10 and Under Tennis Philosophy

10 and Under Tennis Philosophy

You’d almost have to be living under a rock to have not heard about the USTA 10 and under tennis initiative. This is by far the most aggressive tennis marketing campaign I can remember. It’s not hard to educate yourself on the 10 and under program and I’ll leave it up to you to scroll through some of these resources if you need a refresher. FYI it’s one massive sales pitch.

http://www.10andundertennis.com/

http://www.tennisresources.com/video/10-and-under-tennis/?r=1&width=1280&Height=800&view=noncredit

The Great!

I actually believe 10 and under tennis as a program (model) is a good thing. There are some serious flaws and obvious money grabs that we’ll discuss later on but at its core 10 and under tennis is good for kids… and that’s really all that matters.

The majority of kids I’ve worked with in 10 and under programs have had a lot of fun and, to varying degrees, a decent amount of success with the new equipment. But really the point of 10 and under tennis is to have FUN. Young children pick things up incredibly quick and with the ball not bouncing as high and the racket being lighter they’re able to mimic good form quickly… assuming the coach is a good demonstrator (not just an orator). Ultimately that’s what it’s all about. As a parent I assume you want nothing more than for your child to go to a clinic have some fun (success) and want to go back again. With the old model (specifically regular balls) the % of kids having fun was a lot lower and the % having success lower still. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that with the new model more kids are going to stick with tennis it just means they’re engaged, they’re active, and they’re having a good time.

Especially in the formative years (see Junior Improvement Methodology) it’s a good idea to sign your child up for a 1 hour ten and under clinic (more than 1 hour is just too much). Not only are they gaining some basic tennis skills, they’re also gaining valuable social skills (co-operation). In many ways I believe the social interactions (becoming rarer in contemporary times) are more valuable than the tennis.

If the child really enjoys the clinic and is asking you to play with them it’s probably time to start considering private lessons. Now is when you want to start taking the tennis aspect a little more seriously. Even if a clinic is run by the best coaches in the world there is only so much time for 1 on 1 instruction. If it’s a really hectic 10 and under clinic (as most are) there’s virtually no time for it. In a 1 on 1 environment the child will have the opportunity to refine their technique and begin the TRANSITION to “real tennis.”

The Argument

The USTA’s argument is that kids who try tennis at a young age have little to no success with the full size equipment. Ultimately this results in a bad experience for the child who will always remember tennis as being a sport that was just “too hard.” This bad memory and experience pushes them away from tennis and into other sports, never to pick up a racket again. Well I’ll just point out that pee-wee rackets and compression balls have been around for a long time… I still have my pee-wee racket. It’s a little heavy compared to what they sell today but it certainly is very small. The part I struggled with (and I’m not alone) were the balls. Compression balls were virtually never used simply because they were expensive and not readily available. Luckily with all the emphasis and marketing $ being pumped into 10 and under, the cost of the compression balls has gone down (still expensive compared to regular balls) and availability/exposure way up.

The technology has been around for a while so what is the USTA really offering? The USTA is trying to introduce and implement a full blown regimented tennis development system for children 10 and under. If it was up to them it would be mandatory and in many club environments it is. Meaning, that if you have a child under 10 and want them to play with “real equipment” you will struggle to find a “certified” clinic or training facility offering such a service. Thus you’re forced to either work with your child independently or hire a private coach. I’m getting ahead of myself but this is really the underlying problem with the USTA. They assume there is 1 model or method that is going to work for everyone. That’s simply not true and a big reason why the USTA player development system has, at least up to now, failed. There are some kids who will be ready to play with the full sized equipment way before the age 11 and I think it’s just plain stupid to hold them back because it breaks the model. The point is you’re going to have to play on a full sized court with regular equipment at some point and if you’re ready at age 8 why wait? I’ve been around long enough to hear the arguments (forcing extreme grips, frustration, etc) but none of them really hold up.

