Teach Him to Love It
by Ed Collins/2019

During those first lessons Charlie discovers that tennis is fun. He likes it because he enjoys chasing after balls, he loves playing games, and it makes him feel good when he learns stuff.

Lesson #1––Can you make 5 in a row? Spoiling the fun is easy––just toss balls and start talking (advice is taken as criticism). Start by tossing the ball back and forth, stopping it with the racquet away from the body. In effect, by sharing the ball you’re already playing tennis.

Start by tossing the ball back and forth, stopping it with the racquet away from the body. In effect, by sharing the ball, you’re already playing tennis.

Show him how to balance the ball on the racquet as he runs, then how to dribble the ball down, then up, then up after letting it bounce––so he practices visual tracking (Fundamental Skill #1). Make a game out of it by ‘rallying’ inside the doubles alley. Forehands are Charlie’s preference, so institute the Backhands-with-a-Backhand rule. Keep score; in no time he’ll find the alley.

Lesson #2––Tennis with no net
This always-fun lead-up game is played on the same side of the net, within the boundaries of the service boxes, over the center service line. (Easier w/o the net––you can make him feel like a winner). This teaches Charlie to see and, most importantly, feel the ball being contacted in front and away from the body (Fundamental Skill #2). The ball is not hit, but gently tapped––tiny backswing, tiny follow-through; the racquet not buried in the palm of the hand, but held lightly with the fingers (Fundamental Skill #3).

Say “bounce aaaand hit”––It’s a game of rhythm and timing––so he says “bounce” when the ball bounces, “hit” when it’s struck. Suspend other advice except this: he must return to a ready position after each hit, cradling the racquet at the throat with the non-dominant hand, the racquet head ‘on edge,’ even with his hand. (Saying “hit” synchronizes his breathing, helps him relax his hand and body.)

Measure performance––Boost Charlie’s confidence by counting the number of consecutive shots made, or number made out of ten. Like all of us, he needs motivation to concentrate. (And incessant praise doesn’t help; he may not respond well when the task becomes “too difficult.”

As coach/teacher, hold onto these thoughts: (1) Tennis is an individual sport––to be successful one must be self-reliant. (2) Confidence comes as a result of achievement, not praise. Play it on the descent––Like most beginners, Charlie doesn’t move back on the deep ball. To teach correct footwork, position him close to net, then lob the ball over his shoulder, instructing him to pivot, run back, let the ball bounce, then play it at waist level. After some practice, play the no-stress Make 5 game, where he ‘wins’ points by making 5 lobs over your head (total, or in a row). He loses a point when netting a ball, plus he must run to pick it up.

Lesson #3––Volley soon to volley well
This progression introduces net play: Put Charlie close to the net, free hand behind his back (first step in learning a one- handed backhand), then, with the racquet head even or above wrist level, instruct him to produce soft volleys that bounce twice inside the service line.
Next, with the free hand now used in the ready position, play the Make 5 game: Points are scored only when the follow- through is held for a count of one, the crossover step is taken, and the ball bounces twice within the service box, landing closer to the sideline.
Later challenge him with the Up-and- Over game: Standing behind the service line, he receives a fed ball that he first stops to himself w/underspin (as many dribbles as necessary to control it), then after letting it bounce, he hits it back with a groundstroke (without touching it).

Lesson #4––Teach him to think
Unburdened by all but the most basic technical issues, Charlie is free to strategize. One of the first over-the-net games is played within the service boxes where you, the teacher, are only allowed to take one step to reach the ball. When Charlie hits the ball right back to you, put it away. “Thanks, Charlie!” Soon he’ll develop spatial awareness. When he beats you regularly, make it 2 steps, then 3. (Important to remember: To control the ball softly within a small space is how one develops technique and feel.)

Half serves first––Introduce the serve just like you introduced the groundstrokes––starting with the point of contact. But first practice the toss: hand sideways, arm straight, lift, release, catch and hold.

To develop a loose-and-easy motion, practice from the service line, or no-man’s land: Sideways to the net, elbow back, at shoulder level, racquet behind the head ... toss, reach high over head, softly hitting the ball up and forward, not down. Bingo!

Feedback, please––Periodically ask Charlie to explain what he knows. He gains confdence just by knowing the vocabulary of tennis, such as deuce, crosscourt, lob and baseline, as well as on which court the 40-15 point is played.

Chess at 90 miles an hour––Charlie’s not wired for tennis, so you’ll have to ‘program’ him to: (1) focus and think ahead, (2) respond quicker, and (3) make sensible decisions. Good mental practice results by putting him at the service line, then (randomly) soft-feeding groundstrokes, volleys and half-volleys.
“It’s not easy, Charlie––and that’s the point. Tennis is interesting, it’s fun when there’s resistance, when it’s difficult. He’ll get a kick out of knowing when he does it right. He’ll also feel good about himself when he can make 50 consecutive shots against the world’s best teacher––the wall.

Lesson #5––Drop shot and lob
Tennis is played well when Charlie can string together a few shots, or make even one when faced with some pressure. Play the game of Scramble: Feed balls randomly, short and deep, side to side. He earns a point with each shot made, but with stipulations: ball must be played at waist level, land away from the middle of the court.

Wait too long to introduce the drop shot and lob, and his fixed muscle memory and rigid application of technique will convince him that such shots are too risky.

After technical advice and practice, play games with him (starting with the score at deuce). When he drops-shots you, over run the net, letting him make a successful lob. “Nice point, Charlie!

“Watch and learn”––He’s ready to learn the strokes, but don’t annoy him with every detail; let him figure some things out for himself. (Good teaching is knowing what not to teach.)

Each skill, technique, lesson is more easily learned when the student understands its purpose, he sees it, he can visualize it, and he can feel it. So turn your back to him, then say, “Be my shadow.”

Providing you can play a bit, spend most of your time rallying with Charlie, rather than tossing balls. He’ll pick up a lot of things just by hitting with you.