Pierre ‘The Bear’ Lamarche: “Is Specialisation at a Young Age Good?”

Written by: Pierre Lamarche


***Pierre Lamarche has been an outspoken proponent of Canadian tennis and how the sport should have a major place in the Canadian sport landscape. He believes this lofty ambition can only be achieved through the combination of success on the international professional competitive scene, with the required domestic infrastructure and a true partnership between Tennis Canada and the tennis private sector.

His comments are often taken as critical by those who feel targeted by his questions. His background as a player, coach, and leader [see background] in the sport and coaching industry warrants that his views, which are shared by many others, be given due process by anyone [or organization] who really wants to help Canadian Tennis achieve the proper national status it deserves in the sport community.

He now starts in ONcourt a series of editorials which specifically provides thoughts for reflection on how to make Canada a tennis superpower.***


My friend Doug Burke, the long time icon of Jamaican tennis and a former Canadian junior champion, sent me an article “The Next King of The Court” written by Tom Perrotta of the Wall Street Journal. It provides some insightful information which should be considered by anyone developing a long term strategy for the development of excellence in a sport, in this case, tennis.

Quite often these important factors have been arrived at by scientific research which provides specific recommendations for youth development. An example of this is the question of whether specialisation in a certain discipline at a young age is better for reaching an individual’s potential rather than a less structured approach.

The findings on this issue are very conclusive from a scientific standpoint: specialisation at a young age provides better early performance but limits the long-term potential of these athletes. Physically the specialised development of these athletes often leads to injuries and burnout. But most important is that specialisation often hinders the development of creativity in children. If you are looking for tomorrow’s champion/ you better look for creative youngsters who will push the limits of yesterday and today’s game and who will have the ability to think independently and create the solutions to any problem they face.

Subjective evaluations are usually more popular than scientific ones. Scientific findings are often overlooked or misrepresented when making subjective decisions. In “The Next King of the Court” article which provides a subjective evaluation for the success of Serbian tennis, surprisingly the conclusions are very similar. The recent success of Serbian players and teams is not the result of specialisation at a young age; it is not due to structured programs for children [age 4-10] administered by highly qualified coaches, the whole exercise being driven by the parents. No, in fact in Serbia a loose training method emerges, one that stresses competition and fun. Parents sacrifice much for their children but they are not the driving force behind their children’s hours of practice.

In our country, Tennis Canada in their long term “Pathway to Excellence” plan introduced progressive tennis with a vengeance, a certain cure all for our lack of performance at the international professional level. Progressive tennis was to be a recruiting program for youth as well as a source of talent identification. Resources were shifted from other player development areas to help develop this concept. Funding to clubs became dependent on implementing these initiatives, best coaches were told to be involved with children aged 4-10 years old, programs were developed, red flags were identified [problem areas], organised competitions were introduced, selections and regroupings were based on performances and physical tests, parents were recruited and became heavily involved. What are the results: year-round programs are expensive, restricting access due to financial constraints, kids have better technique, stress is put on them to conform and to perform, the wrong type of coaches are working with them [the technician or worse, the tactician versus the pied piper], talent ID is an inexact science being applied in the same markets [why do hockey players come from Cole Harbour, Brantford, Moose Jaw and tennis players from Montreal and Toronto?]. What we see are kids being developed under such pressure to perform that cheating and improper behaviour from young national team members is rampant. We see parents pursuing short-term extrinsic rewards versus the proper intrinsic rewards. We are getting young kids that look good but do not have the size, independence, or creativity to become true champions. We are telling kids, their parents and their coaches that do the right thing [long-term versus short-term] that they are not good enough. We are telling big kids who can really play later on that they do not have the physical requirements for selection. We imply through regrouping that the coaches there know more than the home coach who spends all his time with the child. We imply that the kids not selected are not good enough [age 8-10]. We create confusion in the parent and child, who must acquiesce to Tennis Canada’s wishes or be removed from the system. We create an uncooperative climate between clubs and national coaches.

If you don’t get the picture yet, and understand that we are not helping our kids develop as individuals in this system, than you must be part of the people who designed it or the ones that are receiving subsidies. I hope for your children, their development and the wonderful sport of tennis in our wonderful country that you will stand up and question. The worse that will happen is that your child will be pushed aside but then they possibly will have a chance at true personal excellence.

In the late 1980’s mini-tennis was the rage in England and France with a structured approach which led to national championships. Eventually, the consequences of such initiatives were seen as harmfull  by the sport science community, so much that the International Tennis Federation basically banned all international and national competitions for U12 players. Now, 20 years later, we have forgotten those lessons and we have U10 Provincial competitions. History does repeat itself.

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