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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Factors to Be Considered When Creating a Tennis Talent Identification Program

There is the second part of the article Tennis talent identification and development in tennis

Factors to be considered when creating a tennis talent identification program

We strongly recommend that all national associations (NA) should have in place a tennis talent identification program (TI) as part of their general player development program. Countries that have a “small” tennis playing population (reduced base of the pyramid of opportunity) in which the “talent pool” or participation base is quite reduced need to identify talents in an efficient manner.

Those countries with a large playing base need to implement talent selection programs to select the correct talents from their “large pool”. In general, talent programs have a faster and more substantial impact on countries with reduced participation base. To organize such a talent identification program several factors need to be considered:

1. National association situation

A SWOT analysis will help if it includes, among others, the following elements:

  • Rankings. How many professional Talent Identification and Development in Tennis male and female players do you have with ATP/WTA rankings? How many juniors with ITF JWR?
  • Population. How many people live in your country? How many of them play tennis regularly…and competitively?
  • Culture. Do sport and tennis play a significant role in the culture and society of your country?
  • History. Does your country have a successful tennis history?
  • Participation and retention. What is the tennis participation level in your country? Is tennis part of the school curriculum? Do many players drop-out of tennis each year?
  • Resources. Do your players have access to enough facilities, financial help, etc.?
  • Competition. Does your country provide the necessary competition level and variation for players to develop?
  • Training. Does your country provide the necessary training resources – coaches and sport science – for players to develop?

2. National association goals

The NA has to indicate the path the TI program has to follow:

  • Direction. Where do we want to go? Players: Who are we looking for? Males and/or females? Which ages?
  • International trend. Where is the game heading to? Experts participating in the TI program should have a good knowledge and understanding of the demands of modern international tennis.
  • Model. How are we going to set up the TI program? It is recommended to use a combination of natural selection and sport science based models?
  • Financial and staff implications. How much is going to cost? Who can conduct it?

3. Tennis talent identification program

Some features of a possible TI program are:

  • Combination and flexibility. Use a holistic approach considering performance criteria, data provided by sport sciences, learning and skill development features, and social background.
  • Joint ventures. Involve schools, public facilities, private clubs, etc.
  • Share best practice. Use information available from other national associations and in sport science tennis specific literature.
  • Adaptation. Adapt the TI program to the needs and characteristics of the national association.
  • Records. Keep a database record of all participants.
  • Linking. Relate the TI program to the player development program in order to conduct TI at the different stages of the player development.
  • Participation. Do not forget about players that drop-out early from the performance strand, and provide opportunities for them to re-join or continue playing tennis at a participation level.
  • Education. Consider that tennis coaches may need better education and  training to identify talents.

4. Follow up of the TI program

The national association should have a clear picture in mind of what will be the future development of the talented players identified and selected.  Enough resources need to be allocated to ensure that these players will be provided with adequate opportunities for their talent not to be wasted. This should be part of the player development program of the national tennis association.

Conclusion

Identifying talent in tennis is more of an art than science and therefore a flexible approach is recommended. The fact is that the long-term tennis player development path is a complex process that should continuously involve some degree of identification and selection (natural or formal) of talented players at virtually all stages. This process should be a joint venture that will facilitate the combined work of coaches and sport scientists in order to fully benefit from the experience and knowledge accumulated in tennis.

In closing, due to the inherent difficulties of the tennis talent identification process with beginner level tennis players and the fact that the testing of these players does not ensure very accurate results, recent research on the development of expertise in young tennis players and the years of practical on tennis court dedication required suggest that the terms talent identification, detection and selection are surpassed by the principle of long-term player development. This broader concept includes the nurturing of tennis expertise by creating the necessary conditions for talent development in all stages of the process.

Several models of talent development have been presented in the sports literature. These models consider different stages of development from the initial exposure of the child to the sport to the retirement of the player, and are being applied by national tennis associations with the intention of providing talented players the best opportunities possible to develop their potential.

Tennis talent identification should not be used to discriminate against the less able but should assist tennis coaches and national tennis associations to design training and competition programs to maximize potential and participation of all tennis players.

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Basic Principles of a Training Program for Developing Strong Junior Tennis Players

I continue to write about developing of top junior tennis players. We discussed this topic in the article How much should a junior tennis player train?

