Monthly Archives: October 2013

Practice Make Perfect: But how much? (part 2)


Like many parents I spend a considerable time watching my children play sport, in the main, for me that is tennis. It can feel like all my spare time is either at the tennis club or at a competition. As I type this I am currently watching my eight year old daughter having her Orange tennis lesson. Yesterday we spent our morning at an orange competition. Why do we give this amount of time? In simple terms we believe that this gives our child the best chance of success.

There is a wealth of evidence that suggests that the outstanding performers in any field have got to that level of expertise due to the large amount of practice that they have applied. One question that many sporting parents will ask is how much practice is required and once this figure has been identified, how do they motivate or encourage their child to put in this time? I’ll return to the second question in a later blog.

10,000 Hours of Practice

I constantly think how much should my children being playing and practicing? We could work back from the figure that is most often quoted which is 10,000 hours of purposeful practice is required to be a world class performer. Not that I’m thinking my children will get to that level. I’d just like them to hold their own at county or university level.

Returning to the world class performers and consider that they reach that level at the age of 25 and they started playing at 5 (it makes the sums easier) this is a total of 20 years. We can do a straight forward division of 10,000 hours by 20 years which gives 500 hours a year or just under 10hours practice a week.

Now if we imagine that from the age of 15 to 25, a player trains full time, perhaps 20 hours week. This actually gives 10,000 in itself. This would seem to indicate that huge number of hours of training are not required for younger players.

What about if world class performance is to be achieved by the age of 22? If we use the same basis of training full time from age 15, this is 7 years of training at 20 hours a week. This gives approximately 1000 hours a year or 7000 hours a total. If the player started playing at age 5, then they have 10 years to complete the other 3000 hours of practice which gives 300 hours a year or approximately 6 hours a week. We would of course expect younger players to train less and the training to increase for 15 year olds.

What do the experts say?

Advice from the International Tennis Federation looks at the age of players and places them in certain bands to give a quantity of practice a week. Secondly they look at sport as a whole and do not isolate is purely to tennis.

Children in age bracket 6-8 should have 3-4 sessions of a maximum 45minutes. This gives 3 hours in a week. Their practice should be 50% tennis and 50% other sports.

Children aged 9-11 should have 3-4 session, this time lasting 1 hour. This gives 4 hours in a week. Their practice should be 70% tennis and 30% other sports.

For 12-14 year old, they should have 4-5 in a week ranging between 2–3 hours. This gives 10 hours in a week. Practice should consist of 85% tennis and 15% other sports

Finally 15-16 year old are looking at 4-5 sessions in a week and these can between 3-4 hours each. This gives a total of 15 hours. Practice should be a balance of tennis, strength, conditioning and fitness.

A rule of thumb which has been suggested to me is that primary age children should train for no more hours in the week than half their age in years. So a ten year old should do no more than 5hours training a week and this should be a combination of tennis and other sports, perhaps 4 hours tennis and 1 hour of other sport. This appears to match up with the figures in the table and all this information is in line with the 10,000 hours of purposeful practice.

Ignoring the Numbers

A different way of looking at the quantity of practice is how the player is performing during the practice. The ideal scenario is that after a good practice session not only is the child physically tired but they are mentally tired as well. We can all physically exhaust a child in a short amount of time but they are not mentally tired. We can also spend too long on the same drill which mentally tires the child out long before they are physically tired. To do both at the same time takes a highly skilled coach with an aim in parallely of quality over quantity. We want the child to hit a forehand topspin enough times that they are grooving the right shape of shot and imprinting good muscle memory rather than hitting it so many times that they are tired and they are not longer replicating a good shot. I read of one teacher who suggested that if you practice with your mind as well as your body, then you will achieve as much in an hour and half than you can in a day!

The Danger

What we must try to avoid is over practicing and the child falling out of love with the game. If you speak to any experienced tennis coach, they will give lots of examples of promising players who practiced too much and drifted away from the game in their early teens. Whereas in reality, there are many years for young players to build up the practice time they need, whether they wish to play at county level or international level.


Click to access IO_8043_original.PDF

Practice Makes Perfect (Blog 1)


“It is the willingness to engage in hard or, quite often, very boring, practice that distinguishes the very best”

A standard belief held by many was that the very best were supremely talented due to an inbuilt gift that couldn’t be created. Some people said that it was inherited and others may have said it was a god given gift. Therefore yes, you could get better with practice but that was never enough to be a world beater. In my childhood memories the world beater did not have to just be an Ian Botham, a John MacEnroe or Daley Thomson, I am showing my age here. Instead a world beater could be the child who always beat you in an individual sport, the child who scored the hat tricks on the football field or the child who bowled a ball you could not put a bat on.