The Transition and The Modern Game

The one thing the 10 and under program does not adequately explain is the transition from the final “Green Stage” to real tennis. That’s because that jump is a massive one! No matter when you make the transition to “real tennis” from the 10 and under program there will be serious growing pains. The feel of a real tennis ball is drastically different to all the staging balls. The reality is the real tennis ball travels a lot faster, takes to spin more aggressively, bounces significantly higher, and is harder to control. So what happens when you pull a kid from the 10 and under program at 8 years old and start working with real balls versus another kid who stays in the program until age 11? Well I think you know what’s going to happen. That kid who has the 3 year head start is going to be worlds ahead of the 11 year old just beginning the transition. It doesn’t matter how much success that 11 year old is having in the 10 and under system, they are going to struggle mightily against players who’ve been practicing with real balls and playing on the full sized court (specifically hitting ground strokes and serves from the baseline). Inevitably they will get frustrated and will either have to work that much harder to catch up or they’ll quit. So it’s not going to be that much different to how it was before.

On the technical side of things one of the main arguments for 10 and under tennis is that players will not be forced to adopt extreme grips (to handle high balls) and will therefore develop more of an all around games (specifically volley). Again seriously flawed when the transition to real tennis occurs. Racket and string technology are responsible for “the modern game” and by extension the athleticism required to compete at the top level. You combine a modern frame with a modern polyester string and this is what you get… heavy topspin and higher bouncing balls. To control those balls and play similar balls it makes sense to adopt the more extreme grip (I know that’s what I did). You don’t have to (and I wouldn’t encourage it in all cases) but if you don’t you have to be willing to go through a lot of frustration while you develop “the feel” necessary to compete. Kids (especially those taking tennis seriously) hate losing and would prefer making the change if it means being competitive. So again I don’t see how 10 and under really changes anything.

The Greed and The Exploitation

The USTA may be considered a non-profit but they certainly operate and act like any for-profit big business. As the USTA has grown in size they’ve slowly begun abandoning most of their grass roots programs and instead have focused on “big picture” and “national development” projects. The USTA does do some good charitable things but on the whole their business model and tactics are worrying to a lot of people in the tennis industry. Instead of supporting private coaches they’ve aggressively poached top juniors in the hopes of being able to “take the credit” and “take their cut” if/when any of them pan out. This will serve as great publicity for their system and the success supposedly achieved from it. This may sound a little extreme but trust me it isn’t and I have plenty of articles to back it up if you’re interested.

The USTA is currently working on their tennis city down in Orlando which will also serve as the home base for the national junior development program. The construction cost alone is upwards of $60 million. No surprise, like any big business the thought process is throw enough $ at it and it will get you results. Maybe that is the answer for American tennis… I guess only time will tell.

But the reason I bring this up is that the USTA is going to have to pay for that facility and all it offers (they’ll be forced to give out a lot of scholarships early on to get people in system). How do they plan to do that? 1) For all the adults out there playing league tennis you’ve probably felt the sting. 2) Move all major “junior tournaments” and “national championships” to the facility 3) 10 and under tennis.

10 and under tennis is extremely lucrative. There’s all this new equipment you need to buy and all these rules/mandates that need to be followed. Most of these rules specifically about what equipment you can and can’t use in tournament play.

Wait a minute TOURNAMENT PLAY…who said anything about tournament play. I thought this was supposed to be a FUN FIRST model.

Originally I was pretty much on board with 10 and under tennis until I heard about the tournament scheme they’d cooked up. In my opinion the majority of kids under 10 years old are not ready to be playing tournaments or even “real matches.” They’re supposed to be having fun. Tennis parents are notoriously aggressive and this is certainly going to make the climate a lot worse than it already is. I feel really bad for the kids whose parents are forcing them to play in these stupid tournaments and all the pressure they must feel. Remember 10 and under tennis is not real tennis and the results you attain in 10 and under tournaments are no indication of what things will be like when you transition to the real thing. So what if you’re number 1 in the 10 and under system…what happens when you play a real match against a kid whose been playing with real balls from the beginning? How will that kid handle losing, and probably losing badly? Cheating is already a serious problem and now we’re encouraging it at an even younger age. So much for FUN FIRST.

This is the exploitation (tournament play) and the part that makes me sick to my stomach. The USTA is well aware that a tough transition will occur when players leave the 10 and under system and have to go to the real thing. MANY players will quit because success won’t come as easily and now we’re back to where we were before, only now the USTA has pocketed a lot more $ on a demographic they used to make nothing on. It’s a revenue generation thing not a player development thing. The USTA is banking on crazy veiny tennis parent ego. The whole my kid is ranked number X and their only 8 years old sort of bragging we’ve all heard more times than we can count. Get the parents hooked on the number (useless ranking) and you’ve got em. A lot of the parents will buy into the 10 and under system and fall for the competition trap not realizing that this ranking is completely meaningless. It’s a pretty clever scheme but not one that’s good for the sport in my opinion.

