Your Serve: Basic Training
A Youth Tennis professional says red, orange and green balls are essential for getting kids to play, and enjoy, tennis.
By Ellen Miller
Just over 5 years ago, I was coaching tennis part-time. I had just completed a Masters in Elementary Education and was ready for a classroom adventure. Before I could do that, I was offered the opportunity to stay where I was and create a junior program based on the new USTA 10 and Under Tennis initiative.
The timing was perfect. I had spent two years learning about the development of young children — how they process information, what they are capable of learning at various ages. Now I could use that knowledge on the tennis court.
At the time, sports like soccer and baseball, which offer kid-sized equipment, smaller playing fields and immediate competition, lured children from tennis, a sport considered difficult for youngsters to play. But 10 and Under Tennis made the sport kid-friendly and increased the fun factor; the impact has been substantial. Research shows nearly 2 million kids ages 6 to 12 played tennis in 2013, up nearly 5 percent from 2012. Not only has player participation increased, but sales of red, orange and green balls were up a healthy 17% over the previous year. Clearly, scaling the equipment to kids and using teaching methods that gets them playing quickly is making tennis more enjoyable.
However, there are still pros who think low-compression balls “ruin” a child’s chances of becoming great. They continue to push young children to use the yellow ball, which is not only heavy on a child’s racquet, but tends to bounce higher than the child himself. The result of this “rush to the yellow ball” is radical grips and faulty stroke mechanics.
As I’ve found as an educator, the key to success is solid fundamentals. We must teach children fundamental footwork and stroke patterns so they have a firm foundation on which to build. Many children leave the sport simply because they can’t keep the ball in the court; the reason behind that may be as simple as flawed mechanics or poor movement patterns.
Because of the low bounce of a red ball, children as young as 3 can hit. The ball bounces in their strike zone, allowing for a sound grip and optimal stroke mechanics. These youngsters can learn to rally! Soon, they take part in Play Days on a 36-foot court and compete with other kids. There is plenty of time to introduce the yellow ball … after we introduce the orange and green balls.
With the orange ball on a 60-foot court, they’ll learn how to transition to the net, hit volleys and overheads and learn doubles strategies. Then, with a green ball, they’ll learn directional hitting and work on live ball consistency and point play.
Points tend to last longer and involve more all-around court play when using red, orange and green balls. Think about how this will improve footwork, shot selection, cardiovascular conditioning and concentration skills. When kids get to the yellow ball, the work can then focus on strategy, mental toughness and match play. It simply doesn’t make sense to rush this developmental pathway.
The most important point of all, however, has to do with the expectation of every child taking up the game. They want to “play tennis.” The sooner we can facilitate that, the better, and red, orange and green balls make that happen. Is this a big deal? You bet! Children play sports because they have fun, and rallying with a friend is fun. If you don’t understand how important that is, you need to rethink your teaching strategy — and how you will sustain your business in the future.
Fortunately the USTA has partnered with the PTR, USPTA and U.S. Olympic Committee to create a pathway for educating professionals in 10 and Under Tennis. The result: Coach Youth Tennis (coachyouthtennis.com). This initiative provides coaches with high-quality instruction in Youth Tennis through online courses, videos and workshops. Completion of the curriculum is a prerequisite for PTR and USPTA certification.
Using red, orange and green balls to get kids into the game just makes sense — for kids, for future players and for your business.
Ellen Miller is the executive director of West Winds Tennis and Fitness Center in New Market, Md. and a frequent presenter at 10 and Under events. She also works for USTA Player Development as a 10 and Under faculty coach. Miller played tennis at Rice University and is USTA High Performance-, PTR- and USPTA Elite-certified.
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