Pull In the Youngest Players, and You'll Get Their Parents, Too
By Joe Dinoffer
It’s always fun to see juniors spread out and be active on a number of tennis courts. But it becomes magical when practically all of the kids are so young they measure their growth by seeing if they are as tall as the net. One week the net is taller than they are; the next week they grow a little and the net has some competition. “Yes-s-s!” exclaims one of the youngsters. “I’m finally as tall as the net!”
Demographics have a big impact on the sign-ups for tennis programs. At the 100-year-old Lakewood Country Club in Dallas, there’s been a baby boom in recent years. Out of nowhere, parents of 40 or more children from 3 to 6 years old fill the parking lot several times a week. And, since parents of children this age tend to watch their youngsters learn and laugh through their first sporting experiences, the viewing deck is taken over with proud and smiling adults. After all, nearly the entire six-court facility is packed by the smiling faces of their own children.
The only challenge is to figure out who’s having more fun, the children or the parents. It really is magical. This is the type of program that sets the stage for years of success to come.
Here are some tips to capture the moment in your own backyard.
Demographics and Marketing
You might not have a program for children in that young age range. However, it might be a “sleeper” program that’s just waiting for you to shake awake. Check out other sports and activities for children in that 3- to 6-year-old target age and you’ll probably wonder why you never noticed them before. Another place to check is the local pre-school and kindergartens. Then, it’s just a question of getting the word out with some fliers, newsletter bulletins, and introductory free programs.
At the Lakewood Country Club, Tennis Director Adrian Chabria promotes his “Future Stars” program with the message, “Give your kids the tools to be an athlete for life.” He also tells the parents, “Have the kids come as they are. And no racquet required” — meaning that the parents do not have to invest in special clothing, and he supplies junior tennis racquets and foam Hand Racquets.
Bells and Whistles
People are always attracted to bells and whistles, but young children are drawn to fun and excitement almost as much as they are to ice cream. In your free “get the word out” programs, consider hiring a clown or dress up your pros with wigs and big red noses. This is one of the tricks that Chabria at Lakewood Country Club has used right from the start.
Other standards he incorporates in his program are regular give-away prizes. He has also laminated and posted a height chart provided by HEAD Penn. When checking in for each session, the kids just stand next to the height chart to determine what length junior racquet they will use for that hour.
Hire the Right Staff
Chabria also hired a young woman who teaches motor skills and gymnastics to very young children. Although she has little tennis experience, she has a strong background in group games and activities that keep young children engaged and having fun. She has quickly endeared herself to the children and the parents.
For the first 15 minutes of each 60-minute session, this young lady directs the warm-up for all the children. It’s fun, fast-paced, and the laughter at the start of each session is contagious.
For student-to-teacher ratio, Chabria feels strongly that each child should get a lot of attention. When he has 40 children in the program, he schedules nine total staff members to work with the children.
The Right Equipment
The tennis staff at Lakewood uses foam balls, foam racquets, short racquets, colorful spots, donuts, hoops, and even blow-up targets to keep these youngsters interested and as focused as possible. Since their attention spans are about as short as they are, it’s no wonder Chabria and his team change drills and games every couple of minutes.
Serve the Kids, Serve the Parents
It’s almost guaranteed: If you capture the interest of the children, the parents will be next in line. After all, parents are going to do something with their children. It might be swimming, going to the playground, ice-skating, or to the soccer field. Grab the interest of the children early on and it’s likely you can get the entire family involved in tennis for years to come.
Remember, one activity or another will be the first to capture each child’s attention and interest. Why not make tennis that first activity? If it can happen in Dallas, it can happen in your backyard as well.
See all articles by Joe Dinoffer
About the Author
Joe Dinoffer is a Master Professional for both the PTR and USPTA. He speaks frequently at national and international tennis teacher workshops as a member of both the HEAD Penn and Reebok National Speaker's Bureaus. He is president of Oncourt Offcourt Inc. and has written 16 books and produced more than 30 instructional videos.