Alternatives to USTA Tournaments

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I was having a phone conversation with another tennis parent yesterday – we were discussing all the stuff going on with USTA (2014 changes, 10-and-under mandate, cost of competition, issues with wildcards, cheating, etc.) and what we could do as parents of junior players to get away from it all. We both agreed that our goal as Tennis Parents is to keep our kids playing as long as possible while maintaining their love of the game (and not going broke in the process!) – a huge challenge, to be sure.

Then, this morning, I read an article on 11-year-old Florida player, Adam Neff, and the resources that his parents have provided for him at their home – 3 tennis courts in the backyard, one with imported Italian red clay, a hyperbaric chamber, a full-time coach – and I had to wonder if that’s what it takes to develop a successful tennis player . . .

Then it occurred to me that, for (I’m guessing here – no stats to back this up!) a majority of junior players who are playing in tournaments now, success is gauged by their eventual opportunities to play in college at some level.  Of course, many kids dream of turning pro, but, at some point, they realize that’s a huge stretch and that life will probably take them in a different direction, one in which tennis will always play a part we hope.  So, in terms of college-playing opportunities, what’s the difference between being ranked #50 or #100 or #150 in the juniors?  Does the #50 player get that many more scholarship offers than #100?  Is it really worth playing the Rankings Race Game or is your time (and money) better spent finding good opponents and good matches so you get better at competing?  If college tennis is the goal, then shouldn’t the aim of training during the junior years be to develop into the strongest competitor possible so coaches will want you on their team?  And, aren’t there ways other than playing gobs and gobs of USTA junior tournaments to achieve that aim?

Let’s look at some of the options . . .

  • League tennis: Playing on a team with your friends, boys and girls, is fun.  You get to cheer for each other, you have that team spirit thing going for you, you learn what it’s like to play for something bigger than just yourself.  Isn’t that a big part of college tennis, too?  Typically, league tennis, at least where I live, tends to be more recreational in nature and not really geared toward competitive players, but it is still a great way to learn how to be part of a team.
  • High School tennis: See “League tennis” above but add to that a nice way to develop an identity at school, especially if you go to a big high school where kids tend to get lost in the shuffle if they don’t do something to stand out, either in academics, sports, the arts, or some other way.
  • Little Mo: Open to US players ages 8-11, these yellow ball, full court tournaments are held nationwide with regional winners competing for the national title.  Little Mo recently added international competition, too, open to any player worldwide ages 8-12.
  • Adult “Open” tournaments: For a kid with little or no competition nearby in his/her own age group, adult tournaments are always an option.  These events pose their own challenges for junior players (what adult wants to be beaten by a 12 year old?), but they can be a great developmental tool for kids who are looking to take their game to a higher level.
  • ITF tournaments: This is a tough route to take, especially if you want to attend traditional school, since the tournaments run during the week and since we have very few ITFs in the US during the summer when kids are usually out of school [see my How ITF Junior Tournaments Work post for more info].  But, if you’re homeschooled and have the financial resources to travel, ITFs will expose you to players from all over the world, showing you what you’ll face at the collegiate or even professional level.
  • Tennis Recruiting’s National Showcase Series: While these are USTA-sponsored tournaments, they’re not all sanctioned for all players (it depends on whether or not you play within your own section).  With all the craziness and limitations around national play coming in 2014, the TRN events are a great way to play kids outside your section and still impact your TRN star rating, even if they don’t affect your USTA ranking.
  • ITA Summer Circuit: I love these events!  They’re held on college campuses across the country during the summer, and the winners of the regional events go on to play for a national title.  The tournaments are open to any ITA member, so juniors are welcome to join and compete.

Am I missing anything?  If so, please let me know so I can add to the list.  The point is that, for those who are frustrated or fed up with all the rule changes and schedule changes from USTA, there are some excellent alternatives out there.  We can all still keep our kids developing and playing at the appropriate level, regardless of what’s happening with our national governing body.

Our Impact On Our Children’s Development

The passages below are excerpts from a rather lengthy email I received this morning from sports psychologist, Dr. Jorge Valverde.  I am reprinting them with his permission.

