Perspectives from Craig Cignarelli – The Ten and Under Mandate Debate

Written by: on 19th March 2012
Perspectives from Craig Cignarelli - The Ten and Under Mandate Debate  |

As it continues to rebrand itself in search of the stickiness factor, Play and Stay, 36-60, Progressive tennis, Quickstart, and now Ten and Under Tennis (TAUT) struggles to take hold in the United States.   While several respected names in the coaching field have endorsed the mini-tennis format – rumors have it they’ve been paid heavy consultant fees to voice their support – a large group of successful player development coaches is becoming more vocal in their opposition to the new format.  The two sides are adamant in their views and Wayne Bryan’s recent email – it made its way onto Facebook a while back – has added fuel to the discussion.

To be fair, there are really two discussions relevant to TAUT tennis.  First, does it help grow the sport?  Frankly, there is little question that more players are experimenting with tennis – via schools, clubs, parks and recs, and even the local playground.  Additionally, pros can generate more income by placing up to 16 players on one tennis court. Proponents would argue that getting more kids involved in the game increases the chances of identifying a future champion.  All of the above is probably accurate and even TAUT’s opponents tend to agree that it is a good way to get people involved in tennis.  The issue though, goes much deeper and that is why I’ve chosen to take the CON side of the argument against TAUT.

Does TAUT accelerate player development and should the USTA mandate the format? This question provides the basis for much of the back and forth between the opposing parties.  Advocates of the program claim TAUT is appropriately sized for player’s ages and stature.  They contend TAUT allows young players to employ various tactics, strategic thinking, and better technique since the ball is always bouncing in their strike zones.  They argue the graduating rackets, courts and balls allow a player to achieve success at every level of their development.  Finally, they offer evidence that the international tennis community has utilized the 36-60 format effectively for several decades, and that the USTA is now simply doing what other nations have done.

After a failed $10 million marketing campaign, the USTA recently imposed a mandate stating all sanctioned U10 tournaments must be played with some form of the low-compression ball.  As of January 2012 – the start of the mandate – some sections use the orange ball, some the green ball, and others the green dot ball.  Regarding proper tournament format, mass confusion is rampant and the US governing body for tennis is winding its way through an unwieldy labyrinth.  To date, there is no explanation as to why the mandate was imposed, or how to implement it effectively.

Let’s break down their contentions.

Advocates of the program claim TAUT is appropriately sized for players’ ages and stature.

Tennis is a skill-based sport. Coaches should be able to decide what their players are capable of playing based on their ability, not their age or physical stature. By making mandatory restrictions on playing formats, the USTA is saying the coaches don’t know enough to know what’s best for their players – in which case it’s their coaching education structure that needs looking at, not their programming.  Learning is about progression to suit the pupil and not an arbitrary decision based on age.  To say stature and age are relevant is to stop 5’3” Oliver Rochus from reaching elite level tennis or to prevent Leyton Hewitt from winning an ATP match at 15 years old. To impose a mandate is to chill creativity in player development, and with U.S. tennis battling the world – some would say less effectively than a generation ago – now is not the time to discourage imagination.

They contend TAUT allows young players to employ various tactics, strategic thinking, and better technique since the ball is always bouncing in their strike zones.

Problem solving is a critical component to player development, and TAUT may allow players to succeed with shots they might not be able to execute on a full court.  However, there are just too many negatives to the small court/low compression format.

To begin, a lower bounce doesn’t make players adapt, and adaptation is how we evolve as humans and as tennis players.

Second, the nets are too low.  Instead of serving up into the box, players can serve down and create bad habits at an early age.

Third, tennis is movement-based and learning how to move at young ages is imperative. Coaches must build the foundation for proper movement in the early stages of player development.  With TAUT, you’re holding kids back from learning to move properly. They get used to moving one way on one-sized court and then find out it is a whole lot different in regulation size.  Trusting that a player can translate short step quickness from the small court to the long strides required on a large court can inhibit a player’s development. NOTE: It would be interesting to ask kids to play on larger than normal courts and see if their capacity for movement improved.

