Is There A Way to Make Junior Development Less Costly?

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We’ve all seen the estimates of how much it costs to take a junior player from beginner all the way to college or the pro tour (click here for a thorough breakdown). Upwards of $300,000. That’s insane!

What if there were a way to significantly reduce that number? After having gone through this journey myself, I have some concrete ideas that could make tennis more affordable without jeopardizing the quality of training and development. I welcome you to add your suggestions in the Comments below, too. Developing a junior tennis player should not – and need not – require an annual investment of what amounts to an average adult salary.

  • For a beginning player, invest in private lessons (once or twice a week depending on the age and interest level of the player) with a top developmental coach to instill technically-sound strokes and movement from the get-go. Balance the private lessons with group drills and/or hitting sessions to keep the game fun. How do you find a top developmental coach? Do your homework! Talk to parents of successful players, talk to the people in your local tennis shop, call your USTA section office and speak with the head of junior competition to ask for suggestions. It may take some work, but it will be worth it when your child winds up with technically-sound strokes and healthy movement on the court.
  • Hire a local college player to hit with your child between lessons or group drills. It’s a great way for your child to get turned onto college tennis, start to form relationships with local college programs, and get some great training at a much lower cost than academy coaches charge.
  • Take your child to watch local high school and college tennis matches. These matches are usually free of charge and are a great learning experience, especially for younger players.
  • Don’t let your child specialize in tennis too early. The science now supports waiting until age 13 or 14 to play a single sport, both in terms of developing the complete athlete and avoiding injury and burnout. Team sports, especially at the beginner level, tend to be less expensive, so let your child find a balance between tennis and the other sports he or she enjoys.
  • Parents, educate yourselves! Read Friend At Court  and make sure you have a working knowledge of all the sections that apply to junior tennis. Also, make sure your child knows the rules of the game before he or she starts playing tournaments. You want your child to play as many matches as available when you travel to a tournament. Don’t let your child lose a match simply because he or she doesn’t know the rules.
  • If you have a local tennis shop, get to know the salespeople and make sure you’re on any lists to be notified when there’s a sale on your child’s preferred clothing, shoes, and equipment. Take advantage of the many shoe warranty programs that exist so you’re not paying full price for new shoes every 6-8 weeks.
  • Invest in a quality stringing machine and teach your child how to string his or her own racquets (YouTube has some great how-to videos if you’d like to learn how to string). If you buy string by the reel then string yourself, you will save hundreds if not thousands of dollars each year depending on how often your child goes through strings. An average packet of string costs about $20. Add to that a $25 stringing fee, and you can see how quickly this line-item blows up over the course of a year. As your child becomes more proficient, he/she can start stringing racquets for friends to earn extra money and offset some of the costs of playing the game.
  • Talk to other Tennis Parents to find out about free or low-cost options for training opportunities. Form a network of tennis families and organize no-cost practice round-robins with kids of similar levels. For the older kids, encourage them to call or text each other to set up their own hitting sessions and practice matches. I’ve just created a Facebook group (click here) to help facilitate this type of play. Once the kids start playing tournaments, expand that network and trade off taking the kids to tournaments so you can share the cost of travel, hotel, etc. You can even form a hand-me-down network for outgrown shoes and clothing.
  • Speaking of tournaments, stick close to home until your child is beating everyone in the area. Follow the Wayne Bryan approach to competition: become the best on your block, then the best in your neighborhood, then the best in your town. Only then might it become necessary to travel for tournaments. But, even at that point, seek out older players – including college players – to play matches and save the cost of traveling for tournaments.
  • Once your child is ready to travel for competition, choose one or two hotel and rental car reward programs and build up your points so you can earn free travel benefits. Hint: the tournament hotels don’t always have the lowest room rates so shop around.
  • Instead of paying a coach to attend every tournament and watch every match, invest in a video camera and fence mount, tape your child’s matches, then offer to pay the coach to analyze the matches. That way, the coach is seeing your child in the stressful setting of match play and can adapt training to address those areas where your child needs to do better. You’ll still want the coach to be there in person at least once a quarter, but by using video you can still be sure the coach is on top of what’s happening in your child’s matches without relying solely on your subjective interpretation.
  • If your child is progressing and is ranked among the top players in your section, seek out sponsorships for free or discounted racquets, clothing, shoes, string, grips, and any other items your child uses on a regular basis.
  • Make sure your child’s coach understands and uses the concept of periodization in your child’s training. Over-training can lead to injuries which can be very costly. Those costs may include visits to a physician, X-rays or MRIs, physical therapy, massage, chiropractic care, and medication.
  • Don’t get sucked into the idea that your child has to play a tournament every week! Sit down with your child’s coach (or do it yourself if the coach isn’t willing or knowledgeable which may be a red flag that it’s time to find a new coach) at the beginning of each quarter or 6-month period and map out a schedule of tournaments. One coach told me he sits down with each player at the beginning of the school year and looks at the school calendar, the family’s holiday and social calendar, and the tournament calendar to create a schedule that will accommodate that player’s needs. Make sure to build in blocks of time for your child to work on any aspects of his/her game outside of tournament play that need attention. It’s very hard to groove a new forehand or cement a new tactic during the stress of a tournament. Let your child have plenty of time between events so that development continues to progress.

