It’s a common question parents ask: “Should my kid play up?” The correct answer depends on the kid and depends on the situation. Over the years, I have studied with many different legendary coaches, who have differing views on the subject. Curiously, it seems the coaching world is a divided house on this issue. As an elite private and consultant coach myself, I’m often in the position of recommending tournament schedules and training plans to my clients, and this is a prominent question in our developmental planning.
It’s helpful to understand that there are two main philosophical positions on separate ends of the spectrum—two camps, if you will—and it’s also important to understand the difference between Training Up and Competing Up
►The “You Must Earn Your Way To The Next Level!” Camp
Some parents and coaches adamantly believe that training and competing mainly with peers of similar level is the way to develop. They argue that nobody should be allowed to move up in practice or competition without systematically defeating all the players at their current level. In addition, they believe a healthy mix of practice and competition levels is better for development than primarily playing stronger kids.
►The “Faster Progress Is Made By Constantly Challenging Yourself Against Higher Level Players” Camp
Other parents and coaches passionately argue that playing and training up is the fastest way to improve, by continually challenging a player with stronger opponents.
Training Up vs. Competing Up
Training Up means finding weekly practice groups with stronger players and/or scheduling private sparring partners with partners who are a higher skill level or UTR
1. Hitting with stronger players regularly makes players stronger and girds them to handle pace and heavy spin.
2. Players typically play better against stronger players.
3. Stronger and older players usually don’t hit as many moonballs or soft disruptive shots. They hit harder drives, which some parents and children appreciate. Players find they can get better rhythm with stronger consistent players.
4. It’s often exhilarating and motivating to hit with stronger players.
5. Players can pick up good habits just be being exposed to higher level players’ skill level, patterns, technique, and training intensity.
1. Players don’t develop their creativity as much when always playing higher level opponents in practice. There can be no time to experiment or work on deficits.
2. It can be demoralizing and stressful to always lose in practice. Lack of success can hurt players’ self-confidence.
3. Some players get very nervous when playing higher level kids. This can build anxiety in the player.
4. Always playing with older players can be socially isolating for some players.
5. For players who are not physically ready, playing up can increase the likelihood of musculoskeletal injury due to the higher forces being applied to the ball, racquet, and body.
Competing Up means entering events in older and/or stronger divisions, sometimes in regions far away from home.
In addition to the positives and negatives listed above, here are a few additional pros/cons on competing up:
1. New and diverse competition can be found in higher divisions and in other regions around the country and world.
2. Traveling to new foreign places can be stimulating and also builds experience for the pro tour lifestyle.
1. The player is generally unable to experiment with new skills on the court because he is just trying to survive.
2. The player can miss out on learning how to handle pressure because playing up tends to apply less pressure in competition.
3. Traveling frequently can be a mental and emotional grind—and can mentally fatigue a player over time.
4. Traveling can eat up a lot of training time. Some coaches prefer a local tournament schedule to allow for more training in between events and after losses.
As a parent or coach, or if you are a player yourself, you will have to balance the aforementioned pros and cons when deciding when and if to play up. Remember that there is not one correct way; rather, there are different pathways that work for different personalities.
I usually search for a reasonable middle ground with my charges. For my players, I like to see a balance: Some play against peers—combined with a healthy amount of playing up for challenge.
Watch out for the physical and mental risks of playing up. Sometimes, with certain players, playing up too much can risk injury and undermine player confidence. Confusingly, with certain personalities, playing up can be incredibly motivating and healthy. Make a clear plan—and be flexible and quick to adjust the training and competition schedule based on player observation and feedback.
Please check out my podcast The Prodigy Maker Show, Episode 47, for an in depth discussion on this topic!
Chris Lewit, a former number one for Cornell and pro circuit player, coaches in the New York City area and also runs a high-performance boarding summer camp in Southern Vermont. He specializes in training aspiring junior tournament players using progressive Spanish and European training methods. His best-selling book, Secrets of Spanish Tennis, has helped coaches and players worldwide learn how to train the Spanish way. He may be reached by phone at (914) 462-2912, e-mail ChrisLewit@gmail.com or visit ChrisLewit.com.