Monday, July 4, 2011

Tennis - A personal perspective of teenage development of tennis players

My wife I have spent the last 18 months investing time, energy, (and money) into my 13 year old daughter’s tennis. Starting serious tennis last year as part of a school based tennis program, Eliza was exposed to a sport very heavily based on repetition of a series of key movement patterns. Being reasonably athletic she adapted quickly and in most court sessions can replicate these movements successfully. Zoran and Trevor, (tennis coaches) have provided a fantastic grounding for her and continue to focus on the finer points of the sport developing her skills and strategies for the sport.
This year, 2011, saw Eliza start to play in local tennis tournaments with varied success. The first level of matches was part of the Junior Development Series tournaments which were then extended to the Junior Optus tour level tournaments. Having spent many weekends and most of this week at tennis courts, it has given me the chance to sit back and review not only my daughters’ progress but also many others as well as the tennis scene in general from both my sports science background as well as a parent.
I must say firstly that there are many talented children playing tennis and whether any of these kids get to boost Australia’s world tennis standings, I know that they show both talent and resolve to improving their own game and moving up the rankings. Whilst my daughter is ‘tennis young’ at the age of 13, many others are very ‘tennis wise’ at the same age having started playing tennis as young 5 or 6 . As I mentioned previously tennis really is a sport of repetition and when you consider a child starting at 6 compared to my daughter at 12 there is already an immense advantage in the sheer number of balls they have hit.
Let’s look at some numbers. If a child starts at age 6 and does roughly 1 hour per week on court for each year of age, by the time they reach 12 doing 12 hours per week it has added up. Remember also this is only the minimum with many young athletes doing more than this 1 hour per year of age on court weekly. Let’s also assume that they only practice for 40 weeks a year or through school terms, again the more serious practise 52 weeks a year.
Age 6 – 40 x 6 = 240 hrs, by end of age 12 this overall total has reached over 2500 hours on court. Remember still that these are minimums and after chatting with some other parents of these ‘tennis wise’ children this number tops 5000 hours or more. This results in the number of swings of the racquet being at least 1 million but as high as 2 million by age 12. If you know anything about skill development you can already see just through these rough numbers how much of an advantage it is for a child to start playing tennis early, or any sport for that reason.
Let me go sideways for a moment and put on my sport science hat. In sport, one of the steps to a successful performance of a skill is to achieve automaticity of the skill. This means that the performer can repeat the skill successfully under any circumstance without over thinking. When placed into games or matches players with low automaticity of the skill lose confidence and the skill breaks down. The more often the skill has been performed with success the more chance the performer has of repeating that performance in a game when placed under additional stress of competition. In tennis the more balls a child hits the more automatic the skills becomes.
So back to me being a parent. Over the last few months of Eliza playing tournaments, I have watched these skills performed successfully when she is confident and winning and fall apart when she is under pressure or losing against more skilled performers. After more than 30 years of working with athletes I thought I would be able to distance myself from being the parent and observe from the scientific perspective with the forewarning and understanding of what would go down. To all parents out there with children in sport, I have to say, it has been almost impossible to stop being a parent and remain calm. My ‘parent head’ can’t understand why  my daughter can perform a perfect shot 17 or 18 times out of 20 in training and then walk onto a court in a competition and perform it 5 times out of 20 albeit against a ‘tennis wise’ competitor. My emotions roll with the flow of the game and go through the same ups and downs my daughter does on court, even though I may appear to her as if I am just a casual observer. It is very hard to separate the parent from the scientific perspective. For any parent to coach their child to elite level I take my hats off and understand the enormous implications of this both from coaching and emotional angles.
So here we are at another tournament and I know in advance Eliza’s opposition is ‘tennis wise’ and I sit back and watch her go through the motions she has been ingrained with by over 5000 hrs of court work plus countless hours off court preparing to play my daughter with less than 400 hours. I watch her go through a very well planned warm up, stretch, hit with a coach even if short play hand-eye or foot speed type drills, hit like a demon with rocket launchers attached to her racquet during warm up hit, serve like an air to air missile and then get ready to play my daughter.
It is only when watching at this level (14 years and under) you start to realise how good the world’s best players must be. These young girls and boys are truly amazing to watch. The ball travels low and fast across the net and these kids run and chase and scramble as if they are playing for a grand slam title. This doesn’t stop off the court either with many parents getting just as involved as the children and I have seen a few unsavoury incidents between parents defending or supporting their child for their on-court behaviour. But in most cases I have to say the tennis scene is one of friendly people, great kids and encouraging environment. I would much rather have my children mixing and playing sport in such an environment than being on the street or in front of the TV. Most players are friendly to each other and my daughter has developed some good friendships with like minded children all playing with the same goals and dreams in mind.
