The following article was written when I was a high school coach and specifically relates to the sport of tennis, not high school sports in general. If I was a coach in other sports, my opinions expressed in this article wouldn’t be the same, due to the specific demands and individual training that the sport of tennis demands in its elite athletes.

In the past week I did something I never thought I’d do as a high school tennis coach: actually advise an athlete and family against joining my team.  As a USPTA trainer, I’d never turn anyone away from the sport itself—as I am an ambassador to the sport, but as a high school coach I did just that…for a very good reason.

A family approached me about their freshmen daughter joining the tennis team.  Of course, this is usually met by me with open arms.  But this case raised a number of troubling questions in my mind about how we as coaches, schools and parents are setting up kids to fail, or limiting their true potentials.

Player X (we will call her) was interested in tennis, highly competitive and was eager to test her athleticism in a new sport.  The issues came in when I found out from the family she was already involved heavily with two other sports and several outside activities.  After sharing offseason workout schedules and opportunities with the player and family, it was determined she had no real time to attend any of the practices (due to other sport leagues and practice commitments she’s already made).  Furthermore, we talked about how during the tennis season she would be active in another sport and activity, but should make most of the practices and games.

I asked the family about her schedule.  When could she train?  It turns out this girl’s schedule was so hectic and filled with other sports and activities there was no time.  This girl was extremely athletic and would undoubtedly make a great high school tennis player someday—if she had the time to do so. But in reality she was currently an average 2-sport athlete who dabbled in so many other activities, but never really committed to any of them.  How could she? She had way too much on her plate.  No way to truly succeed.

I’m all for introducing young kids to a variety of different sports and activities at a younger age (around the elementary school or middle school age), allowing them to weed out the ones they like and dislike.  Letting them find their sport, love and true passion.  But, when we get to the high school level, the precipice of adulthood, is pushing so many sports and activities on a child truly a great learning lesson?

In high school sports these days, like it or not, it’s about competition.  Yes, that’s why we keep scores and those scores are reported to all the local media.  Coaches are expected to build programs that will win for their schools.  Players are expected to put in the time to compete.  Why shouldn’t they?  What better lesson in life than to teach them the value of work ethic, commitment and dedication? Those three things can be the foundation to building successful lives and careers, even outside of sports.

But Player X could never truly achieve any of these three valuable lessons in tennis (and in any other sport) because she had no time to do so.  But her potential as an athlete was huge, but her involvement in so many things limited her from ever developing into an elite athlete in anything.

After talking to Player X’s family, we came to the same conclusion: she had no real time for tennis, especially the type of training tennis demands in order to compete at a higher level she wanted to compete at, which is the same level our conference demanded to be successful in.

A lot of questions began reverberating in my mind, one being: are we setting these kids up to ultimately fail?  To truly never fully succeed / reach their potentials in anything because they’re worn so thin from sport to sport to sport, from one activity to another?

I’ve heard arguments that dedication to one sport may be bad due to burnout, fatigue and injury from sustained sports-specific workouts.  But I already see many multi-sport athletes burned out and fatigued with too many activities, bouncing from one thing to the next over and over again.  And injuries: multi-sport athletes are predominantly among the walking wounded.  Some high school athletes are having major surgeries that will already cause significant problems later on in life.

As a tennis coach and trainer, I’m at a crossroads in all of this.  As a coach I can no longer willingly lead my team to the slaughter year after year due to the fact that most of my players can’t even get enough court time to compete.  Most lack work ethic needed to stand toe-to-toe with their competition (not because they’re not willing to put in the time, but the fact they have no time to equal their competition).

As a tennis trainer, it’s an easy solution: spend more time on court, dedicate and commit to the sport and you’ll have a much better chance at success on any level. Tennis is a specialized, individual sport you can’t afford not to train in and put in the time.  You can’t be a seasonal player and expect greatness (not in any good high school conference, that is). Also, the mental pressures of competition in this individual sport and ultra-competitive conference are not kind to those multi-sport athletes who ultimately fail to train and get in their hours in match play offseason.

As a hired coach for a small school, I also see the problem with having so few athletes to fill so many sports and teams.  It’s going to be a sad day when the tennis team has a roster of 3, the golf team a roster of 2 and the soccer team a roster of 7. But then having a roster of 3 tennis players truly devoted to the sport, putting in the time needed, would foster a much better record than having 20+ kids strung out on a continuous spree of sports and activities to where there could never be true focus or a chance to be great at any one of them.

I truly believe that once you’ve put in the time and dedication to something in which you ultimately receive high success in, that path in accomplishing this success can lead to further successes and that experience and knowledge (a blueprint formed, so to speak) can be repeated in life—in careers, in relationships, and so much more.

But am I as a coach able to make success and achieving greatness a reality to the players I coach in tennis who can’t afford to put in the time needed?  Our program’s history remains predominantly bottom of the conference finishes—before I arrived.  We’ve seen growth in the years I’ve been there as head coach, but it’s been slow and we’re fighting against the very same thing which I’ve mentioned before—I don’t have the court time needed from my players, mostly due to the fact that players are ushered into a multitude of sports and activities. Each team, year after year, has been plagued by the same issue: no real commitment or dedication to the sport which also means that very few athletes have put in the time needed to succeed against their peers from opposing conference schools.

Are schools building successful student-athletes, teaching true dedication, commitment and work ethic while urging them to jump from season-to-season, sport-to-sport, team-to-team?  Is the drive to foster all athletes into as many rosters as possible worth the sacrifice of maximizing development and success in any one of these sports?