I’m sure y’all have some other great cost-saving ideas to share! I look forward to reading them as you post in the Comments below.

 

 

13 thoughts on “Is There A Way to Make Junior Development Less Costly?”

  1. Depending upon the age of the player you don’t even need to find a college player. If you child is still hitting a green dot ball then all you need is a good junior. You’ll save money as compared to a college player.

  2. I often agree with your columns and your ideas make sense for players working toward playing college tennis. But please don’t kid parents about creating players who have the opportunity to compete on the world’s highest level.

    In player development toward the pro tour your points really don’t stand up. I am currently in the middle of developing 1 and have been with him for 6+ years. The true trail to winning on the pro tour requires professional development supervision daily. Tournament travel needs to be handled with knowledge of how to get the player to compete which means knowledge of sports psychology and the individual players psych. Their diet must be monitored and rest rituals methodical.

    You can talk about periodization that you as the parent will implement and the coach will give you the plan. Periodization takes professional supervision and Implementation takes daily supervision.

    You have not touched on recovery which in itself in today’s development to the pro tour is the most neglected piece of the puzzle and is a daily necessity. Many players can train hard enough because they get injured.

    What I’m saying is that what you outlined is a good idea to create a great player searching for a scholarship to a great college. When you start talking about creating a player that is capable of competing on the pro tour and obtaining a ranking with the top 50 you are talking about a team dedicating to an ideal of success. Financially going into to this the parents need to have their eyes open so your 300k to the pro tour is actually an amusing number based on nothing but fiction. We have always been used to someone footing the bill for real development. But in today’s path to the pro tour there is little help available so even the talented ones are handicapped.

    1. Lance, thank you so much for your comments. Yes, you are correct that I was focusing on those players aiming to play college tennis. The path for professional development is far different. As you pointed out, the pro path requires 100% commitment from the player and the family in terms of time and money and other resources. Gayal Pitts Black alluded to this in my recent podcast with her.

      I love that you mention recovery as well! That is an often-neglected part of a player’s training regimen, one that I’ll address in a separate article shortly.

  3. The article offers some good points, but I disagree with several points.

    First of all, it generally is far too late for a kid to specialize in tennis as an 8th grader or Freshman in HS. Unfortunately, I think a child needs to specialize much earlier – the game is just far too competitive to specialize so late. Confidence is a big part of tennis, and struggling against players who have more match- play experience will be extremely frustrating to most 13/14 year olds and lead to disinterest in the sport.

    Secondly, “sticking close to home” until your kid is the best in the area is bad advice. A kid will be pretty bored playing the same players over and over again, and if the kid is good, but not the best, he/she deserves to play the better and more diverse competition at least the Sectional level. A kid doesn’t have to be the “best” to be successful at higher levels, particularly if he/she lives in a competitive area.

    1. Other kids aren’t the only source of competition for those who choose to stay close to home. Adults, high school and college players, and any junior player in a different age group are all sources of competitive match play. Please understand that the point of this article is to help parents find ways to cut costs. Avoiding travel is just one idea. It may not work for everyone.

  4. Lisa, I love your latest post regarding the “Cost of Junior Tennis”, and would like to offer my input.

    I work with many top junior players that have a goal of playing college tennis. In most cases the goal is not only to play but also to receive a scholarship! Of course you know this means “good grades” as well as “good strokes”.

    You suggest in your post to “invest in a quality stringing machine”, and, in some cases this may work out, however, in my many years of doing this I have seen “quality stringing machines” become “clothes hangers” in the kids room!

    I think most kids at this age have enough on their plate with studies, tennis, and other activities, that it is unrealistic to believe the machine can return on the $1000.00 investment. Hardly a month goes by that I don’t receive a call from parents trying to sell a machine.

    Add to this that when a person strings a racquet for anyone else they are taking on some responsibility for the condition of that racquet. One racquet failure can make the investment less appealing.

