Athletic/Tennis Training for Children, Ages 4-8
by Ed Collins/Jan., 2003

An outline of progressions, drills and games involving areas of skill development. What to do, when, is up to the teacher.

Basic sport skills provide the foundation onto which more specialized skills are added.

Teacherís goals:
     To develop the childís athletic skills so heíll have a chance to enjoy sports;
     To present tennis as an enjoyable pastime­­an outlet for exercise, creativity and competitive fun;
     To promote an attitude whereby the child has the desire (or courage) to learn something new.

Progression Start with something simple and progress to something more difficult. If you discover that a drill or game is
too difficult for your student, change it so he has success. Improvise. Use your imagination. Change the rules. Do whatever to make it work.

The BIG FIVE: The most important areas of skill development for sports proficiency.
    a. Total Body Movement
    b. Balance
    c. Throwing
    d. