Sunday, September 30, 2012

Rivalry, Motivation, and Tough Qualification Standards

The USTA has proposed changes to the tournament structure for 2014. I don't know the details, but the gist of it is smaller fields for national championships and more play at the sectional level.

I haven't had a strong opinion on this. I've read some of the complaints about the changes and some of the justifications for the changes. I'm beginning to side with the reductions in field sizes and the tougher qualifying standards.

I'm coming to this position after a recent discussion with a local high school tennis player. In Colorado, high school tennis is structure differently in two significant ways from the high school and college tennis that I played. First, the regions for qualifying for the state championship are not simply base upon fixed geography from year to year. Instead, the regions are balanced by strength. Two teams in Boulder, for instance, are in different regions every year because they tend to be among the better teams in the state. Second, the regional and state tournaments are flighted tournaments. Rather than competing in dual matches, one team against another, to determine regional and state champions, players qualify as individuals in three singles and four doubles positions. Points are tallied to determine team champions.

When I played high school tennis, the format was different in both those regards. The first is the most significant one for this post. In Minnesota, the high school regions were geographic. The Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area had a few regions due to the population density. Southern Minnesota was its own region. Duluth and St Cloud roughly had regions. Maybe the Iron Range had one and so did the northwestern part of the state. There were eight regions. Those regions applied to all sports.

In tennis, the metro regions, especially the region I played in, had a great many good tennis players. Yet only one team (we played duals for the team title) qualified for the state tournament. This made for fierce, quality rivalries. It also motivated us to play and practice more. If instead of just two singles players and two doubles teams making the individual state tournament every year from our region, new more balanced regions were set up allowing two, three, or four times the number of qualifiers, that would greatly reduce the struggle to get to the next level.

I think the same thing happened in our section for national tournaments in the summer. We usually only got two players into the big national tournaments (hard courts, clay courts, nationals in those days).  I was one of those two players from age fourteen to eighteen. The motivation to get to those tournaments was big when I first learned of them at age twelve. But the experience of playing in those events was far, far less valuable to me than the stress and struggles to get one of those two spots. The pressure was off at those national tournaments. I had no shot at winning those tournaments. In fact, any wins were gravy. We occasionally had players win rounds at nationals, but mostly we got beat.

But I think this system of highly competitive competition for scarce spots in higher level tournaments produced better players in Minnnesota those days than the more lax structure in Colorado and the USTA today.

So I guess I'm coming down on the side of reducing opportunities for national play being a good thing, as counter-intuitive as that may seem. I want kids to have to battle their guts out, feel disappointment, and get up and work harder to get those scarce spots in the national championships.

I don't resent rich people who take their kids around the country chasing points, looking for different and better competition for their kids. I get it. I think some of that is good.

I just think an environment that creates quality rivalries and motivates kids to get out there and beat people in their neighborhood, city, state and region before stepping up to play national tournaments produces better players.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

10-Point Tie Break

I now dislike the 10-point tie break.

When it first emerged as a replacement to the third set I thought it was a good idea. I know several tournament directors and it greatly simplified their jobs. Scheduling was much easier without the full third sets. But with all due respect to tournament directors, tennis is not about them. It's about the players.

I began to have my doubts about the match tie break about a year ago when a friend lamented the decline in physical fitness as an element in tennis due to the elimination of the third set in matches. I no longer play competitive tennis so I hadn't experienced that personally. But I do remember that when I was playing, I thought the physical element of matches was important. I always prided myself on not getting tired and knowing that my opponent may tire was always an element in competitive matches I played.

Now I'm just a coach and spectator and most of the competitive matches I see don't have the match tie-break. They are high school or college matches that only use the match tie break if the team match is already decided (which I still think is fine). So I still see the effects of physical, mental, and emotional stress that comes with third sets.

It bothers me that in smaller tournaments, and in some cases pretty big tournaments, the third sets are disappearing. The two out of three set match defines tennis, to me. The three out of five set match is the pinnacle of the game. Anything less than two out of three sets is just messing around, whether it's playing tie breaks, games to eleven, or what have you.

It's a shame that tournaments are now resembling messing around.