    I would suggest, instead, the player develop a relationship with a racquet technician that can offer, based on some criteria, a reduced stringing cost. Proper stringing is a fact of playing tennis!

    If this is not possible in your area, and the purchase of a stringing machine is best for you, I would urge the parent and player spend some time getting the proper technical training. One of the best training options is the IART Symposium, however, if that is not a possibility spend some time with a racquet technician you trust and string a few racquets.

    It will quickly become clear if purchasing a stinging machine is the best for your player.

    John

  5. Encourage kids to become their own racquet technician. Buy them a Clippermate for under $200. Within two weeks they will be able to string a racquet in under 45 minutes and be on the road to developing a valuable skill. If they enjoy it, they can get a used machine on craiglist in most metro areas that will serve them well for years and cost under $1000. It is not very complicated. I did it and saved my parents hundreds of dollars. I am teaching my son to string on our 40 year old Ektelon model H that a friend gave to me 10 years ago. DIY your kids will thank you for it.

  6. I got three benefits from having my daughter string her own racquets:

    1 – She learned the value of doing her own work. Tennis is rife with entitlement kids due, in no small part, to the ridiculous cost inherent in pursuing the sport at a high level. I refuse to allow my kids to sit back and let others do things for them when they can do it themselves. That’s why I don’t have a lawn service; I have kids, and they contribute to the household’s upkeep. I won’t say she liked doing it. In fact she hated it. However, as my drill instructors said in boot camp: “You don’t have to like like it, you just have to do it.”

    2 – I saved money. My player was fairly high-level, so she would string four racquets every other week = 8 string jobs per month. That’s about $120/mo in stringing labor alone @ $15/stick. I went through two machines. The first was our trial model at $250, and had the glide bars that the clamps slid along. The second was more modern with the clamps integrated into the table and cost $450. Both bought used. We used them over a 4-year period. That’s 48 months at $120/mo saved stringing labor cost for a total benefit of $5,760. Even if I drop 4-months for vacations and injury layoffs, that’s still $5,280. With a hard cost of $700 for the machines, I saved $4,580.

    3 – I turned a profit from the sale of the machines. When I upgraded from the first machine, I put it on eBay and it bid up to $425 for a $175 profit. The second I sold when she went off to college. Again on eBay, and it bid up to $775 for a profit of $375, so all together I made $500 profit in addition to the money not spent on stringing labor, for a grand total of $5,080, or $1,270 per year for the 4-years we self-strung. Wish I had done it for the years before that too.

  7. Lin, there is a cost associated with your (or your child’s) labor to string her own racquet. That time could have been spent on court, doing homework, etc.

  8. David – Why would you presume that stringing would be done in place of practice or school? In the activity hierarchy, stringing is pretty low, so it it relegated to down time. Just as my staff at work schedule non-essential paperwork for low-productivity hours, my daughter would schedule stringing around the tasks that are higher in importance.

    We regard her tennis as her job. Because of the time required to perform that “job”, concessions are made for chores that would otherwise be her responsibility. Note that I say concessions, not elimination. She still had household chores, but I would absorb some that otherwise would be for her.

    Our primary focus is always education, and since she graduated with a 3.98 unweighted GPA, I’d say stringing didn’t hurt that aspect of her development. As for practice; she finished her junior “career” as a top 20 Blue Chip and secured a full-ride at the D1 SEC school of her choice, so she did OK there too.

    The sacrifices in time and extracurricular activities that were made for tennis (and stringing) were always her choice. At any time, she could have said “enough” and rolled back to rec tennis, or no tennis. That she was mature enough to make that decision for herself, and dedicated enough to pull it off, speaks well for her.

    And to your point that there is a cost to doing your own stringing; I agree. In our case, my daughter was willing to pay that cost. I also found it to be a developmental opportunity. If you want something, be prepared to sacrifice to achieve it. If I give her everything, I risk raising a young adult who will expect others to provide for her, rather than go grab success for herself.

    In my post, I was just giving a real-world example of the economics we realized by doing our own stringing. I would never suggest putting it ahead of something a family agrees is more important. Nor would I presume to tell another family how to order their hierarchy of tasks.

