Medical Considerations When Identifying Tennis Talent

I continue to publish scientific articles about a development of a good tennis player and identification of tennis talent. I strongly recommend tennis parents to read coaching and sport science review of the ITF regularly. You are a parent and this is your duty to care about your kid’s health. See the post The health of your kid is more important than their tennis ranking

This article was written by Babette Pluim, member of the ITF sport science and medical commission.

Medical considerations when identifying tennis talent

Talent has been defined as “an aptitude or ability in one direction, above the normal average”. Tennis talent identification is the process of detecting of young tennis players that have the potential/abilities to achieve success at a national or international level.

There are four important aspects that should be taken into account during the process of talent identification: technical, tactical, and mental (psychological) and physical.

Talent identification in tennis is very difficult because it is an “Open” sport, which requires constant decision making, response organization, and spatial awareness, in addition to a wide range of mental, physical, technical and tactical abilities. It is therefore much harder to determine the most important and indispensable parameters for tennis, and talent identification, in comparison to a “Closed” sport that is repetitive in nature, such as rowing, cycling, swimming or weightlifting.

Talent identification in tennis is usually the task of tennis coaches, who try to find that one player with the abilities of a champion. However, when it is undertaken by a National Association the focus is generally on players of 12 years or less, and will commonly include tests to evaluate the following characteristics:

  • Tennis skills – technical and tactical.
  • Physical capacities – running, jumping, throwing, catching, co-ordination, speed, agility, power, flexibility, and endurance.
  • Psychological abilities – mental strength and weaknesses, concentration, emotional control.

Are medical tests useful for talent identification, and if so, which tests?  

The answer to the above question is that they generally do not play an important role in the selection of talented players. Preparticipation medical examinations are carried out by many National Associations because they provide useful information which can be used to guide the training process and identify possible problem areas (e.g. muscle imbalance, postural disorders, leg length discrepancy, anemia, asthma, unhealthy diet) at an early stage, in order to correct and/or treat the problem and help reduce injury risk.

The standardized preparticipation examination performed by a medical doctor may include the following areas: Ear, nose, and throat; Skin, Cardiovascular; Chest; Spirometry (Lung capacity); Abdomen; Excessive joint mobility or hypermobility; Neurological examination; Tanner stages of development; Pathology; and Marfanoid feature. It is important to remember that someone with asthma can become a great tennis player and a player with knock knees, inlays and unstable ankles can still become a Wimbledon Champion. Therefore, the results of a medical/physical examination are not very useful for predicting a future champion.

What about height?

Height is generally considered an advantage in tennis, but caution should be exercised before using it as a selection criterion. Obvious examples that demonstrate that height is not a limiting factor in relation to performance are Olivier Rochus (165 cm, highest ATP ranking 30) and Amanda Coetzer (158 cm, highest WTA ranking 3). Additionally, the younger the player is, the greater the margin of error of the height prediction with the average error for children under 12 being +/- 10 cm.

One of the limitations in the prediction of adult height is the need to account for an individual’s biological maturity at the time of the measurement. Early maturing individuals are obviously closer to their adult height than, average and late maturing individuals of the same chronological age. An x-ray of the wrist can be used to determine skeletal age, but this does not solve the problem in very young players.

Isner and Federer 1 - Medical Considerations When Identifying Tennis Talent

What about exercise testing?

A maximal exercise test can be used to determine maximum oxygen uptake (VO2 max), maximum heart rate and lactate threshold. This is a useful test in order to determine a player’s endurance capacity. However, field tests can be used for this purpose as well, such as the shuttle run test (beep test), 12-minute run or ball machine test. It should also be taken into account that endurance is just one aspect of fitness, which is not directly related to tennis ability, and only weakly related to tennis performance.

How important is vision screening?

Vision is important, and determination of visual acuity, depth perception, color vision, peripheral vision and eye dominance are generally included in the pre-participation screening. If a player lacks depth perception because they have only one functional eye, this may be a problem for tennis. But having perfect eyesight does not necessarily mean the person will become a great player.

Furthermore, predicting the exact landing location of the ball, the height of the bounce, the speed and spin of the ball and anticipating the movements of the opponent are not so much related to the eyes as to the brain, and is therefore very difficult to measure.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the role of the physician in tennis is very important, but the focus of the physician is the prevention and treatment of medical problems and ensuring an optimal development of the player, once the tennis talent has been identified and the player has been selected. From our experience the skill and experience of the coach are far more important in talent identification than any currently existing medical test.

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