When kids sign up to play baseball, they don’t immediately take the mound at Yankee Stadium. They begin by hitting the ball off a tee, then from a coach, and then at a progression of distances, gradually increasing with age and skill.
The same can be said for other sports, such as soccer and basketball.
However, tennis has never had that luxury of time.
Until recently, the official rules of tennis called for the game at any age to be played on a full-sized (78-foot) court with regulation tennis balls. Organizations have made various attempts through the years to “kid-size” the game, but those attempts were seen as teaching tools and not “real tennis.”
As such, a kid-sized approach never took hold, and participation numbers for ages 10 and under remained far below numbers for soccer, baseball and basketball.
In recent years, however, the United States Tennis Association (USTA), as well as numerous industry partners, have thrown their full weight behind right-sizing the game for kids through a format known as QuickStart Tennis.
This means shorter courts (36 feet for 8 and under, and 60 feet for 10 and under), slower bouncing balls, lower nets, simplified scoring and smaller rackets.
In 2010, the USTA and its international partner — the International Tennis Federation (ITF) — changed the official rules to modify matches for kids 10 and under. This may seem a technicality, but it is part of creating a significant culture change in the world of tennis — the matches are real as opposed to practice or pretend — regardless of the size of the court.
Parks and recreation agencies are uniquely positioned to capitalize on this rule change and culture shift. For example, since agencies are traditionally focused on skill development and recreational sports, there is the potential to attract players from other youth sports. And since these agencies have more participants than most private clubs, the impact could be far-reaching. In simple math, more participants equal more revenue.
And even in tough economic times, programs for kids are one of the last spending items that families cut.
Don’t be turned off from trying the program until you learn the facts. One common misconception in offering tennis is that expert players are needed to coach. This may be the case for advanced players, but it is not true when simply trying to warm kids up to the game.
QuickStart programs can be coached by parent volunteers. The USTA provides a specific how-to manual to help coaches, and also offers free training workshops for interested parents and volunteers. After all, relying on volunteers is the standard approach in other sports, so why not use it in tennis?
One of the great things about developing a tennis program is there are numerous resources available. Here are some resources and practical suggestions to get started:
• Consider putting permanent lines for shorter courts on existing courts. There is significant grant money available to help pay for this, and doing so will add legitimacy for parents and fun for kids.
• Rely on your own expertise. You may not be a tennis player or expert, but you are a parks and recreational professional, and as such you know the audience, the market and likely a few things about running sports and leagues. Don’t be intimidated just because it’s a sport you may be less familiar with.
• Offer informal play and competition opportunities to give kids and parents a taste. This includes short events — one to two hours — that allow kids and parents to sample the game.
• Be enthusiastic! Your audience may still view tennis as a complicated sport that needs “lessons.” Your enthusiasm for the game will help get them involved. And once their kids try a game that is appropriately sized for them, they will be hooked!
• Make efficient use of space — hold programs in parking lots or on outdoor basketball courts using simple pop-up nets and chalk/throw-down lines.
For more information or to register as an official USTA Tennis in the Parks agency, visit www.usta.com.
Eric Legg, CPRP, is a Sports Programmer with Arlington County, Virginia, where he oversees a variety of sports, including tennis. The Arlington USTA Junior Team Tennis program recently received the Virginia Recreation and Park Society Award for Best New Program, and the agency was named Parks & Recreation Agency of the Year by the USTA Mid-Atlantic Section. Legg also serves on the USTA National Committee on Tennis in the Public Parks. He can be reached via e-mail at Elegg@arlingtonva.us.