Advice to Aspiring Junior Tournament Players and their Parents

Over the past 40 plus years working full-time as a tennis professional, I have been fortunate to coach and work directly with a number of junior tournament players, including a number of highly ranked national caliber players. Drawing from this experience as well as my experience competing as a high-level junior and collegiate player, I would like to share some advice to aspiring junior tournament players (and their parents). Here are ten things to consider in embarking on a junior tournament path of development.

  1. Have fun. Tennis is an emotional game with a lot of ups and downs. It’s important to keep things in perspective and remember what first attracted you to the game of tennis. Recognize what makes tennis fun for you. It’s different for everyone. For me, it’s the artistry and the variety of things you can do with the ball. I also love hitting the ball and the rhythm and timing of the rally.
  2. Do the first things first. Build a solid foundation beginning with a focus on consistency and depth. Learn how to stay in a point and maintain a rally. Work on developing both sides of your game (forehand and backhand). Recognize the importance of repetition and staying with something until you get it right.
  3. Work hard. Develop a “great” work ethic. There is always a positive payback for players that work hard. Tennis requires a considerable investment of time and energy to get good so why not make the best of your time. It’s definitely more fun and rewarding when you make an effort (particularly when you see results and can do more with the ball).
  4. Set goals and follow through on commitments. Having goals is a great way to frame and structure your time on the court. It also helps to establish a purpose to your practice (which is a key to getting better in tennis). Be smart in developing your goals. Set goals that are specific, attainable, reachable and timely (S.M.A.R.T).
  5. Learn how to construct a point with percentage tactics. It’s important early in development to understand when to extend and when to shorten a rally, when to maintain direction and when to redirect, when to be conservative and when to attack, when to close and when to stay back, etc. Learn what constitutes a good (relative term) versus bad error and what is considered a forced mistake.
  6. Focus on the feet. Footwork is probably the number one attribute that differentiates players and playing skill. It’s definitely something I look for in assessing talent in a new player. Developing lively and active feet can be an acquired skill. Make it a focus early for big dividends later in your development.
  7. Embrace competition. Look for the opportunity to compete (whether it’s a tournament, team match or practice games and point situations). Look forward to the challenge and don’t be afraid to “put yourself on the line”. Develop a desire to win with a pride in performance. Junior tournament competition is great learning experience and is necessary to develop your confidence, spirit and courage.
  8. Take a long-term perspective. Always look forward to what is required to compete successfully as an adult (or when your body is fully matured and developed). It’s easy to neglect those aspects of your game that don’t translate well to success in your age group. An example is net play for a junior in the 10’s or 12’s. Coming to net behind a short ball in the 10’s is likely to lead to passing shot and a lost point. Be incremental in your development and work on the things you need to work on that will make you successful in your next highest age group (i.e. if you’re in the 12’s, work on the skills that will make you successful in the 14’s, if you’re in the 14’s, work on the things that will work for you in 16’s, etc.).
  9. Develop overall playing skills. You will benefit greatly with the ability to vary your game and style of play in response to different playing demands, conditions, circumstances and opponents. There are times in which a more aggressive or defensive style of play is warranted, point sequences where you will need pick up the pace of the rally or take pace off the ball, circumstances in which you will need to shorten or lengthen the length of the rally, situations where you will need to close and attack the net or stay back and be more patient, etc. As mentioned above, take a long-term perspective and develop a multidimensional game, a game that will hold up under the most adverse circumstances and conditions. Develop adaptability to your game.
  10. Be respectful of the game and your opponents. As you get better and have better results, it’s easy to lose perspective. Value every opportunity you get to practice and compete. Take the perspective that there is something to be learned and gained from every playing situation and opponent regardless of the score and outcome. Life has some interesting twists. The next match you play could ultimately be one the most meaningful matches of your life not because of the difficulty of the task or the outcome but rather because of who you played and the interaction you had both on and off the court with this player. It would be cool to say that you played tennis as a kid with the President of the United States or the scientist who developed the cure for cancer. You never know.

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