Assessment at a Young Age Could Save Your Child’s Tennis

This article was prompted by an increasing number of parents over the years contacting me for a truthful assessment of their child’s tennis. It is not so easy to receive the truth for some so I am here to give you the truth.

Picture of Todd Widom

Todd Widom

Many parents get very excited when their 12 or 14 year old is obtaining excellent results. Does it mean that the child will go on to do great things in tennis? Maybe, but in many cases the real answer is no.

The strategy of spending money is easy, because as long as your child is winning everyone is happy. However, you may not be so happy in the later stages of your child’s junior career when they need to peak to get into a great school.

The essence of what I am getting at is if you think your child is having great results, be prepared that you are going to keep investing in his or her playing career. The issue is that you want your child to peak when he or she is 16 to 18 years old and what you must face is the reality that your child is going to require the necessary tools to attend a great university or maybe play professional tennis.

Just because your child is winning, does not mean that they have the necessary foundation and tools to play great tennis in their last couple of years of junior tennis, which is when it matters most.

The younger divisions of junior tennis are for learning and developing your game for when you are older. What parents must understand, is that your child should be learning how to train, compete, construct points, have a great attitude, and be mentally prepared. There is no time to be trying various strategies, or going from academy to academy. You will lose precious time and no child has that luxury. Certainly, if an academy or coach is not working out then a change is required, but due diligence and research is required to find the right coach.

When a person gets an opinion from a doctor that they need surgery, they should get a second opinion. The same holds true in tennis.

When a student is looking for a new coach or to improve on something in their game, they should interview coaches, obtain a second opinion, and select the one they feel like will get them to the best place in their game.

In addition, when your child is figuring out what college they would like to attend, they should have a list of schools, research them and visit them. I counsel many kids and their parents on these issues. You are making a financial investment in your child’s tennis, and your child is making a commitment to tennis. In addition, the coach is making an investment in your child and their tennis career.

What I keep seeing over and over again are junior tennis players not peaking from sixteen to eighteen years old and this is not only a very significant problem, but this is also a costly mistake the parents absorb financially and the player absorbs physically, mentally and educationally. Even though each case is different, what I can tell you is that the majority of kids do not have the solid foundation required to play at higher levels of tennis.

As a coach, mentor, friend, and teacher to my students, I make sure that all aspects of what creates a strong and solid foundation are set into motion from day one. This is the only way I know how to do it, and I am not merely a coach.

My business actually started this way as parents were panicking that they have spent all this time, effort and money, and at the most important juncture of their child’s junior tennis career, their child is faltering, their foundation is cracking and their dreams are quickly dissolving into thin air.

Do yourself a favor and get your child assessed by someone experienced so that you will save yourself major headaches in the upcoming years.

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Our Kids Need More Opportunities to Play    

This week I saw an article that stated that 32% of college scholarships go to foreign students, when I saw that I can’t hide that anger was my first reaction.

Picture of Javier Palenque

Javier Palenque

How can that be? We have fewer kids playing tennis here, attrition rates that are atrocious (double digits), a great market for continued play at the college level and 1/3 of the slots go to people who don’t live here in our country?

Image our normal Miami neighborhood, great city warm weather all year, sunny almost every day for every 10000 kids that we have only 200 play tennis, of the 200 after a few years we will lose 75% of them due to the cost and tennis structure of the game that means we will have only 50 kids left. Of the 50 left the odds of them playing DI or DII tennis are 2.4% (see stats). Ok from our original 200 pool of kids only 5 will play college tennis? In essence we lose 195 out of 200. For those interested in the math we lose 97.5% of our kids to go to the college level.

This seems unreal, how can we lose 97.5% of our kids and foreigners get to take 32% of the college slots?

That in essence means that for every 4.5 men’s college scholarship 1.5 goes to someone overseas and for the women of the 8 available approximately 3 go to someone foreign. This is madness, at this rate the sport will cease to exist.
Now, let’s look at the scholarships:

As you can see only DI and DII offer scholarships yet there are plenty of DIII opportunities to grow the game: 

From my point of view as a dad and defacto coach, losing 2800 college spots (DI and DII) to foreigners is unacceptable.

As throughout the years we know many kids that could have easily earned one of those slots and quit the game in the process. Another way to look at the 2800 lost slots is split them in age groups 12U, 14U, 16U and 18U (2800/4 =700) that would mean 700 slots per age groups that we are giving up.

