Mythbusters: The 10 & Under and 12 & Under Age Groups Are Dying on Long Island … This Is Bad for the Future

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In the July/August 2016 issue of Long Island Tennis Magazine, I presented a table that is pretty depressing. In 2010, Level 2 10 & Under tournaments averaged 15.6 boys and 8.8 girls per tournament. And now … 1.4 boy and 1.1 girl per tournament. In other words, you are lucky to find a tournament with an opponent! These drops are literally straight across the board, regardless of age-group, level or gender.

Age Group/Level  2010 Players Per Long Island Tournament (Average)  2016 Players Per Long Island Tournament (Average)
Boys 10s Level1B  16.3 10.0
Boys 10s Level 2 15.6 1.4
Boys 10s Level 3 6.2 3.2
Girls 10s Level 1B 10.7 5.4
Girls 10s Level 2 8.8 1.1
Girls 10s Level 3 3.6 2.3
Boys 12s L1+ 72.6 42.0
Boys 12s L1/L1A 31.3 5.0
Boys 12s L1B 26.0 6.0
Boys 12s L2 14.1 8.9
Boys 12s L3 3.8 5.0
Girls 12s L1+ 41.5 41.0
Girls 12s L1/L1A 15.5  9.5
Girls 12s L1B 11.8 5.1
Girls 12s L2 5.0 4.1
Girls 12s L3 1.7 1.2

 

Reason #1: QuickStart equipment
Tournaments with small courts, deflated balls came about after 2010 and the results couldn’t be more clear. Wayne Bryan, father of Bob & Mike Bryan who I came to know while at Stanford, wrote a spot-on letter to the USTA a few years ago about how it’s ruining the game … and he’s right! If you have free time, look up the letter he wrote. Kudos, Wayne!

From experience working with players, I see this is what happens … at the time a child is good enough to play points with real equipment and real tennis balls, they have the confidence to play tournaments. Then they are blindsided that the tournaments are played with deflated tennis balls and small courts. This goes one of two ways, the coach convinces the child it’s good for them and they try it. Or, the family of the player says it’s stupid and they will wait until they get older.

If the child decides to play, they don’t really feel like it’s real tennis, they will then blame the result on the equipment, be bitter and not want to play another tournament any time soon. Meanwhile, sitting in the lobby, my ears ring with parents venting about how they hate the equipment and their child isn’t used to it. I’ll always just listen until someone eventually asks me about it. As a tournament director, I’ll get emails before the tournament asking if we use real balls because they will only put their child in if we do.

The other scenario is that the parents of the wannabe tournament child say this is the dumbest thing they ever heard and they will wait until their child is good enough to play older kids in real ball tournaments. Before this happens, the child may gravitate to another sport and being a tournament tennis player goes bye-bye.

Of course, some kids fall through the cracks of this scenario. Those are the kids represented in the right column in the table above. Do we only want the kids who fall through the cracks? Of course not!

My theory is that the equipment industry and individual clubs push the QuickStart initiative because it’s a money-maker. Clubs have to buy more equipment and clubs can get more kids on a court and make more money in a smaller space. This is fine for younger kids, but as Wayne Bryan says in his letter, “10-years-old is way too old for this modification!” The tournament entry numbers on Long island speak for themselves!

Reason #2: Tournament format
Is the tournament a round-robin? Are sets played to four? Is there a consolation? The formats are so confusing to people and it always seems like they are changing.

Quick story … I had a student play in a Level 2 10s tournament earlier this year. There were four kids in the tournament. Simple format right? A semifinal, a final and make a consolation match if you want to give everyone two matches. Instead, the four kids played each other for 20-minute rounds on one-court. Two played while two waited. Sometimes a match would be a blow out and the child would be embarrassed because the other players were watching. Not exactly a smooth format. Anyways, my student won one match and lost one match. She came in second even though she won the most games overall and had the best winning percentage.

This all made sense until …

She played in a Level 3 tournament two weeks later. It was a three-hour, round-robin and she won against all seven opponents and won the most games. After the three hours were up, she came up with a huge smile on her face, and then, the director announced someone else (another student of mine) as the winner. The other child, who lost a match, had a winning percentage of 86 percent, this girl who beat everyone had a winning percentage 84 percent.

I was thrilled for the winner of course, but how do I explain to my student that even though you beat everyone handily, you didn’t win due to winning percentage, while the week before you would have won if the tournament was scored by winning percentage. If any good could come out of it, it’s a good excuse to teach what winning percentage is to a nine-year-old … but still!

The tournament directors of two tournaments apologized to me for what they called a silly format. We laughed about it a little. After all, it is only the 10s! But to this student of mine, she still doesn’t really understand why she didn’t win. In my opinion, I’m not sure why they reinvented the wheel of a standard tournament.

The future
Unfortunately, I only see the numbers decreasing from here. Beginning Sept. 1, a child under 10-years-old who wants to play their first tournament will have to play a minimum of six Orange Ball tournaments and five Green Ball tournaments before they can sniff playing a Yellow Ball tournament in the 12 & Under Division. Oh yeah, they would have to win all 11 tournaments or else it’s even more tournaments! So unless you chase and dominate tournaments at the younger age groups, forget about playing up in a real ball 12 & Under tournament until your child is 11-years-old.

Maybe the USTA sees the QuickStart numbers are really low, so this prevents kids who are looking to avoid the 10 & Under pathway from playing 12s and will make the draws bigger. That wouldn’t be bad. At the same time, it does seem to make more sense to just avoid having the 10 & Under pathway because the numbers don’t lie.