In our first post in the sports science of tennis series, we wrote about the success and decline of top 10 players between two generations of players (G1 and G2 respectively). In our second installment of the series, we talk a little about tennis LTAD (long-term athlete development) with reference to the development models and research indicating the pathway of elite professional players in other sports, and also with reference to the performance indicators used presently to define elite youth tennis players.

 

The concept of long-term athlete development (LTAD) is one that has become popular over the past 10-15 years. LTAD models provide a framework for athlete development from the “FUNdamental” stages when an athlete first chooses to participate in a sport, to the achievement of elite level international status. In tennis, national governing bodies and private tennis academies have developed LTAD models, in an attempt to provide a pathway to success for their players.

Variations of the LTAD model have been devised by some of the leading sporting bodies in the world. In this article, we start by citing the example set by Australia in their comprehensive document entitled “The Athlete Development Matrix” for tennis. We choose the Australian model because the Aussies are widely regarded as one of the leading sporting nations in the world. They have produced numerous grand slam winners in the men’s, and women’s game, and as such we feel that anyone can learn from them. Also, we have no relationship with or bias towards/against Tennis Australia and as such are impartial. We also look at the research from Baker et al. (2003) on the benefits of playing many sports from a young age in athletes that attained elite professional status in basketball, field hockey and netball. In light of his work, we comment on the implications for tennis. Finally, we look at the current generation of tennis player and remark on the performance indicators from their youth that have helped predict their success in the professional game.

 

 

LTAD the Australian way

The Australian Tennis Federation, have produced a comprehensive “matrix” that allows the reader to view the progression of a potential tennis career broken down into six stages:

 

  1. Explore (4-7 years)
  2. Development (7-10 years)
  3. Encourage (10-12 years)
  4. Enhance (12-15 years)
  5. Cultivate (15-17 years)
  6. Performance (17+ years)

 

The Explore Stage (ages 4-7)

The Australian LTAD model is a sophisticated take on how many hours the athlete should play tennis, AND other sports concomitantly. In the Explore years, the fundamental locomotor skills of jumping, hopping, skipping, sidestepping and running are identified as priority! Similarly, basic motor skills such as throwing with trunk and arm co-ordination, catching and striking are also identified. The list also recommends development of physical based skills such as flexibility, speed & agility, strength, endurance, and footwork. Interestingly, the model emphasizes the importance multi-sport experiences and identifies the following sports as desirable for physical development: gymnastics, Australian Rules football, soccer, hockey and track & field. While the Australian Tennis Federation encourages 2-4 hours of tennis per week for 4-7 year olds, it also encourages 5-7 hours of other sport involvement, or a 30:70% ratio of tennis:multi-sport physical activity. The reason is as follows: the above named sports will always develop the skills profile of a young athlete without the need for specialist training in one sport. Gymnastics develops strength, balance and co-ordination; Aussie Rules, soccer and hockey develop hand/foot eye co-ordination, speed and endurance, and track & field develops fundamental locomotor skills and movement skills. Tennis does a lot of this too, but wouldn’t it be far more beneficial to develop these skills and the ability to play 5-6 sports at the same time rather than just one?

What is interesting to note in this LTAD model, is that far less attention is paid to specifying technical guidelines for tennis play. What is emphasized is the ability to co-ordinate perception with action i.e. judge the parabolic nature of an oncoming ball strike, and to acquire basic techniques of forehand, backhand, volley, smash and serve. What the LTAD model is saying is that aged 4-7, a young athlete should have the racket in their hand and practice playing, but more time should be spent developing global athletic skills.

 

The Development Stage (ages 7-10)

This stage emphasizes a gradual increasing of intensity in physical training, however the fundamentals of locomotor and motor-skills are emphasized again. The only difference here is that the model proposes a key concept: that young athletes should become familiar with being able to perform at 100% physical capacity. Just to nuance the point here, this doesn’t mean that a young athlete needs to run for 45min on a treadmill. But it does indicate that the notion of playing sports with high intensity is desirable, and coincides with motor skill development including strength, power, flexibility, speed and footwork. In terms of multi-sport activities, gymnastics, dance, Australian Rules football, soccer, hockey and athletics are all recommended.

For 7-8 year olds, 4-5 hours per week of tennis are recommended alongside 5-7 hours of other sports or a 40-60% ratio, whilst for 9-10 year olds an even 50:50 split is proposed.

