2011 CTDW: Player Retention

February 14, 2011 05:04 PM
When teaching youth tennis, activities should always have a game-based goal.
A huge element of teaching tennis this day in age is to keep all kids active in the lesson.
By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
From 10 and Under Tennis to adult players to parents who want to take a more active role in their child's personal development, the Community Tennis Development Workshop (CTDW) each year serves as the meeting of the most tireless minds from all 17 USTA sections and the national level to discuss the future of tennis in the United States.

As part of USTA.com's coverage of the 2011 CTDW in Washington D.C., we went around the workshops to discover which new ideas, initiatives and practices are pushing people towards the ultimate goal: To promote and develop the game at all levels.

Along the way we met the impassioned speakers delivering the presentations and come to know what drives their efforts.  

Who they are:

- Anne Davis, USTA National Manager of Organizers
- Dave Ritter, USTA National Manager of Recreational Coaches

Why they're speaking:

In their travels as coaches, Dave Ritter and Anne Davis are listening to kids conversing with one another and what they're hearing makes them cringe.

"Where are you going?" asks the first friend in the example, noticing the racquet in the other's hands. "I'm going to my tennis lesson," says the second friend.

"Whether there's enthusiasm or not behind that statement, that first friend has already tuned out the possibility of tennis being fun," said Ritter. "What kid in their right mind wants to go to a lesson?"

In their execution, the truly successful youth programs will have that same hypothetical kid saying: "I'm going to play tennis." To build those programs, it all starts with proper training for coaches.

Recreational On-Court Training is at the forefront of giving coaches, organizers and even parents the tools to keeping kids on the court. Through USTA Recreational Coaches Workshops (RCW) and Recreational QuickStart Tennis Workshops (QST), over 12,000 attendees across the nation - 70 percent with less than two years of coaching experience - learned innovative methods and activities designed around game-based learning in 2010.

"Our desire is to invest in your programs. We don't turn people down," said Davis, citing that 450 workshops - a new record - were organized and completed in the past year. "You learn with us a strong mantra to pass along to your organization: No laps, no lines, and no lectures."

Feature Ideas: Video Games and Chess

Sports that promote physical fitness, like tennis, are losing out to sedentary activities like playing video games according to studies conducted by Ritter, Davis and company over the last three years.

There are numerous parallels between tennis and video games, which the workshop's audience pointed out: They're challenging, engaging, inspire friendships and promote competition.

Yet the differences are damaging to the tennis cause. Consider the "game over" aspect of a video game: A kid can try again almost instantaneously should they fail with the concept of multiple tries, or "lives." With failure built into the expectations of the system - some kids even consider the back-and-forth regeneration as fun - the game is never truly over. With tennis?

"Kids will travel hundreds of miles into another state to play in a tournament, lose a match within an hour; one and done," said Ritter. "The tennis experience is too short and the discouraging car ride is too long."

While the advent of round-robin play and other more progressive competition formats can prevent these scenarios, the ways kids are learning tennis in many areas remain antiquated.

"As coaches, we are a product of our past," said Davis. "Too many coaches are still teaching the game based on the traditional model - lots of standing around and coaches yelling at kids. We're doing damage this way. Kids are far more sensitive students. They have a hard time determining whether loud voices equal encouragement or admonishment."

The teaching duo also points out that chess is another pastime that is exercise-free but from which tennis coaches can take pointers from. Consider that in tennis, many players are taught station-by-station, lesson-to-lesson: Serving one day, lobs the next, then backhands in the next session.

"Now think of taking a chess lesson and being told you can only move the knight for an hour. Pretty silly, right?" said Ritter. "It is not playing chess, just like drills equate to not playing tennis."

How to Improve: Don't Race Up the Ladder

General Manager of USTA Player Development Patrick McEnroe will tell anyone who listens that becoming a great tennis player "is not a race up the ladder - just because a kid can play on a full-sized court at an early age doesn't necessarily mean he or she should."

The age groups and color coordination attributed to the 10 and Under Tennis model are meant to be guidelines, but the final say in when a player is ready for the next stage remains within the realm of coaching.

"The red-ball and orange-ball stages of QuickStart are so critically important," said Davis. "To be competitive and proficient at each level is difficult, even with the elements changed."

"When the skills are refined to the point where they look like they're playing the US Open of 36-foot court tennis, then its time to move on," added Ritter.