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Hardscrabble Scramble
June 2002 Article

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How Good Is Junior?

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Mike Whittington

With summer season full of tournaments I wanted to take a chance to discuss junior tournament play. As with adults, there are all levels of junior players and competition for each level. There are grassroots events for those just beginning the sport, novice divisions for those with little tournament experience and open tournaments for players at a higher level. Within this open division we see all sorts of players. Players in this division range from those happy to be out of town and playing different players to those seeking college scholarships and/or aspiring to play professional tennis. The reason I point this out is that I feel it is important to know what goals and needs the junior player has for playing tournaments. As a teaching professional it is my goal to try to make sure the junior player is on track to meet their specific yet realistic goal.

To be a good tennis player you have to have talent and desire. It is tough at times to say which one is more important -- obviously players at the highest junior levels have shown they have both. But many times I see that players, parents, and coaches have a distorted view of competitive junior tennis. Tennis is definitely the sport of a lifetime and one that you'll always be glad that you learned. But just learning the game and being competitive are two completely different things.

A good tennis professional will be able to sit down with the parent and child and set realistic goals. These should be gradual with a game plan for the junior. However, the junior player must have the desire to be a better player and improve. My personal belief is that if the junior doesn't have that desire to beat other players, that inner fire, there is very little a teaching professional can do. ŹNow I'll take a lot of heat for saying this but at some point the junior player has to take part of the responsibility for his/her results on the court. Let me give you an example of a situation that happened to one of my players a few years ago. At a major state event my player lost a match to a better player. It was a good match, my player played pretty well but lost in two hard fought sets to a player that was more talented and had more experience. Because of this win, the opponent qualified for a bigger event where he went on to win another five matches the following week. After the loss my player came home to swim for a week before his next tournament. My point is that the experience the other guy received from those next five matches was worth more than a hundred lessons! So what do you think happened the next time these two guys played? My player lost and the score was worse. The gap between the two players had widened. If my player couldn't beat his opponent before then he has to make sure he works harder than the opponent. This might be tough news for some but it is the truth -- you are only going to get out of competitive junior tennis what you put into it.

I think a lot of junior players get discouraged and quit tennis because their goals don't match their expectations. "You mean that if I take my weekly lesson and do a clinic twice a week I won't turn pro?" You won't even sniff at it! You have to have the desire to get better and you have to make the situation work for you. I grew up in a town with roughly five junior players. Now you have huge cities with hundreds of players but they all say "there is nobody for me to play." If the player wants it badly enough they will do it. They will make the calls to find opponents, they will go out and hit against backboards, they will hit off the ball machine, they will practice their serve, etc. These are all things that can be done WITHOUT lessons! Now obviously there are some exceptions where the player is an exceptional athlete and can practice very little and still win matches. But at some point along the way they will be passed.

I can't really say there are certain guidelines as to the amount of practice required to get to a certain level. Is it possible that the player that works 20 hours a week on their game can lose to the one that practices for 1 hour a week? It is possible but unlikely. In previous articles I've discussed goal setting and I think it is very important. To take a player that is ranked #20 in their state... if their goal is top five in the country it is silly. I will go out on a limb here knowing that I'm going to get some feedback. I will say that to be competitive at the tournaments in my state you need to be playing a minimum of 10-12 hours a week. Some people will think 12 hours is way too much, others won't break into their state's top fifty with it. Inside that practice their needs to be some competitive match play. Most juniors avoid playing each other because they don't want to lose. The only way to get that feeling of playing under pressure is to do it. Of course there are always other factors and options such as footwork, quickness, agility, strength that all can be improved. That needs to be done in addition to the 12 hours on court! Can a player still play basketball, football, soccer, etc., and still be a competitive player? You bet but you still have to keep up those 12 hours on court.

I've had players lose a match 6-1, 6-1 and come off the court saying "I could have beaten him easily." I like that attitude but it isn't realistic. If you lost 6-1, 6-1 you got tuned and I don't care if every game went to deuce. Now what is this player going to do to improve? What has this player learned from his/her opponent? What changes in the practice routine will come about as a result of this loss? I can't answer this and only the player can. But as the saying goes "if you want to keep on getting what you are getting then keep on doing what you are doing." If you are practicing 2 hours per week and you haven't won a match in 2 months it is likely that you will continue to lose until you change your practice habits.

My point in this article is not to turn anyone off from playing competitive junior tennis. The things I've learned have helped me throughout my life and I've made dozens of friends that I still see from time to time. I was recently on a plane with a guy I played first round of a tournament 20 years ago! My point is simply to encourage players, parents, and coaches to get on the same page. Sometimes it is better to work backwards in setting goals. How much is the junior willing to practice? 2 hours per week? Five hours per week? Set the goal based on what is realistic for that amount of practice. To say I want to be #1 in my section but I can only practice five hours per week probably isn't going to work. For most of the juniors I see their results are pretty accurate for their skill levels, although they don't agree with me on this. The players they lose to have usually practiced more and have more experience. If you play 2 hours per week and you win some first rounds then I actually think you are ahead of the game instead of behind! And with most players their results and their practice match -- it is their unrealistic expectations that turn them off. I teach tennis for a living and I see it from both sides and I understand how juniors and parents feel. You have no idea how many times an upset parent or player has negatively discussed their 6-3, 6-3 loss to a player when based on their practice I'm excited they won 6 games!

Parents this is for you -- let your junior decide what they want and how badly they want it. Do everything you can to encourage them and help them reach their goals. But don't try to play your competitive tennis through your child -- it just doesn't work. Just as in school, the homework prepares the student for the test. In competitive junior tennis the test is the tournament and the homework is the practice. The more homework you do the better prepared you will be for the test.

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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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