A CONTROVERSIAL THEORY ON THE ROLE OF TOURNAMENT PLAY IN A PLAYERS DEVELOPMENT
How important are tournaments in developing a great tennis player? The answer is of course, they are very important. Nearly every Coach and Tennis Organization will tell you that if you want to become a great tennis player, you need to play as many tournaments as possible- pretty much right from the beginning of your training.
I have been coaching the game of tennis and observing very closely the role of tournaments in the development process for more than 40 years.
I have a very different belief on how many tournaments are necessary, and also on when they should be played
Please understand- and this is a very key point-
I am speaking here of
A developing player needs to play a massive number of real and competitive matches as they climb the ladder-These matches will provide the knowledge and experience for a player to learn strategic and tactical situations and their appropriate shot selection and overall match strategy.
I just don’t believe that those matches have to be in a tournament.
Tournaments are definitely the end game in tennis- It’s where we, as tennis players measure our ultimate ability- our level of mastery of the game- of our minds- and our ability to do that in the most important events possible.
But during the developmental stages of becoming a great tennis player- I believe athletes should primarily spend their time developing the skills to play the game. Tournaments take a tremendous amount of time to participate in, and take away from the skill development of the player.
I AM VERY CONFIDENT THAT A LOT OF POTENTIAL PROFESSIONAL TENNIS PLAYERS NEVER REALIZED THEIR DREAM OF PLAYING PROFESSIONALLY - OR DIDN'T ACHIEVE THEIR ULTIMATE POTENTIAL- BECAUSE THEY SPENT TOO MUCH TIME RUNNING AROUND PLAYING TOURNAMENTS RATHER THAN DEVELOPING THE SKILLS NECESSARY TO PLAY AT THE HIGHEST LEVEL
The game of tennis can be broken down into areas of physical and mental skills which fall into a number of specific types. Skills are learned from a Coach, and or Coaches, and are developed in practice sessions-shadowing strokes, doing ball drills, footwork drills, specific practice drills with very specific targets etc. The tactical and strategic areas of the game are best learned in “MATCHPLAY” -
They do not need to be developed in tournaments.
TOURNAMENTS are most important to the MENTAL SIDE of the equation. Throughout a players career there are tournaments of varying importance. Each level, or grade of tournament, with it’s own level of importance, requires the player to become accustomed to the “pressure” of that particular situation. Once they do this, they can compete evenly at their current skill level.
It has been my observation that there are three basic types of competitor.
Approximately 20% of all competitors are “born to compete”. It doesn’t matter what they are competing at, they just perform at their current or let’s call it “normal” level of ability regardless of the “pressure”.
The second type is the largest group of competitors which numbers approximately 50-55% of all competitors. This is the type of athlete who needs a certain amount of competitions at each level to be able to compete at his/her current skill level- but in my opinion not the number that most “expert’s” believe.
This second group, which comprises the majority of successful competitive tennis players, will “climatize “ themselves to a particular situation or experience within 5 - 10 tournaments at each “pressure” level.
If it takes longer than that- the player falls into the third category of competitor and will most likely never become climatized, regardless of the number of tournaments played. This type of player will require Professional Psychological help to overcome their fears. The fears they experience during tournament play are unrelated to Sport or Tennis in particular. They are what I refer to as character challenges. This group comprises approximately 25-30% of all competitors, those who regardless of how many tournaments they play- will never get past the nerves without Professional help.
I believe that when a player is young and trying to learn the necessary skills for excellence in tennis, the primary focus should be on SKILL DEVELOPMENT, and very little emphasis should be placed on tournament play. If a player is practicing every day for hours, you want that player to develop the correct technique as soon as possible, so that every shot the player hits is contributing to their future game.
By eliminating a large percentage of the tournaments which most players participate in at an early age, more time becomes available which the player can use for both skill development and "arranged "match play at an appropriate level. There are many skills to be learned, and each one will take a massive amount of time to master.
Over the past few years my beliefs have only been strengthened by observing very closely the highest ranked Professionals. In particular I am referring to the fact that nearly every single one of them is continuing to improve their skill level, some after their 30’th birthday. Players like Djokovic, Murray, Nadal, Ferrer, Haas- All of these players have shown noticeable “TECHNICAL IMPROVEMENT” in the past three years.
This type of improvement does not come from tournament play-
It comes from “SKILL DEVELOPMENT “ on a practice court with their Coach. If the top 10 players in the World are still working on skill development at this stage of their career the message is crystal clear- It takes a very very long time to develop the skills necessary to be the best player possible.
If you are spending your weekends devoting 25 hours to tournaments (where you are very often only playing one or two real competitive matches) , you are missing out on a huge amount of developmental time where you could actually be improving your game.
Following is a very typical weekend tournament experience for a Toronto, Ontario junior. I am confident that junior players and their parents from around the World can relate to this scenario.
