Team sports provide a wonderful education for kids in school and in life. Ask any health and physical education teacher in an elementary school setting and they will probably mention the importance of cooperation, strategy, social skills and responsibility. Ask any coach of an organized youth recreational sport and they will recite the concepts of team spirit, unity, pride, skill development and commitment. There is certainly a positive place in our world for youth team sports, with their matching jerseys, catchy names and extensive parent following. This is regardless of the size and shape of ball they use or the dimensions and lines on a field or court.
As usual, however, what we see in front of the curtain is very different than what lurks behind. In a 2009 article by Tim Heckler, CEO of the USPTA (United States Professional Tennis Association), asserts that what starts out as a model for very positive social interaction between both kids and parents can sometimes turn ugly. His first-hand experience spans over 15 years of coaching kids' soccer teams and involvement with both basketball and softball thanks to the participation of his three kids. Although citing the wonderful learning opportunity provided for many parents and volunteers through participation and social interaction, he also saw the underbelly of interfering and controlling parents, individual power trips, player disappointment resulting from unfair selection practices, and an environment where a select few have control of a child’s destiny in their sport.
Mr. Heckler mentions how he had seen, after the age of about 11, soccer teams lose the “fun and games” aspect and refocus on building a team of strong-willed competitors who inevitably include the child or children of those in charge regardless of their talent. When other parents see the favoritism and both unfair and untrained decision-making, the best of team sports gets lost in a negative atmosphere of dissatisfaction. Mr. Heckler himself found many kids losing interest around 11, 12 years old.
If this were only the opinion of one man, albeit an industry CEO, then it would be interesting but not precedent-setting. But the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA) made statistics available (from the aforementioned article) that compared tennis, an individual sport, to other team-oriented sports. Part of what the numbers showed was not a surprise. Soccer, baseball and basketball, for example, popular team sports for youth, attract significant numbers of kids. Basketball came in third with 1 million kids, baseball took about 1.2 million, and soccer wins the prize with 1.7 million. Tennis by comparison captured about 200,000 in the same time period. I personally see kids flock in droves to team activities, and to be perfectly honest, I think all kids need to experience a variety of sports to see what really appeals to them.
Kids are not the ones who ultimately make the decisions about the sport in which they will participate at a young age, however. Parents decide. And there is always a tendency to either go with what is familiar or what appeals to the masses. Since many parents are not tennis players, don't follow it, didn’t play it in high school or college, and maybe even don't understand it, their kids are never given the chance to either accept it or reject it on its own merit. Choices between one activity path or another must always be made by parents since time and funds are not infinite. So, more often than not, the choice is made to go with the biggest group or the so-called popular sport.
The authors of a September 2010 article published by the Mayo Clinic, entitled "Children and Sports: Choices for all Ages," recommend that parents compare the options since every community offers a variety of group and individual programs. The things to evaluate in a sport, according to the article, are: the cost and amount of equipment required; how much physical contact is anticipated; whether the sport emphasizes overall performance in a team environment only or individual skill; how often each child is directly involved in the action; and weekly schedules that require time-consuming involvement for both parents and kids that may conflict with work and school schedules.
Getting back to the statistics by the SGMA, they showed that by age 10, many kids start moving to more individualized sports until by the age of 16 the participation numbers in soccer, baseball and tennis even out, at about 500,000 active youth. So do kids grow out of team sports? No, not really. Between the ages of about 14 and 18, teenagers are in high school and may join the tennis team. Every player has an individual role in the overall score of that team, and no one player can make a team win or lose. That is not to say that some players are not stronger and more valuable to the wins/losses column than others. But individuals get to show their ability, shot after shot, in an environment that allows them more control over their own destiny in a game or match. Even in doubles, they only have one partner and not the support of a half-dozen or more players. And by the very nature of tennis, there is little time to stand around and stare into space as most parents have seen from kids on a soccer field or baseball outfield.
One of the biggest advantages associated with tennis is its longevity. I have seen kids programs that start at the age of 3 and adult programs that can carry one through their entire life. I personally begin kids at 5 years old and continue with them in group programs until about the age of 12. This seems to be when more individual attention to stroke production, strategy, tactics and fitness training become advantageous as specific methods can be used to fit the direct needs of the player.
My perspective as a PTR Junior Development Certified instructor is as follows: Tennis may be an individual sport, but I believe that the availability of high-school tennis teams, club leagues, and USTA Junior Team Tennis allows this sport to blend the best of both worlds. My insight as a certified school teacher tells me that students in any classroom do not get report cards that reflect the class grade. Each student may participate as part of the group, but their report card carries their name and indicates their individual effort. Does a single child’s involvement with other children add collectively to the overall classroom environment? Absolutely! And the participation and social skills involved in collaborative learning are not only positive but essential. But when all is said and done, a student’s graduation certificate—whether from middle school, high school, or college—bears that student's name only. We live in a world where the skills we learn should last us a lifetime and where individual effort is not only recognized but necessary for success. Tennis provides this type of experience, and I can only keep forever vigilant in spreading the word that this activity called tennis is at least a "must-try" for every kid, everywhere.
Ron Miller is a PTR certified tennis instructor who teaches group and private lessons for kids and adults through Gloucester Township Recreation in the SJ area. His website and podcast (in iTunes) provide free instructional content for beginners to advanced players.