Our responsibility as parents is like a mountain:  the bigger the mountain to climb, the stronger we must become, and our strength must come from wisdom and inspiration.

Dealing with discipline issues

–       Establish boundaries and natural consequences and follow them closely
–       Present one front as parents, avoiding the bad/good cop paradigm
–       Change behaviors and attitudes with extended metaphors/stories
–       Spend quality time with each child separate and together
–       Avoid comparison between your children
–       Acknowledge their good behaviors by describing what they are doing well right at the moment when it takes place
–       Use the Eight-to-One rule (see * below)

Motivational strategies that produce the best results

–       Interpret the innocent eyes of your children as saying: “Caution! Handle me with Care! Love me. Protect me! Give me a place in your heart.”
–       Expose your child to a collage of experiences
–       Observe carefully their gifts without judgment
–       Facilitate the development of their gifts
–       Focus on fun versus work at the beginning and slowly find the best coaches and mentors
–       Plan activities with your children that emphasize each one’s interest and individuality apart from their identity within the group. The one most in need of that distinction is often the kid in the middle. Remember, love is giving somebody your undivided attention.
–       Be reasonable, smart and fully awake: help children with homework, ask them about the day, let them cry if need be, support them when they’re down, help them to see options, teach them to handle guns safely if you have them, reward good behavior, provide meaningful consequences for unacceptable behavior, make reasonable demands, express moral expectations, talk to their teachers, hug them every chance you get. Don’t ask them to be like adults when they are just little kids, but model the importance of self-control.

Perfectionist approach:

Perfectionists act based on an illusion that you can do things perfectly. This tendency brings their attention to what is missing, so regardless of how well their children perform or act, they will always find something that was not done perfectly and point it out, usually without mentioning what was done well. This constant dissatisfaction with their children’s performance sends a clear message: “You are not good enough”. And since the majority of children want to make their parents proud, they will work very hard to please them but with a great deal of tension and anxiety. Eventually, children internalize their parents’ approach and become obsessive about insignificant details when performing a task, overlooking the forest by focusing too much on the trees, easily losing perspective of what really matters about the task at hand and life. Their tendency is to think too much when performing which impairs their ability to get into the “zone”.  Tension easily turns into negative anger which is the biggest obstacle preventing happiness and high performance. As a consequence, children of perfectionist parents find it difficult to find peace of mind, relaxation and enjoyment in life regardless of their success. I usually ask these kids a simple question: “How do you feel when your parent focuses on the mistakes you made?” Their answer is always the same: “Not good!” An irony, isn’t it, their parents making them feel bad so they would become good!

Pursuit of Excellence Approach:

The pursuit of excellence approach focuses on conquering the inner battle between fear and total belief in oneself. Parents systematically pay close attention to building their children’s self-confidence. They prepare their children to handle any situation in life. They focus on their children’s gifts and develop them without judgment and without preconceived ideas of what their children “should” do in life. They teach the core values by example, such as integrity, positive expectancy, respect, belief and spirituality, enjoyment, appreciation, gratitude, priorities, perspective, perseverance, passion etc. They teach their children the importance of preparation and giving 100% effort when facing a challenge, and to let go and let God handle the rest, the unpredictable circumstances. *When observing and giving feedback to their kids, they focus on finding the good first, in a ratio of eight to one. They first acknowledge eight things that their children did well and with great effort, and only then they mention one aspect that needs attention or more effort. This is a powerful formula for children to create drive and total focus on their inner positive forces in life and it is one of the keys to building self-confidence.

When focusing on your children’s gifts without judgment, reinforce their excitement and interests with the attitude of a silent witness. Logistically help them channel their enthusiasm. The first spark or excitement doesn’t necessarily translate directly into one’s call or vocation, but serves as a vehicle to develop trust in the inner voice that gives direction and purpose to one’s life. When I was a child I wanted to be a veterinarian. I was fascinated by animals of all kinds. My parents gave me a puppy that became my companion for 13 years. I called him “Happy.” For several years, I was around animals, taking care of them and playing with them. Eventually, my father gave me a book about animal behavior and how to train dogs. I spent countless hours training dogs on how to do tricks of all kinds. Without realizing, my parents were developing in me key traits that are very useful today in my profession as a psychologist, but, most importantly, they were teaching me to follow my inner spark. Later, when I decided to change from studying economics to psychology only six months before graduation, I did it with great confidence even though only a bachelor’s degree was offered at that time in my country.

