November 23rd, 2016

Every Child at Every Level Needs to Play Team Tennis

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By Javier Palenque (@palenquej), guest blogger

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Why is team tennis so misunderstood?

One of the kids we play with and train moved from one part of the city to another, forcing her parents to change coaches and academies. Then this parent, a friend of mine, called me and told me that the coaches forbid her daughter from playing team tennis as it was a waste of time, and that her daughters’ strokes needed a complete fix.

This of course means tons of private lessons in order to fix the supposed problem, and by isolating the kid from team tennis they were depriving the child of the fun involved in the sport, and much more.

My friend, who is a normal parent, knows very little about tennis and now does not know what to do.

Important facts to consider:

* 2.2 million kids ages 13-17 play tennis
* Among high school-age kids, 184,000 girls play tennis and 157,000 boys play
* There are 7.8 million kids in high school sports
* Tennis represents 4 percent of high school sports
* The odds of playing Division I tennis from high school is 1.4 percent, and 0.9 percent for Division II, and 1.9 percent for Division III
* 1,570 boys and 1,840 girls will go on to play Division I tennis
* Colleges provide 4.5 scholarships for teams in Division I and II for men, 1.5 of which go to international players
* College provide 8 scholarships for teams in Division I and II for women, 2.5 of which go to international players
* The common rate for dropout of sports is 75 percent by age 13

* Statistics: National Federation of State High School Associations

So out of 2.2 million kids that play tennis from an early age, only 1.5 percent will play high school tennis, and of those only 0.0015 percent will play Division I tennis.

So what happens to the rest of the player who don’t play college tennis? The 1.8 million tennis players who at some point loved the game are now lost.

Many coaches and academies steer kids away from team tennis under the false premise that they will reach higher levels by only playing USTA ranking tournaments, and receiving more private lessons. Parents never learn the proper value of team tennis, as it is not supported by most of the academies, and therefore the parents fail to support it.

Team tennis is the absolute best vehicle for the early part of the development of kids, which is the “romantic stage” from ages 5-12. It fosters community, friendship, team building, and learning to win and lose. These are the stages of development that coaches fail to explain to parents:

* Stage 1 — ages 5-12 (Romantic — make kids love the game)
* Stage 2 — ages 12-16 (Technical — give them solid skills)
* Stage 3  — ages 16 + (Competitive — prepare them for high levels of achievement)

If you bypass these stages or accelerate them, you are increasing the odds of the child quitting and leaving the sport all together, or getting hurt. Consider that for those kids that may be slower in the skill-acquisition area, competing in team tennis is a perfect set-up to compete in middle school and high school, and to improve the participation numbers in the sport for the benefit of all.

Of course there are a few kids who are indeed extraordinary, and this model does not apply to them. Those are the stars who have maybe a chance at being professionals, but those odds are even more unattainable.

So, let’s not focus on those elite players, and talk about my friends’ kid (who is part of the original 2.2 million), who has now left team tennis. The trip to sectionals won’t happen, the doubles clinics won’t be attended, led by a dad who loves tennis. The friendships of tennis-loving kids will be strained, and the opportunity to lead the team as the most skilled player will have been taken away.

Now she will be training forehands and backhands day and night, and spend weekends trying to improve rankings, only to find that the price of doing so is giving away the fun.

In team tennis she enjoyed socializing and getting meals with the team after a win or a loss. The coaches teach parents that USTA tournaments and team tennis are not mutually exclusive. When the kids get older and get their first job, they will learn the value of leadership, of being on a team, of needing to help, of carrying more than ones weight. They will learn that team tennis has taught them that and more.

They will learn and know how to be cooperative, able, willing and to be a contributor. They will learn that those skills are so needed in the marketplace, and if you come to work with them they will have an advantage over the rest of their colleagues. That resilience that she used to bring to court would be so much valued at work in any project. The ability to help others less skilled or less educated will come in so handy when managing people, and all that she learned in team tennis. If by any chance this friend does get to college, those team tennis skills will be so valuable in bonding with the team and facing similar situations as we once did as a team.

Parents and coaches, please understand the benefits of team tennis — it is not about the rankings, it is not about the wins and losses, it is about the 1.8 million tennis lovers left behind — the fans that tennis will no longer have, the consumers that the tennis industry loses, the customers that all of you coaches will never coach. The future citizens, moms and dads who value sports and are active adults. Team tennis is so much more than tennis.

Maybe my friends’ kids will come back, maybe not. As long as I managed to persuade a couple of you, we can make up for the loss.  We need to focus on where the future of the sport is, and it is not in one or two champions who may or may not win anything (let’s remember it has been 13 years since America had a No. 1). The future of tennis is in lots of us playing for a very long time.

Support team tennis, it is what we need as a community, at the right time in the kids’ lives, as citizens of this great country we all love. Give it a shot, you will be glad. I promise.