Playing Up. Is it a Good Idea?

We’ve all done it but is it right to play your kids up to get better competition?

I’m not talking about playing up before you level up.  I’m talking about the parents who insist their child must play one or two age divisions up to find “good” competition.  I will not disagree that there are those amazing  junior tennis players that play above the level of the other kids their age, but is it right to have them hit against kids four years older than they are?  I say no.  Don’t worry, I’m ready for the back lash against this comment.   I’ve been in the tennis world long enough to know that this statement won’t make many tennis parents happy but just give me a minute and listen to my argument.

I have been on both sides of this argument.  I was the parent who had her junior tennis player practicing with a much older age group just to get the level of hitting that I believed he needed.  In our case I was lucky that there was one other child  the same age as mine so he had a friend.  But I can tell you that it isn’t only about the hitting. It is also about the maturity of the players.  My child did not have the same maturity at twelve as the seventeen and eighteen year old players on the court with him.  It was a great opportunity for him to learn about maturity but at the same time it wasn’t always fair to the other players to have to put up with the immaturity of my child.  Also the conversation and behavior of an older teen is not always appropriate for a younger child.  Again it isn’t right for me to expect everyone else on the court to adjust their behavior for my child.

When my son was playing in the sixteens he was faced with the challenge of having to play a ten year old “prodigy.”  The challenge was not in his ability to beat him but rather how to handle the young players behavior on the court.  The father of the other child assured my son he could and should play him like anyone else.  Easier said than done.  My son was over twice the size of this young boy and was afraid of hurting him.  Whenever the opportunity for an overhead or aggressive volley came my son hesitated.  He was afraid that he may hit the young player and hurt him.  So my son found himself changing his game.  You may argue that this is my son’s problem and he should know better as a competitor but he is also human with a younger brother.  The other problem was with the younger players attitude on the court.  He constantly fell into the pattern of crying, pouting and getting upset when he was losing.  Again my son felt compassion and was unable to play his normal game.  Coming off the court my son stated that it was the worst experience in tennis.  “I just felt sorry for the kid, I didn’t want to make him feel bad about himself or humiliate him.”  Maybe we as parents should be learn from our children.

I remember the final time that I played my child far beyond his years.  He was thirteen and I put him in the eighteens of a “small” tournament.  We saw the competition on the players list and decided it wasn’t “good” enough.  He actually won his first match.  His head got a little big and his opponent was a little humiliated.  Then the second match came.  He was totally outplayed.  I was proud of him because he didn’t do badly and even got some games.  Personally I thought it was a success and he would and should have been happy with the opportunity to play at that level.  I was wrong.  He was very angry with me.  He said he was embarrassed and humiliated (although I reminded him his opponent felt the same way in the previous match).  He informed me there was nothing fun about it.  He put it to me very clearly that when you are thirteen there is nothing fun about being in the court with an eighteen year old.  They are intimidating enough without having to play tennis against them.

Taking a look at it from the perspective of the younger player, why do you want to put your child into this position?  You have taken away the social aspect of the game of tennis and focused solely on the competitive. If the child isn’t having fun then the chance of him or her continuing in the long run is greatly decreased.  You are also teaching them that they are better than the other kids their age.  I will agree they are better than a lot of other kids their age but not all. Be cautious of developing this attitude of being better than the rest.  You may find you have a junior tennis player on your hands with attitude and sitting on their laurels rather than developing their game.

So what do you do with these young “prodigies?”  There is competition for them don’t worry.  Why not try playing a harder level tournament instead of older competitor.  If they aren’t ready to hit the higher level they aren’t ready to play up.  I know this can be difficult financially and I for one was unable to do it on a regular basis.  But I did make sure my junior player included the higher level tournaments in his schedule every now and then so he was familiar with the “true” level of competition out there.  We also knew that in a lot of local tournaments the first round or two may not be really challenging but he was realistic enough to know every tournament would provide you with at least one or two good matches.

Whatever your choice just take a minute to consider whether or not you are sacrificing your child’s self-esteem or values in any way.  Are you allowing them to develop as a young person as well as a tennis player?  Are they having fun?  Are those around them having to make undo sacrifices?


6 comments on “Playing Up. Is it a Good Idea?

  1. This is a tough and touchy topic. As a parent of an athlete, naturally you want your child to be challenged – it is necessary to further their growth as a player. But you are looking for the right amount of challenge, otherwise you run the risk of turning them off completely. Ditto if it is too easy and they become bored. Ideally they would all receive just the right amount of challenge by playing in their age group and working their way up the rankings. But this only works if everyone agrees to play in the appropriate age group (let’s set aside the extreme higher and lower players for now). Once even one player strays into another (higher) level, the whole thing starts to fall apart. It is similar to – forgive me, USTA – Combo league, at least where I play. Combo was notorious for everyone playing up because the results in Combo don’t count toward your NTRP ranking. The last time I played Combo, all but one of the other teams in our flight consisted of players playing up. So for example if it were a 7.5 team supposedly consisting of 3.5s and 4.0s, the teams we faced were mostly 3.0s and a few 3.5s, very rarely any 4.0s (b/c they were all playing 8.5). We absolutely slaughtered them and it wasn’t any fun for any of us. I believe the local or state rules have been changed to prevent this because it had gotten ridiculous.

    I also see this from the instruction side, especially now that the red-orange-green-yellow ball system is being used. Parents and kids are perhaps even more aware of who plays at what level simply by the type of ball being used in the lesson. They want to know when Johnny or Susie will be moved from red to orange and orange to green and so forth. I am a big fan of detailed improvement plans and objective goals that coach, parent and player can agree on. That way, it is easier to explain why a player needs to be at a certain level until they attain a skill mastery.

    That may not be much of a solution for tournament play. I like your suggestion of playing higher level tournaments within the appropriate age group. If you have an instructor you trust, maybe you can work with them to set some concrete goals and focus on specific tournament levels until all are in agreement it is time to move up.

    • Yes I knew it was controversial when I wrote it. Rather intentional. I was hoping that maybe if we thought about we could help come up with answers to the problem.
      Like I said, I have had the child play up and have been the parent of the older child with young kids on the court (always reminding them of proper conversation on the court).
      I know one young man that a coach decided to move right from the fourteens to eighteens skipping sixteen. Sounded like a good idea and he had success but he didn’t have fun. He ended up stopping playing as much.
      Everyone will make their own choice my wish is that it is made with a lot of thought and discussion.

      • By coincidence I just read this article regarding the role of adults in youth sports. Definitely a factor! http://makingkidscoachable.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/anxious-about-moving-your-young-child.html

      • Great article.
        It reminds me of the experience we had in little league with our middle son. He has a bone illness and his bones break easily and he has joint problems. He was a great little ball player and a big hitter with a lot of speed. His feet gave out on him and he couldn’t finish the season. The coach blamed him for a loss. After the season we kept getting calls from coaches trying to recruit him but wanting assurances that his feet wouldn’t be a problem in the future. Did I mention he was 7 at the time. It was crazy. We left baseball at that time realizing it wasn’t for us. That is how we found tennis.

  2. Good grief. Don’t Be That Coach!!

    • Yes, a reality check was definitely in order. Now that time has passed I can officially say I was right. None of those kids are making the majors.

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