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Friday
Feb032012

Bruce Tarran: Mini Tennis – How a Good Idea Got Complicated

In the next few weeks, CAtennis.com will host a discussion regarding the Pros and Cons of the implementation of Quickstart/ROG [i.e. red, orange and green balls] in the United States. Coaches with decades of experience in the field of early tennis development will share some of their thoughts on the subject. As CAtennis.com doesn't take a particular stance on the subject, we hope that, for everyone's benefit, the truth will be synthesized or distilled through a civilized discussion. In the meantime, we are proud to present the following article (reproduced with the permission of the author) by Mr. Bruce Tarran. If you are a fan of clever, British humor we suggest that, in addition to reading Mr. Tarran's thoughts, you watch the linked videos below. We would like to extend our gratitude to Mr. Tarran for sharing his experiences and allowing us to utilize the article and videos enclosed herein. 

Bruce's background: Bruce Tarran is an LTA Licensed Professional Tennis Coach. He is currently Head Coach at Leicestershire Lawn Tennis Club, an 18-court members club in Leicester, England. He was a county and regional coach for many years, and individual coach to a large number of county and national juniors. His last two clubs were awarded LTA performance status. He believes that there are few pleasures in life like watching children learn to love tennis. For more information, please visit www.tarrantennis.co.uk or http://www.youtube.com/user/Tarrantennis.

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A few months ago I put some videos about the negative effects of the current British mini tennis structure on youtube. They have now had around 15,000 views. Just over 100 British tennis coaches wrote to me about them. 6 disagreed completely, 3 said the problems lay elsewhere, and the rest either strongly or broadly agreed with the videos. It can’t be taken as a representativesurvey, of course, (although my experience is that people are more likely to write when they disagree!) but it would seem that the majority of working British tennis coaches have, to put it mildly, some reservations about aspects of our mini tennis structure.

As elements of this structure are now being rolled out around the world, it seems that the experience of British coaches who have worked under this system should be taken into account. Let me say straight away that I believe low compression balls and appropriately sized racquets and equipment are superb teaching tools when used appropriately. The problem isn’t the balls; it’s the complex system which has been constructed around them.

Good teaching demands progression. It must allow for children to be grouped together by standard as well as age. The mini tennis competition structure insists that players are grouped together by age only, so, according to their date of birth an 8 year old cannot play with a 9 year old who cannot play with a 10 year old who cannot play with an 11 year old. Each age must play with a different ball on a different sized court, without mixing and regardless of their standard or rate of improvement. It is not the transition balls that are bad, it is the prescription placed around them.

In competition different ages are not allowed to mix. There is a passport system where players can supposedly move up (from red to orange, for instance). But in practice because of the number of competitive matches required in a short space of time, this happens in a minimum of cases. Most British juniors compete in their designated colour throughout, whatever their standard, and whatever their ability or skill level.

Because each colour covers a single year this reduces the size of competitions. This particularly affects girls who generally much prefer, at a young age, to play against other girls. Instead, because fewer girls than boys play tennis anyway, they are forced to compete primarily against boys and this has decimated girl’s competition in some areas at a young age.

About 1% of tennis courts in Britain are indoors, yet mini tennis is often marketed as an indoor game. Certainly indoor mini tennis, particularly with the sponge balls for starting reds, is superb, but the vast majority of junior tennis in Britain is played outdoors and adapting mini tennis to the British weather is rarely discussed.

In general I have had a wonderful response to these videos, in Britain and across the world. I am very grateful to everyone who has taken the time to write to me and show an interest, whatever their point of view. I believe that discussion and debate are good – prescription and inflexibility are bad. In my opinion it is a mistake to put a complex, prescriptive structure around what is basically a superb teaching tool. Using the appropriate low compression balls with appropriate sized racquets can bring fast progress, but this progress may then demand the flexibility to move the child on. Good teaching demands flexibility – and therefore striving for a less prescriptive and rigid system is essential in the best interests of the child.

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Reader Comments (7)

I have serious problems with this article and Mr Tarran's views. One thing is definitely obvious to me, it is much much easier FOR THE TEACHING PRO to ignore the mini approach to tennis and write it off as useless hassle. Seriously, can you really be that lazy in your chosen profession? Yes it is more work for the teaching pro to set up the proper system for young kids to learn tennis properly. Patrick McEnroe described QuickStart here in the USA best when he said QuickStart allows kids to learn the "proper swing path, proper grips, and proper basic tennis tactics" at a much earlier age.