Fourth, because of the low bounce, drop shots eventually rule the game.  Players figure this tactic out early on in their development, and while some might argue the development of a drop shot proves the players are gaining variety in their game, others might contend the kids are learning low percentage tactics that won’t translate to the full court game and yellow ball.  Visit any U10 orange ball tournament and you’ll see more short winners than at a Little People’s Olympics.

Fifth, in his response to Wayne Bryan, Patrick McEnroe states “Indeed, by playing with properly-sized equipment and a softer ball that allows for longer rallies, we will be much more likely to develop smarter players who understand how to construct points; not just those who can smash a yellow ball through the back wall. In doing that, we’ll have more players who understand how to compete—and are better-prepared to do so.”  This is a coaching issue much more so than a player issue.  If coaches do their job, the court is irrelevant. We can teach point construction on a full-court just as effectively as on a mini-court, and if Patrick would take some time to work with today’s top ten year-old talent, he might learn that kids just need better information, not new equipment.

Sixth, mandating the smaller format stifles the creativity of the coaching community. Consider the coaches who ask their students to drive through the ball early in their development, aiming for the far baseline in order to produce a longer stroke.  What about the ones who use tall fences to teach kids to serve up on the ball?  How about those who emphasize playing more horizontally on the court, utilizing soft and hard angles early on in development – the short court sure makes those shots difficult to delineate?  For decades, coaches have employed techniques to teach kids the game that professionals play.  Now they have to re-learn teaching methods in order to master the short court format, and to what end – so they can change the kid’s development as he/she gets older?  Stifling already proven coaching methods seems arbitrary and a terrible consequence of this “new program.”

And finally, for those who claim it is easier to teach technique on a smaller court, check out the Russian training facility, Spartak. Students spend months performing strokes without ever hitting a ball, and when they are finally allowed to hit the ball, the coach keeps a refined eye on their technique to make sure the student has achieved mastery early on in development.  Technique with a racket has nothing to do with the ball, but rather, good coaching.  To say learning technique requires a low-compression ball and a smaller court is absurd.  If anything, tapping the red ball back and forth on the 36-foot court may, in fact, inhibit full strokes. If you can teach good strokes with a low-compression ball, you can do it with a yellow ball…if you can dodge a wrench….

They argue the graduating rackets, courts and balls allow a player to achieve success at every level of their development.

“Look, there are a lot of people who want to keep the status quo and dip their toe in the water. It’s the wrong approach.  Just because you can play on a bigger court doesn’t mean you should.  Kids are going to have more fun, and are going to look like miniature pros [if they play] with these shorter, lower-bouncing balls on the small courts.” – Kurt Kamperman USTA Chief Executive of Community Tennis

There is a wonderful anecdote about the USTA Quickstart trainers putting up a video of kids looking like pros on the Quickstart court.   They show a group of kids on a Quickstart court who are hitting the crap out of the ball and looking like studs.  Then they show a group of kids flailing away at the yellow ball.  Their next statement reads “This is the same group of kids!” and they expect the crowd to “get it.”  I didn’t get it so I asked the question. “Doesn’t that mean these kids can be great at Quickstart and suck at tennis?  They said I was missing the point and that these kids were learning great technique because the ball was always in their hitting zone.  I simply disagree.  I think lots of tennis players can play Ping-Pong, but few Ping-Pong players can play tennis.   Learning the nuance of spin, feel, racket and ball weight, the quick reactions required of a fast ball (ask Agassi about how he developed his reflexes), the capacity to deal with incoming balls at different heights and from different depths, the subtle importance of backing up against a down the line drive and moving forward to cut off crosscourt shots, the desire for space behind the baseline to disengage from the battle to clear your head…all change with a different court and a different ball.  The 10,000-hour rule doesn’t count unless you are using the actual equipment you are trying to master.  Expert flutists don’t spend five years on the kazoo.  I can put on a pair of floaties and conquer the wading pool, but after that, I don’t spend five years dog paddling. I swim.

There is no question that players will achieve success earlier and more often on the smaller courts with lower compression balls.  Does lowering the bar imply better tennis players?  As a player development community, we should not be catering to the lowest common denominator, but rather, raising the standard of coaching and play across the country in hopes of finding a champion willing to rise to the challenge.