Let’s continue to learn about common recommendations about basics of training program for creating of top junior tennis players. These recommendations are based on International Tennis Federation (ITF) standards for junior tennis players.

Periodization

A training program is organized based on a periodization principle and the player’s age, standard of ability, physical readiness and fitness level as well as the planned tournament schedule.

The volume of training relates to the amount of work performance, the intensity of how hard the players work and the frequency of training. During training, players are exposed to various levels of intensity. The organism adapts to the level of intensity by increasing physical functions to meet the training demand.

Intensity is measured by: load, kilos, and speed, while volume is measured by: duration (time), distance (meters), repetitions (numbers and sets). Based on these physiological changes, especially the heart rate, the coach may detect and monitor the intensity of a training program.

To develop aerobic and anaerobic fitness levels, the training program should be organized in various levels: 60-100% of intensity workout. The final classification of intensity on basis of heart rate is suggested by sports scientist Nikoforov (1974):

Zone           Type of intensity                             Heart rate-1 min
1                   Low                                                     120-150
2                   Medium                                              150-170
3                   High                                                    170-185
4                   Maximum                                           185-

Experts from physiology of exercise and biomechanics proposed the intensity levels as follows:

Stage          Level of intensity                              % of maximum H.R.
1                   Low intensity                                         Below 60%
2                   Medium intensity                                  65-85%
3                   High intensity                                        85-100%

During exercise, maximum heart rate can be calculated by subtracting your age in years from 220. I.e.: 220 – age = maximum pulse rate per minute

Training session plan for a developing top junior tennis player

It is a small planned training work load (for Intermediate/ Advanced players, 2 – 3 Hours). The total duration and the contents vary according to: the goal of the session and the previous and the following load. The coach can decide the characteristics of training referring to the methods and means of training to be employed per each session. The structure of a training session consists of:

1. Introduction, 3-5 minutes

The coach explains the aim of the session, the contents of the training and the expectations concerning the work load according to the player’s needs.

2. Warm up, 30-45 minutes

Warm up can be split into general and specific parts. The purpose of warm up is to prepare the whole organism, physiologically and psychologically for the high load of the main part(s) and to prevent injuries.

General warm up: Starting slow and easy jogging to high short sprint and followed by proper stretching exercises.

Specific warm up: On the tennis court starting easy (rally eye, hand co-ordination, more control, consistency, etc.) from the service box to the whole court (baseline, at the net), executing all basic shots.

3. Main part of the tennis training, 60-120 minutes maximum

The main objectives and goals of the training program should be put into practice in the main part(s). There can be one, two or even three main parts of the session, depending on the tasks the coach wants to carry out during the training session.

The total duration of the main part(s) can be about 60 -120 minutes maximum. Generally, this part contains technical, tactical and fitness training programs or a mixture of all training programs.

3.1 Technique: If the technique training is the goal of the training session, technique has the priority to be put into the beginning of the main part. New techniques and correction of technical faults can be performed only with low-medium intensity physical effort and when the player(s) are not yet tired.

3.2. Technique and tactic: In this part, main emphasis is on the tactical aspects of the practice. According to the players’ level of standard, the coach can design from basic to specific drills, points (with different rules), different games and match practices etc.

3.3. Physical fitness: In the main part which is aimed to improve the general or specific level of the physical conditions can be organized by the coach based on the phases of training on court, of f court, gymnasium, fitness program and other sports (soccer, basket ball, hockey, hand ball, etc.) as a variety and to make the training session interesting, challenging and to have fun.

4. Cool down, 5-10 minutes

Starting with a slow and easy jogging and followed by excellent stretching exercises. This part is very important and will help the body temperature gradually return to normal and prevent tightness, soreness, etc.

Roger Federer's fitness

5. Conclusion, 3-5 minutes

The final part of the training session is evaluation of the training work out. A brief evaluation of the work as an additional form of interaction, the problems, successes or difficulties that arose, should be openly discussed. The coach should always avoid a situation whereby a player leaves the training session with negative feeling or emotions.

As you see, the duration of a workout for a strong tennis player is about 2 – 3 hours. Pay special attention to part 2, the warm up. It must take at least 30 minutes. If your tennis coach does not pay attention to that, you can be like me. I always bring my kid 30-40 minutes early and he warms up under my supervision. Look at this post for details Warm up and cool down are vital parts of tennis training.  

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Why Does My Kid Always Start the Match Poorly?

