10 & Under Tennis has been a “hot button” topic to say the least in the world of tennis coaches. It has become so sensitive because the United States Tennis Association (USTA) mandated that ALL tournaments for children ages 10 and under must be played on smaller courts and with low compression balls. It has upset established and accomplished coaches across the country because they have students under the age of 10 who can and already do train and compete with regular balls on a full size court and they feel it is a step backwards for their players’ development. At the same time we have established and accomplished coaches who think this is the best thing ever for transitioning kids into the sport of tennis and competitive junior tournaments. Most people take one side or the other but in my opinion the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
There are two main reasons why I am posting my opinion on this topic. First, I want to share with parents my viewpoints because as consumers they need to know where I stand so they too can make informed decisions. If nothing else I hope it conveys how I genuinely care for the best interest of any child who I have the opportunity to coach. As the saying goes, “No one cares what you know, until they know you care.” Second, I am putting this up for other coaches as well if it helps them in their quest for finding out what is best for the children they are working with. Now on to my opinions about 10 & Under Tennis…
First, we all have to remember that a child is not a little adult. Children are developing every single day, physically, mentally, and emotionally. They are very different from competitive high school players, collegiate and professional athletes. What works for older children and adults at their stage of development does not necessarily work for children. It is a child’s long-term development that coaches should be most concerned with over any short-term gains. Short-term gains are great do not get me wrong but I believe a coach should never lose sight of the long-term objectives. I look at it as though I am always developing long-term tennis players, athletes and people. That being said from a strictly physical development sense I do not agree with the mandate forcing children who wish to play competitively to utilize low compression balls and smaller courts. At the same time I also am not against using smaller rackets, courts and low compression balls for training and competition either. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Let me explain in a simple but meaningful phrase, Development is Age Related, Not Age Determined. Think about it like this, the typical baby walks at about 12 months of age, some walk earlier and some later. My point is you would not hold a baby back from walking just because they are not 12 months old, nor would you force a baby to walk who is not ready just because they are 13 months old. The average is 12 months but it is not something that is set in stone. Development is age related, not age determined. I would say the same is true for the development of tennis players. The key is being able to distinguish between a child’s “calendar age” compared to their “training age.” Some kids have more experiences with tennis or just progress faster than others for what ever reason and have a higher training age compared to peers with the same calendar age. I should note that kids can have a higher training age for reasons you may not even think of like they played tennis for fun with their parents and now want to play the full game or they sat and watched their brother or sister take lessons for years before they even picked up a racket. This means some children are ready for a full size court and regular balls before the age of 10 so why hold them back? Other kids may not be ready so why push them forward? Again the focus is on long-term development so there is no need to try and rush anything. If long-term development is the focus from the beginning I think champions can develop both with and without ever using the 10 and under equipment and competitive format.
Second, I think the 10 & Under Tennis initiative can actually be a great asset for the game and let me explain why. I personally believe it takes 3 different kinds of coaches in a player’s development to fully blossom. This is not a concept specific to tennis in fact I think it has a wide variety of applications. First, a child must have a coach who teaches them to Have Fun and Fall in Love with the Game. After a child falls in love with the game they are intrinsically motivated to continue dig in deeper and then move on to the second coach who Teaches the ABC Fundamentals Flawlessly and TIrelessly. If they are ready but fail to move on from just having fun their development will stifle. I should note that moving on to the second coach is not for everyone. Learning the nitty gritty fundamentals of tennis or anything is not always fun but it is that intrinsic motivation that keeps them going. Once the fundamentals are mastered over a long period of time the individual must move on to the elusive third coach to see their fullest potential. The third coach is The Motivator who gets a child to believe deep inside themselves and push beyond their perceived limits and maximizes their potential. These are the world-famous famous coaches like John Wooden in basketball or Chuck Kriese in tennis. If you think about it these 3 different coaches are true for development in sports, music, and even in academics. Think about the little child who had the fun home piano teacher, then moves up to the more serious and strict teacher, and finally off to a performing arts school where they become inspired to compose their own works of art.
I also believe this process in not necessarily always 3 different people or coaches. Experienced coaches can play different roles to different children at different times in their development. I know for one I do just that. What I try to accomplish with players of different calendar and training ages is different, but you have to take the time to get to know your students to be able to do that. I also should mention that I categorize players by their training age not their chronological age. Chronological age is a good ballpark figure because development is age related but the training age is really what is most important in deciding what type of coach I need to be for that player.
I believe the 10 & under initiative really fits well as a tool the first coach can utilize to get children to fall in love with the game. It is not the tools themselves that will make kids fall in love, I believe that has more to do with the culture and environment the coach creates. The smaller equipment is certainly not necessary to have fun, there are several ways to do that as people have been falling in love with the game for ages. But if it can be utilized as a tool for immediate success which leads to a child feeling more confident in their abilities, which leads to the perception of them having fun then the benefits are obvious. In fact, I believe that the more kids we get having fun with tennis the more will be internally motivated to stick with it and move up to the second coach and work tirelessly on their fundamentals. Those who master the fundamentals because they possess the necessary internal motivation laid in the foundation of fun will then move on to the elusive third coach who puts on the finishing touches.
Finally, I think that playing tennis before the age of 10, whether with smaller equipment on a size-reduced court or regular balls on a full size court is great for young children regardless of whether they stick with it or not. Young children specifically under the age of 10 become more and more coordinated with every single physical experience in their life. When kids play tennis they learn to run, jump, accelerate, decelerate, track, strike, and tons of other athletic skills that are applicable to anything. Young children who have success with developing athletic skills are more likely to perceive sports and exercise as fun and hopefully that will set the foundation for children to live a healthy and active lifestyles.
In summary, I do not agree with mandating that all kids with the calendar age of 10 years and under play with and compete with smaller rackets, courts, and low compression balls. I say that because development of a tennis player is age related, not age determined. Some children are 8 years old but have a higher training age than their peers and they should not be held back. At the same time kids under the age of 10 who are just seeing if they like tennis I would not hesitate to utilize the smaller rackets, courts, and low compression balls because my goal as a coach is for them to have fun, have perceived success, and fall in love with the sport which lays the foundation for their long-term development.