What a great tool low compression balls are! I use them frequently in my classes. Not only with juniors but also with adults first starting out in tennis. Anything to weaken the barrier of entry into a very difficult and counterintuitive sport is okay in my book. Especially when that sport is the greatest lifetime sport available! Okay I’m biased. But for good reason. Many studies are bringing to light the benefits of racquet sports for happiness and longevity. There aren’t very many sports with 90 and over divisions you know!? This is why I feel it necessary to express my concern regarding the current ROGY methodology that is now the standard of junior development in the US. In my humble opinion this seemingly mandatory method of classifying kids by a colored ball and holding them there until a certain age prevents strength, anticipation and ball striking from being developed. Although this possibly makes the sport more inclusive, it prevents any one from achieving excellence. Chuck Kreise recently had a very quotable remark that comes to mind. He said “Participation doesn’t breed excellence. Excellence breeds participation”. I believe this to be true and that we should stop holding our players back from excellence.
Where did it come from!?
An early warning sign for me was simply the insistence on it. The message from tennis’ governing body and their followers was very clear…You MUST use this method otherwise you are hurting children! Thou protest too much! Currently, despite my success in junior development, if I’m not willing to get on board with a strict ROGY methodology finding a high level job in junior development in the US is nearly impossible. The question has to be asked…how can you be so sure about an unproven strategy of player development? What research was done on past champions that dictated a low compression ball should be used until a player is 11 years of age? What science is behind this? So far my research on the reasoning for this method is injury prevention and appropriated modern educational terms like “game based” and “guided discovery”. Terms which are great if they were actually applied correctly.
There’s a fine line between preventing injury and not stressing the body enough to develop basic musculoskeletal strength. Were injuries to 8 year olds caused by hitting a real tennis ball so rampant that we had to require such drastic changes? I certainly know over zealous tennis coaches can be a perpetrator of injury…but a tennis ball? In addition to basic musculoskeletal development, hitting a real ball challenges a young person to train their brain to better anticipate the bounce and strike coming from their opponent. I would argue that these skills need to begin being developed as early as possible in order for players to achieve the performance goals which they might some day develop. Yes, tennis IS challenging. It’s one of the reasons it’s an awesome sport that attracts bright minds and strong work ethics. Making sure kids stay confident and don’t become too stressed by the challenge is the job of a well trained coach and mentor. Something a colored ball methodology will never create.
Ball Striking Is Key
High level coaches know that the little things make the biggest difference. Can you hit the ball a little bigger while still being consistent? Can you take the ball a little earlier? Recover a little quicker? Thinking some magical strategy involving drop shots, lobs and side spin angles is what will make the difference the next time you play that troublesome opponent is romantic but probably not the answer. You probably just need a backhand. The friction, rotation and compression created when striking a ball are done so with a very specific motor program. A motor program which is very different than is what needed to carry an orange ball over the net. In my opinion until you are working on hitting a real tennis ball, you are not working on ball striking. Something that I find to be paramount in the game of tennis.
There is definitely a place for low compression balls in tennis. They are one of the most powerful tools we have as coaches. But it’s the well trained coach who should decide how to use that tool to enhance enjoyment of the game and assist players in improving. The heavily marketed and packaged ROGY system should not exist and will not get tennis where it needs to be. Tennis is in my opinion the greatest lifetime sport available and we need more kids playing it.
– Jeff Lewis