Picture of Marcin Bieniek

Marcin Bieniek

Match is the real test of tennis skills. You can practice many hours and put your best every time you step on the court but if you can’t use these skills while competing you will never achieve great results.

There are some players who play matches much better than they train but there are also athletes who don’t miss the ball during practice session but they make a lot of easy mistakes while playing points. Don’t worry – everything can be improved. Your match’s performance too.

There are different reasons why kids take part in tennis competition. John can sign up just to test own skills and see „how it works”. Karen can play tournament because her friend will be there too so social factor is the motivation. Paul loves competition and he wants to prove that he is the best in the city.

There are also some kids who compete because their parents want them to do so. No matter the reason reality is that if you train tennis there is a big chance that sooner or later you will start playing tournaments and you have to be ready for that.

Most of the parents want their children to win so they can’t understand how it is possible that their son always loses first 3 gems. The beginning of the match is a nightmare and against good opponent it is really hard to come back after a bad start.

Before coach or parent takes any action to start working on this aspect we should understand why it happens and how often our players face this kind of difficulty. If it happens once per 10 matches it is nothing to worry about. On the other hand if athlete has to chase score during last 7 matches it is a signal that we have to intervene.

Tennis tournament is a different environment than we have in our tennis club. The are numerous new people, courts that we are not familiar with, uncomfortable surrounding as well as big dose of pressure related to competition and ranking points.

All these factors have a big influence on player’s actions so only by understanding these things and having skills to deal with them players are able to get on the court and dominate from the first point of the match. If parents say that their kid needs „few gems to warm up” it means they don’t understand where the problem is. Good players are ready from the beginning to rock. If your player can’t it means that there is some solid weakness that you should take care of.

Starting the match on your terms is a skill like any other. There are many factors that have influence on your beginning performance so you should make sure that you include them in your tournament preparation. Here they are:

Balls are different

There are smaller and bigger differences between tennis balls. Some of them are softer others are harder. Some of them are more controllable than others. That is why it is a smart move to play last few days before the tournament using balls that you will use during competition.

This little change will give you advantage over opponents who all the time practice using the same balls. Many players need few gems to get control  and „know” new balls while competing so good preparation will give you this time while training and when you step on the court on the tournament’s day you will focus just on winning points.

Playing points is a practice too

Ability to make right decisions in specific situations is a skill so players have to spend a lot of time on playing points during practice sessions to use these abilities while competing. Typical mistake is when players only have drills before the tournament and they don’t play any points.

It is not surprising that when they start the match they don’t know how to play and the first few gems are dedicated to try different things to win points. Automatic habits are developed before the competition so the best players always play practice matches or work on tournament’s scenarios to be prepared when these things actually happen. Remember that shots are not useful if you don’t know how to use them!

It is stressful not only for you

Parents are really stressed during tournaments because they really want their kids to win. It is completely understandable. On the other hand these parents who feel this big amount of pressure don’t understand that for their kids it is also really uncomfortable situation. Players have to deal with pressure on their own and if they don’t have proper mental skills they will always underperform.

First few gems of the match can quickly show if someone is brave and confident or if he has some doubts about own shots and abilities. Only conscious work and support during stressful situations can help so players and coaches should remember that and not scream at players when they have difficulty with placing the ball into the court during first few points.

Can’t buy experience

Experience comes with repetitions. It simply means that the more often you compete the easier it is for you to adjust own actions and use the best responses. Players who take part in competition once or twice per year it is really hard for them to get needed experience and learn how to deal with tournament’s pressures. Players who are present on tournaments 10-20 times per year have a good balance between practice sessions and tournaments so they can develop own skills and learn how to play the game.

That is why if we want our players to start the match well we should always look for new opportunities to compete to gain experience. Many parents make mistake when they try to “save” own kids by not playing too many tournaments because “they are not ready”. Of course we have to still develop skills so practice sessions are crucial to do so but experience is gained during tournaments so skipping one of these factors will never develop a successful athlete.

We can’t divide athletes into players who start matches well and players who don’t. Being able to win first 3 gems is a set of skills and actions – not a magical trait. If you want to make your chances bigger to play your best tennis from the first point you have to work on it. Incorporate tips from this article into your daily schedule and your progress will be faster than you can imagine.

From time to time you will still start the match with some mistakes but most often people will admire how confident you look from the first shot. Remember that if you start the match on your terms it will be much easier to put pressure on your opponent and continue your road to victory.

