At Asheville Racquet Club (ARC) in Asheville, North Carolina, their pickleball program is focused on developing players of all ages and helping even their youngest of members advance their pickleball skills. The primary means by which they accomplish this is through their Advanced Junior Development Program, which is targeted toward players between the ages of 7-14 who have a basic understanding of the game and want to continue developing their skills.
ARC began hosting a Junior Development Program in October 2022 for novice level players interested in learning about pickleball. As the number of students and their associated wide range of skills increased, Cenyu Yang, ARC’s Junior Pickleball Director, realized they had a gap for a program specifically for youth players who were further along in their pickleball journeys. Yang sought to give juniors an “opportunity for those who were excelling more quickly to continue to hone their abilities and knowledge of the sport.” Thus began the Advanced Junior Development Program in August 2023, which will continue to run through June 2024. Yang says that the main reason for starting the Advanced Junior Development Program was to “empower the excelling juniors who have the desire to continue learning about what the sport has to offer.” By doing so, they have created a plethora of opportunities for their junior players to have a sense of belonging in an environment where they can compete with their peers.
“The program dives into the utilization and reasoning for technical skills…while incorporating tactical skills to advance their play in drills or during gameplay of singles or doubles,” says Yang. Some of the technical skills covered during the program include dinks, volleys, groundstrokes, and serves. These skills, coupled with the player’s understanding of when to strategically use these skills, serves to create well-rounded players.
ARC has received a great response from their excited junior players who continue to want to learn more and be engaged community pickleball events. Yang comments that “some juniors have [participated] in leagues with their parents, played in rated round robin events, and…played in drop-in sessions.” While these events are typically geared toward adults, Yang has witnessed young players who are unintimidated due to their pickleball competency from the Advanced Junior Development Program. In response to the eagerness of these young players, ARC has also begun hosting youth pickleball socials and singles and doubles leagues to accommodate the interest of their advanced youth players.
In order to qualify for the Advanced Junior Development Program, ARC requires each applicant to undergo an evaluation to ensure the player is qualified at the advanced junior level. Yang uses the following criterion for the evaluations:
- 1) Must know and understand the basic rules and scoring for singles and doubles.
- 2) Must have a consistent foundation on fundamentals such as hand-eye coordination, footwork, and basic skills (dinks, volleys, groundstrokes, and serves).
- 3) Must be able to sustain a rally point in drills and games.
- 4) Must be recommended by instructor(s) in the Junior Development Program or has been
observed/evaluated by [Yang].
During the evaluation, of the main things Yang looks for in players is to see whether or not they have a flexible mindset that will allow them to “adapt and handle any challenges in their way whether it’s in sports or life.” Yang believes this type of mindset is key to successful growth. Further, Yang looks for players with a solid pickleball intelligence, not just the ability to repeat skills.
In cases when an applicant does not meet the qualification level for the Advanced Junior Development Program, they are able to participate in the Junior Development Program to continue to work on their skills through drills and small-sided games. Moreover, eager applicants are “encouraged to do more practice outside of the program…[and] can take private lessons to work on areas they need to improve on” until they are ready for the advanced level program.
Every session of the Advanced Junior Development Program is five weeks long, consisting of one or two days per week (at the player’s discretion) of 90 minute sessions. Each week, the program hones in on various skills and tactics. Below is an example of a typical session:
- Week 1: Dinks
- Week 2: Volleys & Overheads
- Week 3: Groundstrokes
- Week 4: Serves
- Week 5: Singles or Doubles Strategies in Gameplay
Players are led through a dynamic warm-up every session before moving on to that week’s skills. Each session closes with a review of the 5Ws–who your opponent is, what skill to use, when to use it, where to execute it, and why to use it. Through these five weeks, players can expect to learn teamwork, sportsmanship, decision-making, and emotional regulation on top of the technical and tactical skills taught throughout the weeks.
The Advanced Junior Development Program has a 1:8 instructor-to-participant ratio as Yang has found this ratio best suits the program’s goals. Yang herself is certified through Pickleball Professional Registry (PPR) as well as one of the other junior pickleball instructors. ARC has six junior pickleball instructors who lead the program along with Yang.
Yang has found that having a “passionate group of instructors to help instruct the program has been a great asset in shaping and empowering youths to be the best that they can be,” emphasizing how crucial it is as a leader to have a supportive team underneath you. Moreover, she seeks to set a clear vision and culture for her team so that all participants can have a fun and safe environment. Yang understands how important it is to embody the values she is seeking to instill in the younger generation through the Advanced Junior Development Program and is excited to see how big the program will grow in the Asheville Area.