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Hardscrabble Scramble
December 2000 Article

Hardscrabble Scramble Archive

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A Note About Juniors

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Mike Whittington

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 my soapbox.

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This column is copyrighted by Mike Whittington, all rights reserved.

At the time at which he wrote this column, Mike Whittington was a USPTA pro in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he served as director of tennis at the Hardscrabble Country Club.


 

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