We used to practice of course. I can remember spending hours at the cricket field persuading anybody I could to bowl at me or just running in and trying to bowl as fast as I could at unguarded stumps pretending I was Malcolm Marshall. In some sports there was some coaching. I played table tennis at a reasonable level and attended group sessions were there were 16 children all practicing the same routine. I can still remember, backhand short serve, opponent backhand push and then the  server hitting a forehand top spin… with the instruction from the coach continue the point from there. However individual coaching that really focussed on an individual weakness, well that was few and far between and only for the wealthy few. There was no doubt that practice did make a difference in comparison to those who didn’t but it never seemed to make a difference in comparison to those who were practicing as much I was and in the same style… if they were already better than me they just stayed better than me. In fact even practicing more did not seem to impact either, especially if always I was doing was just repeating the same thing and in terms of cricket, my bowling has its own individual idiosyncratic action all of its own which you would never find in a coaching guide.

The idea of practice beyond this was not really discussed in any length. I did read occasional stories such as of Ivan Lendl who was not even the best player in Russia in his teens and went onto be the best player world apparently through a phenomenal work ethic. Another story that stayed with me was Geoff Boycott having the wooden floor of a gym polished so the ball would turn and bounce to replicate the wickets of the sub continent. Yet it was the individual genius of the tabloid favourites that were much more to the fore.

The first occasion when I heard a different view was during teacher training when I attended a half day seminar entitled ‘ability.’ There two Maths education lecturers propounded the view that there was no such thing as ability it was all about the environment a child was brought up in and then the teaching they received at school. I can remember railing against this, it couldn’t be right. I commented that it wouldn’t matter how much I practiced it would not turn me into Bryan Lara! The lecturers responded to my views and those of others with a patient, weary wisdom borne out of an unshakeable belief that they were on the right track. (They were far too humble a pair to claim they were right!)

That was twenty years ago and now my view has greatly changed. Why you may ask?

First is just the life experience that has made me consider what is practice? How can it be made more worthwhile? In my teaching how could I encourage children to solve equations and then just practice, practice, practice… Those children who would do this really did make huge strides and would overtake the pupil who had appeared naturally talented at 11 but did not retain the work ethic. My biggest success was a child who was a Maths level 4 at 11 (the national average) and a set 3/4 candidate but with continual practice achieved his A* and the second highest result in the school five years later. This was a child whose primary teacher would not have said was talented in any way.

One of the biggest impact though has been two books, ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell and ‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed which turn the talent myth upside down. They do this by highlighting all the stories of some of the gifted individuals I had used in my arguments such as Tiger Woods or Mozart and explained how they had achieved so much at an early age due to the incredible number of hours that they spend on their practice. Also the type of practice they engaged in. This was not just repetition for repetition’s sake but instead practice which was highly purposeful. These are books which I regularly read sections of in school assemblies as I constantly wish to present the view that the children can always practice and find a way forwards.

I wonder if the other element which has greatly changed my view is of being a father and being a tennis dad. Tennis was not a sport that I played as a child or certainly not in any organised fashion but now I spend hours at the side of a court or chauffering my children to coaching sessions. I have a reason for wanting to believe that purposeful practice is the solution because that means that if I can find the right opportunities for whichever activity my children wish to pursue whether it is tennis or something else and can then encourage a practice ethic amongst them, then there is no limit to what they can achieve. I am sure that every parent holds that dream, that our children’s outcomes are potentially limitless.


Green is done

green balls

I started writing this blog on the day my son played his last green tournament and have never finished it. So today 6 weeks into full ball, I thought now would be the time to complete my notes.

There is no doubt that green tennis was the biggest challenge that my son has faced so far in tennis. Though, I write this before he has played in a single under 12s tournament. One thing that I think we are both aware of this is that this will be a step up and won’t be easy. I don’t think either of us had really considered about that green. I think we both thought, lessons and practice will change from orange to green and the competitions will feel the same, which they definitely did not. The period from October to the New Year was a real struggle. Going to competitions and having to relearn how to win matches. That feeling that there were no easy games. Also realising that ratings below G1* meant nothing. You could play a Green 4 player who was awesome and he did. You could also have an easy win against G1 player.

I am though really proud of the way my son did tackle the challenges that he faced along the way, whether it ranged from matches that last an hour and a half to the speed which the ball was being hit. One of the things that I tried to help him with most was the mental side of the game and trying to stay positive and focussed even when things weren’t going his way. In his penultimate green match I had the pleasure of seeing that all being put into practice against a boy he’d never beaten before in green. Six weeks later, I am still smiling about it as I type. From court side, I could hear him say all the mantra’s, all the positive self talk and see all the body language. On match point he was 40-0 up and unlike Andy Murray he lost that game… I was really worried that his opponent would come back to beat him, but my son held his nerve and won the match at the second time of asking.

On that day, I smiled…