Are parents allowing or pushing kids into too much, limiting their chances to ever be great at something?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately:

What are we really doing to our high school athletes?

There is no real answer to this question.  It differs on a case-to-case basis. But the real dilemma for a tennis coach is: I believe this also differs on a sport-to-sport basis as well.  Meaning: does a specialized sport such as tennis benefit from having a non-sport specific athlete on the roster?  Most sports would say: yes.  As a tennis coach, I’m not so sure.

Why? Because tennis training is individual and not as much team oriented. I’ve seen so many really good athletes that come into tennis as a seasonal contributor and they end up generally in two categories: 1) The Great Underachiever or 2) Average Tennis Player.  Either category really doesn’t promote great life-lessons such as commitment, dedication and work ethic that can profoundly effect their futures.

What’s more: I often see great athletes in tennis getting beat by players who’s athletic skills are average at best. The average joe puts in the time, learns the sports, gets in his or her reps and wins.  A major confidence builder for this type of person…they have experienced that hard work does pay off.  What about the great seasonal athlete who just got beat by the average joe…what did they learn or earn?  Maybe a badge of humility, at best?

While football coaches continually promote multi-sport athletes to their programs, what about the tennis coach who is building his or her players/teams to be the best?  Does this benefit the athlete to split time between 2 additional sports seasons and possibly more activities on top of that?  The answer may surprise many. Check out this interesting article that covers pros and cons of multi-sport athletes compared to sports specialized athletes—which also notes certain sports such as tennis showing a definite need of specialization to make it to the top, to achieve elite status.

Such data from the above article and other sources included:

  • 66% of D1 men’s tennis players and 75% of D1 women’s tennis players specialized in their sport by age 12.
  • Only 13% of ALL divisions of men’s NCAA tennis were multi-sport athletes in high school. The numbers for women’s is similar.

I grew up on the principle that life is short, be the best you can be at what you do.  These days it’s like kids are raised on a smorgasbord of many activities in this new digital age of distraction (with cell phones, online gaming, etc.) and getting to indulge in them all leads to one thing for most: mediocrity, at best.

I believe every kid, if given the chance, can be great at something.  Not everything.  Not in this day and age where sports has become so competitive, so demanding.  But also life after high school, in careers, are also extremely specialized and often very competitive.  None of my acquaintances are part-time trash collectors/part-time street mimes/part-time corporate CEOs and employee of the month as a local greeter at the neighborhood Wal-Mart. While getting away with this in sports might work with the super-athlete in sports such as football (where multi-sport athletes are heavily recruited), tennis is an entirely different sport, one which I truly feel is a great preparation sport which parallels life looming beyond the walls of any high school in America. Both, living one’s life and playing tennis, are very solitary endeavors at their core.

Personally, I believe I would rather put in the time and work, strive to succeed and fail in the end than never having the time to succeed from the start.

Most families are oblivious to the sport of tennis, the training needed, the time on court required for development.  Some schools, organizations and media have frowned on sports specialization in high school, mostly because of core sports like football benefitting from multi-sports athletes being recruited in D1 colleges. But in looking at the statistics and wanting to inform families of the chances of success in the sport of tennis, there is a much different reality.

Not all my players want to be D1 tennis players or even play in college. I know this as a coach and accept this, have no issues with this at all. This is brought up by student-athletes and their parents as an excuse why they can’t commit more, attend practices, train in the offseason.  And when I’m confronted with this “excuse,” my response is simple: my job as a coach is to prepare my team and players to compete NOW, in their conference, against their peers.

In our conference, this takes commitment, hard work and dedication to team and sport.  On the day before our annual moratorium, the middle of summer, each of my players and parents will be getting a simple text from me with a link to this article with a simple message: Have we done enough, put in enough time on court to compete against our peers next season?  And I plan to hold each and every one of them accountable for their answers to compare with the results of the season looming.

Sounds tough, too harsh to some?  It’s just a reality check.  Most honest, insightful parents would answer: no!  But most will not help change the course of their child’s contributions to team.  Which brings back the question: are we allowing our kids to succeed in what they commit to?

I’m happy to report there are a few individuals on my high school teams who can answer yes to this question (are we truly putting in the time to compete?), and I’m happy to be a part of this life-lesson, this journey of hard work and dedication with them.  It’s the beginning of true culture change in our program. These individuals have one thing in common: they focus on tennis as their main sport (or equally with another sport they are involved with) in the offseason as well as focus 100% to tennis in-season.  As for my team this year as a whole, unfortunately, we have NOT put in the time needed—and we will face the consequences of this next season—as a team. The opportunities are now there.  But the drive and commitment, the time needed on court from most of my players, is unfortunately (and sadly) unavailable to their coach.

So the questions loom:

Athletes: have you put in enough time and work to compete effectively, to the best of YOUR ability, against your peers next season?  If the answer is no (and you’re unwilling to change that), then ask yourself: what do I plan to truly accomplish in being part of my team/this sport?  Anyone can join a team…this doesn’t make you special.  The work you put in for that team, win or lose, is what really matters.

So parents: have you allowed your kids to succeed at the things they commit to?  Or at least had a sit-down about work ethic and commitment? As a parent to a tennis player heading to college this fall, I’m not about to be hypocritical: there is definitely more I can and will do to influence a positive work ethic in my child…high school tennis as well as college tennis can only be experienced once.  For one period of time in your life.  But its impact can last a lifetime. No matter what level you’re at / what potential you have…we all control three things: how hard we work, what our priorities are, and how our time is managed.

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