You mean to tell me that if you are among the 700 kids in each age group we as a country lose you and those spots go to foreigners? Why do we lose you again? To even further top that off, DIII can offer 2288 slots for further college play that go to foreigners, why do we accept this?

SO MANY KIDS CAN GO to DIII sports if they stuck to tennis. Imagine a 512 draw in each category (12’, 14…) each one of those kids should be on a path to a scholarship and still have plenty of room for the foreigners. Fact is there is never a 512 person draw in any category. Why do we lose them?

For coaches: How can we accept that we lose so many kids? Those kids are your customers, those kids children will be your customers. GROWING THE GAME HAS TO BE PRIORITY #1.

For kids: Demand more playing opportunities through your parents, tennis is supposed to be FUN, not a bore. It has to be where you compete daily and weekly and have fun in weekends and play and play.

For parents: Educate yourselves, learn what mistakes to avoid, follow blogs, talk to other parents, start thinking in terms of a TEAM not your kid alone.

For USTA and its leadership you cannot look at these numbers year after year and continue with the same competitive structure that reduces the pool of people? We are losing our kids, our playing opportunities, our game. Am I the only one that sees this? Then we wonder why we don’t have kids that exceed at the sport at a world class level?. I will tell you why:

  1. Because we do not work together, parents, kids, coaches and the USTA
  2. Parents education for the sport is nonexistent, yet USTA has no programs for them.
  3. Coaches education is random at best. FIX IT!!!
  4. USTA tournament structure is from the past not adjusted to the reality ( remember Blockbuster video?)
  5. USTA fails to understand who its customer is? it is the parents ALL parents not those small number who believe their kids will be pros. They will not and you know it.
  6. It is simply too expensive.
  7. USTA player development #1 mission should be to grow the game for ALL, not search for the next FEDERER. Simply because champions are built with small family TEAMS. No federation can build a top player. NONE.
  8. Tennis is a team sport played individually, why don’t people understand this?

As more tennis programs in college will be cut given these numbers, then the playing opportunities will further decline. Accepting this outlook for our sport and our kids without doing something is insane, irresponsible and malpractice to our sport, our youth and their opportunities.

We need to grow the game for our kids, their youth and our country. USTA where are you? Where is the vision for the future. Key Biscayne has 26 courts, 2 red clay, 4 green clay, 18 hard courts, it used to be the USTA training center a few years back. Most of the courts are empty most of the time.

Having built in Orlando a facility 4 times bigger or 100 courts in Orlando that are used 15% of the time or less sounds good if you can make it work with 85% of the time being empty. I am sorry, I rather have more kids playing day in and day out at every park, school and weekend tournament.

I want the USTA to call for a summit to save tennis where parents, coaches and the leadership can LISTEN what other ideas are needed. Personally I rather see more kids not quitting the sport, and certainly want to see more US kids playing college tennis.

Who reading this does not agree with that?

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Athletes: Don’t Be a Comfort Seeker!

Definition: A comfort seeker is an athlete/player who would rather be guided/coached by someone who tells them what they WANT to hear, instead of what they NEED to hear.

Picture of Allistair McCaw

Allistair McCaw

They fear hard work. They fear the truth. They seek the ‘easy’ coaches, and avoid the ones who will challenge them and push them to do better.

It’s also easy to tell who the comfort seekers are. They’re the ones who make excuses and complain when you demand excellence from them. They play the victim. They will blame and often keep changing coaches. You will also hear them go on about how unfair life is. They will complain about the results they didn’t get – The same ones they didn’t work hard enough for!

Athletes, a few words of advice here:

Find a coach who tells you the truth and tells you what you NEED to hear. Build some grit, learn how to accept the hard criticism and get yourself disciplined. Stop seeking ‘easy’.

Stop looking for the ‘short cuts’. The world is full of ‘Yes people’. Avoid them! Because they won’t get you to where you want to go.

If your coach is hard (but fair) on you – then stick with it. Lucky you! – It means they actually care about you.

Believe me, you will thank them one day! These people don’t come around very often in life. Endure it, build some grit.

Stop looking for the next comfort seeker coach! – Man up (or woman up!)

