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Striking a balance - Early specialisation vs diversification

coaching philosophy Aug 19, 2020

By George Vogiatzis

We have all heard the glory stories. It goes something like this:

“Child picks up racquet at three, shows talent, dedicates everyday to working on their craft, tennis is the most important thing, overcomes difficult odds until they finally meet their ultimate dream and make it a reality many years later…”

Sounds like the kind of hero’s tale that we are all instinctively drawn to. There is of course a degree of truth to these stories, however, there is also a dangerous message that must be addressed. It can be misinterpreted that in order to develop talented athletes, kids must be on the court all day, everyday from a young age and engage in early specialisation.

The topic of early specialisation continues to create heated debate between coaches, researchers, sports scientists, medical experts, gym instructors and parents. Is it better to be a specialist or a generalist at a young age? One side argues that purposeful practice of a specific skill over time will create mastery, so the earlier you start to specialise the better chance of success. The other side states that there are ramifications to motor skill development, cognitive development and injury rate, so if a child doesn’t diversify and engage in a variety of sporting activities it will limit his/her potential.

When it comes to tennis, both have validity and both are relevant…So which practice is best? Based on the nature of our sport, a plausible answer is that both are necessary and the real challenge is find the right balance.

The fact is, tennis requires high levels of repetition for skill development, specific movement patterns, unique cognitive response and distinct conditioning, so the value of on court time at a young age cannot be underestimated. On the flip side, it is a unilateral sport, fundamental motor skills are needed to build technical skills, overuse injuries are common and burn out is a very real risk in later years.

Therefore, below are some things to consider when creating a program for young and talented kids:

Keep the ratio of specific tennis work to general athletic development fairly even. The proportions may change due to circumstances but they should always work in unison.
Incorporate non tennis activities into on court sessions e.g during warm ups and at the end of a session.
Use external coaches from other sports to mix up the week and expand the child’s skill base outside of just tennis e.g gymnastics.
Encourage training and competition in other sports, especially team sports.
Engage with strength and conditioning coaches to monitor and develop fundamental athletic skills.
Encourage free play where possible e.g. school or active rest days

In short, whilst tennis may be the main sport we need to have strategies that provide challenge, variety, holisticnes and an overall sense of balance. Think of it like… we are not trying to create young tennis specialists, but instead elite athletes who in later years master tennis.

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