Tennis Industry magazine


Your Serve: Fix Your Delivery!

A Youth Tennis expert says when it comes to bringing tennis to kids, “hitting” and “rallying” are very different.

By Ellen Miller

I hear a lot of inane comments about 10 and Under Tennis: It shouldn’t be mandatory; the balls are too slow; competition is being watered down; the courts are too small and kids can’t keep the ball in play. That last comment is my favorite, something I hear from uninformed parents: My child needs to move to a full court because he can’t keep the ball in the (36-foot) court. (I tell them to ask their pro to teach their kid topspin.)

We seem to have these resistance fighters battling this innovative Youth Tennis movement, but for what? We have a Youth Tennis program that is actually a boon to our industry. Kids are learning and having fun. What’s wrong with that?

So, if not for this, what would we have in its place? Well, I’ll tell you, because I’ve had to endure it.

During a recent visit to the Northeast, I witnessed — at two separate clubs — two of the worst youth lessons I’ve ever seen. In one, the boy (maybe 8) could barely hit the yellow balls back and had no movement skills — likely because he didn’t need any with the feed-the-ball-directly-to him methodology of this ill-paced lesson. After he hit about 15 balls (mostly sideways), the coach said, let’s work on inside-out forehands. What!? Just hitting the ball over the net should have been the goal.

Had I been able to, I would have done my alley rally with the boy using red balls (which were sitting in a basket next to the court, btw), then progressed to a short-court rally and just seen what he could do. No doubt he would have had more fun and success in five minutes of rallying with me than he did in an hour with this out-of-touch coach.

In the second lesson, I watched a pro feeding seven yellow balls in a row to a single kid who couldn’t hit anything back. In the meantime the other five kids ranging in age from 5 to 11 were just standing on the sidelines, looking around aimlessly.

Is this what dissenting coaches want to maintain? A status quo that is designed to drive kids away?

As a teacher I spend a great deal of time observing how kids learn. One common theme I see is what many in education call “discovery learning” — kids learn by doing. That learning takes place when students are placed in problem-solving situations that force them to draw on their own experiences and knowledge as they interact with their environment. The teacher becomes the facilitator, not simply the “transmissionist” of information. (On the tennis court, this old-school “transmissionist” is the cart-loving coach who spews balls along with instructions.)

High-performance coaches will tell you our best junior players are adept problem-solvers, always adapting, making key decisions. What if we let the kids in on the action? Let them feed balls to each other and put a rally together; let them work with a partner on athletic development; let them develop games they would like to play as a group?

We did this for a 10 and Under competency video that I was in with another coach, Rita Gladstone. The day of the shoot, we grabbed kids from our camp and they learned as they went. Many were playing tennis for the first time. It may not have been perfect, but they all got it. So, what’s so bad about that?

For a coach, it requires some lesson organization and a bit of trial and error, but most likely it scares the coach because he or she has to loosen control over the group. But take that chance. The results will surprise you. This type of learning shows the kid that the teacher believes in him — that he can be responsible enough to a) help someone else learn and b) be a team player. It’s a powerful motivator.

Since I’ve been using the 10 and Under kid-centered, learn-by-doing methodology, I can’t go back to the other way. Sure, I do some hand tossing and racquet-feed drills from time to time, but only when the drills are too advanced for the kids to execute themselves. I like to let the kids work together, and they like that more than they like working with me!

“Hitting” and “rallying” a ball are two very different things. The coach-fed ball randomly gets “hit” back; the partner-rallied ball gets finessed so it stays in the court at a speed and depth that will improve the chances it will come back. Two very different things. Two very different ways of looking at Youth Tennis.

Which path do you want to take?

Ellen Miller is certified by the PTR, USPTA and USTA High Performance and has a master’s degree in elementary education. A former player for Rice University, she is a Youth Tennis workshop faculty member. She also is Tennis Industry magazine’s 2014 Grassroots Champion of the Year.

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