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ADDvantage magazine
Competition Can Help Build A Strong Junior Program
by Anthony Kountouris, USPTA Elite Professional
Most of my coaching experience is based on my European playing and coaching background. Since starting my American coaching venture two years ago, I have spent a lot of energy at my club boosting the advanced beginner and low intermediate side of our junior program. More specifically, adding a competition aspect to the traditional “clinic” atmosphere. Promoting fun, non-threatening, competition in your junior programs will help those players set goals and love the sport they are playing. This will help your junior program to become stronger.

WHY AREN’T BEGINNER/INTERMEDIATE JUNIOR PLAYERS COMPETING?

Across the USTA, there is a need for tournaments for this level of play. Often, this void is caused because of the suggested low cost to players. These events are usually cost prohibitive to have a facility close to regular play and host a lower level “sanctioned” tournament. Because of this, many of these players play higher level events as their first tournament and have a bad experience. For many players, this turns them off to traditional tournament play. There are many ways to prepare for tournament play, give them the opportunity to compete, and grow your club’s offerings and revenue.

HOW TO OFFER COMPETITION TO YOUR  JUNIORS AT YOUR TENNIS CLUB?

#1 In-House Tournament                
The “In-House” Tournament is an excellent idea for recreational junior players. It takes place in comfortable, familiar surroundings with people they know. Usually these events are run by staff of the club who know the players/parents by name and can offer feedback during and after the event. This helps the player’s progression. The formats of my “in house” events always change.

However, in planning and formatting, I always follow these principles:
You do not need the whole weekend. Some parents do not want to commit the entire weekend for a tournament, especially parents of recreational players. Participation is always better on a Friday or Saturday night, parents love to drop their kids off for a couple of hours and go to dinner. If you block a couple hours on at least six courts, you can run these very easily.

Use round robin short match formats. No-add sets to four, or 20-minute timed matches are all possible formats. That way, the juniors will play as many opponents as possible experiencing wins and losses.
Sometimes, you will have too many kids and not enough courts. When this happens, I run two matches on each court at the same time. This way, although there is some waiting, the players only wait for two points at a time and not 20 minutes at a time.

Bringing bananas, nutrition bars, and other healthy snacks for the players will make a lot of people happy without having to spend a lot. Serving pizza in the last 20-30 minutes is always a good idea and a good opportunity to talk to parents. This way they see how much interest you show towards their kids.

Find a local sponsor or two. They might provide small gifts to all participants or a monetary offering. Depending on how you operate, that can pay for your time or event costs. Tell the local businesses that you will promote them at the club’s site, website, social media and they will love the idea.

These tournaments are very flexible, and format can change every week based on different levels and ages. For example, some of our younger, red ball level, kids don’t have the attention span to play many individual matches. Depending on the number of registrants, you can set up a red ball singles match of 3 against 3 rotating any way you choose. This is an important step to becoming comfortable with competition.

#2 Create a Junior Team                  
By creating a junior team comprised of club members and class participants, you have created an avenue through which people can play more. Not everyone will play in the matches at first, but as word gets out that the matches are “fun”, you will get more interest. As your team plays other teams around the area, players experience playing other kids that they see for the first time. This is still a setting not as “threatening” as a traditional tournament.

Here are some tips on what you can do with a team:
  • Organize a weekly, 60 or 90-minute practice with some live ball drills and match play.
  • Talk to other clubs nearby and have your teams play…both home and away. Again, this is another subtle way your kids can start to get used to playing tennis away from where they are comfortable.
  • It can be a two to three hour “match” with short, timed matches so players can play as many different opponents as possible.
  • If you have the court space, create a match between four teams. That can be lots of fun and it will really build teamwork between your players and camaraderie between opponents.
  • Charge the kids for the team and find a local sponsor. Our club has had team “jerseys”. See if you can get the player’s names put on the back. These are all fun, gimmicky things you can do that will grow attention to your program and team.

#3 Run USTA Advanced Beginner Junior Tournaments                  
If you think your players are looking for the next step, entertain the ideal of running a USTA junior tournament at your club. For the advanced beginner or intermediate, the USTA offers express events. These are short, four hour events that are open to all USTA members. When used in conjunction with the “in-house” events and the team tennis, these can be a great way that your kids progress to feeling very comfortable in a competitive situation. Many of these events offer a fixed amount of “ranking” points for participation. They don’t differentiate point distribution between winners and first round losers. Kids just trying to get their feet wet in the tournament scene need to be encouraged by participation and not wins and losses.

Here are some guidelines for express USTA tournaments :
  • You need to follow some of the USTA rules to run this tournament.
  • You can still use short match format or timed matches.
  • You can do round robin matches or use a draw with consolation. Regardless of the format, players need to be guaranteed at least two or three matches.
  • Great opportunity to coach your players and teach them how to act in a tournament situation.

If you are not offering competition at your club, now is the time to start. If you think you don’t have the right amount of courts, inexperienced players, or any other “excuse”, you can always make adjustments to fit your needs. Competition is often a word that is scary to parents. They think, “If my child fails, he/she will quit.” The fact is, if our students aren’t taught how to compete in the right settings, at the right pace, early on, we are setting them up for failure. Don’t forget, in this changing world we also have a job to think outside the box at how much time our students can commit to match play. If their practices are more “fun” then that is what they are expecting their match play to be too. Good luck at your next “in-house” event.

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About Anthony Kountouris
Anthony was just six when he started taking tennis lessons on the Island of Rhodes, Greece. At the age of 17 he was the fifth ranked player in Greece (under 18) and a member of the Greek National Junior Tennis Team. He played college tennis at Tyler Junior College and later at Ferris State University, winning national titles and an All-American status. In 2002, he started coaching high level juniors in Greece and in 2007 he was the coach of the Greek National Team at the Jr. Olympic Games in Belgrade, Serbia. In 2016, he moved to the United States to be the director of junior development at Georgetown Prep Tennis Club (Rockville, MD) where he currently works.