Finally, they offer evidence that the international tennis community has utilized the 36-60 format effectively for several decades, and that the USTA is now simply doing what other nations have done.

Despite the lies claiming the top Belgians grew up on the 36-60 format – interviews with Henin and Malisse indicate they played with the soft balls only a few times before moving on to the regulation ball – a look at the worlds’ elite players suggests zero correlation between a 36-60 development system and their success as professionals.  Can we name a top 100 player who played with green dot balls in the U10’s?  In fact, the smaller court/low compression format has been around for decades and it is difficult to find players, who have made a living from the game, who’ll admit to growing up using that format for any real length of time.

The Eastern Bloc countries mandating TAUT are government-funded tennis federations whose tennis minister would be fired if he did not follow the mandate.  But many of the nations now using the TAUT format employ it as a teaching tool and do not mandate players or coaches use it.  International coaches use TAUT to introduce the game to young players and then progress to the regulation ball when the players have displayed enough skill to advance to regulation tennis.  These coaches do not lower the bar for success nor do they hold talent back based on age or stature.  TAUT is not a program; it is a tool.  We should see this method as an addition to teaching, not a restriction.  Allow regular ball divisions and green ball divisions.  The kids and coaches will tell you what is best for their development, not some committee sitting in a NY office with suits and no player development experience.   America is about innovation, entrepreneurship, and the freedom to pursue one’s own path.  Let us not turn to Eastern Europe for archaic solutions to America’s ills.  Let us not subject ourselves to bureaucratic imposition, but rather, look to our own localized coaching communities, parks and clubs for answers on how best to raise a champion.

Support for TAUT is rampant among teaching pros, but if we observe closely, we see the real message.

To date, Rick has never used TAUT at his academy or in his player development programs.   Rick has an incredible track record and as a coach I respect all of the work he has done, but if he knows something is going to help him succeed as a coach, he would certainly be using it to his advantage.

This is Nick’s “endorsement.”

Notice the complete absence about the effectiveness in developing players.  Nick knows what works and how to pitch a product.  To claim that Nick endorses TAUT for developmental reasons based on this footage, seems a very large stretch.

There are some other ancillary effects from the format as well.

By mandating kids play with the green ball, kids who choose to play with the yellow ball must play up.  The 10’s is where players develop a passion for the game, where learning to dominate a division before moving up is not only advisable but necessary, where a player’s emotional development is on overload.  By forcing them to play up or stay out of competition, we may erode the confidence of players who love the real game. Furthermore, not wanting to play against 8 and 9 year olds, the 11- 12 year olds are moving up to the 14’s, and the 13-14’s are moving up and so on.  Very shortly, the 18’s division will be so watered down that half the matches will have little quality and families will spend their weekends driving one-two hours to play for forty-five minutes worth of national ranking competition.

From an emotional standpoint, many of the 9-10 year olds who grew up on regulation balls now refer to the format as “little-kid” tennis and mock the kids who play with non-regulation balls. This is biology at work to force out the weak and select the strong. Unfortunately, the TAUT players will be branded and ridiculed by their peers as inferior to the big boys. 

 Children just do not think like adults (frontal lobe development is not complete until age 25). This is simply not good for a player’s emotional development, character, or sportsmanship.  If the USTA did not try to imagine how a child’s peer group would perceive TAUT tournaments, it is a fault. If they didn’t see all of the other unintended consequences, it’s a double fault. In the larger scheme of things, this point may be inconsequential, but the truth is that the champions are after adult challenges, not being babied.

From an equipment perspective, one British coach offered a laughable YouTube video referring to the difficulty and expense of using the TAUT equipment.

One can see why the USTA is so adamant about re-lining the courts, because the setting up and taking down of nets and lines is so labor-intensive that most teaching pros will tire of the process before they ever build up enough business to merit using the equipment.

