With the summer camp season here—and as a high performance tennis camp owner myself—I speak with parents every day about summer camp experiences and expectations. Unfortunately, many tennis players have a disappointing experience at summer camp and their tennis games don’t progress. Let’s discuss some common summer camp pitfalls that parents should be aware of and try to avoid.
Too Much Technique
While most smart camps play lots of competitive matches and give some tactical pointers to kids—or at least they should—many camps mishandle technique.
A parent recently told me that her daughter attended a very famous camp in Florida known for its technical expertise. The coaches changed her daughter’s strokes and when she came home, her game and confidence suffered. Watch out for programs that are doctrinaire and rigid in terms of techniques. These programs in the summer can really ruin a kid. If a program is very strict and narrow in its pedagogical approach, this could be a disaster for your kid. Oftentimes, players will do their best to embrace new techniques but when they come home, they are not able to maintain the new form and revert back to old habits. So what’s the point of following a new technical system, making big changes for a few weeks, and then losing it all when the kid comes home? If important changes are going to be made to technique, camps need to be responsible in making those changes by analyzing if the changes are even possible or realistic given the time constraints of camp, and if the camp can provide continuing followup and support for the player who may really struggle post-camp without help.
Too Little Technique
At the same time, the majority of camps probably fall into this category. They teach little if any technique to summer players. The reason is that their philosophy is not to mess up the player’s game too much because sometimes technical changes can be difficult and mentally frustrating for the player. While this is an understandable position, unfortunately many players spend summer after summer going to camps where important technical mistakes are left untouched and very bad habits are allowed to become ingrained. Camps should take a middle ground approach, making a plan to realistically prioritize important changes and provide continuing followup and support to players whom the camp coaches made significant technical adjustments. With planning and support, technical flaws can be fixed and they don’t need to be swept under the carpet summer after summer!
Poor Coach Quality and Ratio
A camp needs to have knowledgeable coaches and not too many campers per coach if any important changes are going to be made. Many times, because the coaches at summer camps are inexperienced and the ratio of coach-camper is too high (4 or more players per coach for example), camps give up on really trying to change much. But when the coaches have experienced guidance and training and only 2-3 players per coach, much more can be accomplished.
If the coaches working with your kids are low-level high school or college players with little coaching education, for example, how can you trust these coaches with your kid’s development? Most camps hire people like this to save money. Be careful whom you trust with your player’s development!
Too Little Fitness
This is a very common issue in the summer camp industry currently. Many camps don’t offer professional fitness training from exercise science educated coaches or camps water down their fitness to the lowest common denominator—to the point of being a joke. If your kid is serious about tennis, he or she needs to embrace receiving a good physical education. This means learning about anatomy and physiology, how to work out effectively and safely in a gym, how the muscles and joints work in tennis, and how to become stronger, faster, and achieve better endurance. Summer camp is a great place to develop this physical education and, too often, camps neglect this subject and just hit balls.
Too Much Fitness
Parents should also watch out for a camp that offers too much volume of fitness without an injury prevention focus and fitness programs that are not designed or led by a professionally trained coach educated in sport science. If the program is not professionally designed or has too much volume, the risk of injury increases. The last thing you want is your kid to come home injured from summer camp!
I have seen too many players stagnate at all-sports camps to recommend them. Usually, the camps do not hire the best possible tennis staff and the kids who flock to these programs tend not to be the most serious. The environment matters. If you want your kid to just have some fun, these camps are fine. If you want your kid to really make the most tennis improvement possible, I recommend more serious tennis focused camps that will be more demanding.
Large summer camps are definitely something to be wary of, if you want personal attention and the best possible improvement. When a camp has hundreds of players visiting, the staff are basically just trying to survive! It’s just too many people to track and manage and it’s very hard to give customized training. Individual planning and training can accelerate the progress of a player in summer camp. When a player is lost in the herd, they might improve, or they might not, but the improvement won’t be as dramatic as in a personalized program.
Famous Academy Camps
Famous academies do offer elite training and instruction. Unfortunately, the best coaches usually only work with the annual academy full-time players—rarely with short-term summer kids. Famous academy summer camps are very uneven in their quality and often suffer from the faults of large camps and watered-down fitness regimens. While it’s possible to get great training at a famous academy camp, you need to know somebody at the academy who will give your kid preferential treatment and extra attention, or I recommend the parent actually be onsite to ensure that the player is not neglected and receives the best possible instruction.
Psychology programming is a new phenomenon in summer camps. While learning some basic mental and emotional management skills is undoubtedly a good thing, I’m concerned that many psychology offerings are pretty basic and take away from other types of training like fitness and court time. In order to squeeze in psychology training, it looks like fitness and tennis time is being reduced. Consider whether a very limited, generic psychology program is really what your kid needs at camp or if that training could be better provided at home with a personal coach or psychologist. Please also do not run to the psychologist when your player is not fit. A fit player will always be stronger psychologically. It makes no sense to sign up for a weak fitness program and a strong mental program. You can’t be mentally tough without a solid base of fitness because, as soon as you get tired, it’s easy to lose control of your mind and emotions.
I hope these thoughts give you some additional insight when you evaluate summer camp programs. Camp can be a wonderful opportunity to jump levels, but camp can also be a place where kids stagnate, struggle and are sometimes neglected.
Chris Lewit is a former number one for Cornell and pro circuit player. He is a high-performance coach, educator, and the author of two best-selling books: The Secrets of Spanish Tennis and The Tennis Technique Bible. He has coached numerous top 10 nationally-ranked players and is known for his expertise in building the foundations of young prodigies. Chris is currently working towards an advanced degree in Kinesiology/Exercise Science with a focus on Biomechanics. Chris coaches in NYC and year-round at his high performance tennis academy in Manchester, VT, where players can live and train the Spanish Way full-time or short-term. He may be reached by phone at (914) 462-2912, e-mail Chris@chrislewit.com or visit ChrisLewit.com.