What parents should know about tennis and child development

Sheila Ohlsson Walker, CFA, Ph.D. | October 07, 2021

Last month’s article set the scientific table for the powerful story of "tennis, 2.0" by revealing how nurture shapes nature, the brain science of meaning-making, and the extraordinary opportunity that exists across childhood and adolescence to seamlessly embed the habits, skills and mindsets that matter most. Now we’re ready to explore how tennis is a unique vehicle for holistic human development by illuminating how it’s not winning or losing – but rather the journey of becoming a player – that builds the healthy, resilient, creative and adaptive brains and bodies foundational for excellence on and off the court, and across life.


Sport participation in general – particularly with a coach who embodies a philosophy of leveraging athletics to develop the whole child – can provide learning experiences that bolster a broad range of positive outcomes. However, our lifetime sport tennis is profoundly special.


Here’s why.


While most sports have one or two dimensions, tennis offers a multi-dimensional mind-body challenge like few others – a game in which the most formidable opponent is ourselves! In sport science research, tennis is what’s called an “open skill” sport – characterized by dynamic change (no two shots are exactly the same, players must be prepared for anything until the very last point), unpredictability (windy day? bad bounce? sudden mental lapse? time to shift strategic gears – and fast!) and external pacing (we don’t control our opponents, nor the weather, nor any outward-facing element of the game).


Open-skill sports like tennis, basketball and soccer require the player to both act and react, fully engaging the major networks of the brain. Think about it. Preparation for hitting the ball requires the brain to synthesize complex and rapidly shifting real-time information from the inside out (mid-point strategic shift to outsmart an opponent who is out of position; processing between points) – and the outside in (watching the ball like a hawk to make the millions of mental and physical calculations needed to hit the ball on the sweet spot at just the right time.)


This whole-brain neural crosstalk required for tennis places demands on the integrated mental, physical, emotional and purpose-driven spiritual resources that “closed skill” sports (e.g. swimming, running, golf, which take place in static and predictable settings) simply don’t. Swimming pools, running trails and golf courses don’t move – and the golf ball doesn’t leave the tee unless we help it do so. This is important because when it comes to brain development, all sports are special – but open skill sports are more special – and tennis may be the most special of all.

Sport participation develops the young brain in ways that are similar (grit, perseverance, discipline) and distinct (creative, strategic, individual vs. team social dynamics), depending on what’s required for play. When it comes to learning, the brain doesn’t differentiate between skills and mindsets embedded on a court versus in a classroom – it simply takes what’s been learned in one setting and applies it to others. The process-orientation to learning embedded as an athlete combined with 100 years of research showing that roughly three-quarters of the big life outcomes that matter most stem from “soft skills” rooted in character and emotional intelligence (“The 75/25 Rule”) – the “how” over the “what” – the holistic developmental opportunity afforded by sport becomes undeniably clear. 


But some sports offer a richer developmental context than others. And here’s the bottom line.


The healthy, adaptive, flexible and efficient brains we parents strive to help our children build – those which flourish in any setting across life – require creating the right conditions for learning. Neuroscience tells us that such brains are characterized by the very same neural crosstalk, whole-brain processing activity that our open-skill sport of tennis offers in spades. While more research is needed, this highly plausible hypothesis puts tennis as an extraordinary developmental asset in a league of its own. Not only does it develop the brain in a way that bodes well for our child’s future, it’s also a game that can be played for life.


Legendary basketball coach John Wooden said it best: “Success is a journey, not a destination.” In other words, navigating the peaks and valleys on the road to becoming a player – whether recreational or competitive – is where human excellence is spawned. A myriad life lessons are there for the taking, amplified and made real by artfully-managed teachable moments led by a coach of character, whose overarching goal is to help each player become a champion in life by helping them grow into their best selves through their love of sport. 


More than just a game, tennis offers a health-promoting, capacity-building, age-defying, mind-body neurobiological exercise plan that can keep our children atop their metaphorical games – on and off the court – by equipping them with multi-level resources to thrive. Narrowly-focused short-term goals (e.g. winning at all costs) can diminish or derail the big return on investment: expression of a young person’s full human potential catalyzed and nurtured by the journey of becoming an athlete, moving toward a destination that is, by nature, always in flux.


In closing, while all sports offer unique developmental assets – particularly when a whole-child coach is in the mix – speaking as a scientist, competitive player and mother of three teenage boys, tennis has few athletic rivals in preparing young players for the long game of life.


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

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


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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