Tracy Austin, John McEnroe and Pam Shriver represent only the "thin edge of the wedge" being driven into junior tennis programs these days. I mean none of then is yet 20 years old and all of them have already turned pro.
All three are world class players and they represent the culmination of single-minded dedication by someone besides the player. But they also represent hundreds of kids who tried and did not make it.
Junior development programs now seem to be categorized two ways.
One seeks to acquaint children with the joy and fun of being a competent player.
The other is designed to produce champions.
These divergent philosophies frequently clash and teaching pros involved wind up with reputations to match these approaches.
Because I was a founder of the National Junior Tennis League, I am very often asked what I think of various teaching systems for children, a long with my opinion of the people that run them. There is a very good reason for these questions. The answer is that most parents seem to want to send their child to a tennis program that stresses results, i.e., make that child a winner.
Well, you may ask what's wrong with that? Nothing, if your child enjoys his or herself. But, and this is a big but, tennis is different than most other sports because it is an individual sport. If your child plays basketball, hockey, baseball, football or soccer, he or she shares in the victories and shares in the defeats. But on a tennis court, he or she wins alone and loses alone.
It is shattering for a 9-to-14-year-old who is emotionally immature, to lose alone. No teammates to share the blame; just a deep, inexplicable feeling of inadequacy. And the loss somehow must be rationalized properly. Adults have difficulty doing this so how could they expect their children to do it.
The fun-and-games approach doesnht supply all the answers, either. It generally is not enough to learn merely to hit a forehand, backhand, serve and volley and never keep score. That method takes all the fun out of it. Some middle ground must be reached.
My first question to a youngster who just finished a match is, "Did you have fun?" This question from a parent implies that while the competition is good for building one's confidence, the emphasis at such early ages should be enjoyment.
What you don't want to ask is "Well, did you win?" Winning is not everything. If it was, then 99 percent of us are failures. What matters most are best efforts to the very end. The maximum effort is what your child should strive for, appreciate, and emulate.
Just as some football coaches seem to be consistently more successful than others, the same is true of tennis teaching pros. But this success appears to become more and more specialized every day. For instance, if I saw a hot prospect 15 years of age, I wouldn't hesitate to send him to Harry Hopman. Hopman is a very good with advanced players, I would not, however, send a beginner to him. Conversely, 80 per cent of the teaching pros are competent with beginners but out of their element with advanced players mainly because it is unlikely they played pro tennis themselves. The comparison is like Don Shula and the coach of your local high school football team.
Let me give you a few examples. Charlie Pasarell, John McEnroe, Pam Shriver, Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas, Ilie Nastase Jose Clerc, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver John Newcombe and Yannick Noah all have one thing in common. Their teachers on an advanced level were the likes of Welby Van Horn, Tony Palafox, Don Candy, Linnart Bergelin, Ia Tiriac, Patricio Rodriguez and Harry Hopman. Each of these coaches was a world-class player at one time or another and knew nuances of the game the average teaching pro would seldom know.
Some teachers develop such reputations thata I have heard mothers say "I won't send my daughter to him because he's only interested in producting champions." There is a touch of resentment there, but jealous or not the parent making the statement would send her child to this pro at the first opportunity.
So what am I suggesting? First, in the beginning send your child to a USPTA accredited pro who teaches the enjoyment of the sport along with the mechanics of the game. Second, you, as a parent, should reinforce this attitude in your reaction to your child's early wins and losses. Third, don't interfere with the instructions of the pro. If you don't like his teaching method, find another pro, but don't butt in. Fourth, get your child the best equipment you can afford with special emphasis on shoes and a racket the pro should help you select.
Fifth, consider the possibility of switching pros if your child starts to develop fast and you feel the pro cannot take him any farther.
Teaching a bunch of 10-year-olds to hit backhands takes patience. I doubt if most college professors could teach a fourth-grade class. Conversely, could a third-grade teacher run a class for college juniors?
Sixth, don't push your child to play if he doesn't really want to. There are many other wonderful things for an 11-year-old to do besides hit tennis balls. And seventh, try to make tennis a family affair as often as possible.