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Injury – Catastrophe or Blessing?

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Marcin Bieniek

Sport is beautiful. Every person who participates in sport can confirm that. Hundreds of hours spent on being better than our yesterday’s version, tens of spectacular wins, many sad evenings after tough losses and several moments when in doubts according to our athletic future. Tennis has it all. Beautiful moments and depressing situations. One of the things than is included in all tennis players’ careers is injury. For some it is a catastrophe, for others it is a blessing.

Injury. Nightmare of many athletes. We know a lot of examples from the history of sport when injury was responsible for the end of promising career. We are also aware of numerous examples of people who become injured and didn’t achieve their potential.

The easiest example from tennis world is Rafael Nadal. Who knows what he could achieve if he couldn’t have serious problems with his feet and knees? Serena Williams is next. Accident with broken glass and hidden sickness were reasons why she had to stop her glorious career. Eugenie Bouchard? Slippery floor and serious problems that were dangerous not only for her athletic path but more importantly for her life. Looking at these examples we can see that all athletes are prone to get injured so it is important to know what to do when it happens to us.

You can do a lot to prevent injuries but you can’t be sure that you won’t get it. There are a lot of reasons why athletes have forced breaks. Some of the reasons are totally dependent on player’s actions while others can be categorized as „bad luck” situations. Learning from others’ accidents, analyzing own activities and thinking ahead are actions that serious players should consider to make own career injury-free as much as possible.

If you have car accident and the other driver is responsible for the crash there is nothing you can do about it. Just a bad luck. On the other hand if you run near the outdoor pool and you slip then injury is 100% your fault. That is why it is crucial to teach players how to be responsible for own actions and make them aware that one little moment of carelessness can ruin all the work and put your dreams on hold.

As the title of this article says injury can be catastrophe or blessing. It all depends on your approach. If you know how to deal with this situation and use this time to your advantage you will be thankful for that. Yes that’s true. A lot of people come stronger after injury and achieve much better results than before the break. On the other hand if all you do while being injured is to be sad and complain how unlucky you are I can guarantee that injury will be catastrophe that can make you closer to give up and end athletic career.

The ways to deal with injury as champions do:

 1. Understand why you get injured

There are two types of injuries: chronic and acute. Chronic injuries happen over long period of time and are caused of many micro injuries. For example if you practice too many hours at the young age and your body is not strong enough to deal with these workloads after few years you can get injured. On the other hand if you run to the drop shot and your foot stops immediately during the run you can twist or even break your ankle.

That is a typical example of an acute injury. To make injury a blessing you have to understand the reason of your current situation and make conscious changes in the future. Experienced players learn from their injuries and change volume of practice sessions, eating habits or put more effort into fitness workouts to make sure that injury doesn’t happen again.

 2. Improve others areas (not less important)

Competitive athletes don’t have much time for themselves. If they want to be the best they can they have to put a lot of work every day. Typical day for a serious tennis player looks like this:

Wake up – Breakfast – Morning tennis practice – Gym session – Lunch – 2-3 hours break – Afternoon tennis practice – Stretching session/Massage – Dinner – Bed time

It is not difficult to see that there is no much time left. That is why when player gets injured   he has a lot of time to accommodate and it is necessary to use it effectively. We all know that tennis is a mental sport but still we don’t practice enough mental skills to improve our results and get advantage over opponents.

Few sets of visualization is a great move while not being able to hit balls for several days or weeks. Watching tennis matches is another example. A lot of juniors want to become professionals but they don’t learn from them. If you stay all day at your home make sure you watch tennis matches and take as many lessons   from it as you can.

 3. Rest

Recovery is as important as work. Many athletes and coaches forget about this. Tennis players have tough live because there is really no off-season for them. 12 months of constant rivalry make it possible only for 7-14 days of vacation to charge your battery and come back to the race for points.

When you get injured make sure you get some improvement but don’t do too much to yourself. Passive time is great for your body and mind to get some fresh feeling and come back after injury with double motivation and more positive approach.

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The Relevance of College Rankings  

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David Mullins

Last month I asked if the Coach matters when deciding where to take your tennis talents. This month I am turning my attention to college rankings, and asking if they should hold any relevance when making a final college decision.