 

Early specialization versus early introduction

The Australian LTAD model is an excellent example of a model that advocates early introduction to tennis, but not early specialization. The pitfalls of early specialization has been described by Harre et al. (1982) and the Australian model is careful not to follow. The emphasis in this model is on multi-lateral development between the ages of 4-10, where the crossover effect of playing a variety of sports is appreciated. Baker et al. (2003) have demonstrated the success of this approach in elite athletes from at least three sports, and our discussion of that follows below. Three time grand slam winner Leyton Hewitt and US Open champion Sam Stosur are all products of the Australian system.

Becoming a world champion by playing many sports

Joe Baker (York University, Toronto) is regarded as a leading expert in the field of sports expertise, and has published a number of excellent studies in the field. One of those papers is titled “Sport-Specific Practice and the Development of Expert Decision-Making in Team Ball Sports” (2003). In this study, Baker analysed the careers of 15 professional athletes (male & female) from basketball, field hockey and netball and their precise pathways from early childhood to adulthood were documented. Both women’s netball and field hockey players were world champions at the time, while the men’s field hockey and basketball were ranked 2nd and 4th in the world respectively. The 15 players that were selected were regarded as the best decision makers by the entire national team coaching staff. A control group of 13 non-elite athletes in the same sports were also recruited. The control group had each accumulated over 10 years of practice in their sport, however none had ever made it to provincial or state level. The career-path of the professional athletes was recorded in three-hour interviews, verified by parents for cross-validation with a remarkable 100% cross-validation score.

 

The results: you don’t need 10,000 hours in a specific sport to become a pro

The results of the study make for interesting reading. None of the athletes had acquired 10,000 hours of practice before being selected to their national team. In fact, no athlete had accumulated over 7,000 hours of specific practice. The data is presented in the table below:

 

Sport

Years involvement

# Practice hours

# Other activities

Basketball players

11.0 ± 3.2

5908.5 ± 104.9

4.8 ± 2.2

Netball players

13.3 ± 1.5

2260 ± 1479.6

11.7 ± 2.1

Field hockey players

13.8 ± 3.0

3583 ± 1437

9.4 ± 3.0

Females

12.6 ± 1.5

2543 ± 1448.5

11.0 ± 2.4

Males

13.3 ± 3.8

5159.5 ± 903.4

6.5 ± 3.1

 

 

Contrary to the theory of deliberate practice developed by Ericsson (1993), the data here indicates that 10,000 hours of practice are not necessary to become a world champion, Olympic athlete, elite professional athlete, call it what you want. This finding is also consistent with that by Helsen et al. (1998, 2000) who has reported the rise to professional soccer as taking up to 4,000 hours. It is clear from the data that talented athletes can become elite athletes in half the time proposed by Ericsson’s theory (more on that discussion in a future post). What is particularly interesting is that all athletes had played between 3-14 other activities in their lifetime. Furthermore, the elite athletes that had accumulated the least amount of sports-specific training were the ones that had the most extensive background in playing other sports (r = -0.54, p < 0.05). In other words, the elite athletes had risen to the top of their sport, with significantly less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, and significantly more hours invested in playing other sports from a young age. As children, the elite athletes had participated in 1) team sports 2) individual sports 3) unorganized sports activities and 4) a little artistic & musical activities including track & field, cricket, soccer, cycling, rugby, Aussie rules, tennis, squash and golf.

What is likely to have happened here, is that elite athletes acquired a number of skills in a variety of sporting contexts, skills that were later readily transferable to their primary sport. Jason Pierre Paul of the New York Giants (Superbowl XXVI champions) is an excellent example here. He played high-school basketball until the age of 16, and then happened to be asked by a football coach if he fancied trying out for the team. Six years later, he started playing NFL.

 

OBSERVATION: is tennis like other sports?

