In February, I had the opportunity to travel to the USTA National Campus in Lake Nona, Florida. Over 100 administrators and coaches from the 17 USTA Sections were invited to participate in the 2019 Junior Pathway Symposium. I attended with the contingent from the USTA Southwest. The purpose of the Symposium was to align the efforts of the stakeholders around the country to the USTA's Net Generation program goals. Specifically, the focus was on the philosophy and procedures for developing junior players through Red, Orange, Green, and Yellow, and growing the players through these stages based on their skill level.
From the first presentation, I knew that the Symposium was going to be a very valuable experience. Neeru Jayanthi, M.D. started us off with an in-depth discussion on early specialization in sports, and the data that has been collected about early specialization and injuries. Although it was a tennis conference, it's important to remember, for the physical and emotional health of our players, that it can't be all tennis, all the time.
Throughout the next three days, we had a series of presentations regarding the future of tennis development and the junior pathway through tournaments, competencies, and early development camps. We spent time on court discussing performance levels and assessing players, developing an awareness of the distinct levels for each stage in a player's development. Some of the best conversations came through our group work, during which the coaches and administrators came together to talk about best practices to help players, parents, and coaches all come together as a more united front.
I gained a tremendous amount of respect for those at the USTA who are leading tennis development in this country at the national level. It is very easy to be on the outside, looking in with a judgmental eye. For those who really care about the sport and the children we are developing as players, it was clear that these leaders are passionate about their mission, and are trying their best to make a positive impact.
I have been working with shorter racquets, softer balls, and smaller courts for nearly 20 years. I grew up as a coach under the Aussie Mozzie tennis program, which led to the design of Hot Shots Tennis in Australia. After 7 years in the UK, under the LTA's Mini Tennis program, I moved to the US when the USTA's Red/Orange/Green program was in its infancy. I created and implemented two junior development programs before we launched the IJP Tennis program in 2016. So, I have seen a number of approaches to junior player development. Each has its strengths, but none is perfect. I don’t even know if "perfection" exists, but I do know that every year that passes, the ideas and programs keep getting better, and I keep learning and improving as a coach.
The USTA and Net Generation are the way forward for all junior players in this country to enjoy the game of tennis, and play it for their entire lives. This is a life sport and these pathways allow kids to learn and love the game from a much younger age, and develop their passion for the best sport in the world.
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Matt's Point (get it? Match Point!) is Matt's blog covering all the goings-on at IJP Tennis.