Recommendation

My recommendation is based on what I genuinely think will benefit the child and their development as a tennis player. I’m not trying to sell you anything and I don’t really have any special interest unless you decide to take lessons with me. Most of you reading this probably aren’t even in the dc area.

When you decide you want your child to get into tennis it does make sense to purchase a junior racket. A lot of 10 and under clinics will provide a racket for your child but if you have a racket at home you can play with them outside the clinic (you don’t need a racket). Depending on the child’s age and strength I’d recommend getting a 3 or 4 pack of the appropriate balls (contact me if you need guidance). With the red and orange balls you can very easily hit the ball indoors without having to worry about holes in the wall. (I would still recommend you move any breakable items from the room though). 🙂

I’m also assuming you will not be entering your child in 10 and under tournaments (more on match play experience later on). If you are you will have to follow the guidelines/rules. Crazy veiny tennis parents have been known to bring measuring tapes to tournaments. The irony is that a larger racket apparently gives you an advantage…shouldn’t we be encouraging kids to use equipment that gives them the best results? Those are definitely the people to keep an eye on because they will probably be the ones putting tremendous amount of pressure on their children and subsequently those kids will more than likely cheat egregiously to win. I recommend you advise your child in advance to take the high road if said situation occurs. Confrontations with other parents (as badly as you’ll want to) will not impact your child’s tennis memories in a positive way. That will be what they associate with tennis tournaments and that’s not a good thing. Remember that the kid with the crazy veiny tennis parent has it a lot worse.

If you’re lucky enough to live near a pro shop you can take your child with you and literally have them swing the different sized rackets in the store. My recommendation is to buy big (don’t just go along with the chart). If you’re child is capable of making a controlled swing with a larger racket get the larger one. Typically the chart will be pretty accurate for girls but best to experiment. Remember that if you buy big not only is it closer to the real thing but the child can grow into it. Very different to if you buy small. If you think your child will need to use the staging balls for a while no reason to break the bank on one of the boutique pricier models (they are designed for real balls). If you think you’re child will be transitioning to real balls pretty quickly a boutique model is not a bad idea if you buy big.

Hopefully you never need to buy more than 2 (different sized) junior rackets. You will have to buy more than 2 if you elect to go down the tournament route. Once the child gets used to swinging the junior tennis racket they’ll develop the muscles and muscle memory needed to go to a bigger model pretty quick. Once they are ready go ahead and get the largest model (26 inches). From then on the goal is to start making that transition to real balls and eventually a full sized racket.

In regards to match play… my opinion is that no child should get into tournaments until they can call lines fairly and handle losing. That means you, a trusted friend, or a coach will need to be their opponent for a while. They are more likely to follow and mimic your good behavior but it will be difficult for them to understand and handle losing. Tennis is unique as a 1 on 1 sport and it takes a decent amount of time to emotionally come to grips with losing (100% on you). Shaking hands at the end of a match doesn’t mean that you’ve been a good sportsman or sportswoman… it just means you shook hands. In my opinion playing a fair match is a lot more important than upholding tradition.

Final Thoughts

The 10 and under initiative is a great way to introduce children to tennis. They have an opportunity to succeed early on and most importantly they can have fun playing tennis! The issue is that, like with all sports, there will be growing pains. Transitioning to the real ball will be a challenge and some kids will quit. That’s the reality and it has to be something we are willing to accept. In my opinion, starting to make the transition to real equipment (specifically the ball) as soon as the child is ready/capable makes a big difference. They’ll know early on whether or not tennis is the sport for them which will save you a lot of $ and time if it turns out they actually hate it. Tennis isn’t for everyone and just because 10 and under tennis makes it fun early on doesn’t mean that more kids will stick with it as they get older. As I’ve mentioned in some of my other posts passion is the secret ingredient and that will never change. Some children will be motivated and others won’t. You can’t really teach that and one static model is not the solution for everyone. I believe the most important trait a tennis coach can have is the ability to adapt. Every situation is different and every junior player needs a method that’s uniquely designed and tailored to them. While 10 and under tennis will sell more stuff and get more kids playing (which is a good thing) it won’t magically produce a plethora of grand slam champions.