What is it that separates a beginner from an advanced tennis player? How can a 15 year-old be a beginner and a 10 year-old advanced? This gets confusing so let me sum it up in a simple phrase. Beginning tennis players use their hands to swing the racket, intermediates use their arms, and advanced players use their entire body.
What separates players’ abilities is the integration and coordination of their stroke. If you watch a beginner they will mainly use their hands and wrists to make contact with the ball. An intermediate player will be slightly more integrated and swing primarily with their arm. Finally, an advanced player will use the entire body to swing, generating power from the ground up.
This concept of integration is nothing more than coordination or athletic ability. It is not unique to tennis, it applies in all sports. An advanced baseball pitcher simply has a more integrated overhand throwing pattern. A sprinter who integrates their arms and legs will always be faster than one who just utilizes the legs. A boxer who just uses their arms will always be weaker than one who generates power from the legs and hips in their punch. I think my point is coming across here.
So how does a young athlete get integrated movement patterns?
Young athletes, regardless of the sport, become coordinated with practice and a variety of movement experiences. It is that simple, there are no short-cuts. Let looks at tennis for example, the more balls a beginner hits the more the brain seeks out to perform that movement pattern efficiently and the arm becomes integrated with the hands. The more tennis balls the intermediate player hits the more the brain seeks out efficiency and integration of the trunk, hips, and legs develops. So how is it that a 15 year-old can still be a beginner or intermediate? They simply have not hit enough tennis balls to develop an integrated movement pattern. How can a 10 year-old be advanced? Well in those 10 years the player has hit enough tennis balls to make the pattern integrated. It is that simple.
So why is it some players become integrated faster than others?
I think some players become integrated in their movement patterns faster than others for two main reasons. First, the more movement and athletic experiences a child has under their belt the easier it is to transfer between sports. For example, it is always easier to teach children who already own an integrated overhand throwing pattern to serve because the transfer is simple. When children are coordinated and have lots of kinesthetic (body) awareness it becomes easier to learn new athletic skills. Second, quality instruction helps tremendously. With the right instruction a coach can get a child to feel the difference between swinging with their hands, arms, and entire body. They key to the instruction though is getting children to feel the difference. A coach can talk and explain and demonstrate until they are blue in the face but children cannot see themselves perform skills, they can only feel themselves do it. In my experiences if I can get a child to feel what an integrated swing feels like it sticks very quickly. It is much easier to repeat a feeling than it is piece together a bunch of verbal cues.
So what can parents do to help their child become integrated?
Parents can help with the process in a couple of ways. First, hit or toss tennis balls to your child often. The more practice you give them the faster they pick it up. Second, do not limit them to just playing tennis. In fact, let your children do as many sports and activities as they want, especially when they are very young. The more movement experiences, the more overall kinesthetic (body) awareness and coordination they develop. Finally, do not worry too much about perfect technique, instead focus on their effort. When a children is praised for their effort, especially from such an influential person as their Mom or Dad, it will motivate them to practice tons and there is no short-cut to collecting practice hours.