So back to my ‘sports science head’ and the implications for these young athletes. I realise that tennis in Australia has certainly not had the success of past years and many past players suggest kids today are treated too softly and need to be challenged more in their training and weekly schedules. But let’s consider these young players and the downside of being a tennis fanatic from such a young age. It is accepted in sport that a true champion has many attributes that are often evident from a young age. Talent, determination, fire in the belly, skill, commitment are some of those qualities just to name a few. If these qualities are not evident early a child is often encouraged to move on or they stop playing due to lack of success. These qualities are not always found or matched with the physical body to cope with a career as a professional athlete. Hence if being a champion was easy there would be more than we currently have. Russians and many other countries with large populations were often accused of having the funnel approach to success in sport. Pour in a few thousand 5 or 6 year olds at the top and if a world champion falls out the bottom after 12-15 years that was deemed to be a success.
It takes a lot of hard work both on and off the court and children grow at such different rates that many fail to reach physical maturity without injury or problems. Girls in my daughter’s age group are significantly different in size and shape with some girls already at full height whilst others are still small and gangly still waiting to grow. Still these smaller girls who are ‘tennis wise’ belt the fur of the ball more times than not and I often wonder where this power comes from. Such differences in size and maturity are difficult for coaches to manage with injuries not uncommon and most due to the sheer time and load on little bodies such a repetitious sport requires. From my perspective it appears as if the quality of athleticism is still missing in many young tennis players with the emphasis placed on hitting balls rather than preserving and protecting young bodies for a long term career in tennis. I watch as young girls struggle to be balanced with poor hip stability, fail to push off from weak knee musculature, and give up because they are simply not fit enough to stay in the rally. Young shoulders are often forward and low with abducted and winged scapula, internally rotated arms and poor stability. Hips are often in anterior tilt with increased lordosis of the lumbar spine.  At some point such issues must be addressed and this is not often dealt with until injury or pain occurs triggering a treatment process. Then for many it is too late.
So where does this leave our young tennis players? My daughter needs to hit a few million more tennis balls to improve her skill and technical aspect of tennis. But right now I am extremely happy not only with her tennis skill but the fact that she is still a good athlete across a range of activities, has a life outside tennis, appears to be reasonably adjusted to both school and tennis, and is starting to learn about the professionalism required to be a tennis player with more off court work and understanding of what she needs to do – even if it is with some encouragement from her parents. For everyone else here are a few things I would recommend mostly from my sport science head. As for my ‘parent head’ I am still ‘tennis young’ and don’t quite feel mature enough to offer advice.
1.     Coaches and parents need to be smarter about how we manage young developing bodies and be sure to devote equal time to a young athlete’s physical and emotional development as coaches want them to devote to their skills.
2.     Parents need to understand their own child and where they fit into the growth and maturity stages for their age and appreciate what might be best for that child. I’m not against hard work but only when appropriate and capable of being performed.
3.     Get your child assessed and screened at least once a year from a physiotherapist or exercise physiologist to gauge physical and postural changes that may occur from your sport and provide corrective or preventive exercises. This will change due to changes in height and structure and may be quite different from year to year.
4.     Talk to your child’s coach about balance. This may include activity away from tennis that promotes athletic development or it may be providing for less time on a hard court preferring to use a grass court to protect growing bodies and joints. Discuss how tournament schedules fit in with school terms, and I note most are played in school holidays meaning young children don’t have the ‘time off’ required for recovery and growth at young ages.
5.     Finally, from my personal experience tennis food provided at tournaments is not always conducive to good sports performance, so I suggest you try and plan ahead and take what is required. A tennis mum I know (Heather) actually takes her own sandwich maker with her and sets it up each time to make toasted sandwiches for her boys. That is forward planning. Also be careful of the amount of sports drinks you let your children have. I have seen some boys go through 4-5 sports drinks in half a day and suggest this would be better balanced with a mixture of both water and sports drinks.

Research into young athletes is by no means conclusive and even the LTAD model of development used by many nations and coaches does not always provide the details required for parents to fully appreciate what is required to support a young athlete. When in doubt talk about this with a few different people whom have been there before or work with children often and seek advice from other experts. The more you ask the more you will find out.

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