The roadmap for sustainable high performance by youth tennis players

Sheila Ohlsson Walker, CFA, Ph.D. | February 09, 2022

If we asked our children to come up with one word to describe their tennis experience, what would it be? The important question is: what should it be, given what science tells us about the recipe for performance at the top-end of the range of any one person’s capabilities?


If your child says…

  • "My life is consumed by school, homework and tennis. There’s no time for me!"
  • "I feel burned out and am constantly getting injured."
  • "I’m not having any fun."


… then, it’s time for a new training plan, and what more perfect time could there be than the start of a new year?


Parents, you may have kicked off their January with a new exercise routine, a commitment to reducing sugar intake, or performing random acts of kindness each day—but here’s one more for your list. By following the simple tips below, you’ll increase the odds of making this your child’s best tennis year ever, improving their performance and well-being off the court, and strengthening your relationship, too.

1. Relationships first: Prioritize person over player

High-quality relationships are the secret sauce for young people, far and away ingredient No. 1 ingredient in healthy, happy whole child development and extraordinary performance. Make sure your child knows that win or lose, you value and love them for who they are, not what they do.


2. It’s about playing to learn, not learning to play

Tennis is about the person one becomes while learning to be a player: a much bigger trophy than any accolade or award. By helping your child value process over outcome, you remove the stress and pressure that interferes with sustainable, extraordinary performance. By focusing on the long-term journey, they are free to fearlessly unleash their gifts, and simultaneously—without even knowing it—build the strong bodies, creative, flexible brains and adaptive mindsets that pay off for life.


3. Get creative with off-court time

Whether your child is a multi-sport athlete, an artist, singer, reader or Lego builder, make sure to build in non-tennis activities that bring them joy. Taking a break is key to sustaining the energy and intrinsic motivation to persist, a basic love of the game that is evident in top tennis players. They thrive on challenge and play to win—but down deep, they just plain love tennis.


4. Balance stress with recovery

Wellness and well-being matter, a lot! Ensure your child has predictable built-in rest days so their brain and body can recover. The timeless “Stress for Success," written by performance psychologist Dr. Jim Loehr, captures it best: 

  • Too much stress and inadequate recovery = poor performance
  • Too little stress and excess recovery = poor performance
  • The right amount of stress and recovery = optimal performance


5. Fuel your tank so you can walk your talk

To have the capacity to show up as our best selves in all areas of life, we must fuel our mind-body engine with the right stuff. Be kind and compassionate with yourself, prioritize time for activities that energize and inspire just as you would an important work meeting, and stay close to people whose presence feels like a warm ray of sunlight. With a full tank, you can give those you love the best of you, rather than what’s left of you.


It’s estimated that by the time our children graduate from high school, 93 percent of the time we've spent with them will be in the rearview mirror. This sobering statistic grounds us in the importance of the here and now. While our highest aspiration is to support our children in building the healthy, happy, relationally-connected and purposeful life stories they’ll live their way into, it’s vital to maintain perspective on this one key theme: tennis is just a game.


Trophies, scholarships, and accolades are not the goal; rather, it is how achieving victory and managing loss shapes who your child becomes. Optimal performance, on the court and in life, happens when we are in “flow." When it comes to extraordinary tennis play, flow—balanced rest and renewal, intentional integration of fun on and off the court, supportive relationships—and anxiety—too much stress and inadequate recovery, over-riding the mind-body system to grind out joyless training sessions—are at opposite ends of the performance spectrum. 


The bottom line is simply this: supporting sustainable high performance in your child, the competitive player, requires supporting your child, the person, first. Freedom to play tennis, just for the pure joy of the game, is the X-factor that unleashes extraordinary performance. And if you take on the new year’s resolution challenge—on Jan. 1 of the next year, when your child is asked for the single word that best describes why they play tennis, and they say, "Fun!"—right there, right then, you’ve won tennis parent's Wimbledon. Tennis is all about the long game, both on and off the court, and that long game starts with you.


Click below for other articles in this five-part series:

How tennis protects and supports mental, emotional and physical health for life: part 3

Using tennis as a tool for the development of the whole child: part 1

What parents should know about tennis and child development: part 2


Sheila Ohlsson Walker, CFA, Ph.D., is a behavioral geneticist whose research centers on how nurture (environment) shapes nature (DNA), and how we can create contexts in sport and school settings that optimize positive development and unlock the potential of our youth. A former professional tennis player, Walker translates scientific findings to equip athletic and academic educators with knowledge and skills that help young people build mindsets and habits that promote wellness and healthy whole human development across life. Learn more at her website by clicking here.


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