Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Tennis 1%

Thomas Jefferson and Cheryl Crow may not appear to have much in common - one a historic figure and founding father dead lo these 200 years, the other a successful modern day singer/songwriter still very much alive and kickin'. But there is at least one thing they agree on: in Ms. Crow's words, 'change will do you good'. Mr. Jefferson put it more eloquently, suggesting revolutionary change every twenty years or so. And what we are seeing now in the realm of junior tennis is change indeed. Whether or not it qualifies as revolutionary remains to be seen.

The United States Tennis Association is promoting two big changes to junior instruction and competition. Both are being met with varying degrees of acceptance and resistance from players, parents, and coaches. The USTA's proposed change to the structure of junior competition (tournaments) is the more recent and most hotly contested. Because it is more relevant to older players, I will direct you to the Parenting Aces blog for further information. The second change regards teaching methods geared toward players ages 10 and under. Hey - that's the title of this blog! So let's discuss.

Who knew a little different
colored felt would cause
 such a kerfuffle?
The 10 and Under Tennis Revolution (formerly known as Play N Stay and QuickStart among other names) has been around under the USTA label for a few years, slowly gathering momentum. They are throwing all kinds of money and promos at this program. Fancy marketing materials, commercials during the US Open, tennis with the First Lady, community grant money, training sessions, you name it. The genesis of the program appears to be the realization that A) Americans are falling far behind in the world tennis rankings, and B) in researching the cause for A, it has been discovered that other cultures have been taking a different approach to teaching instruction for decades. Basically, someone on this side of the Atlantic decided if it was working for the Euro nations, maybe we better have a look-see. So 10 and Under Tennis was born. Mini nets, small racquets, slower balls, and updated teaching methods (No Laps! No Lines! No Lectures!) descended on the tennis world over the last decade. The logic is that other sports don't expect small players to begin on full size courts or fields, so why should tennis? Tee ball is often mentioned as the baseball analogy. This video explains the concept well. Equipment and courts should be sized to the player to get them playing successfully sooner and avoid attrition due to frustration.The goal is to get more kids interested in tennis, keep them interested longer, have more talent in the talent pool, regain some dominance in professional tennis, and create lots of future adult league players/USTA members in the process.

The stink that has resulted is in the form of some resistance from certain sectors of teaching professionals, and a few parents as well. They don't believe the lower compression balls, smaller courts, and smaller racquets provide any benefit. Their kid/student learns just fine on full size courts with yellow balls, thank you very much. The implication is that if your kid isn't thriving with regular equipment, either your kid or your instructor (or both) leave something to be desired in the tennis department. We've seen these fads come and go, they say. It's a marketing gimmick by the equipment manufacturers. Don't waste your money! Just be patient and this too, shall pass.

Since this is an editorial, and this is MY blog, here's my 2 cents. Your comments are welcome below BTW. I am fairly new to tennis instruction. I did not come up through the junior development ranks. My highest rating when I was still playing league tennis was 4.0. I became interested in tennis instruction as a volunteer Jr. Team Tennis coordinator. I discovered I much preferred spending my tennis volunteer time on the court introducing beginners of all ages to tennis than sitting in cramped committee meetings watching uninspiring Power Point presentations. So I took it to the next level, attended lots of on-court workshops, got certified, and here I am, living the life. Those of you who teach tennis part time will recognize a teensy bit of sarcasm there.

Setting all sarcasm aside - in my experience the last several years, having seen literally hundreds of kids float through my court in Jr. Team Tennis, summer camps, group clinics, private instruction, Play Days, etc. etc., I can think of exactly 1.5 kids (one definitely, one maybe) who I thought, with minimal instruction, would be playing better than me very quickly. With yellow balls on a full size court. In my somewhat math-challenged mind I estimate about one percent of the kids I have seen could go straight to yellow ball, do not pass go, do not collect $200. That means 99% of the kids I have seen have benefited from a kinder, gentler introduction to tennis, earlier sense of mastery, and frankly just plain fun, because spending an hour swinging and whiffing at yellow balls flying past is no fun.

There is an ongoing debate about restricting tournament play to particular color balls, court sizes, etc. The parents whose kids are doing well with yellow balls (the 1 percent) chafe at the idea of going backward, of having to play with red or orange balls when that stage is clearly behind (or beneath) them. I also suspect the instructors feel somehow diminished by being asked to lower themselves to admit tennis is difficult and some of their students are not up to the task and could use a little help getting started. But I am not particularly proud. If using modified equipment is going to help my students 'get it' quicker, I am all for it. I have seen it over and over again. It takes time (but less time than if we were using yellow balls!), but progress is made at every lesson. When I imagine any of my red ball students trying to do what they do now (rally, serve, play) on a full size court with yellow balls, frankly it just would not be possible, and after our last lesson, they would be off to the soccer field before I got all the balls picked up.

I am not particularly interested in foisting 10 and Under Tennis onto other teaching pros, just as I am not interested in them foisting their allegiance to the yellow ball onto me. But if you are coming to my club for junior instruction, unless you are Andre Freaking Agassi, you are gonna get 10 and Under Tennis until you show me you are ready for the next level. After all, like the woman said, change will do you good.