There are many moments in a junior tennis player’s career that are of vital importance. The transition between under 12’s and under 14’s is one of those. During this period there are many obstacles that need to be overcome if the player is to succeed. Some factors that immediately come to mind are things like a great work ethic, dedication, the physical/mental maturation of the individual and a willingness to compete.
At this point choosing the right coach becomes pivotal. This is where correct habits and routines are most easily built and the child’s game should be worked on from both a technical and psychological standpoint. The coaches most important job is to balance expectations, both parental and from the player themselves while keeping the junior engaged, eager to work and on the right progression.
I grew up playing tennis in Vancouver, Canada. I was a solid junior in the 12’s but never at the top of the rankings due to the fact that I had an aggressive nature and thus adopted that game style as well. As most young juniors with a game style they have not grown into yet I lost many matches to players who were steadier than I was. I had many doubts as to whether I was moving in the right direction with my game. I remember the transition from 12’s to 14’s as being the most difficult one as far as juniors are concerned. There were lots of kids who had matured physically much earlier than me and were already a foot and a half taller.
With my lanky stature and less than overwhelming power the 14s seemed daunting at best. My parents, both smart individuals, saw the struggles I was having and decided that perhaps a coaching change would be good for me. I switched coaches a few times the year I turned 13 but it was difficult to find the right fit. Each time it seemed as if the same issues surfaced; the coaches didn’t really care if I got better and the practices seemed arduous.
Never once did any of them come to watch tournament matches on the weekends or show interest in seeing what level the competition was playing at so as to have a better idea of what I needed to be working on. If things had stayed the same my tennis career would most likely have ended soon after that year.
Luckily for me they did not stay the same. A Russian by the name of Vadim Korkh had moved to Vancouver a few months earlier and had some success working with boys in the 16 and 18’s division. He was the only coach who showed up regularly to tournament’s and when my mother approached him to ask if he would take me on as his student he reluctantly agreed to give me a trial period. Reluctantly because he currently wasn’t and didn’t want to work with younger juniors.
This was a turning point for me for a number of reasons. First of all he instilled a great work ethic in me but at the same time made it fun and kept me interested by incorporating many different games and point situations. He understood that at 12,13 or 14 years of age working only one on one with a coach can become mundane and monotonous for even the most steadfast and dedicated young athlete.
So instead of just drilling 15 hours per week he would incorporate two weekly semi-private training sessions that would create motivation through competition. We worked on building a solid foundation for an aggressive game in the future and didn’t worry too much about loses and wins and thus didn’t forego playing tournaments because of the chance of a bad loss.
In short there was a plan for the development of my game as a whole. One of the greatest joys any young player can feel is seeing themselves work hard and improve. I improved quickly. I ended up winning many national singles and doubles titles in Canada and eventually earned a full scholarship to the University of Southern California. Today I work with a top ranked U12 boy in Florida who is currently going through this very same transition.
As a coach you must understand that every individual is different and that what worked for you may not necessarily work someone else. Any good teacher needs to have the ability to be flexible when it comes to junior players, especially in the 12-14 range. I’m hoping that some of the same principles that helped in my development as a player will work for the boy I’m working with today. At the same time if it doesn’t, I know that I am prepared to switch it up.
Every great player has some universal traits but not every player acquired them in the same way. Hard work, dedication and grit are all characteristics that can be taught, but not every player responds to a drill sergeant. Keep this in mind when choosing who will work with your little phenom.