You Gotta Have Heart!
The key to growing tennis, says one of the world’s greatest tennis teachers, is to have a passion for the game.
Many years ago, I was the tennis pro at the Berkeley Tennis Club in California. I had a regular Saturday group of 24 kids ranging in age from 8 to 10 years old, who would spend three hours with me on the court. A great thrill for me was that when it was time for their lesson, these kids would slam open the club gate and run as fast as they could to try to be first on the court.
I had the use of only one court, so I divided it with rope widthwise from back fence to back fence into six playing areas, and then divided the class into compatible groups of four per court, and we were off! We used wooden paddles and played short-court tennis for 10-minute segments and the winners would move up, the losers down, switching partners.
I also taught them all kinds of ball tricks, from the very simple to ones that were more challenging, requiring skills that helped develop their hand-eye coordination. I would use simple scoring techniques: add a point for gaining a point, and minus a point for losing a point.
At the end of the year, we had a stroking skills competition of all the basic strokes. Those who succeeded in passing the skill test could buy a tennis racquet from the pro shop at below cost. (I controlled the feeding and we never had a person who did not succeed!)
I would then hand the players over to the assistant pros and start a new group. All of the teaching pros had one objective — not to lose a single player.
Now, many years later, our biggest challenge is to get people playing tennis, and to keep them playing for the rest of their lives. Surely, with all the new knowledge available today, we can find a way to get people playing — not only to start playing, but also to keep playing! I think one of the greatest teaching aids is the backboard. At a recent ATP tennis teachers course in which pros are transitioning from playing to teaching tennis, the group of eight pros were asked if the backboard played a significant role in their learning to play tennis. All eight hands shot up in the air immediately. There is a wonderful backboard on the market right now that both kids and adults love — Sportwall. It is like playing an interactive computer game. More emphasis needs to be placed on the backboard and pros need to incorporate it into their lessons.
If I could have my wish, it would be that we have more tennis teachers who can make the game enjoyable for any level of player. There are many ways to teach tennis. My choice to teach newcomers is with Instant Tennis, which gets people to learn the basic strokes in as little as 10 minutes. It is important to get people playing and rallying the ball as soon as possible, and Instant Tennis is a fantastic tool to achieve this objective. By using large, non-threatening foam balls like SpeedBall, new players learn the basic strokes more quickly and competition can be introduced much earlier.
Pros today should have a quiver full of games so their students can avoid boredom. Competition energizes the players, but you need to win twice and lose once to make consistent improvement. Kids like it when they have peers who are close in age and have compatible skills. Of course, adults don’t like to be beaten by kids. Games should be mostly controlled, but there should also be some power games, because everyone likes to hit the ball hard on occasion.
The coaches’ credo should be: A ratio of five compliments to one correction, and make a smile part of your life.
The only way to grow the game of tennis is for teachers and coaches to have heart. You can throw all the money in the world into growing the game, and you can develop volumes of innovative techniques and programs, but only when the pros get passionate about teaching the game will players enjoy their beginning experience and stay with it for life.
See all articles by Dennis Van der Meer
About the Author
Dennis Van der Meer has taught more people to play and teach tennis than anyone else in the history of the game. He has coached several national champions, and coached Billie Jean King and Margaret Court for the Battle of the Sexes with Bobby Riggs. He was voted Tennis Coach of the Decade in the 1994 Tennis Buyers' Guide Readers Poll and in 1997, was named Developmental Coach of the Year by the U.S. Olympic Committee. In 1972, the U.S. State Department presented Van der Meer with a citation for Exceptional Coaching Performance in the Middle East and in 1989, he was given the Healthy American Fitness Award. He is the president and founder of the Professional Tennis Registry (PTR) and owner of Van der Meer Tennis University, World Class Academy and several tennis facilities.