The tennis road is long and complicated but how can we ensure that our junior players stay the course and get to experience everything the sport has to offer?
Tennis is a life-long sport but many junior players do not make it out of their childhood, let alone still be playing late into their adult years. There are many hurdles and barriers to overcome and whilst this has been a problem for many years, it does not appear to be going away. ‘Drop out’ is something that many tennis parents fear and it can also be very difficult for the committed coach who has invested many years of their professional time into a players’ development. But what can be done to help players stay in the sport?
From my experience, some of the problems start at the very beginning, when a child starts playing tennis. What are their early motivations for getting into the game to begin with? Children who start playing tennis regularly because they enjoy it are starting on a journey that could last forever. Other children who begin their journey with the sole aim of becoming a professional tennis player, or it is their parents’ aim, are more likely heading down a road of disappointment. If you only play to be good, what happens if you find out you aren’t as good as you thought or not good enough? When your one motivation for playing has gone, how much longer will you last? If you started playing to enjoy tennis, this is something that can always be there, even if you don’t end up being as good as other players.
As we talked about in my article Performance v Participation, too much focus on developing future champions can cause problems for any tennis programme. Prioritised players receiving all the support, coach time and resources can be very demotivating for those players who aren’t quite at the necessary level. For those venues who run separate programmes for their different standards of players this can be even more demotivating. In Great Britain, over the past few years, this has very much been the focus of the LTA in supporting a small number of players rather than being more inclusive. There is talk of this changing and I hope this is the case if we are going to keep more players in the sport. Providing as many opportunities as you can to as many players as possible has to be the way forward.
Staying in any sport as children grow older can be difficult. Education should always come first but it becomes difficult for players and their parents to find enough hours to keep training and competing as well. Tennis clubs have a huge role to play in providing a great environment for children to continue enjoying the sport and making new friends as they develop into young adults. The opportunity to play league tennis in a team should be there for all players and it breaks my heart to see ‘performance’ players walk away from tennis completely rather than continuing playing in a club. Indoor tennis centres have a very important role to make links with local clubs and provide exit routes into life-long participation. We believe at Liverpool Tennis Centre it is not the role of indoor venues to compete with outdoor clubs but to complement the offer they provide. Whilst your tennis journey may start with us, it should finish with you being a member of your local tennis club.
County associations also have a significant part to play in keeping juniors in tennis and I am encouraged to see more focus on county training, certainly in the North of England. This gives players a sense of belonging and the chance to train and socialise with their peers. The more players who can be part of this, the more chance we have of keeping them in the sport. Even in the larger counties, it is easy for players, especially girls, to become isolated and not have opportunities to train with players of the same age and standard. It’s no wonder they may then want to give up and go and play a team sport instead.
Tennis has so much to offer young people just as long as they can stay the course. With the right opportunities, parental support and the help of a willing coach and tennis venues, young players can stay in the sport and continue through university and into adulthood. From there, tennis provides many employment and volunteer opportunities, both on-court and off-court, and you can continue to play into your old age. For all of those involved in the delivery of the sport, we must make it our mission to help as many young people as possible to continue on this journey for as long as they can.