Netting talent at grass roots level
Originally published on: 11/09/12 00:00
Experts largely agree that for a nation to enjoy the benefits of having a significant group of players towards the top of the men’s and women’s world rankings, the first step is to generate large-scale interest in the game at grass roots level. Put simply, the more kids playing the sport, the more talent will be discovered and the greater the chances of that talent being turned into champions of the future.
But how do you persuade kids on to a tennis court in the first place? Children in 2012 have so many distractions and alternatives to playing any kind of sport – never mind tennis – it often takes a determined parent to get a racket into a youngster’s hand.
Whether it’s a Roger Federer for the juniors of Switzerland, a Rafael Nadal for the kids in Spain, or an Andy Murray for the British wannabes, a bona fide national superstar is a key element in creating interest in the sport. Accessibility to facilities, decent coaches and an entertaining and engaging first taste of the joys of tennis are the next step. After that, a structured development programme, regular competition and the support of parents – emotionally and financially – is key.
One family from Scotland is proof that sticking to these simple principles works. The Lumsdens, from Glasgow, have three children playing the sport at performance level after the trio all first tried tennis simply for fun when they enrolled in the David Lloyd Leisure (DLL) All Stars programme at their local club, West End Glasgow. The trio were given their first taste of the sport thanks to the initiative, which, says mum Gillian Lumsden, provided a stimulating and enjoyable first experience of tennis.
“It was really well advertised within our club and the coaches recommended it,” says Gillian. “The kids liked the colourful posters and wanted to be involved. We wanted our children to participate in a safe and friendly environment and we knew there were good quality coaches. The club and facilities are fantastic.
It is such a family-friendly club and both the children and ourselves have made lots of really good friends.” The results have been impressive. The eldest of the three Lumsdens, Maia, has recently become the under 14 European No.1, brother Ewan is the under 12 British No.1 and even the youngest of the three kids, Eve, has already blossomed and is among the top 20 in Britain in her age group.
The Lumsdens are just three of some 12,500 kids that play tennis every week as part of the All Stars programme. Launched in 2009 and designed in partnership with the LTA, the initiative aims to get children between the ages of 3 and 11 involved in the sport. Three and four-year-olds start playing ‘Tots Tennis’ before feeding into a colour-coded mini tennis structure of Red (8 and under), Orange (8-9) and Green (10) based on their age and standard of play, before progressing from All Stars to the next level for older children. The earlier stages are played on a scaled down court, with an appropriate speed of ball, racket size and net height aimed at making the game easier to learn. Crucially, once the youngsters reach a certain level there is the opportunity for them to compete with one another as the programme is supported by the AEGON Mini Tennis Ratings.
Coach to the Lumsdens, Toby Smith, says this is an important element in a youngster’s journey through tennis. “The David Lloyd All Stars Programme is a great way of getting kids started in tennis. It’s very well run,” says Smith, brother of Leon, the current Great Britain Davis Cup captain.
“It provides a programme with an organised structure that also provides competition. It teaches the kids to perform by providing coaching, but within a competitive programme.”
Gillian says the motivation provided by the coaches to improve was one element of the programme that particularly appealed to her children. “They enjoyed the competitive side of the sessions, all the games where points were involved,” she explained, “and they also enjoyed the interaction with other players and coaches. They also loved being rewarded with the book and stickers as they learned new skills and progressed to the next level.”
The size and scale of the nationwide DLL network of clubs means that when real talent is identified, potential champions can be fed into other DLL clubs with the necessary performance programmes to make the most of their ability. Among the network of DLL clubs are eight Performance Centres and two High Performance Centres in Southampton and Raynes Park, south west London.
“There is the ability for kids to be accelerated into an academy programme,” confirms Smith, “and also the ability for kids to move from one club to another so they are part of an appropriate programme for their standard.” And even in the case of the exceptional Lumsden family, as well as the silverware, there are many other benefits and life skills that are picked up along the way.
“Tennis helps them to get on with other children,” insists Gillian. “It educates them on the benefits of leading a healthy lifestyle. It improves their confidence as they progress in their tennis. All three children want to be the best that they can be in tennis.
'Netting talent' featured in the September 2012 issue of tennishead magazine.' Why not subscribe to the magazine here.