Firstly, what IS an ‘elite junior tournament player’? To me, this means a player who consistently plays junior tournaments throughout the year, and is competitive on the state and national level. These players are committed to their tennis, and are pursuing goals that require a high level of dedication.
There are many factors that go into becoming an elite player, but the one that I value the highest is having a love of the game. If a player truly loves being out on the court, then a lot of the ‘hard work’ necessary to be successful won’t feel like ‘work’. No matter how hard the training is, it will always seem ‘fun’ for the players who love tennis.
These players just can’t get enough of tennis, and it is a bigger part of their lives than just their weekly tennis lesson. They put their heart and soul into their lesson, and then just don’t want to leave the court. And then when they get home, they want to hit a ball against the wall. This is something that can’t really be taught (although it can be fostered), and we are lucky at Fireball to have many amazing kids who are exactly like this.
Another crucial element of being an elite player is having a strong desire to improve. While loving the game is the foundation of a successful player, to be competitive at state or national level requires more; the player needs to be focused on growing and developing every day. This requires players to keep the ‘big picture’ in mind, ensuring that he or she doesn’t sacrifice long-term development for the sake of short-term comfort.
It is quite natural for kids to be focused on the here-and-now, and whether they are ‘winning’ or ‘losing’, be it in practice or competition. In fact, this is something we as adults often get caught up in too! While competitiveness is definitely a key component of an elite player, stronger junior players are able to focus on learning and growing. Improvements, especially when altering shot technique, can often be uncomfortable for young players, and in the words of my players “feel weird”. However, if they can learn to embrace the discomfort and focus on improving and the ‘big picture’, they will be on their way to being successful in the long run.
Competitiveness is another making of an elite junior tournament player, as it often dictates what happens on match-day, and to get to state or national level you need to be able to perform well during matches. Great competitors fight for every point and never give up no matter what the score is, and are able to problem solve their way through all the challenges they may face during a match. These challenges may be external (eg, weather, opponent, etc) or internal (eg, not playing well, self-doubt, pressure, etc), but great competitors always try to navigate their way up until the very last point has been played.
To me, some players are naturally more competitive than others, but everyone can develop competitive skills and learn how to embrace and attack the challenges they come up against on the court. Players will have their own unique way of demonstrating competitiveness, but the key is that they are always trying to find a way to win. Whether they come out on top on the day or not is a completely different story, and results will usually favour the more competitive players in the long run anyway.
Elite junior tournament players need to develop many other strong qualities over time too, as well as having a training/competition program suited to their goals (another topic for another day), but it all STARTS with loving the game, being hungry to improve every day, and being competitive.