is a race. It is not, there is no end point, you can play tennis until you are into your 90’s. There is no rush. We need to stop chasing and enjoy being in the moment.
Numbers game links to infrastructure – coaches, I mentioned this in last weeks blog https://theservicebox.com/2019/02/18/8-steps-to-a-healthier-tennis-coach-committee-relationship/
If you are going to place your focus on numbers, create a healthy events/comps structure and pack it out the door. This will naturally see your coaching programme grow. Remember, we are coaches of a sport and not an activity. We have a duty to grow the game. The solution is obvious, we need to provide more opportunities for people to play the game. Do this from the adults-down. There is no point in creating an amazing mini-tennis events calendar without having the infrastructure above it. Believe me, I’ve seen it enough times now, it creates a bitterness. Kids going from competing all the time to having nothing to compete in.
Skill development – coaches, tennis is one of the most demanding sports in the world. We are blessed, in that, we will never run out of skills to develop in our players. Tap back into what attracted you to being a tennis coach and become a student of the game. The more I know, the more I realise there is to know. If your players see you are always learning, it will be much easier for them to do the same. Remember, humans copy each other.
Parents – the biggest asset any child will ever have. If you invest time in helping the parents of your players, they will be the biggest asset you will ever have. Give some thought as to what information your parents need for the next chapter of their child’s development. Always ensure you are ahead of the curve. If you are smart, you could turn this into another income stream. However, you have to show the value if you decide to go down this road.
So, in summary, we could help make mini-tennis way more productive if we viewed it for what it is, the very start of a child’s tennis development. The math is simple, there are only 10 years in the 10&Under age group. They spend the rest of their lives outside of mini-tennis. We need to create a pathway for everyone to move through tennis at their own pace. It is not a race! The secret to this lies in the events/competitions and NOT in more coaching. Remember, just because someone uses the correct size of racket, stands on the appropriate sized court, with the proper ball, we still have to bring out the skills tennis will demand of them. We must create strong teams where the parents are valued as hugely important assets.
As a tennis coach, you can make a difference in people’s lives. Please take some time to reflect on why you got into coaching. If it was for healthy reasons, reflect further and make the changes required to provide a healthy tennis environment.
As with all my blogs, please get in touch with your feedback on this topic. I am constantly gathering information from everyone that takes the time. I can then learn from your successes and ideas and pass them on to people in the field.
Until next time, take care
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