For more information on Dr. Valverde and his programs, be sure to visit his website, The Valverde System.

You Gotta Have Faith

A big thank-you to my amazing yoga instructor, Lisa Jones, for the quote above.

Sometimes I get a major wake-up call which catches me totally off guard.  This weekend’s tournament was one of those.

The week leading up to the tournament was a rough one for my son.  He came down with a cold/sinus infection on Monday and immediately started taking a antibiotic in hopes that he would feel significantly better by the Saturday start day.  All week, he shortened his practices, even resorting to hitting with only me one of the days, trying to conserve his energy.  I begged him to drink Emergen-C – my go-to when I start feeling a cold coming on.  He drank one, maybe two, all week.  I begged him to drink protein shakes at the end of each day.  He drank one, maybe two, all week.  I begged him to amp up his hydration efforts in prep for a scorching hot weekend of tennis.  He didn’t really do anything outside the norm in that regard.  I wasn’t happy.  I was preparing myself for another tournament where he wasn’t 100%, where he would have an excuse for losing early, and where, once again, my weekend was shot.  And then we saw his draw – the 9 seed first round – ugh!

We drove to the tournament Friday afternoon, got checked in to our hotel, got checked in to the tournament, then needed to get some dinner.  My son told me he wasn’t very hungry but knew he needed to eat something.  We found a local restaurant, ordered our meal, then my son proceeded to eat about 2 bites before declaring himself full.  I wasn’t happy, but I suggested we take everything back to our room and maybe he would eat later.  He didn’t.  We both went to bed angry and frustrated – me because I didn’t think he was taking proper care of himself to be ready to compete the next morning, him because I’m not very good at hiding my anger and frustration (though I’m really good at nagging)!

The next morning, we were both still angry, so breakfast was a quick and quiet affair at the hotel before driving to the warm-up courts.  While he was warming up with 3 of his buddies, I called my husband and vented.  Once we arrived at the tournament site, I set up my chair in the shade while he got ready to play the 9 seed, a boy, by the way, who he had beaten a few weeks earlier.  Let me say again that I didn’t have a very good feeling about the morning’s match, feeling pretty confident that my son’s second match would take place in the backdraw.  Credit to me that I kept those negative feelings to myself!

I sat pretty far away from my son’s court during his match, so I couldn’t really see much, but I could tell that my son was winning . . . handily.  Somehow, he mustered the energy and the willpower to beat this boy even worse than he had previously.  My son came off the court after the win feeling very positive and pumped up for his next match.  I was still a little angry at him, but I kept it to myself.

Obviously, my son figured out what he needed to do to be ready to compete.  He knew what his body needed and what his brain needed, and he did it.  All of my worrying and nagging was a complete waste of energy.  Even though I didn’t see my son doing the prep that *I* felt was necessary to get ready for such a big event, *he* knew what he needed to do.  He had moved into a new phase of the maturation process, and I needed to recognize that and acknowledge it to him.  I needed to have faith in him and his ability to prepare for competition.  I needed to trust the depth of his passion and the power of his angels.

Another lesson learned.  I’ve gotta have faith.

Life Experience

Tennis, like life itself, is full of various experiences.  Our goal should be to learn from these experiences in order to make ourselves better human beings.  After all, it’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game . . . right?

A couple of weeks ago, my son asked if he could play in the US Open Sectional Qualifier tourney that was being held at a local club.  The entry fee was higher than we were used to paying ($100 for singles, $65 for mixed doubles, single elimination in both draws), but my husband and I agreed to let him play.  We figured he might have the chance to play against some very high-level players which would be a great opportunity to see how his game holds up.  We were right.

