If you have been at your local tennis club or centre this week, think about how many children you have seen attending either group coaching or having individual lessons. How many of them do you think actually play competitive matches? Or how many of them are there developing their skills in a sport they might never go and compete in. If you went down to your local junior football team, would they be practising their skills just so they got better? Or would there be a match at the weekend they were all playing in?
For many years the number of children attending tennis coaching sessions has been far greater than the number of children playing competitions. Tennis coaching has become the activity rather than tennis itself. More than most other sports, tennis has developed a culture of juniors practising regularly but not competing but why is this the case?
As an individual sport, it is much more difficult to compete regularly than in a team sport where you are handed a fixture list for the upcoming season. In tennis there is no fixture list and it is up to the parents to create this for themselves. Entering competitions in Great Britain is a complicated process and is mainly online, which is great if you know what you are doing but I can only imagine how daunting it is for new parents. A friend of mine said that if a sport needs a calculator to work out which age-group you should enter (which we have in Great Britain) then that says everything about how difficult the sport is to compete in. However, with the right support from a good coach or team of coaches, parents can be helped through this process. But is this the only reason why more juniors aren’t competing?
Unfortunately, there are no hiding places in junior tennis and ratings and rankings are there for everyone to see how you are performing. This can create a lot of pressure on juniors from a very young age and it can put some children (and their parents) off competing all together. Some junior players are happy improving their skills but then shy away from actually putting those skills to the test. Why would you not want to compete against players of a similar age and standard? Surely this will help you develop your skills even more? And surely it is more fun than just going to coaching? Or is it?
Tennis can be a lonely sport and so the idea of more team events or doubles tournaments has to be promoted and developed even further. The chance to compete with other children or a doubles partner can definitely make tennis a lot more attractive proposition. We are starting to move in the right direction in Great Britain but we have a long way to go. However, every week at your coaching group you are surrounded by your friends rather than having to be out there on your own in a tournament. Also, some children can be put off by by having to umpire their own matches and all the problems that brings.
Sometimes those of us who play tennis often can forget that tennis is a difficult sport to master. Would you go and play a competition in an activity that you only played once a week or that you felt you weren’t very good at? If you go and watch the next county or regional level tournament in your area, the standard is actually quite high and all the players are committed to playing and competing regularly. I would also guess that tennis is their main sport. But where are the competitions for children who play lots of different sports but want to have a go at tennis? Often the competitions that take place regularly don’t cater for these children and if they do enter they can quickly regret it.
There is no denying that there is a coaching culture in tennis at the moment. This has been a challenge for many years and it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. But what would you do to get more juniors competing or do you think that attending coaching is enough?