Playing soccer, Aussie rules, and rugby puts players in dynamic decision-making situations. So too does tennis. These sports also take place within a well-defined play area, that automatically initiate spatial-awareness skills and proprioception, just like tennis. Hitting a cricket ball that has been bowled at 100km.hr-1 with a parabolic trajectory is probably as close to hitting an oncoming tennis ball as you can get without being on court, and the hand eye co-ordination is not likely to vary between the two gestures. Golf being a very technical and mental sport that closely imitates some of the biomechanical and psychological qualities of tennis play e.g. in golf and tennis, the feet are placed in a closed-kinetic chain (CKC) by virtue of being planted on the ground, with upper body in open-kinetic chain (OKC) and hands freely moving, so there is a lower to upper body power transfer. Trunk rotation is an important part of each stroke in both sports, and an intense mental focus is required for perfect stroke execution. So if a professional basketball player (male or female) can develop basic locomotor skills, motor-skills, physiological and biomechanical skills, psychological and tactical skills, spatial-awareness, proprioceptive, decision-making skills and much more by playing soccer, cricket, golf, Aussie rules, track & field, could a young tennis player do something similar?

MY HYPOTHESIS is that a young, talented tennis player could quite easily spend the early part of their career (4-12 years) playing a number of sports on an equal basis with tennis and still develop as an elite athlete in that sport.

 

Performance indicators in youth tennis: tournaments, and other sports

While the research and LTAD models do not emphasise specialization in tennis before the age of 10, from this age onwards there is a progressive increase in hours devoted towards tennis versus other sports. For example, in the Encourage stage of development (ages 10-12 years), 10-12 hours per week is recommended for physical training in tennis, whilst 6-8 hours is recommended for other sports to which cycling is now added for lower body speed and power development. The respective breakdown of time in percentages is 60-65% tennis and 30-35% other sports. There is good reason that the shift takes place between 10-12 years, as a number of performance indicators for tennis players have been identified including international U12 – U14 tournaments. Famous tournaments such as Les Petites As in France and The Orange Bowl in Florida have proven to be reliable indicators of future performance in top 100 ATP and WTA players and therefore merit attention here. A tennis player aged 12-14 needs to have mastered the basic strokes on the forehand and backhand side, needs good timing, needs to appreciate the tactics of match-play and needs to be able to perform with intention to win from early on. However, in line with the recommendations from the Australian LTAD model, and with the research on sports expertise, we suggest that a young tennis player stands to benefit enormously on their journey as a youth athlete by playing other sports.

 

When one analyses the career path of top 100 ATP players between 2009-2011, we note that the majority of top 10 ATP players have participated in Les Petites As (approx. 70-75%), and close to 60% have competed in the U18 Orange Bowl. On the women’s side, close to 60% have competed in the U18 Orange Bowl (data publicly available from ITF website). So players that have gone on to make it to the top 10 have demonstrated particularly good tennis skills by the age of 12, good enough to compete against the best players of other national federations. An exceptional example of is current ATP top 50 Bernard Tomic who won the U12 & U14 Orange Bowl titles. He was a winner of Junior Davis Cup and became the youngest winner of the junior Australian Open. At age 18 he made Wimbledon quarter finals, demonstrating an exceptional transition to the professional game on the back of a good junior career. But tournaments don’t tell the whole story: Gael Monfils started playing tennis aged 4, he also played a lot of basketball and soccer. Joe Tsonga started playing at 7, and played plenty of soccer alongside his tennis. Roger Federer started playing aged 8, Andy Murray started at 3 but he continues to play a lot of golf and football. Andy Roddick played basketball until high school, and also plays golf.

 

Concluding remarks

We advocate tennis as one of the best sports a young athlete can play, and the earlier a young athlete can put a racket in the hand and start playing the better. Progressive tennis is the way to go, learning the basics on the technical and tactical side.

However, not everybody that starts playing the sport is going to be a world champion. Those that make it to the top are the exceptional few who are probably very talented in the first place, and displayed some natural talent from the moment they started hitting balls. What is interesting to note however, from Baker’s research, is that those basketball, field hockey and netball players did make it senior professional world champion status having built their skills early on through participation in many sports. Each of these players were expert decision makers as described by their coaches, meaning that they were smart, perceptive, and quick to act in the field of play. Also, despite many years of accumulated practice in their sport, they became “experts” in their sport long before they had accumulated 10,000 hours at it. And it may be the case that their early exposure to a variety of sports played a part in this.

Young athletes should start playing tennis probably as early as possible, and the Australian LTAD model advocates starting from age 4. However, the research is suggesting that early exposure to a variety of sports from ages 4-12 is probably the ideal way to go before specialisation starts aged 12-13.