Junior tennis: when is the best time to begin training? Parents ask this question a lot. And the answer to this question I feel will continually evolve the longer I coach and the more experiences I have with different types of junior athletes. There’s no way to answer that question universally; the answer to that question can be as unique as any individual.
The biggest issue I see is junior tennis not being introduced early enough. When I came to this area the majority of athletes at the high school level were just beginning to play tennis. When this happens, it’s an uphill battle for them to compete in any good conference.
It’s also very difficult when a student-athlete develops a passion for the sport and wishes to pursue their career into college at a division 1 school. The chances of someone just learning the sport at age 15-16 and getting a D1 scholarship to play are very slim. I won’t say impossible. Because there’s an exception to every rule. But it would take passion, drive, athleticism and an insatiable work ethic for the player to develop the skills and mental toughness in such a short span of time to compete with the best collegiate tennis players in the world.
And when I say ‘the world’, that’s not overstating it. Most D1 schools recruit throughout the world.
I’ve broken down 3 age groups that detail what I like to set up for most players as a general training plan. Now, as stated earlier, there are exceptions to every rule. There are children out there that peak at different times. Some 7 and 8-year-olds are naturally drawn to the sport. They are willing to commit much earlier to the training process than most.
Ages 10 & Under (Initiation)
I believe the key to tennis is early initiation. Tennis is an early initiation sport and a late specialization sport. Getting a racquet in a child’s hands at ages 5-6 and working on sending and receiving skills, hand-eye coordination, and agility among other things can help build them to be competitive in the sport at a much earlier age. But at 10 & under, there’s more of an emphasis on development and not competition.
Best Methods: Group Drills. Why, because tennis is quite often a tedious sport to train. Repetitions are needed that this age group doesn’t have the attention spans to focus upon. It’s also a very social stage in a child’s life. So learning with peers is oftentimes preferred over one-on-one time with a coach or trainer. A great resource for 10U tennis can be found at Net Generation.
Check out our Junior Pathway for opportunities…
Each year we also work with the Lakeland Youth Center to organize and run their summer tennis camp. Check out our LYC program page for details and updates.
At this stage in junior tennis, it’s best to develop players’ skills who have experienced 10-and-under tennis. This phase is the introduction to competition. Mental toughness and being effective in match play is oftentimes a long journey. It takes a lot of experience before becoming a solid competitor. Introduction to USTA junior tennis programs, leagues and tournaments are essential. This is also the stage where private lessons, to hone their skills and get repetitions, should be introduced.
Best Methods: Group Drills, Occasional Private Lessons, Limited Competition. This age range is often the bridge from tennis being merely a social activity to the development of the competitive player.
Ages 15-18 (Specialization)
Now we’re at the high school stage where competition is important. They will be continuously playing challenge matches to get seeded on their teams, play in conference and non-conference matches. Results now matter.
If there’s any desire to continue their playing careers in college, a player must develop not only the necessary skillset, but the mental toughness through competition. USTA tournament are a must. College recruiters will want to know results outside of high school matches—and most now look to UTR for results).
Playing practice sets offseason is a must. Private sessions with coaches and trainers are needed. While many teenagers are social beings, limiting a player to group drills at this phase can negatively impact them in competition. Competition is not a social event; in tennis it’s a very individual act. At this phase the relationship between player and coach/trainer becomes extremely important.
If tennis becomes a passion with a serious intent to extend competitive play past junior tennis circuits, into D1/D2 college levels, specializations generally needs to occur. The sport needs to become a bigger priority which is oftentimes problematic for multiple-sport athletes. If they extensively compete and train in other sports, this may build their athleticism and general skills, but can also detract from the formation of a successful competitive player. Tennis is an unforgiving sport where skimping on practice, competition and training dramatically effect future results and growth. And since tennis is an individual sport, the spotlight on these diminished results can be burdensome on athletes. (You can hide behind poor performances and still come out a winner in team sports; tennis: not so much—it’s all on you!)
Best Methods: Private Training / Lessons, More extensive competition. I always recommend that for every hour a player spends in training, they should at least spend that much time involved in a competitive event. Training with a coach or trainer will get the player the necessary repetitions. Also this will help to refine technique. But it won’t develop mental toughness needed to win matches at a high level unless complemented with competition.
Note: These are general guidelines I’ve set for area families who want my opinion when it comes to junior tennis development and the building of a competitive athlete. But so many factors will influence this including (but not limited to) personality of the player, their athleticism and support networks. As a rule of thumb, it’s best to use these guidelines to start and adjust as needed as each individual is unique and will develop at different paces.
Shane Staley is the founder of Staley Tennis and a USPTA-certified trainer, Accredited Professional Coach and instructor.