As far as USA's approach, we have "under 8 tournaments" that use the 36 foot courts and red felt and "under 10" tournaments that use the 60 foot court with orange felt with a regulation net. Anyone can sign up for either tournament. Under 8 means 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8 years olds all use the same gear. Not that much of a hassle at all. It doesnt change every year as suggested by this article here in the USA.

I assume Catennis.com is respectable enough to soon post an article written about the pros of QuickStart tennis here in the USA by a well know USA teaching pro? I highly suggest parents look for a teaching pro that has the best interest of their kids in mind - not the easiest approach for the pro themselves. Maybe 1 out of 20 pros here in my area of California (which is a hotbed of tennis in USA) are willing to actually put up with the set up and equipment issues - you can find them if you look hard enough. I've exclusively trained my son in QuickStart since age 3 and it shows in his tennis now at age 6. Video proof can be provided. Don't dismiss this approach just because your local random teaching pro dismisses it. Ask yourself as a parent why is he really dismissing this approach to tennis? Seek and you shall find the right pro.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertweener

Tweener, CAtennis.com takes no official position regarding the benefits or detriments of ROG/Quickstart/mini-tennis/etc. CAtennis.com is not in the business of early tennis development and, therefore, we cannot speak from practical experience. It would be disingenuous for us to pretend that we know all the angles of this approach. We prefer to stick with ideas about which we have practical experience. Therefore, in the next few weeks we will present well-researched views from outside contributors on this topic. Thank you for your comments and thoughts, however. I agree with your statement: "Don't dismiss this approach just because your local random teaching pro dismisses it. Ask yourself as a parent why is he really dismissing this approach to tennis? Seek and you shall find the right pro."

February 3, 2012 | Registered CommenterCAtennis

I look forward to reading Catennis.com's proponent articles (with nicely attached videos of course) from accomplished internationally famous USA teaching professionals in the near future about the benefits of QuickStart here in the USA. Benefits for the kids of course, just to make myself clear - for the kids.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertweener

"Using the appropriate low compression balls with appropriate sized racquets can bring fast progress, but this progress may then demand the flexibility to move the child on. Good teaching demands flexibility – and therefore striving for a less prescriptive and rigid system is essential in the best interests of the child." very well put.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCraigger

Their is nothing stopping you here in the USA of looking at it as just a basic framework (guide). It is not rigid. Its a free country last time I checked. It is up to you to decide when to transition your kid from the 36 foot court to the 60 foot court to the regulation sized court (and balls). Obviously, someone like Isner who was probably in the top 3% for height for his age his entire life could physically transition very quickly to full sized racquets and courts simply because of his sheer physical size. At age 8 he was probably the average height of an American 11 or 12 year old. For him, he probably had minimal hitting zone issues with the regulation balls, minimal net height issues, and no racquet length issues because of his physicality even when 8 years old. Also factor in talent and athleticism and transition at your own pace. It is up to you.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertweener

Just an update on the current status of the mini tennis approach here in the USA, seems many california tournament directors are opting out of even offering under 8 tournaments at all, and even the under 10 tournaments are "orange balls with 60 foot court" for novice level tournaments and full court with green dot balls for higher level (non novice) under 10 tournaments. So two options for those who want to play under 10 tennis? Very Strange? Since this new apporach was adopted here in USA in January 2012, seems like some growing pains exist. Hopefully, things will get a little better with implementation in the upcoming years. Hassles exist with setting up the special dimension courts and even tournament directors in california are trying to find out ways around these hassles to make life easier for themselves. Sad.

May 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertweener

Just wanted to share and update my experiences with the mini tennis situation in USA. My son just turned 7 years old a few months ago, and currently I've transitioned him over to the full 78 foot court with green dot balls from the 60 foot orange ball system. Why? becasue we practice about 5 or 6 days per week and I felt he was literally being held back if I actually stuck with the USTA recommendations.
Actually, by USTA mini tennis guidlines, he would still be using red balls on the 36 foot court - which would be rediculous for him. If you would see his level of play you would see why. So basically, my conclusion is that the USTA mini tennis strategy works if you are a recreational player that plays once per week or once every two weeks and want to actually play a game "close" to tennis with your kid and to keep them interested in tennis (not lose them to soccer of baseball, etc). But, if you are seriously playing the game and building real tennis skills, you will find that you will transition your kid very quickly to to the full 78 foot court with green dot balls. But of course, his hours on the court justifies that transition IMO.

January 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commentertweaner

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