According to the most recent Gallup poll, tennis is not a favorite amongst sports-watchers. Which does contribute to a decline in youth seeking out the sport due to the lack of exposure. But there are many other factors why today’s youth avoid tennis.
Youth tennis is a transformational sport for juniors. I believe that if you can become a great tennis player, you can do anything in life. Which is why I coach and train. The rewards are great. But with any profound reward comes great challenges for families and players. Here are 10 reasons why tennis isn’t more popular with youth. Hint: it’s difficult. Similarly, all things truly worth doing are. Also, note: this article is written from a regional point of view (midwest, Northern Indiana, USA), so in other locations these points will likely vary. Such as cost and opportunities.
(1) Youth Tennis Cost
In my first year coaching high school girls tennis, not a single member of my roster could afford to go to the tennis club I taught in. Around the midwest, particularly in winter, there are no other viable options than to get a membership ($300-$800 per year) to a local racquet club, then pay for court time ($20-$30 per hr.), and group drills ($15-$25 per hour), and private lessons ($40-$75 per hour), and…(well, you get where I’m going with this). I almost forgot to mention the most important cost which is USTA tournament cost ($40-$80 per tournament). Those combined costs may be worth it to an athlete set on a D1 scholarship. But for 99% of other players, it’s not realistic.
(2) Psychological Demands
Youth tennis can be exhausting mentally. The proper mentality to be a great player is a big key to having success in this sport. It is oftentimes brutal for younger athletes who aren’t mature enough to accept the need to acquire this and grow into mentally tough adversaries on the court.
(3) Independence Needed, Not A Social-Team Experience
To do what’s needed to become an elite youth tennis player is far from a social experience. In fact, social butterflies generally have a lifespan in the sport similar to actual butterflies (about a month). Which is the real problem in growing high school tennis teams, particularly on the girls’ side. The lure of wearing cute skirts and hanging out with BFFs might be attractive enough to get them involved. It’s also usually what spits them out in the end.
(4) Specialization Requirements / Sacrifice Needed
So you want to continue your tennis career past high school? Shoot to get a sports scholarship? Ok, so step one is to quit every other sport you’re involved in by age 12. That’s a tough choice to make for an uncertain outcome. While there are anomalies with late bloomers getting tennis scholarships and going pro (like John Isner), there are no naturals in tennis. I’m sure Isner would be the first to tell you he didn’t pick up a racquet and start serving 140 mph. Plus, he’s 6’10” which definitely helps beat the odds! 😉
(5) Degree of Difficulty
If you don’t understand how difficult the sport of tennis really is, consider this! I was a baseball player in my youth. It remains one of my favorite sports, but in comparison to tennis, baseball is simplistic and easy. The strike zone laid out in baseball extends a total of 17 inches across the width of home plate, between the hitter’s knee and midsection and covering the entire depth of the plate. A pitcher throws either a ball or strike, a hitter waits and swings if the ball is in their zone. Your strike zone in tennis maybe similar, but it’s randomly dispersed within a singles court which measures 27′ x 39′ and you have a split second to react to find your batter’s box…or else it’s a strike (against you).
(6) Slow Development of Skills
Tennis remains one of the slowest growth sports from a skills standpoint. As a trainer, I tell serious parents and players that patience is key because there are no overnight success stories. Training lasts years and there are three phases to it. There is a beginning stage where players must work to master the skills needed (sending and receiving, hand-eye coordination, balance, agility, quickness, etc.). There is a training stage where mechanical and technical issues are worked on with swing paths and movements. Finally the mental/strategic stage where players must then learn how to compete and win (or else their skill set formed in the first two phases really doesn’t matter all that much).
(7) Limited Opportunities In Youth Tennis Programs
If the cost wasn’t a barrier, finding a good youth tennis trainer or club might be. For instance, many clubs here in the midwest are closing their doors, changing their business models and eliminating tennis activities. It’s just not profitable and they’re ultimately a business in the end. Tennis is an individual sport and the best success stories stem from players getting individual attention and training. With those opportunities dwindling, this becomes troublesome for developing the next generation of elite players.
(8) Customized Fitness Required
Being physically fit and tennis-fit are not the same. Above all, tennis requires a specialized set of exercises and weight training to maximize performance while other sports you can get away with the standard everyday workouts alone. Cardio and general gym exercises do not necessarily promote better tennis performance. Tennis conditioning is about quickness and short bursts of speed and agility. Marathon runners oftentimes are winded and dismantled after 4-5 games of a competitive set of tennis. Therefore, our 10s Strength & Conditioning Course has very little cardio to it. Instead, strengthening key areas of arms, shoulders, legs and core as well as other exercises are key to becoming tennis-fit. Most exercises focus on building quick bursts of speed and energy you need to simulate real-time match play situations.
(9) Insatiable Work Ethic Needed
Very few youth tennis players develop the proper work ethic to acquire the repetitions needed to master groundstrokes and serves let alone other areas of play. There is no magic number of practice forehand shots a player needs before his or her forehand gets better. My standard answer when asked by players about how many reps they need to improve will always be 100 more. There are few things more important in the sport of tennis than practicing your serve, and coincidentally this is also one of the most boring things to do in any sport, in my opinion. Give me a basketball and I’ll gladly shoot 100 free throws each day over 100 serves in tennis. Passionate, driven and willing to sacrifice are essential qualities in becoming a great tennis player. There are no shortcuts.
(10) Early Initiation Requirements
I once joked with a parent when asked about the age they should have introduced the sport of tennis to their youth. “As soon as the umbilical cord was cut!” was my response. They laughed as I was only kidding. Of course they could’ve delayed it till the second month with a wind-up mobile adorned with racquets, balls and nets spinning over their crib. Or wait a few more months and get them a racquet-shaped rattle or a Fathead Roger Federer (a “Fed-Head”) wall graphic mounted front and center in their bedroom.
SUMMATION, OR WHY EVEN TRY YOUTH TENNIS?
So now you’re thinking that a youth tennis path sounds like a daunting task to take on and you’re probably asking, “Coach Staley, why should I even try? Why did you?”
Tennis is one sport that prepares youth thoroughly for success in life. I’ve seen so many players positively grow within this sport. It demands courage, dedication, a sound work ethic, fierce independence, mental fortitude and everything else you’ll need for your career ahead. Whether that’s in the tennis field or not. Many of my past players are now in various careers, but tennis is still a part of their lives. It’s a life-sport, one that continues to build character throughout and an activity that is fun, engaging and serves as an essential physical activity as you age. And dare I say more social?
Also, consider this: worldwide, tennis players are some of the most respected athletes on the planet. Personally, I have a much higher level of respect for anyone who plays this sport competitively. Knowing the challenges players face to beat the odds, it’s no wonder why tennis communities all over the world admire and respect their players to such a high degree. Youth tennis players can’t hide behind a team in the heat of competition; they have to continually muster the courage to face down their opposition in a lined arena/court, take part in a highly skilled and demanding sport, all in the pursuit of achieving something few others can even understand.
Shane Staley is the founder of Staley Tennis and a USPTA-certified trainer, Accredited Professional Coach and instructor.