| By Max Wennakoski
Photo courtesy of Getty Images


The many benefits of physical activity

Besides benefits on physical health, engaging in sports and physical activity has well-documented benefits also on the mental health and well-being of children and adults alike. These include decreased depressive symptoms, increased self-esteem, and improved social abilities—and these can be gained from participating in sports, both team and individual. While both team and individual sports have been shown to support mental and physical health,  not all sports, impact mental health in the same way.

Playing sports in a team can lead to feelings of support and acceptance in a child, as well as support positive emotions through learning to cooperate with others and contribute to a joint aim or group goal. All of these things play an important role in reducing symptoms that are linked to depression, and contribute to healthy relationships with adults and peers. Thus, there are several good reasons to engage in physical activity on a regular basis.

Furthermore, individual sports may help strengthen also other important skills in a child. When practicing, a child can improve his/her ability to concentrate and get mentally stronger. While individual sports may not provide the same sense of support and acceptance as team sports, they encourage responsibility and self-reliance. To support these arguments, research results point that these would be reasons why individual sport athletes tend to engage in a “higher level of preparation” because their success depends completely on their own skills and training (Kajbafnezhad et al., 2011). “

Yet it can also be noted that “this increased sense of accountability may lead to intense feelings of shame or guilt after losing (Nixdorf et al., 2016)." Because these emotions can be strong, also the support of an adult professional, such as a coach, can be invaluable, so that the child does not have to go through all these states of minds alone.

Another important dimension is that of peer support. In that, team dynamics can provide positive and collegial experiences, but not all children sense this similarly, and to some, the experience can also be stressful. It has even been argued that individual sports can still cause more internal attribution such as shame after failure, which is linked to depressive symptoms (Boone and Leadbeater, 2006; Hanrahan and Cerin, 2009; Nixdorf et al., 2016). Nixdorf et al. (2016). Therefore an individual athlete may be more prone to suffer from depression than those who play team sports.

As many emotions also come and go, learning to deal with those instances is an important step, especially if considering competing in a sport.

The positive experience of college tennis

As a sport, tennis appears to have qualities of both an individual and a group sport. Regarding the latter, for many tennis players, college tennis is a unique phase in their life. Moreover, more often than not, this time period is also felt an extremely positive experience, and when asked about the reasons behind this, oftentimes the justification comes from the combination of getting to enjoy the feeling of being part of a team and playing with and for the teammates, while still playing also an individual sport that tennis also is,  sort of getting the best of both worlds, if you will. Importantly, although an individual sport, the team aspect of college tennis is very unique and for many tennis players it can provide a great amount of positive experiences on and off the court than they have experienced so far. This can be due to a variety of reasons, including discovering one’s strengths and using those successfully for the team work; but also in learning to embrace the pressure of playing for something greater than just yourself, and having the opportunity to create a very strong sense of group identity, where each individual pushes each other to get better on a daily basis.

How to ensure kids will not quit the sport?

We all know that there may come days when we would rather skip practice. There is no silver bullet at sight for this tricky issue of how to then motivate us to put on our sneakers and get on the court. In any event, as tennis players tend to practice a lot more time than they compete, the most important thing for the practice environment is that whatever it generates to us, it does so in a positive way. While it all starts from within us, a positive push and encouragement seldom hurts. Thus is also often where the help of the coach and the parents is needed. Yet, equally important is that at the end of the day their role does not get too involved. For the child’s own enjoyment, his or her motivation and willingness to go to a practice is what this is about. For them to discover themselves, and the inner player within them. And we could certainly talk more about the role of motivation, but perhaps we will do that on some other occasion…

Now, getting back to the theme of today, namely team experiences in tennis: playing in a small group of two to four kids, along with individual practices, may be able to give a child the best of both worlds, not perhaps the same experience as in college tennis, which is more intensive, present daily, if not hourly in our life, but nevertheless experiencing on a weekly basis a team environment where they are "part of the team", while also learning to play different situations and practice matches. And this can have some socializing part that comes along, above all because no one can play tennis alone, but this can also include the practice towards staying fully focused in oneself.

As there is no clear-cut formula for what might work someone might not work for someone else, but incorporating team work, playing points in teams as well as supporting each other while focusing on the practice itself are fundamental components that most junior tennis players need in their daily practice routines to keep it interesting and to develop the right skills.

Furthermore, there are a great number of junior team competitions such as USTA Junior Team Tennis, high school tennis and other competitions. Growing up in my native Finland, a big part of tennis was club tennis, where there is no age limitation, so junior tennis players can play as well, against other clubs and more experienced players, all the way to a very high level. These would be some of the most exciting matches to play along with junior Davis Cup and other team events where you would get to possibly represent your region or country.

One way to create more of these events and make sure that they will be meaningful for a lot of junior tennis players is to use the UTR tennis rating system, which would help create an incentive for junior tennis players to play more of these team events.

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy 2020 on and off the tennis courts!


Max Wennakoski

Max Wennakoski is currently a professional tennis coach who spent time on the ATP World Tour. He can be reached at max.wennakoski@gmail.com​.​