When people who enjoy tennis become parents, they soon begin to think about introducing their child to the game. They remember all the fun they’ve had competing and socializing, and want their offspring to have the same opportunities.
In the back of their mind, there will be the possibility that their child might turn out to be the next Novak Djokovic or Emma Raducanu and become a multi-millionaire superstar. Although they will appreciate that the latter is highly unlikely, they will still want to give their young potential tennis legend the best chance of success. Part of doing this is to make sure that their child starts playing at a sufficiently early age to master the relevant skills. So, what is the best age to start playing tennis?
In general, the best tennis players began playing between the ages of 3 and 6 years old. Learning at an early age allows players to reach the autonomous phase of learning quickly (in which they learn tactics and strategy without thinking about mechanics). However, players can become competitive amateurs by learning the sport at a much older age, like 40 or 50.
Phases Of Learning Tennis
There are several theories about the way we learn a complex skill like playing tennis. Fitts has set out a useful model suggesting that there are three main phases of learning motor skills.
The first of these is the cognitive phase, during which a person is thinking about how best to execute a skill, including where to stand, how to grip and swing the racket, and so on. During this phase, the action is likely to be jerky, but this should not be a concern. Players will stay in this phase for anything between a few minutes and a few weeks, depending upon their experience and learning style.
The second phase is that of associative learning. By this point, the player has solved most of the issues surrounding how they should go about hitting the shot, and they begin to group movements into ‘chunks’. For example, they might consider the takeback phase of the forehand as one movement, even though it actually combines several. During this phase, which tends to last for a few months for a new skill, movements are more flowing, and players are more likely to be able to identify errors.
The final stage of motor skill learning is the autonomous phase. Here, players have learned a ‘program’ of movements for the shot in question, and will normally be able to execute it without thinking about it- they will be in a state of ‘flow’. The shot will only break down under considerable psychological pressure in this phase, which can last indefinitely.
A player will move back to the cognitive phase if a coach suggests they make a significant change to a shot, and will gradually progress back to the autonomous phase.
The Best Age To Learn Tennis
Tennis is generally recognized as an ‘early start’ sport, in which players benefit from learning skills and movement patterns at an early stage and quickly reaching the autonomous phase of learning. This enables them to use their brain to develop mental and tactical skills without having to constantly think about the mechanical aspects of hitting the ball.
Children can begin learning the basics of the game in a fun environment at ages from 3 upwards, depending upon their attention span, and for most it is best to start as early as possible.
Burnout occurs when a player loses their enthusiasm for playing and training, most likely as a result of taking the game very seriously and then experiencing setbacks. There are several ways of reducing the likelihood of a young player experiencing burnout:
- Make sure they take a break if needed. Tennis does not need to be a constant grind: if a player is exhausted they should take break to recharge their batteries.
- Encourage them to pursue other activities. Do not allow tennis to be all-consuming. Other sports and hobbies will provide an enjoyable alternative focus.
- Plan training sessions carefully. These need to be varied, interesting and not over-long in order for players to retain their enthusiasm.
- Encourage players to consult a sport psychologist. This will help them to develop the skills to handle pressure situations, as well as providing counseling to enable them to talk through any issues they might be encountering.
Is It Ever Too Late To Learn Tennis?
If you still have the physical capacity to stand on court and swing a racket, the answer is a resounding no!
Tennis is a game for all ages. Go to any club, and you will see elderly people enjoying a game of doubles alongside teenagers playing a dynamic game of singles. However, you should have different expectations when learning tennis at 30, 40, 50 and 60.
If you are not accustomed to physical activity it is best to consult your doctor before taking up a new sport, but essentially you can enjoy learning and playing the game at any age. There is a world seniors tennis tour run by the ITF which includes a category for players over the age of 85, so there is plenty of time to reach a good standard.
At What Age Did Top Tennis Pros Learn To Play?
In line with what we suggested earlier, most leading players began early. Alexander Zverev started at 3, whereas Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic were all on court by the age of 4. Roger Federer is a bit of an outlier in that he claims to have started playing at 8, but he was no doubt playing lots of sports and games prior to this.
If you want your child to have a chance to be a top pro, they will need to start playing when they are very young, but in general it is never too late to learn.