In the first round of the tournament, my son drew David Hopkins (see photo above), the recently-graduated #1 doubles player and #1/#2 singles player for Wake Forest University.  One look at David and I immediately thought “football player” – he’s a 6’2″, All-ACC player who is built like a linebacker!  During the warm-up (in the 100+ degree heat, I might add), David simply stroked the ball on both sides, moving very little, looking like he was just out for a simple pick-up match at the local park.  But, once the match started, the All-ACC player came out in full force and didn’t leave until the match was won.  He hit double-digit aces.  He had an inside-out backhand that was so flat and so hard that you didn’t even see it coming.  And, he just didn’t miss.

During the match, one of David’s teammates, Adam Lee, was sitting next to me, and we struck up a conversation.  He told me how David had been continually recruited by the Wake Forest football coach throughout his college career but chose tennis over football time and again.  He told me how David is a gentle, unassuming character whose fierceness takes you by surprise on the court.  He told me how everyone feared coming up against him in a tournament.  Later, I spoke with both David and Adam about my son and his tennis goals.  Both young men were very complimentary and encouraging about my son’s chances to play D1 tennis.  David’s words:  “Tell him to keep working hard.  He’s way ahead of where I was at his age.  It just takes lots of hard work.”

In the mixed doubles, my son again had the opportunity to play against very experienced players.  In fact, the man on the opposing team played on the 2005 Davis Cup team for Puerto Rico, and the woman was a 4-time ITA All-American at Georgia College & State University.  Our kids held their own.

After the tournament, I gushed to my son about how well he played and what incredible opportunities he had to play such experienced and accomplished opponents.  In typical teenager fashion, he replied, “I wasn’t out there for a good experience, Mom.  I was out there to win!”  Sigh.

At some point, he will realize where I’m coming from with all this “good experience” talk.  It will sink in, and he will see that he’s on the right track to achieve his tennis goals.  He will understand that it’s not always about winning the match but sometimes about having a barometer to measure your progress.

Maybe he’s getting it sooner rather than later.  Last night, he signed up to play the ITA Summer Circuit tournament at UGA.  The tournament overlaps the Georgia State Junior Open by one day.  When I pointed that out to my son, he said, “Mom, I’m going to be in a draw with college players.  I don’t think I’m going to make it to the Finals.  It’s okay.”

I love it when the lightbulb turns on!

Why Every Junior Should Attend Tennis Camp

My son just spent the past 5 days in Athens, Georgia, at UGA’s tennis camp as he has done each of the last 7 years.  It is typically the highlight of his summer.  The boys stay in the dorms, order late-night takeout, and spend literally all day on the tennis courts hitting with each other and the UGA team members and coaches.  What a life, right?

Some will argue that tennis camp is a waste of time for high-level players, that their time would be better spent in drills or playing practice sets or at actual tournaments.  I respectfully disagree.

Here’s what my son has gotten out of seven years of tennis camp (so far):

  • A realization that he really really really wants to play college tennis
  • An understanding of what it takes to progress as a junior player
  • The opportunity to talk to real-life college players and hear firsthand what’s involved in playing for your school
  • Understanding the importance of tradition:  we have our annual photos with the coach and assistant coach, our annual lunch at the same restaurant (The Varsity), our file of camp evaluations – you get the picture!
  • Developing a relationship with a coach and his team which gives my son some go-to people as we navigate the college recruiting process

I’m sure there are many, many more benefits that my son could list, not counting improving his tennis playing skills over that 5-day period.  But, that’s not the point.  The point is that there’s so much more to this junior tennis stuff than just hitting fuzzy yellow balls across the net in order to win trophies and ranking points.  And spending a few days away from home with other players who also love the sport is a great way to learn how tennis figures into the Big Picture.

So, if you’re looking for a camp for your child to attend this summer, it’s not too late.  I just googled “tennis camp” and came up with over 50 pages of results.  There are plenty of camps available, and I’m sure there are several that would be a great fit for your player.

If your child has attended a camp, I would love to hear about his/her experiences there.  Please share them in the Comments box below.