The long-term growth and development of competitive young tennis athletes is best accomplished by working in concert with their biological and psychological development factors. The principals of applied functional science dictate that while the protocols of training are specific, the timetables and parameters of movement development are a function of the individual. Simply stated, athletes must earn their progressions to develop seamlessly and safely. While the body responds to the demands placed on it, young athletes must be physiologically and psychologically prepared to respond with an appropriate adaptation. As Charles Darwin, “The Father of Evolutionary Science,” explains, "It's not the strongest who survive it's the most adaptable."
In order to develop a young tennis player from good to great, it is essential to first evaluate and understand the physical system in which the player operates. A poor stroke pattern, for example, could be a movement dysfunction or inefficiency, or it may be a correcting compensation. If it is an adaptation to an underlying weakness or imbalance, then correcting the stroke first might do more harm, than good. Remember, great players are great problem solvers and adaptive correcting compensations are performed by great players all the time. We must first assess to progress.
A distinction should be made between testing and evaluating. Testing players in vertical leap, short sprints and the shuttle run can help give context to setting general group performance parameters; however, it gives no useful insight into the development of a performance plan to improve the individual athlete. Every high performance player should be assessed with a Functional Movement Screen (FMS) as a starting point. It is a simple, accessible and valuable tool to establishing a baseline of movement, strength and limitation. The data is overwhelming that the screening of athletes at every age is highly correlated to avoiding injury and safe performance development.
The current mantra of training high performance players is that greater racket acceleration equals better performance. The USTA High Performance Program has embraced this idea and with a good reason, it is a necessity to successfully compete at the highest levels in today's power-driven game. Conflict exists, however, when this concept is applied to young and immature players. Greater racket acceleration begins with greater body deceleration or load and progresses to body acceleration or explosion. We are playing with fire here, since greater forces demand greater mobility and stability management. Raise the racket head of a young player on the forehand side and you create greater potential energy, drop it and you have greater kinetic force. Ask a developing player with limited thoracic mobility and posterior shoulder instability (a common condition in young players) to perform this movement and you will often get a biceps tendon strain starting at C6 and working through an over-stressed thoracic outlet or worse still, lumbar spine instability issues, as the athlete compensates to manage greater forces.
QuickStart Tennis was developed by the USTA with the idea that "Children shouldn't have to play like adults." If we expand that concept, it is clear that children shouldn't have to progress to perform like adults until they are developmentally ready.
Psychologically, athletes must be ready to embrace change in order to grow. Neural changes are best managed by players prepared and ready for change. Self-conscience behavior, precipitated by change, is great for learning but it undermines performance. Young tennis players should be readied emotionally to endure the learning curve adaptation of a grip change to evolve the technique, seamlessly. In tennis, power is speed and speed is relaxation. If you put players in a fun, rewarding and positive environment then they relax and move fast. Tension makes you slow.
As Thomas Myers, author of Anatomy Trains and Training, explains, "The age of conformity, repletion and the isolation of individual parts to achieve development of the whole is an outdated paradigm." We cannot, as coaches, just drill success into aspiring players with a ball basket. The great basketball coach John Wooden said, "Activity is not achievement." Kinesthetic awareness, literacy and development are the goals, and that goal is achieved by providing players with the physical and emotional tools to mange the mini crises that occur every point.
The current parameters of today's champions were outside the grid of acceptable technique 20 years ago. While environments change constantly, the qualities that great players consistently display are originality and adaptability. As coaches looking to build the tennis champions of tomorrow, we must encourage the individual's unique qualities, not inhibit them.
Steven Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation and executive director and founder of Serve & Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally-ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.