Your first match is in Niagara on Friday at 6:30pm. You leave TO at 3:30 -4pm .You arrive in Niagara at 6pm as you hit Friday rush hour. You play your match (often delayed by an hour or so) and you win 6-0,6-1. You drive home and get to bed at 11pm. You get back up at 6 am as you have a 9 am match in Niagara. You drive to Niagara and win your second round 2 and 2. You go to lunch at Tim Hortons and then you play your next match at 3 pm ( it was scheduled for 2 but hey - its a junior tournament!) - You win that 3 and 2 and then you drive home. You get to TO at 7 pm and have dinner- Talk to a few friends and then you get up Sunday at 6:30am as your next match is at 10 am in Niagara. You win that match 4 and 3 and then you go for lunch at TH’s and you play the final at 4 pm. You get home at 8 pm Sunday. I understand that some will say my example would only include the 2 finalists of the tournament. If you back it up a round it includes the 4 semifinalists- 2 rounds- the 8 quarter-finalist. The concept is still pretty much the same-
TOTAL TIME DRIVING- 9 1/2 hours
WAITING TO PLAY- 8 hours
PLAYING TIME- 8 hours
TOTAL - 25 1/2 HOURS
COSTS- TOURNAMENT ENTRY FEE - $ 50
FOOD- $ 50
____________________________________________TOTAL COST- $180 TOURNAMENT TIME -25 1/2 HRS.
THAT IS A LOT OF POTENTIAL SKILL DEVELOPMENT TIME!!!!
And If you’re not winning your first 2 or 3 matches as described above, then you most definitely would be better off improving your skills before playing tournaments.
Let’s look at the benefits of playing this tournament.
You have played several matches (although most were not very competitive) - You have played various players and hopefully different styles . And you have further “climatized” yourself to that level of tournament. These are positive experiences to be sure.
But if you believe as I do, that it only takes 5-10 of these experiences to learn how to compete evenly at that level, what’s the hurry?
NOW LET’S LOOK AT AN ALTERNATIVE TO THE ABOVE SCENARIO
My calculations are based on “Walk-On“ ( no charge) Courts for the players to practice - and they are very realistic at the Mayfair Clubs where I am currently working-
3:30 pm - Semi -Private lesson with Personal Coach
4:30-6:30 pm- Practicing skills learned in lesson
Total Cost- $50
6:30 -pm -10:00pm - Head Home for Dinner with Family and Free time (friends,family,homework etc.)
7:30-8:30 am - Semi -Private lesson with Personal Coach
8:30-10:30 am - Practicing Skills learned in lesson
10:30am-3:30pm- Family Time or Free time for activities of players choice as above
3:30pm- 7:30pm - Match Play with 4 players ( 2 matches-these would be arranged , highly competitive matches)
Total Costs For Saturday - $75
7:30pm - Head Home for time with family and or with friends
7:30 am - 9:30am - Working On Skill Development
9:30 - 4:30 pm - Family Time or Free Time for Activities of Players Choice
4:30pm - 6:30 pm - Match Play ( again highly competitive arranged matches) or Skill Development
6:30 pm - Head Home For Dinner
$ 0 if “walk-on” -
TOTAL PRACTICE TIME WITH COACH AND PRACTICE PARTNER’S - 13 HOURS
TOTAL WAITING TIME- 0
TOTAL DRIVING TIME - 1 1/2 HOURS
TIME FOR OTHER ACTIVITIES - 12 HOURS
TOTAL COST - $125
Is the above schedule really possible?? Yes it most definitely is!
So if rather than playing the tournament, you instead take the time to develop better skills- and play 3 or 4, highly competitive matches which substantially improve your level of play- thereby increasing your chances of success in tournaments- won’t that improve the overall experience? As I have said before, it takes a massive amount of time to learn all of the skills that go into a great tennis player.
THE GAME IS CHANGING
One of the biggest differences in todays Professional game from the one played 20- 30 years ago is that every top player has a “TEAM” around them. One of the team members is a Coach, who provides the player the opportunity to continue to improve his/her skills as they progress up the ranking ladder. In the “old days” players travelled alone, so it was very difficult to improve much . In other words your game (and others) didn’t change a whole lot once you hit the Pro level.This is also one of the main reasons that in today’s game the highest ranked juniors don’t automatically become the highest ranked Pro’s right away, and quite often they never join the top Professional Players. The Players who entered the Professional Ranks ahead of them are continuing to improve, and are therefore more difficult to catch up to. Only the true “Superstars” can immediately make it to the highest level in their first year or two. For the rest it is the beginning of a long grind to the top, trying to catch those who went before you.
I am well aware that my conclusions regarding the role of tournaments in a tennis players development are controversial.
I also understand where the prevailing theory came from, and why it is widely accepted or believed. Proponents of the current theory will spew out all kinds of statistics to back up their argument as if they are providing a statement of causality. But like many “studies” the causality relationship is flawed and the theory is also.
The fact that nearly every Top 10 ATP and WTA Player participated in a large number of tournaments when they were juniors ( with maybe the exception of the Williams Sisters) does not mean that they needed -
ALL OF THOSE TOURNAMENTS TO BE WHERE THEY ARE-
and especially the tournaments when they were younger and working on the basics of their game. It simply means that they did play those tournaments, as that is what they were told they needed to do.
It is my hope that this analysis of Tournament Play in the developmental process of a tennis player may help some become better players than they may have otherwise. I feel very confident that my conclusions are accurate.