As a child, Roger Federer played many sports—tennis, of course, but also soccer, basketball, badminton, and others. He credits badminton, where shuttlecock smashes can exceed 200 M.P.H., with developing his hand-eye coordination. Federer’s astonishing footwork may be traceable to the soccer pitch in Switzerland. “Those are soccer feet,” says Tom Farrey, executive director of the Sports & Society program at the Aspen Institute’s Project Play. “It’s the same with Rafa,” he adds, noting that Rafael Nadal gave up soccer, his first love, to focus on tennis at age 14.
Certainly, there are developmental benefits to being good at one thing, like a sport: increased self-esteem, a sense of belonging to a group of skillful youths, and the social benefits of mastery—“people look at you a certain way,” Farrey says. But, he adds, there appear to be “even more benefits to sampling a variety of sports at an early age. That lets you develop physical literacy. Later, you may specialize as you move into puberty. Multi-sport involvements help prevent the burnout that often happens to kids who focus on one game at too young an age. And it can avoid injury from repeated wear and tear on the same body part. It can also increase engagement in sports and promote lifelong involvement. Every organization in youth sports ought to be sending a message that multi-sport play and sampling a variety of sports are the best pathways for psychological and social development, as well as athletic development.”
"Multi-sport involvements help prevent the burnout that often happens to kids who focus on one game at too young an age."
“Among children, the foundations for any athlete are the same: a focus on athleticism, and having fun,” says New York University neurologist Brian Hainline, M.D., who became the NCAA’s first chief medical officer in 2013. “Athleticism includes agility, balance, speed, stamina, strength, and coordination. When you make kids specialize in one sport too early, you limit their ability to develop athletically. The most important thing of all is having fun; that’s what makes them likely to continue for a lifetime.” Renowned sports psychologist Jim Loehr argues that not only physical growth, but mental, emotional, and spiritual growth factor into the development equation. “We need it all,” says Hainline. “It’s not uni-dimensional development.”
The International Olympic Committee agrees. It has issued a consensus statement on early sports specialization that advocates a multi-sport focus on athleticism, and recommends avoiding specialization until puberty. Superb tennis players whose offspring have cultivated strong games themselves also seem to follow the multi-sport model of raising athletic children.
In contrast, the tennis development systems of many nations, including the United States, have inadvertently given players, parents, and coaches reason to think it’s better to concentrate exclusively on tennis. Ranking systems, for example, track point totals that typically grow based on the number of tournaments played. Logically enough, some young players and the adults around them fall into the trap of trying to earn as many points as possible—even though this may hold back long-term development in favor of short-term benefits.
"Universal Tennis Rating (UTR) could empower multi-sport athletes by basing their stature in the game on ratings of skill. It’s a metric that doesn’t depend on the sheer number of events played."
Tennis tournaments go on all year long, so a young person who plays, say, high school basketball in winter will have trouble catching up to her peers who have entered tennis tournaments all winter long. (There is a remedy: the Universal Tennis Rating (UTR) could empower multi-sport athletes by basing their stature in the game on ratings of skill. It’s a metric that doesn’t depend on the sheer number of events played. The ratings of UTR can thus take their place alongside rankings in a way that facilitates multi-sport play.)
“To make the best players, we need less emphasis on rankings and more on athleticism, which multi-sport participation cultivates,” Hainline says. He cites a chart from Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer that went viral on the Internet. It showed that 42 of 47 of his football recruits in a recent year played multiple sports in high school. The same applies at the pro level: in the 2016 National Football League draft, 90 percent of first-round picks played multiple sports in high school.
Regarding counterweights to early specialization, Hainline also cites USA Hockey’s American Development Model, a set of guidelines for ice hockey players, which declares that no child under eight should be on the ice more than three hours weekly. It is now the long-term athlete development model for all Olympic sports.
Top players share their philosophies of bringing up children. Read more
Early specialization in tennis exacts a price. Many children become exclusively committed to tennis at far too young an age, and the status quo rewards them for doing so. “Our tennis system ruins more athletes than it creates,” Farrey says. “We need to get rid of age-group rankings for kids under 12—they focus people on near-term success, not long-term athletic development.”
“Tennis is littered with kids who have great talent at age 12, but by age 16 have completely lost their enthusiasm for the game,” he continues. “The youth ranking system in tennis does more harm than good. It focuses kids and parents on the wrong things at an early age. The focus needs to be on development, not on being the #1-ranked player in your region, or in the United States.”
Farrey explains that “there’s this idea that ‘you can create a champion’ with tournament play and pressure. But sports systems don’t manufacture champions. The best ones provide athletes with good coaching and a development environment without wrecking them along the way, physically or psychologically.
“We need structures that encourage personal growth and development, and competition with oneself,” he continues, “instead of constantly comparing yourself, at a very early age, with a whole universe of kids who are growing at different rates. You see it in the Little League World Series. There are 12-year-olds pitching who have hair on their chins and the physiques of 15- or 16-year-olds. Yet many 12-year-olds are the size of 10-year-olds. Not everyone goes through puberty at the same time or at the same rate. This creates challenges for those who aren’t as physically developed.”
“Any system that allows kids to go out and compete on an equal footing, and have a healthy competitive match, will be good for development.”
Such challenges include mismatches in age-grouped tennis, which often drive players out of the game before they have really tasted what it can offer. “No kid likes to get crushed 6-0, 6-0,” Hainline says. “Any system that allows kids to go out and compete on an equal footing, and have a healthy competitive match, will be good for development.”
Universal Tennis Ratings, the world’s most accurate and reliable index of tennis skill, do exactly that. Since UTR is a rating system, it encourages young athletes to concentrate on their own growth as players, and to measure their progress on their own terms by upping their ratings. This creates a very different mentality from a ranking hierarchy that measures success only in comparison to other athletes.
UTR enables young athletes to live at home longer, rather than feeling compelled to move away to reside at tennis academies or traveling incessantly as they chase ranking points. Anyone can cultivate his or her UTR by playing people of similar skill who live nearby. It doesn’t matter what age, or even sex, the opponents are. A good match between two evenly rated players will help them both improve.
Similar advantages persist throughout the human lifespan. “I think what is equally important is what UTR can bring to adults,” Hainline says. “Not everyone can fit into the adult-league model. I travel to France a fair bit; my wife is French. One day there, I played tennis with a 14-year-old whose classification put him on the national level. The next day I played a 60-year-old man, my own age. The following day I played a 20-year-old woman. They were all exceptionally competitive matches. It blows me away how the French classification system can produce such exactly equal competition. That’s what adults need.”
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