The Child Prodigy Syndrome
Sow a thought, reap an act; sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny. --Anonymous
During the past twenty years we have been bombarded with child prodigies in tennis. We see younger and younger stars who are promoted as the standard instead of the exception. Many boys and girls are now turning professional in their mid-teens, and many teachers support the belief that tennis is a game for the teen years. In truth, to reach tennis maturity as a teenager is rare. The tragedy is that this belief causes many youngsters to hang up their racquets – along with their dreams – long before the natural union of the body, mind, and emotions take place. Many tennis academies and teachers prosper by promising to make children “immediate champions.” Unfortunately, many buy into this sales pitch.
The media and manufactures love the younger champions because of the public interest aroused by their extraordinary success. Young stars are good for sales and excitement, by they are not the standard, and they should not be the model to follow when planning a career.
Female athletes do not mature mentally, physically, and emotionally until the early twenties. For males, it is a few years later. The optimal years are probably between the ages of twenty-four and thirty. Therefore, young players should slow down and enjoy learning all of the aspects of the game and solidify their base fundamentals.
Diamonds vs. Rhinestones
I believe that much of the disrespect young people show toward authority in our society stems from the fact they really do not see or understand the work ethic that is the prerequisite for real success. It is now possible to achieve some things so quickly that, on the surface, appear to be just as good as those things that take time and effort. We are often confused by what is truly a great work, a great system, and a great person.
A quickly manufactured rhinestone shines just as brightly as a diamond that was formed though time and tremendous pressure. We have the best fake art, fake music, fake anything that looks good and is easy to obtain.
The true champions, like diamonds, stand the test because they have been formed slowly and carefully and have withstood all of the pressures that have faced them.
Train the Root System First
I learned a wise approach to player development at the Tennis Training Center while lecturing in Japan.
On the wall of the Japanese Youth Training Center, I saw a picture of a flower, including its stem and root system. I asked the director for the center about it and he said, “The first priority for the athlete is to train his root system; this part, which is underground and not seen, is the base for the plant and for the athlete. It represents his attitude, his heart, his work habits, his integrity, and all of the qualities that do not receive immediate attention from others, but are critical for success that endures the test of time.
“The stem, which represents the physical condition and athleticism of the athlete, is the second priority. We see athletic ability as we see the stem of the flower, even if it does not attract as much attention as the bloom, it is the critical link between the roots and the flower.
“The flower, the third priority, represents the players’ strokes. We are initially attracted by the appearance of the strokes, but they can only succeed over a period of time with a strong root system and a well-working stem.”
I tell my players that confidence is equal to self-concept and self-respect. You see your opponent as you compete, but you feel yourself. Therefore, a player’s self-concept, which is only developed by the root systems, is always the first priority in a long-term training program.
Think of the quick-growing corn stalk that is impressive for one season and then dies. Its roots are very shallow and easily ripped to the ground. The Dutch tulip bulb is completely opposite. Its blossoms are pruned early and often, each time sending nourishment back to the root system, until that bulb is large enough and strong enough to produce year after year. The strong oak tree – with as many roots underground as it has limbs above ground – is another example, taking years to develop.
Society often teaches youngsters that the bottom line and end results are what matters, and that if they can get something more quickly, then all the better.
In training, players and coaches should remember that although growth may be underground and out of direct sight, the root system requires the greatest emphasis and care to produce beautiful blossoms and success season after season.
A good teacher does not promise quick successes, but rather understands the great importance of long-term growth and character development early in a youngster’s career.