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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