What I’ve learnt from junior tennis: Avoid the knockouts

The following article is the fourth in the series by Paul K. Ainsworth, a Tennis Parent in the UK (click here to go to his blog) and author of six education books who has given me permission to reprint the series here. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

Do you ever wonder what is it that makes children stop competing in tennis? You might look around at tournament fields in the second year of under 12’s or in under 14s and think where are all those children who used to enter competitions. You might be the parent of a younger child who is being asked to play up in AEGON under 12s or 14s and again wonder were have the older players all gone.

There are many reasons why children stop competing; different children will have stopped for a range of reasons. I think one of the key reasons is having played too many tight matches as eventually children can just lose the resilience.

Last week one of the major sporting events of the year was the World Heavy weight title fight between the young prince, Anthony Joshua, and the aging lion, Wladimir Klitschko. We all know the result, that Joshua stopped Klitschko in round 11 with a barrage of blows. However, what was most surprising was how competitive Klitschko was at the age of 41.

I think the key to this was that whilst Klitschko has fought 64 times and lost five times, he has not been in too many ‘wars’, fights where the two combatants had fought toe to toe. He has also been well managed in that his fights have been spread out over the years.

The result of this careful management is that Klitschko has not lost his resilience and as we saw last Saturday he could give an excellent account of himself against a much younger man.

In the world of junior tennis, I think as parents we have to try and guard our children from too many very tight losses. These are the equivalent of the toe to toe slug fests. I think the match a child loses 4-0, 4-1 does not have a massive impact on the child. Instead those two-hour matches with the result of 5-4,3-5, 12-10, those are the ones that really affect your child and too many can make them not want to compete.

So if your child is the type of player who has lots of tight matches, perhaps the advice is not to play as many competitions as the child who either wins or loses easily does. It’s the not the number of matches they play, instead it’s the number of wars they have, which really have the long-term impact on a child.

Vote on ROG in USTA NorCal Section

ROG balls

I recently read the following letter from coach Bill Patton addressed to the Board of Directors of USTA NorCal before their May 15 vote on whether to expand ROG competition to 12-and-under players:

Dear NorCal Board of Directors,

I have been coaching for 25 years, have 200+ continuing education units with USPTA, and completed coursework and a thesis in Education. I am running the first ever NIKE Tennis Camps that use compression Tennis Balls. I have used compression balls since 1999.

The mandate that all 12 under players must play in a certain format with regression equipment is misguided and heavy handed, for many reasons, but please allow me to cite my top 7 reasons:
1. There is a wide variability of the playability and quality of progression Tennis balls, some being nearly useless.
2. There is a wide variation in the individual developmental differences between children, especially through Grade 2, anyone with children, or who works with an Elementary School knows this.
3. The narrow population band of highly gifted children will grow extremely bored if held back below their ability to perform.
4. The mandate was enforced before the infrastructure was in place, now there is a rapid effort to put programs in place, which nearly always means a huge learning curve and leads to considerable inefficiencies.
5. My experience is that the use of the balls should have much more to do with the ability of the players to show best form while competing prior to moving to the next level, rather than using age constraints. Best coaches will have players who perform better much earlier, while less talented players or players taught poor fundamentals will lag behind. Do not slow the better players down, by forcing them to play at a competency far below their ability and training.
6. The mandate restricts trade and the creativity in the marketplace, opening up the possibility of class action lawsuit, by forcing coaches to coach a system in which they have no belief. Many of these same coaches have a great track record of producing many highly competitive players.
7. It has created a considerable amount of division nationwide, and as Abraham Lincoln said “A house divided cannot stand”

Thank you for opening this up for discussion, and I trust you will do what is best for everyone in Tennis. I am with Wayne Bryan, “Add programs, don’t subtract”.

Sincerely,
Bill Patton

[Note: I received the following from Coach Patton: “I stand corrected in presenting myself as the first to offer a 10 and under option with NIKE Tennis Camps, that is not true, and I apologize for not having checked that fact prior to presentation.   I salute my fellow professionals who have already made this move.  Sincerely, Bill Patton”]

The fact that ROG is now infiltrating the 12s is ridiculous in my opinion.  As a training method, maybe.  As the sole means of competition, no way.

