Sports scientists and most coaches agree that it is valuable to play another sport or multiple sports to support the athletic development of a tennis player and prevent injuries.
While it's true that some prodigies specialize in tennis very early, the vast majority of players show an interest in multiple sports at young ages. Thus as parents, it's important to choose sports that a child likes of course—but also steer the player towards sports that have the best athletic benefits for tennis players.
It is very healthy for kids to play other sports than tennis and can also help to reduce overuse injuries, which are currently at epidemic levels on the junior circuit. I like to advise my clients to choose one main cross-training sport that their child loves and that builds valuable athletic skills for tennis. If a child plays too many extra sports, it can dilute the focus on tennis, and can slow tennis skills development.
Here is a list of my top 10 favorites in no particular order, that my best players over the years have benefited from. Remember, the best sport to cross-train is the sport your child enjoys. It makes no sense to force a kid to play a sport he or she doesn't like, just because it has great athletic benefits for tennis!
The favorite pastime of children in Spain, this is also a popular cross-training sport in the U.S., and is well-organized and relatively inexpensive. Develops stamina, footwork, and eye-foot coordination skills especially. It's better if your child plays a position that runs up and down the field as much as possible, for the cardio benefits. Goalies build good eyes and reflexes—but not much cardio!
2. Boxing and kickboxing
My favorite cross-training sport. Relatively inexpensive to train, these sports have a culture that builds toughness and discipline. Athletically, they develop the eyes and reactions, full-body agility and coordination, footwork, and power development in the hips and body, and stamina. If parents are concerned about contact to the head, players can simply participate in the training sessions—and skip live sparring.
3. Wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu
Another personal favorite, and also inexpensive. These sports are like gymnastics, but with strategy and a fighting spirit. They build tough tennis warriors mentally. Physically, these sports enhance full-body power, core stability, flexibility, body awareness and agility. Just be careful to choose responsible training partners and coaches for your child to work with to prevent unnecessary injuries.
4. Traditional martial arts
I have had many students participate in traditional martial arts like karate, taekwondo, etc. These sports have many of the same benefits of boxing and kickboxing. Striking develops hand-eye and foot-eye coordination, footwork and power development. Traditional martial arts also build a warrior spirit and discipline.
A great cross-training sport that many girls like, but it's an often overlooked sport for boys. Gymnastics builds flexibility, core strength, balance and strengthens a child's body overall, but offers low cardio benefits. Depending on how serious the training is, there is an injury risk, so just be careful and find a responsible coach.
6. Ice hockey
This is a really great cross-training sport for tennis that is often overlooked. It can also be expensive, so perhaps that's why it's not used as much as it could be. The game really parallels clay court tennis in the sense that players learn how to handle a stick like a racket and learn movement skills on an unstable surface. Balance, coordination, speed and agility are all trained in ice hockey. Hockey players also learn to be tough as part of the culture of the sport, which aids in the mental department.
The American classic. Baseball is great for developing the booming American serve! The throwing practice in baseball is really valuable in this regard. However, the downside is not too much cardio, movement and footwork benefits. Catching and hitting are great for hand-eye coordination.
Basketball is popular, well-organized and relatively inexpensive. It is good for developing some footwork patterns and hand-eye coordination, focusing more on upper body coordination skills than lower body (like soccer for example).
A great sport to make a tough warrior as the culture and training habits build mental strengths. Many parents are concerned about head injuries, so this aspect needs to be monitored carefully. Football players can derive different benefits from playing different positions. Throwing a football is an excellent training tool for the serve. Catching is valuable for hand-eye coordination. Positions that have more sprinting and footwork are more beneficial for tennis than more stationary positions.
10. Cross-country or track and field
I have had many kids participate in running sports. Tennis is, after all, a running sport, even though not all players in the U.S. like to run! Give me a well-trained cross-country runner any day and I can build a good tennis player. When a player likes to run and has a good cardio-stamina base, tennis is easier to master. Obviously, the sport doesn't have any hand or foot to eye coordination benefits, but is still valuable if a player really enjoys it. Cross-country or track and field also builds the mental benefits of focus and patience, basically forming the Spanish mindset that a player needs to have to grind on clay.
This list is not exhaustive and represents some of my personal favorites and sports I have seen work well for my players over the years. I may have missed a few good ones! If you have a personal favorite not on the list, feel free to e-mail them to me and explain the athletic benefits for tennis players.
Remember … don't force a child to play a sport that is "better" for tennis if they hate it! A healthy practice is to use the cross-training sport for fun on an "active day off" from tennis, or as an extra fitness session for your child on a regular tennis day.
Parents should understand that building a tennis champion means preventing injuries and maximizing athletic development, especially during the early, critical development years. Building a champion does not only mean hitting thousands of balls!
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.