There is this kid I know who is a talented soccer player. He trains twice per week with his club, two hours at a time. On the weekend, he and his teammates get to the grounds an hour early to prepare for their league or cup match, and sometimes they may have up to four games over a two-day period.  All the players are very technically sound and understand how the game should be played. The team has three coaches and they trawl the sidelines during the games criticizing, correcting, reinforcing good plays, congratulating successful and unsuccessful attempts, but they all appear to be a little on edge throughout the duration of the match. Last week there was a scout from Manchester United watching his team and taking notes. The kid recently got promoted to this group after some solid performances for the second team. He feels a lot of pressure to play even better to prove that he belongs on this team and is desperate to keep his spot. In the process, his game and confidence has suffered a bit as he adapts to the faster tempo, becomes more fearful of making errors, and plays to keep his position rather than playing to develop. He was very upset after a recent training session as he felt like he made too many mistakes, and some of his basic skills were eluding him. The established players on the squad were getting frustrated with him and the coach did little to encourage his teammates to be more supportive as he makes this transition. He appears to be losing some of the love he had for the game when he first started. In a few weeks, they will travel overseas to play against some of the top clubs in Europe.

The kid is actually my 11 year-old son!

My 11 year old, Liam, working on his game

My 11 year old, Liam, working on his game

Does anyone else think this is a bit crazy? Overzealous coaches, professional scouts, trips to central Europe, a deep focus on winning versus development, all for a group of 11 year olds who should be purely focused on their love for the game, and figuring out what they need to do to continue to improve. I find myself very conflicted about whether he should continue in this system or not. I know it would break his heart not to have these opportunities but would that decision prevent him from being soured from the game he loves later in his teenage years?

On the one hand, I am thrilled that he is going through this mild adversity and is forced to work out how he will get his confidence back, improve his self-talk and learn to stay present rather than worrying about failure. There are a lot of lessons to be learned, but does it all have to be so serious at the age of 11?!

What has this all got to do with tennis, you ask?

Well, I am seeing the same things happening in tennis. I get emails from parents asking about their 10-year old kids, and how much they should be playing per week, to put themselves in position to get a top college scholarship one day. As a college coach, I got to see the “final product” of years of coaching, sacrifice and hard work. I got to see firsthand if what we are doing is working or not.

My conclusion is that all this investment of time and money, more professionalized development structures and increased expectations is not benefitting these children in the ways we are hoping it would. Despite better facilities, increased competitive pathways, more educated coaches, the level of tennis I see is only marginally better than what it was two to three decades ago. There is more depth in the college game but I don’t see a significant improvement at the top levels and I don’t see the type of improvements I once saw in college players over a four-year period because they have already played so much by the time they set foot on campus.

What I do see is a much higher burn out rate, a lack of awareness about why they are even playing the sport, increased number of injuries and their love for training and competition is dwindling if not extinguished completely. They are merely on auto pilot, recognizing that they are very good at tennis, and have received a lot of praise and accolades for their achievements. They have also probably had to say no to a lot of social, family and hobby engagements as they pursued their tennis careers. They rarely stop to question why they followed this path, if it was all worth it or what would be the consequences if they decided to just stop playing at such a serious level. Would they still be as good if they had taken that family vacation at Christmas rather than going to some tournament on the other side of the country? Would they still be getting a college scholarship if they had committed a few weeks to acting in their school play rather than that training camp they were picked to participate in? Would they still be winning matches and playing at the same level if they hadn’t gone to that academy to play 5 hours a day and just stayed home and did 2 hours at the local club in which they began? I don’t know. What I do know is that all the training, competition and development systems around sporting excellence have sped up dramatically in recent years. College coaches are recruiting younger players, and players are committing at earlier ages.

I see coaches in many sports coaching 10 year olds the same way they would coach 22 year olds. They try to implement the same off the court training regimes and expect hours of structured hitting, conditioning and organized match play. Parents believe that if they don’t get their kids into the “system” as early as possible then their kid will miss out.

The kids get on this treadmill, and parents rarely ask whether or not it is truly the best thing for their child and feel pressured to conform. Just because they have an interest and passion for tennis at age 10 doesn’t mean they will still like at it age 15. However, by then, countless thousands of dollars have been spent, the kid’s social life probably stems a great deal around their tennis connections, their self-worth is wrapped up in their results, and if they take their foot off the pedal by then, everything they worked for, a college scholarship, could be gone; so they continue on this pathway, not really loving it but not really hating it either. They are just in a purgatory, going through the motions and not questioning their decisions.

It is such a delicate balance as a parent and something I am struggling with now. I don’t want my 11 year old to just be going through the motions and not enjoying his soccer in the same way he was at 10 or 9. I am not sure at what age it should become so serious, I guess that depends on the child, their maturity level and what other interests they enjoy. I know it is not 11, maybe 15? My son also plays field hockey, is in the chess club and is excited to give rugby a go this summer. He reads a lot, and is very interested in physics and the solar system. My goal as a parent is to have him pursue as many interests as possible for as long as possible, and hope that he does not get burned out on the things he truly loves to do because of over training, unrealistic expectations or misinformed coaching styles.  

Our time and financial investment in him will match his level of desire when he gets a little older. I will be looking for the tell-tale signs of burn out or waning interest, and with that we will invest less in terms of pursuing his soccer.

I am already having these conversations with him and getting him to reconnect with why he loves football. He is working on transferring the joy he feels on the school yard with his friends onto the game-day soccer pitch. I believe we adults are robbing children of the joy they should feel every time they walk on the court or pitch to play or practice. We need less parent and coach involvement and just allow kids to explore these games on their own terms. I would even argue that their athletic development is being stifled by these coaches as they get boxed in to specific game styles and positions, and become overly reliant on coaches’ feedback to get through a practice session. They learn few leadership qualities and just punch in and out of their training sessions like they work at a manufacturing plant.

We are getting our son to balance his structured sessions with completely unstructured sessions at the local parks and football pitches. He will go out with his friends and they will often find pick-up games with NO adult supervision. The lessons he is learning at the park about leadership, working with others, being allowed to fail and playing different game-styles and positions is helping his personal and athletic development more than his 2-hour team training sessions with his club. I hope my son is learning lessons on the sports field but that is not the only place I want him to learn such lessons. I believe sports may be able to expose adversity and weaknesses in his character more rapidly than anything else in his young life, and that is ultimately why I love that he has an interest in sports. I could care less what success he has with it, and my relationship with him will never be based upon his successes or failures as an athlete.