Coach Patton is now hosting a radio show on Saturday mornings at 11am ET on BlogTalkRadio’s UR10s Network (the same network that hosts my show), and his guest this week is Dick Gould, 8 time NCAA Champion Coach and Director of Tennis at Stanford University.  Coach Gould was recently quoted by Racquet Sports International (RSI) as saying, “I thought your ‘Our Serve’ editorial on 10 and Under Tennis (‘Take a Second Look at 10U Tennis’) in the April issue was right on, well-stated and needed! Change is always difficult, and if this were not mandated, it would never have a chance—just like the old days of Pee Wee tennis. It does make it difficult on the ‘transition’ kids, and I empathize with them, but somewhere it must be given a fair chance, and I doubt this transition will hurt anyone in terms of overall development in the long run.”  I’m hoping Bill will ask Coach Gould about his statement during tomorrow’s show.  [Click here to listen to Bill’s show with Coach Gould – for the discussion on ROG, skip to the 30-minute mark]

Of course RSI is in favor of the ROG program and is promoting it heavily – it is generating millions of dollars in equipment sales which directly benefits RSI members.  And, that’s not a bad thing – anything that boosts the revenue of our great sport is okay by me!  But, when we read statements like Dick Gould’s above, we need to read with a critical eye and recognize the why behind it.  RSI is in the business of selling – racquets, balls, shoes, clothing, etc.  The spread of ROG means increased sales of foam balls, smaller racquets, portable nets, removable lines, and all the other accoutrements that go along with this newest wrinkle.  The more ROG programs that sprout up around the country, the better it is for RSI members’ bottom lines.  And, with USTA now mandating ROG in the 12s, just imagine what that will do to sales.  Should bottom-line numbers be the determining factor for this next generation of players, despite the lack of scientific evidence that ROG is the most effective way to develop all  children under the age of 13 and despite the many experienced developmental coaches who argue against it?

RSI Metrics

Click on the image above to go directly to RSI’s website showing the metrics for the various sales categories.

Let me re-state that I’m not opposed to ROG as a way to introduce new players to tennis and as a way to train.  I am opposed to ROG as the sole means of competing for every single 10-and-under (and now many 12-and-under) player, regardless of his/her ability, size, and stage of development.  If you’re looking for yellow-ball tournaments for your young player, be sure to take a look at my 10-and-Under Tourneys page above.  And, let me just reiterate that I’m very grateful that my son is old enough to have avoided this latest experiment in the name of player development and finding the next American champion.

Your thoughts?

Waco ITF – The Outcome

Day 1 of Qualies, ITF Tournament 1, Waco, Texas

Coach Julius (via text message to me): Game on!

Me: What’s that mean????

Coach: He just started.

Me: Ah, thanks!  Keep me posted!

Coach: Very rough start.  Nerves.  Lots of unforced errors.  0-4.

Me: Uh oh

Coach: 0-6.  Playing scared.  Poor shot selection and too many short balls off his forehand and backhand.

Me: Hmmm . . . hope he can pull it together for the 2nd . . .

Coach: 1-1 in 2nd

Me:  Calming down?

Coach: Not yet

Me: Hmmmm

Coach: 1-4

Coach (10 minutes later): 0-6, 1-6.  I’m speechless.

Me: Will be interested to hear from both of you after you have time to reflect.  How’s he doing???

Coach: Having a tough time.

Me: 🙁

__________

Son: I lost.

Husband: Sorry to hear that.  We’ll talk a little later.

Me: Will call you in a bit.  Love you.

Son (6 hours later): Just got done hitting with Slovakian kid.

Me: Call me – wanna hear!

Son: Nah

Me: Why?  How did it go?

Son: It was good.  I played well.  Won the set 6-3.

Me:  That’s good.  What’s on tap for tonight and tomorrow?

Hubby: Nice. Call me back.

Son: Don’t feel like talking on phone guys.  Going back to hotel right now to shower and recover – it’s hot as heck.  Then tomorrow I’m gonna hit with Slovakian kid and Sam.

Me: Sounds good!  Have fun!

Day 2

(Coach texted a photo of my son on court)

Me: Thanks! How’s it going???

Coach: Good.  We watched a lot of tennis this morning.  The guy he lost to ended up qualifying.  I worked him out for an hour earlier this afternoon, and now he is hitting with a Slovakian kid.  Will be playing some sets in a bit.

Me: Sounds like a great day!

(3 hours later . . .)

Coach: Just lost a 3 hour 3 set grinder against the Slovakian kid.  Good lessons learned.

Me: Good to hear.  How’s he feeling mentally?

Coach: A little beat up but competing like crazy.

Me: That’s a good sign.  I love a good fight!!!  More tennis tomorrow?

Coach: Planning on watching some 1st round main draw matches and a possible hit before leaving town.

Me: Sounds good! Despite the first round loss, sounds like a successful trip.

Coach: I believe it was a successful trip, but the next few weeks of practice will be the true measure of this trip’s success.

