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I’ve noticed one of the most impactful developments over the last 30 years of tennis is the introduction of the child prodigy. These prodigies, great players like Andre Agassi, the Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova and more, have changed how we introduce the sport of tennis to children.
When I grew up, parents enrolled children in different sports programs and allowed them to choose what sport they wanted to play. I myself grew up playing hockey, football, badminton, squash, soccer and tennis. I loved playing all these sports, but eventually decided to focus on tennis at the age of 14. Nowadays, you see parents enrolling their children into full-time tennis, as early as 5, in hopes that their child will become the next child prodigy. These children do not have time to play other sports, let alone be children, because they devote so much time (20+ hours per week) to their sport. In my opinion, this is the worst thing a parent can do to their child; not only if they want their child to have a well-rounded and balanced life, but also if they want them to reach their potential at tennis.
Back in 2009, I was in Toronto having lunch with a few of the leading coaches in the country. I posed the question to all of them: What age was the absolute latest that an aspiring young player could be to fully devote themselves to tennis and to reasonably have a chance at turning pro? Every single coach agreed on the age of 8! I was floored, but not as much as they were when they heard me say that I thought a child could wait until the age of 14 to fully commit to tennis. I tried to explain that it is widely accepted that it takes 10 years of systematic training for an athlete to reach an elite level in a sport. I further argued that the average age on the men’s Pro Tour (ATP) was 25 and that the average age on the women’s Pro Tour (WTA) was 23, and so athletes that started systematically training for tennis at the age of 14 could still fit in that window. These coaches were not convinced. They said that any player that waited that long would have too much ground to make up in order to catch other players that had started earlier.
A few years later, I had the privilege of attending a round table meeting with Luis Borfiga (former Vice President of Tennis Canada in charge of player development). Luis has a long history of developing professional players in his home country of France, such as Gail Monfils. He was hired by Tennis Canada to help create a system that could turn us into one of the strongest tennis countries in the world. While at this meeting, I posed the same question to Luis. To everyone’s shock, Luis stated that he believed a boy could wait until he was 13 or 14 to start fully committing to tennis and a girl could wait until she was 12 or 13. He explained that the entry levels of professional tennis are extremely competitive and a hard grind for most players. If a player is the least bit tired of playing tennis, because they started specializing too young, then they had no chance to break through at that level. Only players that loved the sport and were excited to play the game had a chance to endure that level of competition.
Recently, I returned from Florida where some parents start specializing their children in tennis at the age of 5. In my experience, this is not a practice specific to Florida. Back in 2008, while working for Tennis Alberta, we had a staff meeting to discuss the latest proposal from our High-Performance Director. This proposal suggested that we pour a high percentage of our funds into a few select 9 and 10-year-olds. These funds would be used to offer these young players extra training at no cost and free travel opportunities outside the province. On paper this looked like a great idea, but I opposed. I stated that it was far too young of an age for players to commit to tennis. On top of that, it would be a mistake to invest that kind of money into players that young because we had no idea how many of them would stick with tennis or still be living in the province after 4 to 6 years. We also had no idea if these children were our top players because they were good athletes or if it was because they had played 4 or 5 times as much tennis as the other children their age and thus had an unfair advantage. I was the lone dissent, so Tennis Alberta went ahead with the plan. Of the seven players that were chosen and funded (two girls and five boys), all but ONE player quit tennis before they reached their last year of juniors. Four of them quit before the age of 14.
We hear experts talk constantly about how specializing in a sport too early leads to overuse injuries that plague older athletes and ruin careers. Bianca Andreescu is one of the most talented and exciting players I have ever watched on the Women’s Pro Tour (WTA). However, I wonder if her injuries, which have seemed to plague her young career, are a result of specializing too early as a younger player. Yes, she was very young when she defeated Serena Williams to win the US Open, but injuries have stopped her from having a full year on the tour since that great accomplishment. If Bianca had done more cross training as a younger athlete and waited until she was a little older to commit to tennis, she might not have won the US Open at the age of 19 but maybe she would have more than one Grand Slam title under her belt. Cross training at a younger age not only helps balance your muscle development, but it helps you become a better athlete as well; one that recognizes and anticipates situations across all sports. Although specializing early has its advantages in the short run, I believe that this practice hurts most children’s chances of reaching a high collegiate or pro level of tennis in the long run.
Consider the following example: You have two children who are 12 years old. Player A has put in 2,000 hours of training already in their young career. Player B has only put in 500 hours. It is reasonable to assume that player A would be much stronger because player B has only put in 25% of the hours. What if player B starts to train as many hours as player A? For arguments sake, let’s say that both players start to train 20 hours per week which works out to roughly 1,000 hours per year. After the first year, player A now has a total of 3,000 hours while player B now has 1,500 hours. Player B has now put in 50% of the hours that player A has even though they are training the same amount. After 4 years (when they are both 16), player A has now put in 6,000 hours of training as opposed to player B’s 4,500 (75% of player A).
Now think about what this does psychologically to player A. I have seen this happen many times in my coaching career. Every year player B starts having closer and closer matches with player A. Player A starts to panic and worries that they are not improving. Why? Because they are starting to have close matches with someone that they used to crush on court. They start to struggle with their motivation to train and it affects their results even further. Player B, on the other hand, becomes even more motivated to train and tries harder in practice because of their success. I like to compare this scenario to two marathon runners that have staggered start times. Just because the first runner left earlier, doesn’t mean that they will finish with a faster time. In this scenario, player A starts to feel the added pressure of having a target on their back while player B starts to feel the motivation of catching up to their opponent in a race.
As players get older and stronger at tennis, the competition only becomes fiercer. You must LOVE the game and look forward to competing if you have any HOPE of breaking through to higher levels. Don’t rush your child and force them to commit to a life of tennis before they are ready. They will only burn out before they even have a chance to reach their potential. Let your child be a child. Develop their all-around athleticism by enrolling them into many different sports. Most importantly, help them develop a healthy love of the sport and of competition. Competition, and the pressure that comes along with it, only gets more intense as your child improves. A healthy outlook on competition and the sport of tennis will help your child handle that stress much easier. Remember, achieving greatness in tennis is more like a marathon than a sprint!