  9. Generally, good advice. I’d offer a couple of tweaks.

    On the hotel/airline/car loyalty front, I wouldn’t restrict it to one chain. I just tell people, don’t spend a dollar without getting a point in return and if you can keep it to a small set of brands it’s better. But too often my preferred choice is higher, sold out, etc that it’s nice to have a second or third option to collect points on. It isn’t worth paying $10/night just for the points. I found that one year, I’d have a week long tournament covered by one brand and the next year by a different brand, etc. It seems to go in waves. There are years where Hilton chain is the best deal and before that Marriott, Holiday Inn, etc. Also, free stays aren’t the only benefit. The points/nights/flights/miles get you to elevated status which often come with money saving perks so even though you might be stuck at a hotel without breakfast, your gold status might get you free breakfast or access to the concierge lounge or free internet access, etc. If you can use a credit card that also earns points, that’s even better as long as it isn’t a hassle to transfer or translate those points to stays/flights when you need it.

    I’d also encourage learning how to bid on priceline and similar sites. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve managed to get the tournament hotel for as much as $90 cheaper per night. But do your homework so you won’t be disappointed with your bid.

    Many people don’t know that your money is generally always good on Southwest. Combined with 2 free checked bags per person, it’s usually our choice for tournament travel. If you have to change or cancel your flight, the fees paid are kept as credit for that person for a year and there is no change fee. While I never really got organized to do it… For week long events and if you really have no idea when to book your return… In some instances, it could be cheaper to buy two return tickets in advance on Southwest. The first ticket is for the last day of the event, the second ticket might be for a Wed/Thursday return. If your child is out by the earlier flight, get credit for the later flight and save the hotel/car rental money. If your child is still in, then cancel and credit the earlier flight and stay for the end. After the first time, you’ll always have basically a free flight credited for the next time. Even though there is no change fee on Southwest, the flights are higher closer to the flight. So you might be able to buy two $150 returns vs having to pay a $150 initially and then paying the difference for a return that’s now $350-400, for example. You can always tell what the price is going to be on the day of the flight as it’s usually the Anytime price. And I’ve had luck priceling a bid for a return flight and just canceling my return flight for credit nfor the next trip.

    Being the best on your block is a good strategy and most people should really do this more, but playing different areas may also be good for development and not always more expensive. Being from a cold weather area, we made it a rule to try to play outdoors every couple of months or so, it really helped when playing Winters or Easter Bowl during our ‘indoor season’ and the style of play is much different. If you don’t get outdoors for months, kids will often need some acclimation. You can go early (expensive and more days off) or break up the 6 months of the indoor season with some outdoor events. Indoor surfaces are faster and tend to produce flatter and shorter points. Outdoor events tend to be longer and require more patience to grind.

    Also it was literally the same or cheaper for us to play events in Norcross, GA than it was in Cincinnati traveling from Chicago. Norcross hotels are nearly half the price and no $35 fee for a warm-up court. Esp if you are a good long distance driver or have multiple drivers.

    Video taping is only a partial substitute for a traveling coach and there has to be a balance. A good coach should be scouting opponents, building their confidence and taking advantage of teaching moments on the spot. The lesson is often lost if the kid is being told what they should have done tactically a week later and from video. Not to mention, most kids would rather get a tooth pulled than watch their own DVDs.

    A good coach shouldn’t just lay out the plan for the year, but you ought to be able to have a multi-year conversation on major tournaments, goals, age-up plans, etc. All adjusted based on events. For each of my daughters, we knew what the high level plan was 4 years out. We knew what years, they’d try certain events, play high school tennis, age up, etc. We were enabled to reserve hotels months in advance, buy flights in advance and know what position we needed to be in to be assured entry into events. Nothing worse that being stuck buying a astronomical flight because you are waiting till the last minute to know if you are in an event. It was a broad stroke plan that we refined as we went. That won’t be the norm but the point is if your coach is going week to week, then you really don’t have a strategy.

    I agree there is science that points to specialization that can happen later and have studied it, but you have to look at the sports that it highlights. Many are seasonal like football or have similar skillsets with other sports. There is little evidence that late specialization in tennis is generally successful. I think when to specialize is up to how good the child is and desire. And when you specialize find a reasonably priced trainer to help keep the body ‘in balance’ to avoid many over-use injuries. What I usually see with many multi-sport tennis players is that quite a few of them spend most of the season re-learning timing, balance, grip subtleties, etc and by the time they are back to where they left off, times-up, next sport. They tend to plateau and then get mentally frustrated as their single sport peers move past them.

    The first thing you have to instill is the love of competition and the belief that every minute on the court is precious. Losses can then be taken as learning experiences and time with coaches or classes are more fruitful. All of which save money and make the experience more enjoyable. Then you’ll find that your child is the one setting up hits or deciding to go out to the park to hit serves. Too many kids take the sport and opportunity for granted and waste time and money in the process.

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