Whenever I peek at Facebook, there is some coach posting their teams current ranking, and milking it for every bit of publicity they can get. Settle down Coaches, I did the same thing too! These posts get lots of those wide open mouthed emoji responses and will lead to a nice write up in their college newspaper, but what value do these rankings hold when it comes to deciding which college to choose?

I found that many college prospects not only pay too much attention to their I-phones, but also to the ITA college rankings! They often start and finish their college recruiting process based on these numbers, but what do these numbers mean?

I have no data to back this up, but my experience is that those players fortunate to visit several colleges and hold more than one offer at the same time will typically select the team that is ranked the highest when the signing period is bearing down upon them.

Rankings are an extremely poor indicator as to how a prospect’s experience is going to unfold over their four-year playing career

The college rankings change constantly, especially over the course of a season. One team may possess a high ranking to start a season but have recently lost several key players to graduation. Their ranking is weighed heavily upon their previous year’s performance. I have witnessed teams, including my own, drop from a top 20 ranking in January to outside the top 75 by the end of February.

It is very natural to want to back the winning horse. Children grow up supporting the team that is dominating a sport they like during their formative years. Kids in New York are walking around in Golden State Warrior shirts, and children down in Southampton are wearing Leicester City Jerseys! It is nice to have bragging rights when it comes to supporting a team, but is not particularly important when it comes to playing for one.

There is more depth in the college game now more than ever before

Small margins separate teams from around #15 – #75. The ITA are publicly publishing the top 50 rankings rather than the top 75, which they have done in the past. I believe long term they will move to publishing just the top 25 (which they are doing at the commencement of the college tennis season) to fall in line with the ranking models of most other college sports.

Personally, I believe this is a great initiative as every program ranked outside the top 25 can claim to be number 26! Every coach from number 26 to 247 will be telling you that they are knocking on the door of the top 25! My personal hope is that this will allow prospects to focus less attention on the college rankings, and get down to the details that are superior predictors for their future college tennis experience.

Here is a scenario that occurs too often. Super future prospect, let’s call her Annie, has four scholarship offers. Annie has narrowed her decision down to two colleges. One is ranked # 23 while the other is ranked # 49. Deep down Annie knows that the team ranked # 49 is the better fit for her, but she wants to be able to tell her friends, family and peers that she is going to the # 23 college in the country. She would be a little embarrassed to tell people that she has accepted a scholarship offer to a program that is only ranked # 49, especially when she was perceived to have a “better offer.” Oh, the shame of it!

When I began my head coaching tenure at the University of Oklahoma, the team was not ranked, within three years we were in the top 25. A few of the recruits that would not come to OU when I first started were now on teams that we were beating, and ranked much lower than when they arrived at their college of choice.

A lot can change in the time between your commitment to a program and your arrival there, and don’t forget that teams can be decimated by injuries, compliance issues, academic problems and many other uncontrollable issues that destroy their chances of having a good ranking in any given year.

There are more than a handful of Universities at the Division I level that are going to be in and around the top 20 in the national rankings every year despite who they have as their head coach. They have massive built-in advantages such as location, academic prestige, winning tradition and scholarship options. These coaches are selecting players rather than recruiting, and have a small, predetermined pool of players from which they will select each year.

It is tremendous to see some interruption to this party in recent years, with the likes of Ohio State and Oklahoma State disrupting the status quo on the women’s side and Oklahoma mixing things up on the men’s side. I hope this trend endures, and there continues to be more homogeneity between teams, more potential for upsets and an even more exciting game. For right now, there are many fantastic programs, led by truly dynamic coaches, that are not able to get a foothold into the higher echelons of the rankings for any number of reasons.

College rankings are reasonably good indicators for recruits as to the likely future success and placement of a team

Similarly, college rankings can be a good indicator for college coaches when selecting a recruit. It is not a terrible way to start your college recruitment process, but you need to give it a large scope and not allow it to be the final determining factor as to where you want to attend. You probably don’t want a coach offering a scholarship to some player that has a slightly higher ranking than yourself, even though you believe yourself to be a better player.

Take some time to think about your college choices, what you want in a coach, a team, a location. Recognize that there is always more than what you see on the surface. Think deeply about what your daily life will look like in a college setting, and how YOU want it to look. Don’t get caught up in the hype or making a decision you are expected to make because of your ranking or success as a student or player. Do your homework and be true to yourself.

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