Reintroducing Tennis for Every Life
A new concept in tennis that has remained silent is beginning to emerge. This mission is designed to bring tennis to all people in every environment. Titling this movement appropriately while being sensitive to negative undertones for this demographic, has led me to the umbrella title of “Inclusive Tennis”. As the mission of the tennis industry, our goal should be to find ways to bring tennis to all people, not just the high performance, able-bodied, highly conditioned or young individuals.
Prior to modified equipment and resources, tennis growth was traditionally done by funding the construction of new public tennis courts in neighborhoods and communities, and through training coaches to teach the public about how to execute appropriate swings, serves, and strategies to win the game. Training an individual for advancement of skill levels and tournament preparation was the basic goal of the tennis professional. The industry thrived in the 70’s and 80’s as more people were exposed and entertained by top level players who were leaders in our sport mainly from the start of televising major tournaments. This created a desire of the general public to share in this excitement by learning this sport and interest of reaching the goal of playing in a major tournament like the players on television became possible for many more.
Since the boom, our industry, like many other sports, has felt a decrease in membership and participation. One theory that has led to the decrease in participation may be the desire for new and different activities easy to participate in and readily available, like Zumba, yoga, and Pickle Ball. Each of these allows a “come as you are” invitations to participate no matter experience or skill level. Many adults gravitated towards these activities, realizing their physical limitations and current conditioning levels keep them from participating in more physically intense programs and competitive sports. Tennis began losing its players, not only to other sports and activities, but also to aging players getting hurt or not able to sustain the level of conditioning and skill level required to fully enjoy the game. The tennis industry has also realized the aging providers and is looking for ways to attract new, upcoming coaches. Until recently, tennis professionals continued to focus on ‘talented athletes’, and didn’t seem interested in managing their “fair player” clientele. Many players, therefore, weren’t returning. Some people won’t even consider trying tennis, esp. if they are 40 or older, as the pathway to tennis continues to be focused on the youth, with little options for new adults and with more people living sedentary life styles. The average life span of someone’s life could easily be spent on the sidelines or in the chair. This is not the best choice for good health.
Growth in youth sports has created an increase in youth injuries and player frustrations due to the intense training and conditioning required at such an early age, and an increase in sports-related youth surgeries. Our youth have also experienced a decline in health due to theories such as the removal of physical activity in schools and a decrease in quality food consumption. This parallels the increase in technological devices, replacing play and after school activities with sedentary and stagnant postures held for long periods of time. In the last 10+ years, the tennis industry has changed it’s focus to a more youth-friendly progression pathway, formerly called ‘earned advancement’, providing more appropriate sized equipment and courts for 10 and under children, hoping to create a thrust of new players and safer methods of tennis delivery systems. The motivation was to create easier, fun and successful experiences for youth, bringing a new thrust of energy and talent into the game, which is increasing participation numbers. This youth focus has created player interest and we are seeing the progression working as more youth are enjoying success at each level of the pathway.
The tennis industry looked at training our youth in a different way. We considered the element of childhood development models apparent in our education system. Similar to our formal education system, age-progressive childhood development and appropriate cognitive criteria were the tools used to create a more effective and safer pathway programs for our youth to develop into successful players. With this in mind came the creation of modified equipment, appropriate for smaller sizes and simpler skill levels. The vendors and tennis organizations worked together with Community Tennis Organizations and USTA to provide grants for community youth tennis programs. This youth focus has created more player interest as we are seeing the progression working for more youth who are enjoying success at each level of the pathway.
As we developed this pathway, other sports activities continued to interest the children, with the major ones being football and soccer. Through televised college and professional sports exposure, participatory growth continues in these sports. More bowl games and increased global sports education has created interested youth involvement and demand. This increased exposure created new desires for youth to participate in sports like the national and international pros who grace the screens. The media has successfully emulated professional athletes to heroic proportions of which youth naturally want to copy.
Community sports took a front seat with the “everyone wins” design, to keep kids from losing interest or self-esteem due to a loss or different sport ability. Unfortunately, real-life lessons are not learned through free gifts, rather, hard work and earning positions, both valuable life lessons. In business as well as sports, there is one winner, not many. There is only one gold medal winner, one Super Bowl team winner, and one CEO, who leads the rest. It’s just natural.
When the U.S. Soccer team climbed the ranks and qualified for the 1990 World Cup, along with the huge influence from Hispanics in the US, young America watched and wanted a piece of the action. The boom in team sports, like soccer, created a mass public demand for more access across the country. The focus was ‘youth-obsession’, demanding more Parks and Recreation Departments to build fields for more children to participate because of the high demand for youth sports and the lack of field space and locations. Adults were left to the task of transporting to/from watching their children’s sporting events, while on the sidelines dreaming of younger, more agile days. Yes, there are programs that offer traditional sports and fitness programs for adults, but adults have limited time due to working long hours away from home, sometimes working two jobs and coming home to take care of households. Adults also have physical challenges, most have an injury or two, or just don’t move much, therefore, activity levels are low and risks for injury are high. Adding more time away from the home meant more stress, as more time away tends to cause more family struggles and juggles. Working out seemed like “more work” and too difficult to maintain consistent with life demands. Gym memberships continue to provide impractical promises of fit and trim days to come. This frustration creates the failure to commit and do the “work” needed to stay active. Most people who have gym memberships, skip their workouts more days during the week than they go, due to family obligations. Quick fixes became more appealing and the average American spends thousands of dollars per year on fast remedies, gadgets, surgeries, and pharmaceutical drugs to keep them believing they are healthy. There is only a small percentage of people committed to a healthy lifestyle.
Stress is another factor. People have begun to seek quicker, more rewarding recreation with less stress. According to the 2014 PAC study, the average ‘active’ American person polled spends 3.2 days per month in some form of physical activity for 30 minutes. You can’t play a traditional tennis match in 30 minutes, but a person can easily fit in a brisk walk, interval training, a 3-mile jog, or lunchtime yoga into their busy routines. This does not require high skill, drama, nor the increased stress of having to “perform”. The average person does not want nor has the capacity to handle more time away from families, and more money spent on hour+-long lessons and private personal trainers. People want easy and affordable solutions and leaders who understand their needs. If we focus on listening to the needs of our adult communities versus our desire to decide what our communities need, we are connecting with people and providing customer satisfaction.
We need to answer the call for connecting to community needs and more creative ways to offer programs. The demand for shorter periods of time participating in programs combined with modified equipment make this need a reality to consumers. Fast formats and more creative alternatives to traditional tennis, mobile equipment that can be stored easily and assembled quickly, technical tools to measure progress, and tennis for unique populations, like deaf and blind, all make for a brand new market. If we want people to experience the benefits that our “sport for a lifetime” can offer, we must continue to build community relationships and consider input from the public regarding ways to make tennis more attractive, easier to access, and more fun to play and “stay” in the game for everyone. With this mission, we could attract and bring people back, where they can stay “for their lifetime.”
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