One final tidbit. I was curious how many points are in the average set. Stats from the 2012 US Open showed that in both men's and women's matches, the sets averaged around sixty points. Games averaged six points and sets averaged ten games. I don't know how long the average 10-point breaker is, but let's just say it's 18 points. That's about a third the points of the average set. If it's fifteen points we're down to a quarter the length of an average set. That's just too short to decide a match between equals. That's not tennis, to me.

Monday, September 03, 2012

We Don't Know

A friend was recently asked to write a piece about 10 and under tennis providing some guidance for parents introducing young kids to tennis. Since English isn't his first language, and composition isn't among his skills in any language, I ghost-wrote a piece for him. You can read it here.

But this post, below, is what I (and he) really wanted to say. We didn't think the industry newspaper would publish it, but I will publish it here.

I was asked to write a bit about ten and under tennis, provide a map for somebody starting tennis around age 5 or 6 who wants to become good at tennis. Unfortunately, there is no map. There are many routes to tennis heaven. And just as many routes to tennis hell. Anyone who tells you they know the way to tennis heaven or how you can avoid tennis hell is lying, either to themselves or to you.

I know people who love tennis and play it passionately and well. I know more people who love tennis and play it passionately and poorly.

I know people who love tennis and won grand slam championships. I know people who hated tennis and won grand slam championships. I know people who hated tennis and quit.

I know people whose parents pushed them to play and they're thankful they did. I know people whose parents pushed them to play and they quit the first chance they got.

I know poor people who've succeeded and failed, rich people who've succeeded and failed.

Tall, short, weak, strong, fast, slow, nice, mean, great competitor, choker, good coaching, no coaching, bad coaching, love tennis, hate tennis, rich, poor. What is better? There's no answer. Any of those qualities can be found among the greats, the hobbyists, and the failures.

Should you use soft balls, small courts, small racquets? We don't know.

Should you use yellow balls, big courts, big racquets? We don't know.

How much should I play, take group or private lessons? We don't know.

What's the right amount of competition? We don't know.

How should I work on mechanics? We don't know.

We. Don't. Know.

All anyone can do is tell you what worked and didn't for them and for people they know.

If you find anyone who tells you they know any of this with certainty, thank them and walk away.

Your Child Wants to Play Tennis

So you have a young child and you want that to introduce your child to tennis. How should you go about it? Private lessons? Group lessons? Tournaments? League team? If you just go play with your child should you use regular yellow balls, foam balls, red, orange, or green dot balls? Should you play on a full court or one of the smaller courts? What size racquet should your child use?

Wow. With all these questions, tennis seems like a tough sport to start! Luckily, all of the above will work out fine as you introduce your child to tennis. Sure, lower bouncing, slower balls will make tennis a bit easier at the beginning. Smaller racquets and smaller courts help, too. But you can introduce your child to tennis with old-fashioned equipment standing near to each other, either on opposite sides of a net or the same side, maybe rallying over a crack in your driveway.

Once your child can tap the ball somewhat reliably, or even before that, it's time to let them play the game, either with you or with friends. If your child enjoys playing the game, then leagues and tournaments with the 10 and Under format are wonderful introductions to competition. Your child will learn to score (sort of), serve (poorly), and play games. Your child's relative lack of skill at this stage is perfectly natural and shouldn't be an impediment to getting out and playing and enjoying tennis. We all stink at things when we start. Some of us stink for a lot longer! But the games are still fun and rewarding.

When it comes time to introduce stroke development, lessons can be helpful. Some people believe lessons should precede play, but I think you're better off getting your child hooked on tennis before you begin the sometimes tedious stroke development. A great modern tool for helping kids develop better technique is video feedback. Most kids (most animals) learn by imitation. Allow your child to see tennis played well. If you don't play well yourself, let your child watch great tennis players either in person or through video. Let your child see what high quality tennis looks like and let them try it.

If you own an iPad or iPhone, you can even let your child see what he/she looks like, at regular speed or frame-by-frame, with a cool, free application by Coach My Video (iTunes app store). Just use your iPad/iPhone to film your child hitting some shots or playing some points. Then have the child look at the video in the mobile coaching app and let the child compare what he/she sees with what he/she feels. You can even set up a professional model for side-by-side viewing. This is a great way to help kids learn better technique.

Don't let all the daunting questions slow you down. Introduce your child to the great game of tennis. If your child enjoys the experience, they'll play the game more and more and they will definitely get better over time.