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Tennis Talent Identification and Development in Tennis

I already wrote about tennis talent identification in the post How to identify talented tennis players among those juniors who already play

There is an interesting scientific article below. It was written by M. Crespo and P. Mclnerney and published in Coaching and Sport Science Review of the ITF. I hope the article will be useful for tennis coaches, parents and specialists who are interested to know more about tennis talent identification.

I think that this article confirms one more time, that “champions are born, and then they are made”. You cannot develop new Roger Federer or Serena Williams from average players.

Tennis talent identification and development in tennis

Almost everybody involved in tennis – players, coaches, parents, officials, media, fans – would like to see themselves, their players, children or compatriots experience success in the game at the professional level. However, only an exclusive group of players that have a numerous set of specific features required by the game and can display them at their best in competition achieve this. These players are called “talents”.

Roger Federer1 300x300 - Tennis Talent Identification and Development in TennisDue to the “open-skill” nature of tennis, the process of detecting, identifying, selecting and then developing “talents” is an enormous and difficult challenge that has long been discussed by National Tennis Associations, coaches and sport science experts among others.

The search for “talents” is as old as life itself. In sport, systematic talent identification programs started in the former Eastern bloc countries around the 1960’s and 1970’s and were responsible for a great part of their Olympic success. These programs have been adapted in countries such as China and Cuba with the results also being good.

Traditionally tennis has used process of natural selection, however in recent years sport science based tennis talent identification projects have seen researchers trying to determine the specific characteristics that tennis demands for young talents to become top players.

Currently, the majority of the highly developed tennis nations have  talent identification programs in place, with all having several similar fundamental characteristics and a varying input from sport science. However, it seems difficult to differentiate the success of these programs from the overall effectiveness of their player development programs (training and competitive system).

With regard to identifying “talents” in tennis, one of the key issues to consider is the degree to which tennis performance can be measured. Physical and physiological features seem much easier to evaluate than mental or technical-tactical features. And, since in tennis, skill and decision-making components have a substantial influence on high level performance, the predictive power of the different tests is relatively low and it is more complicated to predict future performance.

Talent identification models

Principally two talent identification models can be identified:

  1. A natural selection/performance model (in which players are introduced to tennis, develop their skills, progress, become more involved, practice every day, compete gradually in higher level events and end up becoming a professional);
  2. Scientifically based models (in which sport science tennis principles are used to help in the process). Within the scientific model, the emphasis is generally on several specific sport science areas such as anthropometry, physiology, or psychology. Although historically the 2 methods have been considered as opposites, recent trends both in research and practice tend to suggest that a combination of both models works best with respect to identifying and developing talented players.

Advantages of  talent identification programs

The implementation of  talent identification programs can provide many benefits:

In general,  talent identification programs provide talented tennis players with the opportunity to develop their tennis skills, enhance their performance in the most receptive periods, and help them achieve tennis success thus stimulating participation, enjoyment, well being and self-confidence.  Talent identification programs can also attract players to tennis further broadening the participation base.

Natural selection models use the participation base of current tennis players and emphasize a “winning spirit” from early on. In these models, the input from coaches is taken into account since criteria are mostly based on the “eye of the coach” and the results of the players.

Scientific based models use research results to produce batteries of tennis-specific tests. The results from these tests have a high level of reliability and validity and can help reduce the time taken to find talented players.

Disadvantages of  talent identification programs

In general, several problems with  talent identification programs have been identified. These include the adaptations of the talented tennis player to the physical, social and emotional demands of the coaches, training programs, and competitions, the degree of decision making from players and parents in the process, the elimination of players (survival of the fittest), the possible economic discrimination (resource allocation), and the discrimination according to maturation stages (influence of the month of birth).

Natural selection models rely on the coincidence that the talented player may begin to play tennis. Therefore, the selection base may be reduced and some important years for talent development may be missed.

Scientific models may not take into account the “intangible” elements that influence talent as well as the social implications needed for developing talented tennis players.

Research tends to indicate that individual features (e.g. genes) and environmental conditions (e.g. parents, training) closely interact in the player development process and even though genetic determinants play their role, the context of player development seems to have a higher relevance.

Studies have concluded that skills and aptitudes shown at a young age do not automatically translate into talent development and performance, and that talent is not always apparent by observation alone.

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