At what age should my junior tennis playing child start a fitness program?

“My child is too young to be involved with a weight lifting program!  This is one of the most commonly heard objectives of parents who want to improve their junior tennis playing child’s fitness for tennis level, but have extreme hesitations about the safety of weight training.  Lifting weights for the purpose of injury prevention and/or performance enhancement is relatively new to the junior tennis world.  In the past, even professional players were told that lifting weights could cause them to become too bulky to hit tennis balls correctly or move around the court efficiently. Today, most (if not all) professional players take part in a fitness program for tennis.  Junior tennis players would find great benefit if they also participated in a fitness program for tennis.  Most junior tennis coaches and players would concur that choosing correct exercises , utilizing proper form, performing higher repetitions (8-20 repetition) range, and being unter the supervision of a certified and experienced strength and conditioning specialist who understands the needs of junior tennis players can significantly inprove their on court performance and actually prevent injury. Although this weight training for adults is now widely accepted, it is still not widely accepted as an activity that is safe for pre-adolescent children to participate in.

It is now my intention to completely destroy the myth that  ”children should not lift weights.”   If I had a nickel for every time I have heard a parent say that their child is too young or too small to lift weights, I would be quite wealthy.  Parents oftentimes explain their position by claiming that weightlifting will injure the growth plates and therefore stunt their child’s growth. Yes, it is true that if a child participates in low-repetition/high intensity weight training they are likely to get injured and/or cause problems with their growth plates.  On that note, it is important to remember that unsupervised low repetition/high repetition training is not tennis specific and it is not even recommended  for adults to participate in that type of conditioning program. 

I must admit that several years ago even the experts believed that strength training for children was unsafe and ineffective, but there has been a definite paradigm switch during the late 1990′s.   Since that time, several controlled research studies have shown the positive effects and safety of weight lifting for children. The major organizations involved with the “Children Lifting Weights’ movement include reputable organizations such as: The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), and The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has an official stance that participation in a properly supervised weight training program can actually reduce the risk of overuse injuries in youth sports because the weight training helps the child’s muscles and tendons become more resilient and proficient. This simply means that the childs musculoskeletal system becomes better suited to handle the sporting activity that they are participating in.  In June of 2001,  The American Academy of Pediatrics did an extensive literature review on Strength Training for children and adolescents (Vol. 107, NO. 6, Pg. 1470-14772).   From this review, it was concluded that weight training/strength and conditioning is a safe and effective activity as long as it is properly supervised by a professional and credible fitness trainer and it adheres to training specificity in order to meet the particular demands of the sports that they are participating in.   

In December 1996, the extremely reputable National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) put out an official position paper on youth training. The NSCA organization publishes two journals on strength and conditioning and is considered the governing body of strength and conditioning. It is the current position of the NSCA that a properly designed and supervised conditioning program is:

1. Safe for children

2. Can increase the strength of children

3. Can help to enhance motor skills and sports performance of children

4. Can help to prevent injuries in youth sports and recreational activities

5. Can help to improve the psychosocial well-being of children

6. Can enhance the overall health of children

I hope that this serves to enlighten and open up the minds of those who are worried about having their junior tennis playing children participate in a properly designed and supervised strength and conditioning for tennis program.  In my particular strength and conditioning programs with tennis playing children, weights are seldomly used because they are usually not specific to the goals we want to accomplish. In my world, the usual tennis specific conditioning program for a child would consist of medicine ball training, bodyweight training (different types of lunges, pullups, pushups, and abdominal/core exercises), and speed/quickness/agility/ and anaerobic endurance training.    

The age I would have a player begin depends on their maturity level. Some 8 year olds are mature enough to begin a conditioning program, while some 13 year olds are not mature enough to begin a fitness program for tennis.  The child must be capable and willing to listen and do only what the strength and conditioning for tennis coach tells them to do.    

One would be absolutely silly to stay away from doing a proper  fitness training for tennis program that at least focused on elements necessary for preventing injuries,  increasing tennis speed, tennis footwork, and tennis agility.

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