It's a question I get asked nearly all the time.
Especially by any parent that has a child under the age of around 7years old.
The answer that I usually give is, "the younger the better. 4 is usually the best age to start in my opinion, although we do accept some 3year olds into our academy to if they are particularly keen". But in reality the best age to start also depends on a number of factors. For me as a coach, the most important is, "what's the child's goal and what's the parents goal for the child regarding their tennis?" Now I wouldn't really expect a child to know the answer to that question, however they may. But I would expect the parents to have at least given some though as to why they want to start their child. What is their goal? And what problem are they trying to solve?
Has the child just expressed interest so you're looking to get them started and see if they enjoy it and take it from there? Has the child played before and they're adamant they want to do tennis multiple times a week? You can't get the racket out of their hand and can't get them away from tennis on the T.V.? Whatever your case may be, in order to know the best age to start, you must have a goal or target. Without a goal, how do you know where you want to get? And how do you know if you're moving in the right or wrong direction?
I think we can all agree that a child who potentially wants to play tennis at a pro level, would want to start tennis a lot younger than a child that just wants to play for the enjoyment and social aspects of the game. In any case, my advice would remain the same, "the sooner a child starts getting coaching, the better." And I know I may sound biased by saying this because I'm a coach and all, but there are a number of reasons why I say this which I'll go into today.
So First let's start with some of the advantages of starting tennis early,
1 - It gives you options -
And who doesn't want to have options? Let's say you've enrolled your child into tennis coaching at 4yrs old. 6months into the deal you're no longer happy with the way their progressing, or maybe you're extremely happy but your child wants to take it to the next level. Whatever the reason, they've started young, so you have time on your side to test things out and experiment. You can decide to increase the amount of time they spend on-court and go from a 30min class to a 1hr class, or maybe transition from groups to privates classes, or maybe you do 2 classes per week instead of one. Whatever option you decide, you can try these different options out over the course of the next 6-12months,(or even longer) and see which suits you and your child best.
2 - You can make changes faster -
Our human brains are malleable(changeable), throughout our entire lives. However our brains are extremely malleable particularly from birth to around 13years old. This allows us to pick-up skills quickly and means we're highly influence-able during that early phase of our lives. As we get older, particularly from around the ages of 13-18yrs, our ability to make changes becomes harder and can take longer because during this period of time our brains are now trying to engrain whatever skills, habits, thought patterns etc. we're accustomed to performing up to this point in our lives.
So let's say you start tennis at 5yrs old vs a player starting at 10 yrs old. The 5yrs old is almost like a sponge, they can take on board nearly anything you say. They're willing and able to change their technique and mindsets drastically in short periods of time(3-12months). Whereas The 10yr old starter will also be able to make considerable changes, especially for the first few years, however after that due to the players physiological changes, it can start getting more and more difficult to make changes. More importantly, the time to see those changes through, gets longer and longer. Not to mention, around the ages of 12-13yrs a child's ego and self-identity starts to form, so a players willingness to embrace changes and new ways of thinking can be more difficult. They may interpret the coaches advice as a personal attack, or worse, that the coach is try to control them.
Take-home message: By the time that 5yr old starter hits 13yrs old they have a deep wiring and conditioning for the skills, tactics, mind-sets, etc. for the game compared to the 10yr old starter. That 5yr old may even look like they are naturally "talented" to those less informed or that meet them when they're 13. Not knowing that in reality it was years of work, building a player the right way and progressing over time.
3- You get ahead of the rest
I know this one sounds simple, that's because it is! Imagine your child starts tennis at 8years old, having never played or done any structured sport(let alone tennis), before. Then he/she gets placed with a child that's already had coaching for 3 years. Who wins here? I don't think I've ever seen a time when the player who's had previous coaching for an extended period of time, hasn't been better than a new student. That's also why at our academy we take great care to try and place the children based on skill level as much as possible. So many times that more advanced player won't even be on the same court as a new student. They'll either be in a more advanced group or possibly have already progressed to private lessons.
Oh and I almost forgot to mention, how does that new student feel when the gap between them and the more experienced student comes to light? Many times I've seen the new student.. (and unfortunately sometimes their parents) become incredibly discouraged, irritated, or upset, when they can't perform at the same level as the experienced and coached player. Yes, we coaches may be able to put things into context and understand the reason for the significant gap. But good luck explaining that to an emotional 8year old.. or parent!
