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.

How Do You Define “Success”?

photoI recently posted a question on one of the Facebook groups I frequent regarding success. My question went something like this: Is success as a tennis player defined solely by how far one gets in the professional ranks? Or can it be defined in other ways? And, what about coaching success? Is it defined by how many of your players make it as pros, how many make it as D1 college players, or something else? If a young player reaches a high sectional ranking but decides to choose academics over tennis at the end of their junior “career”, are they – and you – a tennis failure in your minds?

It was very interesting to read the responses from various coaches, former junior champions, former collegiate players, and even former professionals. Some of these folks are now the parents of junior players as well, so they all come from a different perspective and, as expected, define “success” in different ways.

My son and I have had this conversation in various iterations a lot lately as he’s nearing the end of his junior tennis years and looking ahead to college. As a parent, tennis success to me means developing a love for the game and a proficiency for it that allows you to continue playing throughout your life. It also means forming relationships, learning how to network, problem-solving, and independence. By intermingling all of those those things, a junior tennis player can develop into a productive, healthy, happy adult member of society. My definition leans towards the process rather than the results. As I’ve said a million times, tennis is a metaphor for life.

My son’s definition, especially right now, is more immediate, more results oriented. He’s looking at ranking numbers, Star ratings, college possibilities. He is gauging his success on those objective standards rather than seeing the big-picture standards that are important to me. In his mind, if he isn’t ranked at a certain spot, he’s failed. If he doesn’t attain a certain Star rating, he’s failed. If he doesn’t get recruited for a certain college program, he’s failed.

So my job right now is really difficult. How do I get my child to move past the results-oriented definition of success to the process-oriented one? Is it “right” for me to even try? Is my son better served through his own definition if college tennis is his goal? Is my definition really even the better one at this stage of the game?

While I don’t want my son to be overly-stressed over results and rankings, I’m not so naive as to think these things aren’t important during his 11th grade year. The trick is figuring out how to help him find some balance, some reconciliation, between results and process, to help him recognize when he’s done so many things right during a match even if the outcome wasn’t in his favor. And then to take those “right” things and capitalize on them the next time he’s on the court. Or is this his coach’s job and not mine?

It’s all so tough, this business of being a Tennis Parent. Dealing with the inevitable ups and downs of a junior player. Dealing with the ups and downs of a teenager.

I think it’s crucial for us parents to have a clear definition of success in our minds as we help our kids navigate through the junior tennis world. We need to keep at the forefront of our actions regarding our child’s tennis that definition so we make choices – hire coaches, decide which tournaments to play and which to miss because they conflict with a family event, pull our child off the court for poor behavior – that position our child to attain that success.

Maybe the answer is that there’s not just one definition but several, and we (parents, players, and coaches) need to take them all into account at various stages of the journey to keep things in harmony. For the infinitesimal (a fraction of 1% of all players – your odds are better to get struck by lightening!) number of juniors who will go on to make a living as professional players, their definition of success will likely look very different from the rest of ours, and that’s okay. The important thing is to keep things fluid and flexible – NOT our standards or ethics but our definitions and expectations – so we can all claim success at the end of the road.

College Tennis Due Diligence

college rankings

Men’s Collegiate Development Report (Click on the report name to open the Excel spreadsheet)

One of my son’s over-reaching tennis goals is to play at a Division 1 school where he can continue to develop his game.  He realizes that he is a stereotypical “late-bloomer” and that he’ll probably keep growing for at least the first couple of years of college, and he wants to play for a coach who can help him keep growing tennis-wise, too. So, Type A Tennis Parent that I am, I have been doing some research into programs and coaches, both those that are realistic schools for him and those that would be considered “reach” schools, to see what I could learn about player development at the collegiate level.  Luckily for me, I came across the spreadsheet in the link at the top of this article, which has been a great jumping-off point for my research.

It is the Men’s Collegiate Development Report, and it attempts to track how top US junior tennis players develop at the college level.  The purpose is to give new recruits an objective tool to see how previous top US recruits have or haven’t developed at schools they are considering and to provide college athletic departments another tool for evaluating their tennis programs. The report is by necessity overly simplistic.  First, the report tracks the top recruits based on Tennis Recruiting and includes any finishers in Kalamazoo’s quarterfinals should they not be included in the Tennis Recruiting list.  It includes information over 5 years beginning in 2004.  The report identifies the schools at which each player began their collegiate careers.  Then, it tracks their final collegiate rank at graduation time.  If the player ranked anywhere in the top 30 final ITF ranking in their last year of eligibility, then they are deemed to have continued developing their tennis skills during college.  If they transfer to another school, that results in a No Ranking score.  The transferred player is again scored at the school they finally graduate from.  Should a player turn pro prior to graduation, that is separately marked but considered a success since the player developed enough to allow that player to believe they should turn pro. Results were only considered sufficiently meaningful for ranking a school’s results if the school attracted 4 or more top US recruits during 2004 through 2008.  Obviously, the results are less meaningful to the extent a coaching change has occurred during this period.  Also, foreign players were not considered, which eliminates a large percentage of collegiate tennis players.  The results also ignore injuries in a player’s final year of eligibility. I’m hoping the creators of the report will eventually expand it to include 4- and 5-star players as well as the Blue Chippers already evaluated.  If they do, I will be sure to post the updated information for you.

If your junior player is planning to play at the collegiate level, I urge you to take a look at this report and to start doing your own research into the programs and coaches that might be best-suited for your child.  There are so many programs out there, and each one will have its own pluses and minuses depending on your child’s academic, social, and tennis goals (notice I put tennis last!).  I have been talking with Coach Chuck Kriese, who coached the Clemson Men’s Tennis Team for years, about creating a step-by-step list for parents to help their kids through the college recruiting process.  He and coach Kyle Bailey came up with the College Recruiting Timeline (click here to go to the page and download the pdf file), a To-Do list for parents and players through their high school years.  Tennis Recruiting also has a great guide on the Recruiting 101 area of its website – click here for the link.  Take a look and let me know what you think!


Mens Collegiate Tennis Development Report
Ranked Based on Players Reaching Top 30
        Based on More Than 3 Players
# of Top USTurned Pro
RecruitsOr Top 30
Ohio state4375.00%
Texas A&M5240.00%
Ranked Based on Players Reaching Top 100
        Based on More Than 3 Players
# of Top USTurned Pro
RecruitsOr Top 100
Ohio state44100.00%
Texas A&M5360.00%
SCHOOLTop RecruitsTop 30 FinishTurned ProTop 100 Finish
Texas A&M5240.00%360.00%
South Carolina10.00%1100.00%
Notre Dame3133.33%133.33%
Boise State11100.00%1100.00%
Ohio State4375.00%4100.00%
Wake Forest2150.00%150.00%
NC State10.00%1100.00%
Florida State20.00%0.00%
North Carolina20.00%150.00%
Mississippi State11100.00%1100.00%
Georgia Tech11100.00%1100.00%
UC Irvine10.00%0.00%
Sacramento State10.00%0.00%
San Fransisco10.00%0.00%