All coaches, parents, and even the junior players themselves want to do well in tournament competition. Success at tournaments in a young player’s development are a great motivator and confidence booster as well. However as success increases many players and parents want to have their child “play up” in age groups for more competition. This idea certainly makes sense but playing up all the time can actually stunt a player’s long-term development. The lack of continued competitive growth occurs because playing up an age group takes all of the pressure off the younger player. A ten-year-old is not expected to beat a 12-year-old so a loss can be blown off quite easily. At the same time if a 10-year-old defeats a 12-year-old they did so because they were able to play with nothing to lose or in other words without pressure. Imagine a 10-year old in a tournament with his 10-year-old peers. These players are all now the same age and if our player has developed his game properly he would be expected to do well against his peers in the tournament because he has done the right things. This 10-year-old now must compete with pressure and without excuses. It is competing against his peers and winning that breeds true confidence and along with that confidence he also learns how to compete in a true pressure situation, which is a wonderful skill to cultivate for long-term development.
Coach Chuck Kriese, a great mentor of mine taught me this concept. The ideal formula for scheduling a junior player’s year would be to have 1/3 of competitions playing up an age group or against better players, 1/3 of competitions with their peers or players of about the same skill set, and 1/3 of competitions with weaker players. This is the rule of 1/3 and it is of utmost importance when looking at developing a competitive junior player.
Playing up an age group allows younger players to see what lies ahead and measure their skills against better competition. This competitive scenario also allows them to compete with less pressure because they are not expected to win. If they can get a win or two under their belt as well it will certainly boost their confidence.
Playing against peers is really about learning how to play with pressure. The playing field is level and it is about who did the right things in practice and can perform well under pressure. It truly is a skill to learn how to compete in a pressure situation and peer competition is the major factor in a young player’s career to begin honing that skill.
Playing against lesser opponents is also incredibly important as well for two reasons. First, playing against lesser opponents allows players to practice converting points into game, games into sets, and sets into matches. This repetition develops confidence in their match play abilities. Playing lesser opponents also allows players to practice different styles of play. For example if a player is a counter-puncher by nature they can practice coming to the net or hitting more aggressively from the baseline. Second, playing lesser opponents also teaches a player to compete with the pressure of expectation because they now are the ones expected to win that match.
In conclusion, taking the time to carefully plan a player’s competitive schedule to equally balance it in thirds is critical for developing both confidence and the skill of playing with pressure in the long-term. That way when “Little Timmy” is not so little anymore and is playing in a big tournament when he is 18 or in college he will be well prepared to deal with the pressure and compete at his peak when the stakes are high.