Ronald Woods, Ph.D., USPTA Master Professional

E. Paul Roetert, Ph.D.

The fundamentals, principles and skills of sports psychology should be the foundation of youth tennis from the very beginning when kids start to play sports. We believe that means starting from ages 5-6 and building on those basic skills through ages 7-12. In our previous article in ADDvantage Magazine, the Nov-Dec 2018 issue, we outlined the principle concepts along with a reasoned argument for introducing these concepts and skills at younger ages than most coaches typically do.

Our goal is simply to introduce kids to tennis (or any sport they choose) in a way that promotes their mental, emotional and social development while acquiring physical sports skills. Coaches and parents have a responsibility to help their children succeed by teaching and reinforcing attitudes and skills that volumes of research and experimentation show promote healthy development, enjoyment and satisfaction in exchange of the effort and energy invested in sports during their lifetime. 

Let’s look at three major foundational concepts that can help guide kids from the first time they step onto a tennis court. We need to understand a more robust and nuanced idea of “fun” for kids and how to produce it. At the same time, young players need to approach the sport of tennis as a skilled game activity by investing their full effort and measuring their success by the energy and enthusiasm they commit to the effort. Within the context of exerting effort to have fun, even novice players will begin to develop competence in their skills which builds and nurtures self-confidence. 

The number one reason that kids play sports is “fun” and similarly, if they become sports dropouts, they typically report that a sport is no longer “fun.” As adults, we often think of “fun” for kids as laughing, fooling around with friends and goofing off. Obviously, that type of fun isn’t very compatible with the more serious and achievement orientation of most kids who play sports. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly even Olympic level athletes rate “fun” equal with the pursuit of excellence as the primary incentives for them in their sport. (Snyder, 2014). 

Sports research often uses the term “enjoyment” rather than fun as it conveys a broader, more robust understanding of the pleasure we get from physical activity and sports. When asked, young athletes say they enjoy sports when they are learning, improving, giving their best effort and getting along well with other players. Some players crave competition against others while others shy away and would rather focus on cooperation with others to achieve a shared goal. Respect those differences and help players learn to embrace both competition and cooperation in a healthy, productive way. 

Recent research by Visek et al., 2017 revealed 81 different fun-factors by youth athletes which were then grouped into 11 categories and ranked in importance from most to least important. The top four categories of fun-factors were: trying hard, positive team dynamics, positive coaching and learning and improving. In addition, within the context of practices, athletes report that they enjoy or have fun when practices are well-organized, feature a good variety of activities, including actually playing the game and every player is involved all the time with no waiting in line. During actual match play, enjoyment comes from a challenging opponent where the outcome is in doubt, opponents are respectful and fair, and players can test their skills and strategies. 

Investing full effort and energy in the pursuit of any activity or goal is a key psychological, and life skill that helps us develop our capabilities and achieve the goals we set. The science of goal setting has been well studied and current theories within sports differentiate between three types of goals: outcome, performance and process goals. Many sports participants get stuck focusing only on the outcome of their performance efforts and become frustrated by results and losing. In fact, researchers and personal testimony from champion athletes agree that the primary focus should always be on “the process” which is the only thing we can control. Kids must realize that competition is not about other athletes, but instead a contest to test your skill and strategies by playing the game. In a sense, your opponent is your best friend and partner who hopefully will push you to perform beyond what you even imagined you might be capable of. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal always bring out the absolute best performance from each other and they have acknowledged that neither would have reached their highest level of play without that challenge. 

Competence and self-confidence are the rewards for investing full effort and energy into learning and playing a sport. This becomes the basis for the intrinsic motivation to keep playing and practicing and is a strong determinant for whether a player thinks tennis is fun and enjoyable. Coaches need to use proven principles of how players learn motor skills rapidly and retain those skills most efficiently. Involve players in the exploration of various ways of executing shots that suit their personal style if they don’t deviate from inviolable biomechanical principles. Offer frequent challenges to test their skill development objectively so they can rejoice at their progress and success. 

The somewhat magical path that a beginner follows to reach a higher level of skill and competence must be thoughtfully plotted, intentionally executed and tailored to each individual’s needs and talent. As players build competence, their self-confidence and self-concept rise as an athlete and a competitor. We need to help young players learn that self-confidence is crucial to enjoying playing a sport and accept that no amount of “mental toughness training” can create confidence alone.

In the end, whether kids choose a high-performance track in tennis or just want to play in a recreational program with less intensity, the secret to keeping them happy and having fun is the same. Make the experience enjoyable by catering to their need to achieve competence, self-confidence and satisfaction as a reward for the energy expended. Help them set realistic goals that emphasize process over outcome, track improvement objectively and celebrate improvement regularly and enthusiastically. 

1. Visek, A.J., Mannix,H., Chgandran, A., Achrati,S., Beckley,L., McDonell,K., & DiPietro, L. 2015. The FUN MAPS pattern-matched across sex, age, and competition level: Gender and Developmental assumptions debunked. Presentation at the Association for Applied Sports Psychology Annual Conference, Indianapolis, IN.

2. Snyder, C. 2014. The path to excellence: A view on the athletic development of U.S. Olympians who competed from 2000-2012. Report of the Talent Identification and Development Questionnaire to U.S. Olympians. (S. Riewald, Ed.), USOC Sports Performance and Coaching Education Division.

3. Vealey, R., Chase, M., and Cooley, R., 2018. Developing Self-Confidence in Young Athletes. Chapter 9, pp. 94-105 in Sport Psychology for Young Athletes, Routledge, New York.

About Ronald Woods, Ph.D.
Having been a USPTA member for over 40 years, including serving as president of the USPTA Middle States, member of the Executive Committee and frequent speaker at both national and division conventions, he was honored as USPTA Coach of the Year in 1982 and as a Master Professional in 1984. Ron is the husband of Kathy Woods, who is now the director of tennis at the USTA National Campus in Lake Nona, Florida.

About E. Paul Roetert, Ph.D.
Roetert most recently served as the CEO of the Society of Health and Physical Educators – SHAPE America. Prior to that, he was the managing director of USTA Player Development. Roetert has published extensively in the fields of coaching education and sport science, including five books, more than 25 book chapters, and well over 100 articles.