In my experience as a tennis professional, tennis coach and a Strength & Conditioning Coach, the importance and timing of physical skill development of a child from an early age is essential to maximise the opportunity of the player to develop high-level athletic competencies.
Long Term Athlete Development is a commonly accepted term and suggests that children under 10 is an essential age to develop physical skills as well as being a good age to start playing sport.
Physical literacy is the mastering of fundamental movement skills and fundamental sport skills that permit a child to read their environment and make appropriate decisions, allowing them to move confidently and with control in a wide range of physical activity. Physical literacy is important to develop before puberty so children have the basic skills to be active for life. This also provides the foundation for those who choose to pursue elite training in a chosen sport or activity after the age of 12.
Studies suggest that these motor skills and patterns should be learnt between the ages of 6 and 10 and enhanced between the ages of 9 and the onset of puberty to maximise the athletic development of the player.
Tennis coaches need to understand the importance of helping and teaching children to learn to move, as this is, what I believe, one of the most important fundamental principles of tennis.
In the sections following I will cover what I believe we need to teach as tennis coaches and how should practices be presented in order to maximise the opportunity.
Fundamental Movements are classified into different categories, but as tennis coaches, we need to understand that children need to perform these skills well in order to more effectively learn the specific movements in tennis:
- Locomotion (walk, run, hop, skip, etc.)
- Body management (land, balance, twist, etc.)
- Object control (throw, catch, strike, etc.)
All are necessary at an early age and ensure that a child:
- Maximises their athletic potential
- Gains confidence through a positive and active experience
- Develops habits of being active
- Benefits socially through cooperation and participation in sport
Providing children lots of experience and spending time teaching these skills in the warm up, as well as throughout the tennis lessons, are great ways to ensure that they will develop these essential foundations.
Understanding Movement Skills
On a tennis court, a player must consistently move
- To the ball using a variety of footwork patterns; then
- prepare around the ball and set up in a balanced position; then
- rotate through the shot finishing on balance; then
- recover to the recovery position
All of these movements need to be performed and players are required to move forward, backward, sideways and in different directions, all at high speed.
When looking at what these fundamental skills are, coaches need to acknowledge how, and in what order, children are likely to learn or develop them. Looking at them in categories and a simple way to view them is:
- Speed and Agility
This is the foundation of all efficient movement and is essential at every level of the game. Without it, we struggle to perform any other movements. Balance is defined as the ability to control the body’s position and posture. Balance, as a skill, moves from static to dynamic. An example would be to stand on one foot (static), and then hop on that foot (dynamic).
Coordination is defined as the ability to use different parts of the body together smoothly and efficiently. In considering coordination, you need to understand that it will progress from simple movements to more complex patterns. Use running as an example – moving from a simple running pattern, to changeable patterns (using a variety of step patterns), to reactive (doing all this with a tennis racquet and coordinating the run to arrive at the correct time and position to hit the ball).
It is important to build patterns in a logical order so that the player has the fundamentals to develop further athletic skills. Doing tennis specific footwork patterns only with young players may mean that could lack the ability to adjust and adapt at a later age.
Speed and Agility
Speed is the ability to perform an action quickly. Agility is defined as the ability to move at speed and change direction while remaining balanced. Players need to be able to do these actions with speed and in various directions. Like coordination, agility should be developed from being predictive (set patterns of fast movement) to reactive (reacting to the ball or opponent) and/or adaptive (being able to change the movement pattern).