Junior Play: Team Spirit
Recent changes to Junior Team Tennis are helping more kids get into the game.
Get Craig Jones on the phone talking about Junior Team Tennis, and you can hear the excitement in his voice. In fact, if he’s on the phone while in his car, you begin to get a little worried for drivers that may be around him.
“We’ve listened to the feedback and changed the rules for Junior Team Tennis, and now we’re making it easier on both participants and providers,” says Jones, the USTA’s director of Junior Play. “And we’re unbelievably excited about all of this.”
Every year, Junior Team Tennis, which was established in 1991 and is for players ages 5 to 18, brings thousands of kids together in teams to play singles, doubles and mixed doubles against their peers. In 2014, there were 88,000 unique Junior Team Tennis participants, playing in nearly 800 programs across the U.S. In addition to helping youngsters grow as individuals, JTT promotes social skills and fosters a spirit of cooperation. Participants not only learn tennis in a fun, team environment, but they also learn that succeeding is more about how they play the game — win or lose.
Flexibility is Key
But in recent years, Junior Team Tennis has had its challenges, Jones says. One of the biggest was that the program had a rigidity that often made it difficult to form and keep teams playing. But also, says Jones, “It ended up not being about local play, even though that was the intent all along.” One of the unique aspects of JTT — which was that kids played to advance from districts up to a national championship — also seemed to be holding the program back from growing overall.
So the USTA began surveying parents and players to find out what can be done to give the program a boost, and then started to make those suggestions happen. One of the biggest changes, implemented this past January, was instituting two different JTT pathways. For competitive juniors there is “Championship Junior Team Tennis,” where the competition works its way up and can culminate in playing for a national title. But for the vast majority of youngsters (and their parents) who are looking for a fun way to hang out with friends and play some tennis, there’s “local” Junior Team Tennis play, where USTA membership is optional and tennis providers have more flexibility to make their programs successful.
There are other important changes, too. JTT had a restrictive format that required equal numbers of boys and girls on a team, which often is hard to do. “We realized half the programs simply weren’t doing the format,” Jones says. “So we redesigned it to give flexibility on team composition. Basically for the younger kids, we recommend a co-ed format. We recommend four to six kids on a team, but some communities might want to have more kids.
“Everything is about having playing time, and getting equal playing time for every youngster,” Jones adds. “So we cut the format back and doubled the playing opportunities. Our recommendation is to play a singles and doubles match for each round, and do it for four rounds. But again, if you have more kids you want to have more matches. The bottom line is, we want guaranteed matches for the kids.”
Another change is for “level-based play,” also called “cooperative lineups” — when the two captains get together before the match and agree on their strongest and weakest players, so competition doesn’t become a blowout.
For tennis providers, the changes seem to be having an impact. “Since the kids are playing more, their level of confidence, understanding of the game and skills have noticeably increased,” says Vanessa A. Purom, a league captain in Vincennes, Ind. In the Mid-Atlantic Section, league coordinator Cathy Shields notes, “Our 18U group got to play more, and matches were completed more quickly,” and league captain Mike Callow adds, “Our teams are more evenly balanced.”
“So we’ve made it easier to form teams, guaranteed match play, and made it level-based,” Jones sums up. “Everything else depends on the community and on what fits the needs of the community. We have JTT programs in all 17 sections, but we know we’re nowhere close to where we could be with this program.”
The goal in the next year is to increase by 25 percent the number of Junior Team Tennis programs in the U.S, he adds, then 50 percent growth in two years. “We’re trying not to focus on membership participation. Our big goal is growth in the number of programs.
“In my opinion, this is the biggest change in competition for kids in my 30 years of coaching tennis,” Jones notes. “I think we’re really going to blow it out of the water. This is very exciting stuff.”
For more information about forming Junior Team Tennis programs, contact your USTA district or section.
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