Me: Yes, true.  You’ll have to keep me posted on how he’s doing.  🙂

Coach: Will do.

Me: Thanks for being such an amazing coach and mentor to him!

Coach: I’m just happy to be able to contribute.

Me: Well, we appreciate you more than you know!  I hope M shows you that through his actions on and off the court!

____________

All in all, I think it was a good decision to send him to Waco.  Yes, he lost his very first qualifying match, but he bounced back and took the opportunity to learn from the loss.  The match was against a boy from Mexico who he never would’ve had the chance to play in a sectional tournament.  His practice sessions were with a boy from Slovakia – again, a boy he would never come across in our section.  He watched one of the top juniors in the country play in the main draw and figured out what sets this boy apart.  He now has something concrete to work toward.  Like Coach Julius said, these next few weeks will be a true test of the trip’s success and my son’s commitment to reaching the next level.  It will be interesting to watch and to analyze and to see if my son is willing to put in the even harder work to get there.

Waco ITF – The Decision

A huge thank you to everyone who took the time to comment here or via Twitter or via Facebook or via email – I knew y’all would have some great suggestions for me!  I love hearing about your experiences with these different tournaments and how you weigh cost vs. value.  As I keep saying, it’s not just about the tennis here – sometimes it’s about the Life Lessons learned.

Here’s what we finally decided to do regarding next week’s ITF tournament in Waco . . .

I sat down and figured out what the total cost was going to be for the tournament, expecting that my son will make it through a couple of qualifying matches and maybe, just maybe, into the main draw:  flight, hotel, rental car, gas, meals, and his coach’s daily fee.  A conservative estimate was $2500 – OUCH!  For our family, that’s a lot to spend on one tournament, especially since our son is only guaranteed one match (remember: there is no back draw in these tourneys!).  On top of that, we had to consider the possible missed school days and how he was going to stay on top of his work.

I asked my son how badly he wanted to play in this tournament.  He said, “Really badly, Mom!”  I asked if he wanted to play badly enough that he’d be willing to spend some of his savings to help off-set the cost.  He thought about it for a minute then said yes.  So, that’s what’s happening.  He’s going to pay for part of the tournament, and we’re going to cover the rest.  We figured this was a good use of his savings plus it would give him added accountability for his preparation and performance in Waco.  When I say “performance”, I don’t mean whether he wins or loses matches.  What I mean is that he competes well, fights hard, maintains a positive attitude, and absorbs the lessons he’s sure to learn.

Once we’d made the decision to let him go, it was time to make all the travel arrangements.  One of my friends/readers suggested we use Priceline to book the trip – she thought we’d be able to cut the total cost (air, hotel, and rental car) by about 50%, which would be fantastic!  The problem is that it’s waaaaaay cheaper to fly into Dallas (about 90 miles from Waco) instead of directly to Waco, and I could never figure out how to get Priceline to do airline tickets and rental car in one city but hotel in another, so that didn’t work.  But, Southwest Airlines now flies from Atlanta to Dallas AND offers online fares with no change fee (!), so I signed my son up for their frequent flier program and started booking the trip.  My son’s coach suggested I book the return flight for late afternoon on Monday – if my son is still in the tournament at that point, we can always change the date.  If he’s out of the tournament before then, his coach is going to arrange practice matches with some of the other players (thanks to another reader for that great suggestion!) to take full advantage of being in a new area of the country with some different boys.  It turns out that Southwest also has a bundling deal where, if you book air, hotel, and rental car through their website, you get a discount plus frequent flier points on everything – great deal, right?  I ended up saving about $125 by bundling which should cover food for one of the days.

So now everything is booked, my son is working really hard to get ready for the tourney, and his coach feels like this is going to be a great learning experience for him.  I think we made the right decision to let him go but also to ask him to contribute financially to this opportunity.  It gives him more ownership in the whole thing which my husband and I both feel is important – we don’t ever want our son to take his tennis or our financial support of it for granted.  I’ll let y’all know how it goes!

ITFs – Got Info?

My son has been asking to play an ITF tournament for over a year.  Since there are very few even played in the US these days, it wasn’t hard to deter him.  However, a friend’s mom told me I should sign him up for the one in Waco, Texas, because it’s a lower-grade tournament and might be a good first experience for my son.  I went on the ITF website, registered him for an iPin (ITF’s version of a USTA number, I guess), and signed him up for the tournament.  Then, we waited.  And waited.  And waited.