4- You can actually take the time to learn the correct fundamentals
Sometimes I work with a player and they want to speed up or even "rush", their tennis development. They want to do drills, progressions or activities that are far beyond their current skill level. Don't get me wrong, a challenge is great to help engage a child's competitive physiology, as well as keep them engaged and a myriad of other reasons. However if the challenge is too difficult, it can actually be counter-productive to a players development. Common examples would be when a player wants to hit from the baseline, but is only ready to hit from the service line. Or when a player wants to rally with proper tennis balls, instead or 25%, 50% or 75% compression tennis balls.
If we take the example of the low compression tennis balls. I've had children from as young as 5years old be able to rally with 25% compression balls over the big net. On the other end of the spectrum I've had players as old as 11-12years old still needing to rally with the same 25% compression tennis balls because they've had no previous tennis coaching before and that's their current skill level. Many times these older children won't even want to take the time to hit with these tennis balls and progress to the next level when they're ready. Instead they want to jump straight into hitting with the proper tennis balls from the baseline. Not knowing that when they do this, they may be sacrificing their technique or movement just to get the desired result. Which in this case is hitting the ball over the net and into the court. This kind of thing can actually "cap" a players development, meaning they will get to a certain level and will slowly stop improving and instead plateau. If the player just spent 1-2 terms(3-6months), getting some of the basics down, their improvement in the long-term would be a lot faster, they would be a lot better off and their learning/growth would be continuous.
Now let's take a look at some of the diss-advantages or possible pit-falls of starting tennis early:
1- Early Specialization
Tennis like any sport requires a variety or motor-skills. It's not just swinging a racket and hitting a ball. Anyone can ultimately do that, but it's how you do it that's crucial. Developing motor-skills such as throwing, catching, hoping, jumping etc. are vital so that you can learn to hit the ball the right way. Eg. hoping skills will allow you to have better balance on the tennis court and will assist you in every shot in the game. Similarly with throwing, being able to throw and catch with both hands will develop awareness, co-ordination and strength that will convert into a player having a better ball-toss, better lock-in arm on the forehand and greatly assist the double/single-hand back-hands.
So if a player isn't getting these skills in their tennis classes, other sports can really help. Sports or activities like cricket, gymnastics, soccer, dancing and some type of martial-arts I've found to be particularly beneficial for players. Also, tennis can be such an individual sport(particularly for more advanced players needing private coaching), so team activities can be a great way to round a player out so they can learn social skills, learn from others and it can take some pressure away from their tennis if tennis is their number 1 sport.
By starting tennis young a player has to be nurtured and progressed the right way. The types of classes have to be considered, as well as how long and how frequent. If they have multiple activities per week i.e.- school, tutoring, swimming lessons, etc., these too have to be considered. As does the amount of rest each player needs each year. Getting the balance right can be difficult and pushing to hard to early could lead to burn-out. Players can get bored, complacent or feel pressured if they do to much to soon. So always tread on the side of caution and remember that's it's better to have a slightly under-trained athlete than a slightly over-trained athlete. An under-trained athlete has energy reserves, can recover quickly from training sessions/work-outs, doesn't compromise their physiology, is motivated and looks forward to their classes. Whereas an over-trained athlete is the complete opposite!
3- starting/stoping seasonal cycle
A trap I see many players falling into is the cycle of only playing during either the summer or winter seasons. So a players only practices/trains for maybe 6months, then stops for 6months. Something is always better than nothing, however to really make long-lasting change you need routine and discipline consistently over long periods of time until you master the skill. And even when you do master it, our skills are never static, they're always in a state of flux (they're always expanding or contracting). So when you stop doing an activity you'll start to slowly recede your skill level. Have you ever taken a break from tennis or your sport of choice then returned after a lay-off and found yourself "rusty"? That's why if you're serious about learning a skill or sport you need to do it year round. Otherwise, you may find yourself frustrated that when you start playing again you have to re-learn the old lessons instead of building on the old lessons
In summary I hope I've been able to shed some light as to my thoughts on the best age to start tennis and I hope I've given you some ideas to consider. There ultimately is never going to be the "perfect time" to start for your child. I get it that sometimes circumstances aren't the most favourable. Maybe you have to stop training for an extended period of time or there are logistical reasons why you can't make it to coaching at this time, or the weather isn't right or "we're waiting for xyz thing to happen". However, "the earlier the better" is what I always say and I base that on my 7+ years of coaching having trained hundreds and hundreds of students in both private and group classes. Make a commitment, stick to it, go all in.
Be Great -
Lifestyle Tennis Academy
0421 560 235