We hear tennis coaches claim that playing up is a good learning experience; but, it is?
What one does not learn is technique because improving technique requires hitting thousands of the ”same” ball; this will not happen in any match; nor is conditioning improved because improving conditioning requires weeks to months of hard work which will not happen in a tennis match; on the contrary, tournament match play (not practice matches) places high demands on all parts of the body under duress and will result in extensive soreness of muscles and tendons.
Stress soreness is not related to conditioning soreness because stress soreness is due to the release of stress hormones into the blood stream which is very destructive if it continues over ten minutes. Hence stress soreness is completely unrelated to conditioning soreness. So playing tournament matches does not contribute to physical conditioning. Nor is consistency improved which requires thousands of balls to be hit.
Also the human short-term learning dynamic functions very poorly under stress. Instead of learning, the player may actually lose skill as demonstrated by psychology experiments in radical behaviorism. Even as bad is that the player may lose confidence in their ability. This is because young people make very odd self-effacing interpretations of failure that will damage their confidence unnecessarily and erroneously.
So far, everything mentioned applies to any tournament match. The real value of playing a tennis match is developing the discipline to perform under pressure; adapt to changing circumstances; learning how the opponent thinks; recognizing when an opponent is submitting, etc, the list is long but excludes the factors discussed at the outset of this article.
Skill and physical development do not occur during a match just as one does not learn calculus from taking a calculus test. Matches can expose areas of weakness which can be addressed during training. This includes technical, mental or physical. But, those weaknesses can be obscured by a lack of preparation and hence they become almost impossible to address during training.
Since most tennis matches are lost due to unforced errors, the mental discipline development is likely the most important value of a tournament match. However, playing up, as Robert Lansdorp notes, reduces pressure and thus obscures the mental issues, the one thing that is the most important value of tournament play.
In short, playing up is almost worthless UNLESS the tennis player is the best in their age group and is ready to advance to a higher age group. So long as the player is not the best in their group in the nation, playing up provides far less value than playing in one’s own age group. So one must ask, when considering having their student play up: Is this the best possible use of the time and resources that will be consumed by playing up?
No matter how talented or well conditioned a tennis player may be, if they cannot function under the pressure of facing and defeating their peers, they have a serous mental toughness deficiency that must be addressed if they are to ever become a champion. And playing up provides no solution to this problem and may even obscure the problem, deceiving the coach and player into thinking that no mental problem exists.
In short: play your age group unless you are the best in that group. P.S. if a tennis coach wants their player to play up, it may indicate that the coach has serious self doubt about their own ability to have his/her player face and defeat their peers.