Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Friday, May 03, 2013

10 & Under Tennis and Burnout

I just got off the phone with a friend whose son played in a 10 & under tournament last weekend. The club had a ping pong table, but his son couldn't find anyone to play ping pong with him. The parents didn't want their children to waste their energy.

It dawned on me that we may be making a huge mistake in pumping up 10 & under tennis in the US. The goal of starting kids earlier is twofold, I think. First is the idea that if you get a kid to start playing tennis early that kid will stick with the game for life. The second goal is that we will have way more kids playing tennis so we will have a much greater pool from which future world champions will emerge.

The second goal seems reasonable (to the extent that anyone knows anything about producing world champions it seems logical that more players will give you a better chance), but I'm afraid that getting kids started earlier in tennis may REDUCE the number of tennis players at a later date. Why? Burnout.

Why would kids burn out on tennis? Parents, mainly. But tennis itself is a pretty rough sport mentally and emotionally. Add to that the effect of hyper parenting in the US and you have a recipe for a bad tennis experience for little Johnny and Suzie.

I didn't start playing tennis seriously until I was twelve years old. By the time I was twenty I was thoroughly sick of the game. And my parents were not problem tennis parents. They let me do my thing and I loved the time I spent hanging with my friends, traveling, messing around and playing junior tennis. Yet the game still beat the crap out of me mentally.

Combine the difficult nature of the game with the helicopter parents always at the sides of Johnny and Suzie, telling them to stretch, to stay out of the sun, to avoid playing ping pong or basketball or soccer or mini tennis with friends between matches, to eat the right foods (whatever the heck those are) and on and on. Then put yourself in that car ride on the way home from the tournament, a car ride where mom and or dad pound on the kid over and over about the kids failures. Good grief.

No, I think that starting later may be the better formula for increasing the numbers of lifelong tennis players. There's only so much abuse a young person can take. And tennis and especially tennis parents dish out a lot of abuse. Probably more than little kids can handle.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Percentage Tennis

Let's put some numbers to some categories of shots that players hit in tennis points. I'll divide shots into five categories:

1. Defense
2. Neutral / Rally
3. Forcing
4. Attacking
5. Finishing

I'm going to skip the first category, defense, for now. A defensive shot in this context is a ball that you hit when you're in deep trouble. These include defensive lobs, sliced forehands and backhands from off the court, returns of very good, well-directed first serves, etc. I don't think I can put a realistic percentage of these balls since so much depends upon the incoming shot.

So focusing on neutral, forcing, attacking and finishing shots, what percentage of these shots should a player make?

The most probable shots to make should be the neutral/rally shots and the finishing shots. Neutral balls are those that players hit when both players are in good court position, striking shots with the intent of keeping the opponent from hurting them. Missing more than one out of a hundred of these balls is unacceptable for good tennis players. So the neutral ball success rate must exceed 99%. Finishing shots are shots struck from a position in the court where it is very unlikely that the opponent will be able to get the ball back, almost exclusively high volleys and overhead smashes from the service line and in. I'm going to put a minimum success rate of 95% on these shots.  You can't win if you let your opponent escape certain death more than a few times out of one hundred.

In order to succeed in tennis, you simply must be able to make these neutral and finishing shots almost all the time.

Moving on to a forcing ball, the success probability necessarily drops. These are shots that are struck with the intent of gaining an advantage in a point. Players strike these balls with higher speed, lower trajectory and closer to the lines. Because of all these factors, players will miss these shots more often than neutral/rally balls which are not struck so hard, so low, nor so close to the lines. However, no player will be successful with a high error rate on these shots. Forcing shots must be consistently hit in the court or obviously no advantage will be gained. I think a 90-95% success rate is the goal on these shots.

Finally we have attacking shots. These are really the kill shots of modern tennis. They are usually struck from inside the baseline with the player's stronger side. These shots must hurt the opponent severely, if they are not outright winners. Often these shots are struck after strong first serves or after a series of forcing shots that leave the opponent off court after a weak reply. These shots will be missed more often than forcing shots, but not so often that a player throws away the advantage gained. The lowest I would accept for these shots would be 85%, but I think 90% is more like it. So, the range on these is 85-90%.

So, here are my summaries for percentage tennis:

Neutral/ Rally balls: 99%+
Forcing balls: 90-95%
Attacking balls: 85-90%
Finishing balls: 95%