Tennis Industry magazine


Mature Outlook

Package tennis to meet all the needs of the over-50 player, and you’ll meet your bottom-line needs, too.

By Kathy and Ron Woods

Have you reached out to the 50+ population of players and potential tennis players yet? If not, why not? Are you not convinced of their potential as a market, or just uncertain about how to touch them, entice them and get them playing regularly? If that is the case, read on for some insight and strategies that can swell your participation numbers and pump up your bottom line.

As people hit that big “5-0” birthday, many reflect that they are in the prime of their middle years and eager to enjoy life. They want to stay healthy, maintain physical strength and vigor, enjoy socializing with people, want to look good and feel great. Tennis can be the answer to meet every one of those dreams.

Sports participation surveys show that millions of Americans are heading to gyms to use treadmills, elliptical trainers, strength-training machines or stationary bicycles. A significant number, especially women, have opted for yoga or Pilates. But indoor gyms, where the message is “workout,” don’t appeal to everyone and over time, legions of well-intentioned exercise-seekers drop out or struggle with the discipline of regular activity.

We have the answer. Why not offer people the chance to “play” rather than “work” at a sport activity? Playing tennis can produce intense feelings of enjoyment, success, fun and delight. Hitting a solid shot for a winner, ending a point with a well-placed volley, or making an impossible save create feelings of exultation. Even the excitement of a challenging rally of eight or 10 balls is cause for celebration.

What do people over 50 want?

It really isn’t that complicated. We want to keep our bodies fit and looking good, our minds sharp and spend time with friends and family. Think about those “wants” in tennis terms. We’re not looking to have perfect form, don’t expect to become the local champion, and sure don’t want to put up with others who do. We just want to play, have fun and do something good for our body, mind and emotions at the same time.

Tennis can be presented and packaged beautifully to meet all of these needs. But it take some re-engineering of thought and programs led by professional staff who understand the market of 50+ players.

We know tennis can be a great physical workout if you’re matched up with the right partners and have the skill to maneuver each other around the court. People do have to learn a few principles about how to keep the ball in play during a rally if they want a workout other than bending down to retrieve a ball. The physical benefits have been widely circulated thanks to sport scientists and most people are convinced. But how many know about the effects of exercise on the brain and memory?

New research on “neurogenesis,” or the brain’s ability to grow new cells at any age through physical activity, is truly revolutionary stuff. Author John Ratey, M.D., in his new book Spark presents convincing evidence that aerobic exercise can stimulate the growth of new brain cells. Perhaps even more exciting is the news that some types of exercise, like tennis, can enhance and strengthen the neural connections in our brains.

Ratey suggests that, “Sports like tennis that tax both the cardiovascular system and the brain simultaneously will keep your brain and nervous system at the highest level even as you age.” Even though these new neural circuits are created through physical activity, they can be recruited by other areas and used for thinking in general.

Another author, Norman Doidge, M.D., writes in his book, The Brain That Changes Itself, that the brain is no longer viewed as a machine hardwired early in life and destined to wear out, but instead it exhibits a “plasticity” that allows it to change throughout life if given the right stimulus. If your memory is beginning to slip a bit like ours, this news is heaven-sent. Play more tennis and remember stuff… and where we left it.

So tennis is great for our body, maybe even better for our mind. Who needs to know this information and how do we get it to them?

Exactly who is our audience?

Let’s look at three groups of potential tennis players over the age of 50.

First, there are those who have played all their lives, are frequent players and the backbone of our sport. As they age, unless we tailor the sport to meet their changing priorities, needs and wants, we may lose them. Or maybe age and injuries will get them first. They need help on keeping their bodies fit, recovering from injuries, improving technique to minimize injury risk and new playing strategies to accommodate gradual loss of mobility and speed. Aging frequent players are a precious resource who love tennis, but may turn to other less demanding sports unless we guide them carefully.

A second group is those who used to play tennis, maybe in the 1970s during the tennis boom, but eventually dropped out. We can reclaim these players if we point out that today’s racquets make the game easier to play, offer new strategies to understand the game and congenial folks who will satisfy their social needs.

The third group is those who have never played tennis. In our view, the only requirement to have some success in tennis is a reasonable amount of eye-hand coordination in tracking a ball and striking it. We can teach the rest of it.

But programs need to be carefully designed to make learning fun, in groups to meet potential playing partners, no standing in lines, slower courts and tennis balls, oversize racquet heads and enthusiastic coaches. Once players learn to track a ball in flight and predict the bounce, the easy part is learning the most efficient stroking technique.

In future articles, we’ll probe more deeply into strategies for attracting and retaining our 50+ friends.

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About the Author

Kathy and Ron Woods  are co-authors of Playing Tennis After 50, published by Human Kinetics. Kathy is the director of tennis at the Racquet Club of St. Petersburg and a former president of the USPTA. Ron is a former staff member of the USTA for 20 years, college coach and professor of sport science. Both were individually awarded the prestigious Tennis Education Merit Award by the International Tennis Federation.



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