John McEnroe wants better athletes in U.S. tennis competitive stream

While watching the last American standing (Bobby Reynolds) at Wimbledon fall to Novak Djokovic, John McEnroe said that tennis in the U.S. needs to be sexier, but also that they need to get the best athletes playing tennis. For the first time in a century, there are no American men playing in the 3rd Round, which suggests that something is amiss in the development of tennis players in the U.S. (the women fared better with Serena Williams, Sloane Stephens, and Madison Keys). 

McEnroe said that Rafa Nadal is one of the best athletes in Spain, and Djokovic is one of the best athletes in Serbia, and to develop better, more competitive U.S. players, USA Tennis needs to identify better athletes to recruit to the tennis game. McEnroe commented that he wasn’t suggesting that Reynolds was not a good athlete, but the difference in athleticism between Reynolds and Djokovic was noticeable.

The problem with McEnroe’s comments, especially in this age of youth sports, is that they tend to lead to early specialization. Tennis is not an inexpensive sport, and it is one that traditionally requires a lot of dedication of its more serious players even at young ages. Because there is money involved with tennis instructors and clubs, I imagine there is a hesitancy to encourage participation in other sports. After all, if a child goes to basketball practice twice per week, that is two days per week less that he can take tennis lessons, and money unavailable to pay for tennis lessons.

This happens in all sports, not just tennis. Because of the entrepreneurial nature of competitive youth sports, there is an incentive for coaches and trainers to discourage participation in other sports. Even when I was in high school, our basketball coach discouraged participation in multiple sports for varsity players. These days, with the amount of money involved in skill training, sport-specific strength and conditioning, and club sports, there is even less incentive to encourage young athletes to play multiple sports. Instead, many coaches actively discourage participation in multiple sports and tell parents and players that participation in multiple sports is a waste of time. I remember a coach at a recreation center in San Diego telling me that the local clubs were telling the parents of 8-year-olds that if their sons did not specialize in basketball and play club basketball at 8, they would never develop into varsity high-school players, let alone earning a college scholarship. Why? More money for the club if players play year-round and have no other sports that they could opt for instead of continuing their year-round basketball participation.

The answer, in my opinion, is multi-sport clubs. Nadal and Roger Federer played soccer as children. Did their participation limit or delay their tennis success in any way? Dirk Nowitski played tennis as a youth. Did it inhibit his basketball skill development?

McEnroe spoke of finding children in Harlem and putting a racket in their hands to introduce them to the game. Great idea. However, if they play only tennis, two things happen: (1) they limit their athletic development and (2) they limit their opportunities for success.

What would happen if McEnroe’s tennis club partnered with a basketball team to create a multi-sport club? Tennis and basketball require quickness and agility, especially laterally. Tennis and basketball prefer taller athletes.¬†Djokovic is 6’2, 180 pounds. That would be decent size for a PG.

The development for each sport could complement each other during the early and middle years of sports participation, and when a child showed the potential for one sport or the other, or the desire to specialize, then the child could make that decision. However, in a 2-sport multi-sport club, each child could have two sports in which he or she could excel. If the multi-sport club added another sport – swimming – that prefers taller athletes, each child would have three sports in which to potentially excel. The coaches could identify and recruit players together, rather than working against each other to find talented athletes. Furthermore, because tactical skills have some transfer within invasion games, a sub-elite swimmer with a basketball background could potentially transfer those skills to water polo, opening more possibilities.

A multi-sport club could enable better athletes to continue their sports participation and have a greater opportunity to excel. A child who develops in a tennis/basketball club and ends up 6’1 would have a lot of competition to continue his basketball career as he would be on the small side; however, he would have adequate size to compete in tennis, and could make the decision to specialize in tennis and pursue a college scholarship or professional career in tennis.

I first heard of lacrosse when I was a high-school junior. A senior had visited a west coast college and returned to high school and told us that the lacrosse coach was recruiting him. He had never played lacrosse. As a new sport on the west coast, it was hard to find experienced lacrosse players. Instead, he recruited players like my friend, a high school baseball and soccer player. The coach had told him that if he knew how to catch and throw from baseball, and had the game awareness and conditioning from soccer, he would be able to transfer those skills to lacrosse fairly quickly. Essentially, he possessed the general qualities necessary for lacrosse and needed to apply those general qualities to new sport-specific skills. Crew teams often look for high-school basketball players to covert to rowing because they generally have the desired height and the desired strength and conditioning.

A multi-sport club would expand and improve upon this idea of identifying general qualities in athletes playing more popular sports and converting them to sports with less participation. Rather than trying to transfer the general qualities to a completely new set of sport-specific skills, the club would develop athletes with the general qualities for several complementary sports AND the sport-specific skills.

What if a basketball club and rowing club joined forces? Rowing could serve as the off-season conditioning during the spring and fall, but the athletes would start with a good base coming out of summer and winter basketball season. The athletes who were sub-elite basketball players could have the requisite qualities to specialize and become elite rowers.

This could open sports like crew or tennis to a much larger, and much more athletic pool of potential talent, while also providing benefits to basketball players who may be able to extend their competitive careers in a different sport, as opposed to specializing in basketball.

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