As a coach, I counsel many families about how much tennis children should train at different ages and whether to cross-train in other sports and it’s a common question on my podcast, The Prodigy Maker Show.
The bottom line is that every kid is different. Some can play tennis exclusively from the start while others will thrive by including an additional sport in their training regimen.
Getting the formula right is challenging and critical to the player’s success.
Unfortunately, many sport scientists and doctors are promoting the recommendation that all kids MUST play multiple sports and that all kids should wait until the teenage years to specialize in tennis. In my view, this is unsupported by the current research available and does a disservice to players looking to achieve a high level in the game.
Listen to your kid
As a parent, you need to be empathetic and stay connected to your child, feeling what they are feeling and always communicating well. If your kid wants to play a lot of tennis, has an intense passion for the game, and doesn’t enjoy other sports, let him or her play more tennis.
On the other hand, if your player is not ready to commit to tennis and has other athletic interests, please allow them to participate in more than one sport! Don’t force them to play only tennis. You will need to be patient and let your kid mature and develop until they are more ready to specialize.
The big three concerns
Researchers have identified three major risks to specializing early and parents (and coaches) would be wise to familiarize themselves with these dangers and develop a game plan to mitigate them if their player will be focusing exclusively on tennis at a young age.
Incomplete athletic development
The concern is that players who specialize early will have gaps in their athletic capabilities. For example, a powerful athlete who is clumsy; a fast athlete who doesn’t have great hand-eye; an agile athlete with poor stamina.
It’s important to classify all the athletic traits your child needs for tennis and make sure their sports help develop these qualities. If they don’t, provide a supplemental athletic development program.
If your kid only plays tennis, it’s critical to develop his or her overall athletic skills with extra training.
Monitor your child diligently for any signs of overuse injury. Whether your player focuses on one sport or many, take no chances with injury; they are a dream killer. Make sure your player receives an annual musculoskeletal injury prevention screening and has a prehabilitation program in place from the youngest ages.
Many parents worry that focusing on tennis seriously at a young age will inevitably lead to burnout. But burnout can hit any player at any level and is hard to predict. I advise parents that the key to managing burnout is to not over train the player, monitor them closely for signs of burnout and adapt the training accordingly, listen to your kids and be empathetic, and make tennis an enjoyable experience.
It’s near impossible to prove a direct connection between early specialization and long-term burnout. I recommend that parents focus on the factors above that they can control, and to never hold a kid back from playing a lot of tennis if the player asks for it and loves the game.
Understand the positives and negatives of the sports your child is playing
Every sport has positives and negatives. As a parent, you need to understand how the sports your children play affect their overall physiological and athletic development.
For example, swimming is a great cross-training sport, which builds cardio and flexibility and strength. However, too much freestyle swimming can overload the shoulder muscles and lead to injury. The load on the shoulder will be high for a tennis player who is serving a lot and also freestyle swimming many hours per week. Understanding the nuances and effects of each sport your child trains is critical to building a smart multi-sport game plan.
Soccer is a wonderful cross-training sport for tennis as it develops cardio, footwork and movement, and eye-foot coordination, etc, but soccer doesn’t develop much overhead power in the shoulders. Many times, kids who cross-train a lot of soccer don’t develop enough power overhead and their serves underperform in tennis.
Baseball is the opposite. My students who have played a lot of baseball usually have a lot of power in their shoulder and arm, but they don’t always move gracefully and with agility.
You need to know your sports and how they fit into the blueprint for your child. If your kid loves baseball, by all means, let him play but make sure to complement that good shoulder work he is getting with a solid speed, movement and agility program.
Don’t let the gap get too big
If your child is playing a lot of sports, be careful not to let the gap grow too large compared to other kids who are specializing. I strongly recommend that you play enough tennis and receive high level technical training so that, when the time comes to prioritize tennis, your player is ready to takeoff.
There is a great danger in playing too many sports for too long. You will end up with a good all-around athlete but one who is very far behind in tennis development. Often times these kids can become quite anxious and suffer from insecurity because they know they are behind and playing catch-up.
For this reason, I try to steer my clients into playing only one extra sport for cross-training, rather than two or three. In my experience, if a kid plays two to three additional sports, the tennis suffers too much. There is simply not enough time in a busy kid’s week to juggle all these sports. The player falls behind peers and the gap grows too wide to overcome. In addition, if too many sports are scheduled, the player will have little time to devote to injury prevention and overall athletic development.
My favorite sports to cross-train
I previously wrote an article for New York Tennis Magazine on my Top 10 List of sports to support tennis excellence. There are many sports that support tennis in a positive way. Here are a few of my favorites:
►Soccer: Very common supplementary sport in Europe and great for foot skills, speed and stamina.
►Basketball: Popular sport that works a healthy combination of hand-eye and footwork and movement skills.
►Martial Arts: My favorite sport to cross train. Each martial art has its individual benefits but, in general, martial arts develop good coordination, body awareness, power, fitness, and flexibility and mobility. If sparring is incorporated, martial arts can make a kid a lot tougher.
►Gymnastics: Builds wonderful body awareness, flexibility, mobility, and strength.
►Cross Country/Track: Great for cardio and stamina, but be mindful of too much pounding on the legs with excessive mileage.
►Chess: Not a sport per se, but many of my students have cross trained in chess, which builds the mind and helps with tactical awareness and concentration.
All the above sports also have positive psychological benefits for the tennis athlete as well, such as character development.
I say let children play tennis if they love tennis. Don’t hold them back by forcing them to play multiple sports. On the flip side, if they do want to play some other sports, don’t say NO. Plan those supplementary sports intelligently, support the kid with a good athleticism and prehab program, and don’t let the tennis skills gap grow to wide!
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.