To summarize, what accelerates development is kids playing tennis, watching tennis, attending college and professional matches, coaches who create intensity, inspire, who motivate players to greater heights, families who nurture their children’s interest in the game and support their child until tennis becomes a passion.   To quote Wayne Bryan, “Champions are not created by million dollar slick ad campaigns and tennis will never growfrom Madison Avenue.”  Regarding the USTA trying to control/be involved with tennis player development, parent Chris Boyer accurately states, “NO OTHER SPORT DOES THIS! AYSO soccer doesn’t try to govern how soccer coaches develop in the private sector; Football – NO, Baseball – NO, Basketball – NO. Not even FIFA, which could be considered one of the most powerful sport organizations in the world doesn’t get involved in player development – they let the professional soccer clubs develop their own talent from age 4 on up to pro level in each club’s own system.”

There is, at present, ZERO research to prove the “new” format is a better developmental system than the regulation format.  Moreover, there is no research that even compares the two formats.  It is very possible that TAUT is SOLYNDRA covered in red orange and green felt.

Note: I use the TAUT program in my teachings.  As an experiment, I recently pitted equally-talented 7 year-olds against each other.  Both have been playing under my tutelage since age 5.  One has TAUT-only training, while the other has yellow-ball-only training. When playing on the 36’ court with the red ball, the TAUT player won 6-0.  When playing on the full size court with the yellow ball, the yellow ball player won 6-0.  I then gave each of them a lesson on the other’s surface with the other’s ball. Second match results: 6-4 TAUT player on small court.  6-1 yellow ball player of full court.  Interpret these results as you see fit, but at the very least, I’ve made some sort of comparison.

Why the USTA didn’t conduct this type of research before issuing a mandate is beyond my capacity to understand. Someone in the USTA should consider doing a 5 year study of TAUT vs. Yellow ball and compare the kids—strokes, tactics, depth, variety of shots etc.—then you will have evidence and a model for the future.  Until then, the mandate seems specious.

Where is the accountability? If TAUT tournaments never take off and end up inhibiting player development, does anyone have to answer for that?  If you bring out a product that flops in the business world, especially when you do not do your research first, you get fired.  For the health care mandate, we have the U.S. Supreme Court to check and balance the power of the other two branches.  In tennis, the governing body is a dictatorship, with no check other than in the court of public opinion.  Even our forefathers realized the inherent danger in such a system – “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” – Thomas Jefferson – and now we are witnessing the abuse of power.

“I think it’s ridiculous for the USTA to keep a ten-and-under player, who is physically and mentally able, from competing at a high level using standard equipment and courts. In effect, they are forcing kids to play tennis a certain way from a young age. They are, in effect, saying this is the only path to success. This is not so surprising since the current philosophy at the junior development level in the USTA is to try to teach a certain way or style for our players based on the European or Spanish method of developing players instead of nurturing and encouraging all styles, but instituting and reinforcing certain foundational markers that have to be met.”—Harold Solomon

Making mistakes is part of life – when you are young and won’t ask for help from someone who knows, or when you are older and trying something totally new.  What the USTA did is not a mistake.  They had access to coaches who have successfully implemented player development for decades. They never asked.  Instead they imposed an un-researched, unproven mandate based on small committee meetings and the belief that they know better than the coaching community. That is arrogance, not a mistake.

In my humble opinion, I think the smaller format can help us attract new players to our sport.  Perhaps we can draw a few great athletes away from the soccer fields, basketball courts and baseball diamonds.  Maybe we can captivate and retain them by offering instant playability.  Beyond that though, coaches and players should be trying to develop skills to prepare them for the full court as soon as possible.  The race to 10,000 hours is a long one, and the more we delay the start, the longer it takes to reach the finish line.

American tennis’ resurgence does not depend upon bureaucratic mandates. Keep ivory-tower suits and coaches who’ve never developed a young kid, out of player development. Revoke the mandate.  Implement Quickstart/TAUT for five year-olds. Let private coaches and players decide when they are ready to advance.  We’ve been doing it quite well for a lot of years.

Based at the renowned Malibu Racquet Club in Southern California, Craig Cignarelli is one of the most prolific and successful developmental coaches in the country. He was asked to write the CON position to the Ten and Under Tennis mandate debate.

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