Using tennis as a tool for the development of the whole child

Sheila Ohlsson Walker, CFA, Ph.D. | September 06, 2021

It’s easy to understand the outward-facing story of why the game of tennis can be a big positive in the life of a young person.


Fun with friends, tournaments, and perhaps even dreams of college tennis or playing the professional tour, are appealing, but there’s a much bigger story that hasn’t yet been told.


This is the version unfolding on the inside while they’re batting balls back and forth, dynamically wiring mindsets, habits and skills into their brains and bodies that pay dividends – in a big way – throughout life.


Whether playing for competition or just for kicks, tennis is so much more than a game where one person wins and the other loses – especially when on-court play = fun.


This is the first in a five-part series, written for parents of young players – an audience that includes this writer – to set the stage for the exciting story of Tennis 2.0.

1. Nurture is more important than nature. Our brains and bodies are malleable across life, particularly in childhood and adolescence. Nurture (life experience) shapes nature (our DNA, hormones and biochemistry) from the very start of life – through a 24/7, 365-day-a-year process called “epigenetics." The headline is that genes do not determine our destiny. Achieving far-out dreams requires passion, effort, dedication, a steadfast belief in what’s possible – and an alignment of energy and time with our values and goals. The takeaway is nurturing our child’s unique nature with love, hope and possibility will amplify their odds of thriving – both on and off the court – and across life.


2. Life events matter, but meaning-making matters more. It’s the perception of events in our lives, and not the details of the events themselves, that drive our emotional response, biochemistry, health, well-being and performance – for better and worse. We have agency and choice, and when life throws hard things our way, framing these experiences in a way that builds resilience – also develops flexible, confident, competent minds. The takeaway is, by teaching our children to choose an adaptive lens (I didn’t lose, I learned!), this becomes part of their skill set (I can act, rather than react!), their story (I can manage disappointment), and a superpower of epic proportions.


3. The early years in brain development outweigh the others. While we are malleable at every age and stage in life—and yes, it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks—new learning is most seamlessly embedded in childhood and adolescence. Termed “critical” and “sensitive periods” in development, life experiences during these chapters—sports, friends, school, home life—are more likely to be remembered in our brains and bodies. Capitalizing on this incredible period to intentionally and strategically inculcate mindsets, skills and behaviors that help our children flourish well beyond their school years, achieved by supporting the importance of effort over outcome, failure as feedback (Billie Jean King!), character on and off the court as priority No. 1, and health as the foundation for all else, we offer gifts that are, in a word, priceless.


Science tells an incredibly optimistic story of what’s possible for our children when we nurture their nature in a positive, growth-oriented way—and we, as parents, are star players. Whether our child is pursuing a far-fetched dream or recovering from a derailing injury, a safe, trusted, consistent and caring relationship with an adult is part of every child’s recipe for success—100% of the time! And as a bonus, neuroscience tells us that helping them see and believe a new, positive, adaptive story of what’s possible for them increases the likelihood that it plays out in real life.


This is the powerful new science you will learn about on our journey together! Next month, we will build on this foundation to help you understand how tennis is special relative to other sports, how the tennis experience can help your child grow into their best possible self, and how champions, on the court and in life, are built from the inside out.


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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