Each month I have the chance to give my thoughts on some
aspect of mechanics, strategy, or the mental side of tennis.
This month I'm going to give more of an opinion and I'm sure
to get some interesting feedback on it. Tennis has changed
dramatically in the last few years. Not only has the
equipment and styles of the game changed but I've also
noticed a real change in the way people practice, especially
at the junior level.
In previous years tournament playing juniors were constantly
on the court and in some instances I'm sure they still are.
But it seems that many times now junior players are doing
just enough to get by keeping up their game rather than
really working on it to improve. I bring this up at a
critical time of year for many junior players. Although it
is the dead of winter and the junior tournament schedule is
limited, this is the time of year where a player can catch up
to and/or pass an opponent. This is the time of year to get
the work done to become a better player, in my opinion.
I am a big believer in match play for improvement. All
players, adults and juniors, have limited time to put toward
practice. For most adults, the practice is an actual match
in a league, tournament, or team tennis. But for junior
tennis players, I think it is very important to make every
effort to get in as much match play as possible. Many juniors
take their lessons/clinics but avoid trying to put their work
into practice. I assume part of it has to do with their ego
when they lose to someone they feel they should beat.
Learning how to play under a certain amount of pressure will
make you a better player. This holds true for everyone but I
think it is very important for tournament playing juniors to
learn to play rather than just to hit.
Hold on to your hats now because this next statement will
surely prompt feedback! There are some things that you learn
in match play that a teaching professional cannot teach you.
Let me give you an example. A 13-year-old boy has taken
lessons and clinics for 2 years with limited match play. He
plays a set a week with his buddy and has just entered a USTA
tournament. In the first round he finds himself at 4-4 in
the third set. He has never been in this situation before!
No matter how many lessons or clinics he takes, until he
practices actual match play he will not understand and control
the feelings and nervousness he now has to deal with. Had he
been playing the best of 3 sets occasionally for practice I
think he could better cope with this situation. It might not
seem like a big deal to most players but I think junior players
often take the test (tournament) without doing the homework
(match play). As a result, they don't see success and get
turned off by the whole tournament process if not completely by
the entire sport. We all encourage match play to prepare for
tournament and competitive play but if it is not being done
then the players aren't truly ready to play. Remember the
saying "if you fail to prepare you are preparing to fail." I
see this time and time again with junior players.
I can't put criteria out there for every level of junior player.
A highly ranked state player might play 10 hours a week with 3
matches in one situation and only twice per week in another. I
can only say that you will get out of it what you put into it.
I think we as parents and coaches should be honest with our
players in letting them know the steps to get what they want out
of tennis. If they want to make the high school team they need
to do this, if they want to go to sectionals it will take this.
That doesn't mean that they will accomplish those goals but I
believe putting them unprepared in competitive situations turns
them off to the sport.
If you are a junior player put my theory to the test. Set up
actual match play on a regular basis for a month or two. I'm
talking about best of three set matches against competitive
opponents. Do this religiously with no excuses for basketball
games, vacations, etc. Find a span of time that you can commit
to working on your game through dedicated match play. I think
you will find that your game will improve, you will be more
focused on what your strengths and weaknesses are, and you will
better understand what it takes to reach your goals. Now I'm off