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Junior Tennis Academies: Friend or Foe?

The Beginning:

In 1969 Harry Hopman came to the States and started working with two players set to change the history of tennis. At the Port Washington Tennis Academy in Long Island New York the young Vitas Gerulaitis and John McEnroe joined the former Davis Cup legend, and the rest is history. Some time later Hopman would take his name and reputation to Florida and start his own academy: The Harry Hopman International Tennis Camp in Largo [edited]. Years later the program would fall under the name of the Saddlebrook Resort. To this day it hosts and trains many of the best players in the world.

It was not long after that the U.S. saw numerous small academies burst onto the scene looking for that same success.  Probably the most famous and arguably the most notable is Nick Bollettieri whose reputation and list of top 10 ATP and WTA players really set the modern day precedent for group training. The likes of Robert Lansdorp, Nick Saviano, John Evert, Stan Smith, and many more followed with their own style and players. The tennis academy had been born.

Not all of the great coaches owned academies, but all of these coaches had a following and many had huge success at the professional level. Robert Lansdorp is often regarded as one of the greatest of all due to how many players he personally coached from young ages all the way high ranking professionals. Tracy Austin, Lindsay Davenport, Maria Sharapova, Pete Sampras are only a few of his success stories. Not all were labeled academies but all  these coaches were labeled experts.  So parents with their talented athletes started flocking to these gurus and their programs in record numbers searching for the opportunity to be the next champion. Now academies litter the landscapes from New York to California and pretty much  every state has at least one.  States like Florida, South Carolina, Texas, and California have too many to mention. So here is where the ultimate journey begins. Are these academies beneficial or are they just money pits for the wanna be greats? The answer may depend more on you than on them. Let’s take a closer look.

What exactly is an Academy:

Whether a program is called an academy, a school, or a development program they all specialize in high performance athlete training with in a group setting. Club and recreational programs on the contrary typically emphasize a broader playing level including beginners, seniors, recreational players, and now the ever present pickle ball programs. High performance tennis academies will have highly trained coaches, and support staff. They will also often have a roster of elite players at various ages and stages of development. From certified strength and conditioning specialists, to nutritionists, physical therapists and often direct links to medical doctors that  specialize in sports performance.

High performance programs do not earn their reputations on retention and league tennis but focus their gaze on performance, training and excellence, and ultimately winning. Some of these programs may exist on their own or as part of a larger and more inclusive program.  Some clubs may offer a high performance model, many do not. Some will have former world class players with backgrounds on the professional ATP and WTA and ITF world tours and almost all will have coaches from  colleges as well. These programs are everything from tennis warehouses to tennis boutiques. Some are massive like the former Bolletieri (now IMG) Academy  with golf, tennis, football, soccer, and more and literally thousands of players on hundreds of acres training full time 7 days a week. IMG boasts a massive compound of training opportunities that includes virtually everything an aspiring athlete requires and maybe more! However some programs are quite small with only one coach and very small numbers of players.

Academies come in all shapes and sizes. The commonality of most of the programs, especially the better ones, is a guru or master coach. That is, one expert coach with a vision begins the journey and usually adds on as the program grows. This coach not only passes on knowledge to the players but also the staff which helps create and inspire others to follow both as players and future coaching experts. So typically, but not always, a coach begins an academy due to a success or multiple successes with players and that creates interest from other athletes who may join.  Then boom! Add some water and out sprouts an academy.  So should you stay on your own  and train or look for a program to join? Let’s explore the good and bad of group training.

Academies: the Case for Joining

An academy is a resource. A player has a multitude of resources. So the question of whether or not you need an academy has many answers. Here is a list of some of resources a player has available on the journey to athletic success.

  1. Parents, friends, coaches
  2. Money
  3. The internet, books, video, TV etc.
  4. Academies
  5. Self*
  6. Courts, equipment (ball machines, walls etc).
  7. Professional staff, (Coaches, former players, Nutritionists, PT’s, S&C coaches, etc)

With the academy model most of the above listed opportunities simply come under one roof. The modern day tennis academy is a buffet! All you can eat and all that you need!  At least that is what they are selling. On your own you probably would need to piece these resources together.

The academy also has the experience (usually) to navigate the journey as they have repeated it often with other players. Financially  the academy model is often less expensive compared to piling on all of the above resources a la carte. Although sometimes it may not seem that way. In truth you are paying for everything to be accessible in one place. You pay for convenience!

To train every day for just 2 hours with a top professional or college athlete could cost a small fortune and that is just for private lessons. Many credible coaches are now charging well over $100.00 per hour for training. At a minimum of 2 hours per day 5 days a week that is $1000.00 dollars a week or 4 big ones a month (that is on the cheap side too)! Academy prices change and there are many options including some live in programs with schools built in. Modern academies range in price from a few hundred dollars a month to some in the many thousands. I have heard of some charging over $20,000.00 per month including school and placement to college. But don’t be scared – there are plenty that are affordable. By pooling resources there is a program now for pretty much anyone who wants to venture down this path!

If you are in a suburb of a larger city traveling from one court or program to another becomes tedious in a game where there is already a great amount of travel. So the one stop shop can be a great help. There is also a social aspect that is a large benefit especially for school age kids. This may help with retention as tennis already a lonely sport for the competitor. Social relationships should not be discounted. Isolation at the professional level especially is a big issue for traveling players. So the academy model is more than just a training center. If run well it has high standards, life long friendships and an abundance of yeah you guessed it TENNIS!

