USTA president: How tennis is evolving to develop more kids

Katrina Adams photo USE THIS.jpg

Tennis occupies a unique place in the landscape of American sports. The game can be enjoyed in both team and individual formats, fosters mixed gender play, and can be enjoyed well beyond the high school years. Public investment in community-based courts in the 1960s and ‘70s helped democratize the game.

The sport is not without challenges. Starting in the ‘80s, tennis was among the first to embrace early sport specialization – leading to the emergence of an occasional prodigy but the burnout of many prospects. The struggles of U.S. men in major tournaments in recent years have produced few stars that Madison Avenue can use to keep the game in the front of the public mind year-round.

But, over the past decade, tennis has also emerged as a leader in introducing reforms at the youth level. Kids often now learn the game on smaller courts, using lighter rackets and lower-bouncing balls. Last year, the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) built on that success and introduced NetGeneration, a new youth brand designed to make the game safer and more fun for youth.

As the heart of the tennis season got underway, Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, caught up with Katrina Adams, USTA President and Chairman of the Board, to assess the state of play for kids and opportunities for progress through Project Play 2020, the collective impact effort of which USTA is a member. An edited version of their conversation is below.

Farrey: What do you see as the greatest challenges facing youth sports today?

Adams: Kids of my generation were forced to get out of the house to play. When I look at kids today, they’re still playing – but with a digital apparatus in their hands. They’re playing with friends on the internet. Now we have esports capturing their attention. So, the challenge is to get them off the couch and actually sweat. And to help them understand the importance of exercise.

We have to work with the parents. This is a generation of parents who put a tablet in front of their kids at 18 months. By age 3, kids’ skills in working a tablet are far ahead of yours and mine. And as they get older, kids are like, ‘I’m having fun, why do I need to do something different?’ So for tennis, we have to ask: How do we make our sport more fun? How do we attract our youth, and (connect them to the sport) through the palms of their hands? How do we get them to swing a racket and have fun in a different element in what they’re doing now?

Farrey: What particular challenges does tennis face?

Adams: The world of sports has grown tremendously in the past couple of decades. We used to have 10 or so sports offered to kids; now it’s 30. There’s such a menu for some kids to choose from and they’re attracted to a sport based on who they see on television. Who’s popping up in front of them? Our boys are seeing baseball, football and basketball players on TV. Yes, you see Serena on ads outside of the tennis season, but that’s not the norm. We need our stars on TV more often so kids can see them and say, she or he is really cool. Tennis players are some of the best role models, but they’re not getting the commercials.

Farrey: How much is it a chicken-and-egg scenario? In other words, how much of the challenge is exposing kids to the game at the community level so they develop an affection for the sport that these athletes are great at?

Adams: At the USTA, we are providing opportunities across the country to participate, whether in school or after school, country club, or private programs. Tennis is everywhere. But times have changed. I look back to the 1970s when tennis was booming in the U.S. That was a generation where kids got into tennis because their parents got into it. This generation of parents and mothers is very busy; they’re often professionals. They may only be playing one day a week, if they’re playing at all. So, they’re less likely to engage their kids in programs.

Farrey: So how do you make the game more attractive to parents?

Adams: Make the game a safe experience for their kids. Our new youth brand, NetGeneration, includes training for coaches on how to prevent abuse. Anyone who provides tennis programming on NetGeneration has to go through SafeSport training. When you look at what’s happening today (with the sexual abuse incidents in gymnastics, swimming and other sports), we want to make sure families know we are taking safety seriously. When parents look up programs, and they see it’s a SafeSport provider, they’re more comfortable signing up the kids. We also have all types of drills and lesson plans to make it easier for teaching professionals.

Tennis is a different sport than others. It’s dominated by independent contractors and clubs. So you’re always going to have your coaches and providers who say, I’ve been doing this for 30 years, my business is successful, why change? But as the national governing body for our sport, we need to put our best foot forward in growing participation, make it fun, and foster a safe environment.

Farrey: How much of your challenge has to do with the game’s rich history – traditional ideas of what tennis should look like and how it should operate?

Adams: Some of the changes we’ve made in the game have been challenging to the mindset of traditionalists. I’m a traditionalist in some ways, too – I don’t want everything to change. But as time evolves, and time is of the essence, we’ve had to make those changes.

Farrey: Such as competition formats?

Adams: Right. A few years ago, families were driving three hours to watch their child play one match. Now at entry-level tournaments, kids play two to three matches minimum, with short-scoring formats. They’ll play for an hour, take a break, then go out and play for another hour. We want to encourage competition and have kids learn from competition. What do you really learn when you are an entry-level player and you lose 6-0, 6-0 to a top seed? That quickly runs a kid off from the sport. So we’ve had to create structures where it’s not about winning and losing, that it’s about development.

Then we have to deal with the parenting issue. Parents need to understand the value of kid playing our sport for a long time. We want to make sure those resources are in place so they understand that.

Farrey: How do you see Project Play 2020 making a contribution?

Adams: Project Play is about sport for all, no matter your age. And health. If parents understand the principles of Project Play, they’ll be more comfortable in choosing the right pathway for their kid so sport can impact that child’s life forever. Project Play 2020 is a platform to communicate that shared message.

Learn more about Project Play 2020 and the USTA’s NetGeneration program.