The Biggest Thing We’re Getting Wrong About Developing Junior Tennis Players
How the lack of needs assessments and developmental/periodization plans is preventing junior players from becoming the best they can be
Both as a college tennis coach on the recruiting trail and now as someone who works with young athletes who one day aspire to play college tennis, I’ve spent a lot of time observing the many great things that coaches do to help junior tennis players be the best they can be. Many coaches spend countless hours on the court training their players, watch tournament matches in person on the weekends and are mentors to the young people they work with.
But in addition to all these great things, many junior tennis players would benefit from a larger emphasis on something that I’ve found is too often missing from our approach to developing young athletes - the use of needs assessments to drive specifically tailored developmental and periodization plans aimed at helping players reach their full potential. In this post, I will explain what all of these concepts are, why they are so important, and how parents can go about ensuring that they are part of their kids’ tennis development.
The basic concept behind a needs assessment - evaluate your game and figure out what you need to work on - is pretty straightforward and almost everyone does some version of it. But what separates a true needs assessment from what is too often done are the scope and specificity of the assessment. A complete needs assessment evaluates a player’s performance and asks where the biggest weaknesses are across all of the key areas that contribute to on-court success:
Technical - can I consistently execute each of the shots that go into a winning tennis game?
Tactical - am I able to use patterns of play and successfully construct points?
Mental - do I have the necessary confidence/focus/control of my nerves to achieve my tennis goals?
Physical - do I have the necessary fitness/speed/strength/agility to achieve my tennis goals?
Asking these questions allows players to identify the specific factors that are most affecting their games. A complete needs assessment doesn’t just tell you “I need to work on my forehand and my mental game.” It says “I need to be able to hit my open stance forehand when I’m pulled out wide and to maintain my focus in-between points by working on routines and rituals.” These realizations then become the basis for developmental plans.
Much like with needs assessments, the concept behind a developmental plan is easy to understand, but not something that is widely done in its full form. A true developmental plan is a written document that identifies the top priorities (as determined by the needs assessment) that you will be focusing on over a defined period of time. This doesn’t mean that these are the only things you’ll be working on in practice - typically a developmental plan would highlight no more than three top priorities. But those priorities would provide an organizing framework for how to approach each practice. And they would be at the level of specificity used in the needs assessments. Again, not “work on forehand” but rather “work on my open stance forehand when pulled out wide”
The USTA has a sample developmental plan that is very similar to the kind that I would create with each of my players. The link can be found here.
A key component of any developmental plan is how you evaluate your progress. In most cases, progress will come in stages. First you’ll be able to execute a specific skill in practice. Then you’ll be able to do it in matches, but not consistently. Only when you are able to consistently execute the skill in matches under pressure has the goal of the developmental plan been met.
Periodization plans are probably the least familiar and least utilized concept of the three tools discussed here. In a nutshell - most junior tennis players enter too many tournaments. The USTA publishes guidelines on how many tournaments young athletes should be playing. Many players I meet are entering twice as many tournaments as the USTA recommends. The problem with such a punishing tournament schedule is that nobody can play their best tennis that constantly.
Enter periodization plans. Periodization begins by identifying the highest priority tournaments of the year during which you need to perform at your absolute best. It then works backwards to determine periods during which you can be more focused on the early stages of a developmental plan, followed by tournaments that you can play in preparation for the highest priority events of the year. The idea is that everything about your schedule is structured to build toward peak performance when you need it most. The concept of periodization is what I and many other college coaches would use to build our match schedules. Nonstop competition isn’t good for getting the best results as a college tennis team. The same is true for junior tennis players.
As noted, these three tools are not things that we do a consistently good job of emphasizing with young athletes. If your child’s coach is not using one or more of these tools, start by having a conversation with him or her about the potential to incorporate them into your child’s training. If you’d ever like to talk to me about how to incorporate these things into your child’s training schedule a complimentary thirty minute call.