Tennis is the sport for a lifetime. Unlike many sports, tennis is a “carry over” sport, meaning it can be enjoyed from childhood through adulthood. It is a sport that when played proficiently, provides the cardiovascular aerobic exercise needed for a healthy life, while developing character, physical and mental competence and self-esteem. Equally as important, tennis provides an ideal opportunity for parents and children to spend quality time together … having fun, learning, playing and competing.
In all of my years as a tennis pro, the question most asked by parents is: “When should my child start tennis?” Before responding to the question, it is important to realize that tennis is a complex and highly-skilled activity. Broken down into its component parts, tennis requires the ability to track a moving object, anticipate and coordinate body movement, while simultaneously employing eye-hand coordination.
Tennis should be started as early as there is interest, provided that the child has the basic athletic skill-sets needed for success. Years ago, it was generally agreed that seven to nine years of age was the optimum time to begin tennis. The thought process was that by the age of seven, a child would have the foundational motor skills needed for tennis. For a child to have fun, there needs to be success—namely hitting the ball over the net. Children who are not physically prepared suffer failure and frustration which often drives them away from this great sport. The kids who had success had fun, played more, causing more success and so on.
Fortunately, there has been a new approach in introducing children to tennis; courts are smaller (36’ long for up to age eight) (60’ for ages eight through 10); rackets are shorter and lighter; and the balls are bigger and bounce slower and lower. The USTA’s 10 & Under Tennis and QuickStart Programs have made the game more child-friendly than ever before. Children are having an easier time playing and are having a ball!
Instruction has also changed from a style of simply throwing or hitting balls to children, to an approach of cross-training children to develop skill sets needed to play tennis. Not only are balls being struck, but children are becoming more physically competent by performing movements, throwing, fielding and catching drills, dribbling races, etc. Proper tennis technique is more easily attained when other more general athletic skills are mastered in a fun and nurturing environment.
For example, serving becomes easier when one learns how to throw a ball properly. The thrill of rallying has replaced constant ball feeding. With an emphasis on fun, new equipment, new court size, and instruction, children as young as three are now enjoying tennis … hopefully for a lifetime.