Finally, the Acceptance List came out, and my son’s name appeared waaaaaay down the page on the list of Alternates.  Not the Qualifiers (yes, ITF junior events have a Qualifier that starts 2 days prior to the Main Event – you have to win 4 matches in Qualies to even get into the Main Draw.  You have to win at least one match in the Main Draw to get a single ITF ranking point.).  Oh, and there’s no Back Draw, so if you lose, even your first round match, you’re done, out of the tournament.  Okay.  No big deal.  We have lots of experience with alternate lists.  We decided to sit tight and see how things played out.

As luck would have it, we found out Monday morning that my son was accepted into the Qualies.  The tournament is next weekend.  Did I mention it is in Waco?  Texas?  A mere 819 miles and 14 1/2 hours by car from our house?  That means either (A) my son misses an additional 3-4 days of school just to get there and back or (B) my husband and I fork over Big Bucks to fly him and his coach to Texas.

I find myself in the familiar position of having to go to bat for my son while maintaining some semblance of financial responsibility to my family.  My son really wants to play in this tournament.  His coach feels like it’s the right time, developmentally, for him to have his first ITF experience but has been very understanding about our money concerns.  And my husband was really hoping our son didn’t get off the Alternate List!

So, I’m turning to you fellow Tennis Parents in hopes that you’ll share your thoughts and experiences on these ITF tournaments.  And your money-saving tips when you have to fly to a tournament.  And your marriage-saving tips when you and your spouse are on different pages about above-referenced money.  HELP!!!!

Student of the Sport

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a USTA College Information Session for high school players and their parents held during the NCAA Championships in Athens, Georgia.

The panel, led by USTA’s Senior Manager of Junior and Collegiate Competition, Erica Perkins Jasper, included the following heavy-hitters from the tennis world:

  • Bobby Bayliss – Head Men’s Coach at Notre Dame University
  • Christine Bader – Head Women’s Coach at Ball State University
  • Maria Cercone – junior coach in Florida whose daughter plays #3 doubles and #5 singles for the University of Florida
  • Rick Davison – Director of Competition at USTA Georgia
  • Steve Johnson, Sr. – Father of top-ranked D1 player, Steve Johnson, of USC and top junior coach in Southern California
  • Colette Lewis – Creator of zootennis.com and renowned junior/college tennis journalist

Here’s what I learned . . .

Before your child even starts thinking about which colleges he might be interested in, have his tennis skills evaluated by – as Steve Johnson put it – “someone you’re not writing a check to” in order to get an honest opinion of which college programs might be a good fit.  The panelists repeatedly told us that there is a program for everyone; sometimes you have to do a little more digging to find the right one(s), but it IS out there.  You and your child need to be honest about his level of play, though, and make sure you are looking at schools that have open spots in their lineups that match your child’s skill set.

During the college recruiting process – which, by the way, your player should begin thinking about as early as the summer following his freshman year of high school – it is crucial for both the player and the parents to ask a lot of questions.  Ask the coaches.  Ask the current team members.  Ask people familiar with the program.  Just ask . . . a lot!  What questions should you ask?  Well, that depends on what type of college tennis experience your child seeks.  But, all of the panelists agreed that coaches would rather you ask the tough questions up front so your player can cross off the schools that don’t have what he’s looking for and so the coaches don’t waste precious time and resources recruiting if your kid is dead set against their program.  It is important that each player find his fit, and be assured that there is a right fit for everyone out there, whether it be D1, D2, D3, or a Junior College program.

To the players, it is important to start visiting the various colleges as early as you can.  Yes, you can email the coaches, but it’s just not as personal as a face-to-face visit.  You’re allowed as many unofficial visits (i.e. visits that you arrange and pay for yourself) as you would like to take.  On those visits, meet the coaches, meet the players, ask if you can attend the team practice and workout, and get a feel for the team environment.  If possible, go look at the dorms and see where the players live and eat.  Take advantage of your junior tournament travel and visit colleges in the cities and towns where you’re playing.  Figure out if you have a preference in terms of school size (big or small) and location (urban campus or college town) – that will help you narrow down your list of target colleges once you’re ready to start the official recruiting and application process at the end of your junior year.

Familiarize yourself with the NCAA Division 1 recruiting rules as early as possible so your child doesn’t risk his eligibility.  The D1 rules are the strictest, so, even if your child is looking at D2, D3, or Junior Colleges, following the D1 rules is your safest bet.  Then, before the end of your child’s junior year, make sure he registers with the NCAA Eligibility Center so all his ducks are in a row before the official recruiting begins.

After coming up with a list of potential colleges, have your child write down the 5 most important reasons he wants to attend each school.  Some examples might be playing tennis, a high level of academics, a particular academic major, the tennis coach, or scholarship availability.  He should ask himself, “What happens if one of those things disappears?”  For instance, what if he gets injured and can no longer play tennis or what if the coach retires or goes to another school or what if he fails to earn the necessary grades to keep his scholarship – will he still be happy at that school?  If the answer is NO, then cross it off the list.

