Kevin Theos is the president of the USPTA Southern Division, and for over fifteen years he has served as the USTA Southern "Tennis Service Representative" (TSR) for Alabama. In his role as TSR, he consults with tennis teaching pros,  schools, parks and recreation agencies, and CTAs/NJTLs concerning their tennis programs and available USTA resources

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Before becoming a TSR, Kevin was the first executive director of the Birmingham Area Tennis Association where he fundraised and built tennis and education programs for under-resourced youth. He has taught tennis in numerous public and private venues and holds a law degree from the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.   

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Tennis: What Starting Age Produces the Most Lifetime Play Occasions?

By Kevin Theos

Of the many metrics one could use to gauge the current and long-term “health” of the tennis industry, two separate but related ones are foundational. These are 1. The number of individual tennis players. 2. The average number of lifetime play occasions per player. The focus of this piece is on the second metric and how to increase the average number of lifetime play occasions.

Under what I will call the traditional model, building a large base of very young tennis players is prized above all else. Subscribers to the traditional model accept that player attrition will occur, but according to this model, many of these young players will play for the rest of their lives and account for more lifetime play occasions than those who start playing later. The accuracy of this model deserves a closer look.

While not immediately apparent, capturing very young juniors entails downsides in comparison to attracting juniors who are a little older. Consider a six-year-old who begins taking tennis lessons, becomes a frequent player, and continues to play for several years. By the time that player is a late teen, they very well may be approaching a level sufficient to earn a college scholarship, which is praiseworthy, but from the standpoint of likely lifetime play occasions, the value of having attained this playing level is not so clear.

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When juniors reach high levels of play a few uncomfortable facts emerge. First, having hit perhaps millions of tennis balls, the odds that juniors will get “burned out” are significant, and while those who do get burned out may end up playing later as adults, the odds of that are shaky at best. Second, high-level juniors who have reached 5.0+ NTRP adult level can look forward to a diminished competitive landscape as there are far fewer adults strong enough to make playing enjoyable than at lower levels. Third, players enjoy seeing their skills improve, but having attained levels that are hard to maintain let alone improve as adults can be deflating, and the prospects of losing to players easily beaten in years past make matters even worse.

None of the preceding points mean we should abandon our efforts to attract, engage, and retain young tennis players, but they do invite us to look more closely at other age groups in terms of their likelihood of becoming lifelong players. One age group that has significant potential is made up of new players who are between twelve and eighteen years old.

 

Risks of burnout, becoming too good to readily find partners and having limited opportunity to continue to improve skills are far lower among new players ages twelve and up, most of whom start and continue to play tennis more for social than performance reasons. Separately, unlike young players who begin playing because their parents put them in programs, older juniors often choose tennis themselves. This personal choice is powerful, and anyone who has come across high school players who are new to tennis can attest to the enthusiasm these players bring when they choose their sport. Further, many of these new players previously played other sports and come to tennis having developed sufficient coordination that they can serve, rally, and have fun right away. 

Beyond observation, there is data to support a closer look at players ages twelve and up. An examination of USTA adult league players whose membership can be traced back to the juniors shows an overrepresentation of players who joined the USTA between twelve and eighteen years old, which is likely around the time they started playing tennis in earnest. Anecdotally, adult players who are asked when they began playing tennis mostly respond that they started in middle school or later.  

Tennis players who have the most play occasions are the backbone of our tennis industry. They contribute the greatest financially to our industry stakeholders, and increasing their ranks is crucial. The traditional model places primacy on increasing the number of very young players and on allocating limited human and financial resources accordingly, but if we care about lifetime play occasions there are reasons to believe that older juniors who are receptive to trying tennis deserve more attention, programs, and resources than they have been getting. 

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