Another factor that allows academies to stay on top is variety. With a multitude of experiences available, athletes and a variety of coaches, players are able to gain access to each other and numerous athletic resources. Introduction to various cultures, hitting partners, coaches, speakers, and traveling with peer groups are all assets of the academy model. Even many professionals can be seen at some of the larger programs around the world. There are often small groups of well known ATP and WTA players seen working out together at many academies while other school age kids look on. Being a young player and seeing older professionals socializing and training on the same grounds can help validate a young athletes confidence in their surroundings.  The opportunity for training variety, players, and access to quality professionals and equipment just makes the hard journey a little bit more palatable. This is especially true in programs that have highly educated professionals and high standards for training and behavior. At the end of the day the better academies are a solid place to train with proven backgrounds. However not all academies are equal! So buyer beware. 

The short list of Assets:

  1. Everything under one roof
  2. High Standards
  3. Good player coach ratios
  4. Cost
  5. Variety
  6. Experience
  7. Travel Costs
  8. Peer group and Socialization
The Case Against:

In my own experience many programs inherit more players than they actually develop. I have said over and over again that I would rather start a kid at 6-10 years old and keep them until college or professional than inherit one at 14. Almost all of the important skill work is usually done by one coach or mentor prior to age 12. I am not just talking about the tennis specific skills either. Character, training routines, athletic development and more must be put into place young or those windows close.  So if  a coach inherits a player missing some key skills they may be impossible to put back in.

Many players who are not as far along in skill acquisition or who may need more time or more specialized help can fall through the cracks in group training. Players may become frustrated, fall behind, and eventually lose the track and may even quit.  Academies are buffets, but some prefer to dine a la carte. Buffets do not always have the quality or the choices necessary for certain individuals. Therefore attention to detail and perfection may be lost. Players may lose focus easier and the intensity of the training might diminish.

One downside of an academy can be the lack of personal attention a player receives. Some players simply do better on their own or with just one other player and coach. A program with poor standards may actually do harm to a player. One very important point is that not all academies are equal. There are many charlatans out there! So be wary.  Whether it be from poor coaching, lack of training, or low standards there are numerous instances that a program can do real harm to athlete!  One on one training is likely to pick up on small nuances in technique or be more patient during skill acquisition. Of note most players form a relationship with one coach in their lifetimes who usually remains a life long friend and mentor. There may be many important coaches along the way but one coach will almost always be the guru. A personal relationship is not always present in larger groups, and it can be integral in the journey.

In the individual model players are more likely to move around and find other experiences to draw from. That can be a very good thing if done correctly. However the costs can add up and the travel time increases. Many players may visit different coaches for different needs. So overall going it alone can allow you to create your own personal menu of resources and you can do it your own way. The academy model typically has a style you need to mold to not vice versa. In the a la carte model athletes and their families can also choose their hitting partners and will overall have more personal choices. Finally a large program may not put into place short and long term goal setting and even a periodization model which is an integral part of achieving at the high performance level.

Here is a list of liabilities to group training:

  1. Lost in the group
  2. No specific track or plan for individuals
  3. Ages and stages related to growth, development and maturation may be mixed and inappropriate
  4. Coaches may not be up to current standards or event fundamental standards of teaching (certifications, continuing education, appropriate experience, etc)
  5. Some players just need more individual help
  6. Some players like 1-1 or small groups better
  7. Poor standards
  8. Can be harmful if not of good quality
Measuring your commitment:

When you start to go down the road of junior tennis training you have to consider many factors. Number one is the long term welfare of the player! It is not whether they will become a champion. So whatever resources you seek out do your homework!  Your family needs the advice and guidance of  true experts with proven track records.  These mentors/coaches/academies should be vetted extensively before choices are made. They should be holistically grounded in education, experience and development.  You must put the safety, and the athlete’s welfare first and always.

Here is a list of some things to look for in a mentor or a program:

  1. Creates or offers short and long term planning.
  2. Background check by certifying body, (USTA, ITF, PTR, USPTA, ITPA, NCACE, USOC, etc.)
  3. Has certifications and extensive knowledge in growth, development and maturation. Teachers have degrees in education that accentuates among other things those important standards. Coaches should too! Things like sports science (strength and conditioning), basic facility welfare and coaches should have passed through a certification program for numerous issues like: environmental safety ie. cpr/first aid, weather and conditional planning, background check etc. The programs above all offer various forms of training, certifications and resources.
  4. Is athlete centered and puts the needs of the person ahead of competition and training.

At the end of the day a player needs to be resourceful, independent, and *self motivated. So no matter which route you choose know that your opportunities are simply resources. The players job is to use those resources to the best of their ability! There is no guarantee on the destination however the skill to utilize the resources comes from within the player. THESE SKILLS DO NOT COME FROM PARENTS OR COACHES!

What is within the player is a direct reflection of the environment that player is raised in. A child with good manners, respect for self and others, will likely work hard and learn. Combine some good DNA and a quality training situation and you will likely achieve success. How you measure that success is up to you.

Good luck and Train On!

About the author:

Jim Harp is a lifelong tennis player and coach. He is the owner of the Harp Performance Tennis Academy. The program has a reputation of being a highly technical and innovative development center for tennis talent and performance. The Harp program boasts a 100% placement rate for players wishing to pursue collegiate tennis. Jim is a USTA High Performance Coaching Program Graduate as well as a Master Performance Coach with the PTR. Jim also holds a Certification in sports science with the International Tennis Performance Association as a Certified Tennis Performance Specialist. Jim has worked with players of all ages and skill sets from all over the world.


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