Francis Tiafoe is the #1 ranked 14 year old tennis in the USA. I have personally watched Francis hit and train at the Junior Tennis Champions Center and let me tell you the kid is amazing but he certainly puts in the long hard work and is in a training environment that is second to none. But this article is not about him, it is about a philosophy I have about the long-term development of a tennis player and how critical the age of about fourteen becomes in a player’s development.
Prior to a player being around fourteen years old it is a player’s task to master technique. Players must develop the ABC fundamentals of how to hit a tennis ball. It takes years and countless repetition to develop correct technique because no one is born knowing how to hit a tennis ball, believe it or not it is an acquired skill. The skills a player develops prior to the age of fourteen are the same skills that will carry them into competition through tournaments, high school, college, and maybe beyond. When you think of it that way it becomes obvious how critical those years prior to the fourteenth birthday really are.
When a player turns fourteen ideally they would have, for the most part, a very strong foundation of how to hit a tennis ball. This is where coaching and continued development shifts away from teaching how to hit the tennis ball and more towards how to actually play tennis and become a competitor. This is why the age of fourteen is so critical because now you have a player, going through stages of human growth and development, who is entering high school, playing more tournaments, and focused on competition. Coaching players at this stage of development is about teaching how to “play the ball” not just hit the ball. The focus of coaching should be on strategy, game plans, routines between points and change overs, and all of the other parts of the game that do not have to do with the physical mechanics of actually striking the ball. It is like when a player gets to about the age of fourteen they are finally ready to learn the real game of tennis instead of just the skills needed to play the game at a high level. Fourteen is the general age I have seen in my coaching experience but it can vary slightly because all players are individuals and develop both earlier and later.
So if you are planning for the long-term development of your player focus on spending the early years mastering technique and getting the quality of their ABC fundamentals and general athletic movement skills as high as possible. Then closer to the age of 14 shift more towards the tactical and competitive aspects of the sport. In the long term what you will develop is a player who has mastered ball striking skills early and then learned how to utilize those skills to become a great tactical competitor when the demands of competition are highest.