Once your child does start communicating with coaches via email, make sure he includes a link to his tennisrecruiting.net bio (which he should first make sure is up to date!), his high school graduation year, and his upcoming tournament schedule.  Your child should not be afraid to ask coaches if they’re even interested in him as a potential team member – no need to waste anyone’s time here!  Also, he should ask how many scholarships (if it’s a D1 or D2 program) and roster spots are available and if there’s an opportunity for an official visit during his senior year.

Also (please forgive me, High-Tech Tennis, but I’m just sharing what the panelists told us!), before you spend money having a fancy recruiting video made for your child, make sure your child asks the coaches if they would even like a video and what they want included on it.  In most cases, a 10-minute home-made video, uploaded to YouTube, of some match play will suffice.  The coaches are busy.  They don’t have time to sift through the fluff.  So, keep to the basics – forehands, backhands, serves, volleys, overheads, and footwork.  And, by all means, make sure you only show your child’s best behavior on the video!  [One panelist confessed that several of the coaches have compiled a Top 10 Worst Recruiting Videos list on YouTube!]

During his senior year of high school, your child will probably begin taking official (i.e. paid for by the university) visits to one or more colleges.  This is the time to ask the more pointed questions such as whether or not he can walk on the team if no scholarships are available and whether walk-ons ever get to play in the lineup.  He can also ask about the coach’s influence with the admissions department in case his academics are borderline.  In many cases, the tennis coach does have some pull and will be willing to use it if your child is a desirable candidate for the team.  And, your child should absolutely let the coach know if he doesn’t NEED scholarship money from the Athletics Department – either because he has other scholarship money coming from academic or other resources OR because you have stockpiled money to pay for his college education yourself – it’s a definite plus to coaches to know that they can use their limited funds elsewhere.

I know this is a bit long-winded, but USTA really did share a ton of great info with us!  If you have a chance to attend one of these sessions, I highly encourage you to do so.  Even though my son sort-of fought me about going (it required waking up pretty early on a Sunday morning to make the drive to Athens), I think he got a lot out of it and now has a clearer picture of the work he needs to do.  Besides which, a perk of the program was that we got to watch an incredible day of tennis at the NCAA Championships afterward!

Breaking the Streak

My son went into this past weekend’s tournament on a 7-match losing streak.  He had been “rounded” in singles in the past two tourneys plus had lost his final high school match of the season in the semis of the state playoffs, and his confidence was lower than I had seen it in a long time.

This tournament was a state level 3 tournament, located about a half hour from our house, meaning that it really wasn’t going to draw the top top players, but it was a good opportunity for my kid to play up in the 18s, build some confidence, and get more of a jump-start on his 18s ranking.  The draw was only 16 players, so, at most, he was going to play 4 matches (or 5 if he moved into the back draw) over the two days.

When the draws were posted on Friday, it turned out that my son was playing a boy he had played on 3 prior occasions – my son was 1 and 2 against him, his one win coming in their last meeting in the Fall.  Given my son’s lagging confidence – plus another mom’s helpful (NOT!) statement that this other boy had recently switched academies and was playing really well – I have to admit that I wasn’t feeling too good about my son’s chances.  I chose to sit well away from the match court – close enough to see clearly but not close enough to hear any negative mutterings that might come out of my kid’s mouth.  My son ended up playing a really strong match, beating the other boy 6-1, 6-1, putting a solid end to the losing streak.  Whew!

Next up was the top seed in the tourney, an 18-year-old who is heading to play tennis at LSU (a big D1 program) in the Fall.  My son was incredibly excited to have the opportunity to play this kid just to see how his game would stack up.  He didn’t necessarily have high hopes of winning the match though he did go into it feeling strong and ready to do battle.  Turns out my son held his own out there, forcing the other player into several errors at the net as well as on his serve.  My son lost the match 6-4, 6-2, but the other boy came off the court and proceeded to tell my husband and me how impressed he was with our son’s game – just what every tennis parent loves to hear!

And, even though he lost that second match, it turned out to be a real confidence booster for him.  He had pushed a college-bound guy – one who probably had at least 50 pounds and 4 inches on him – to play outside his comfort zone.  He had broken the guy’s massive serve twice.  He had kept the guy guessing and forced him to go for better shots than he would normally have done.

Really, that was the goal of the weekend . . . to overcome the bad juju, to play some quality tennis, and to prove to himself that he belonged out there with the Big Boys.  Mission accomplished.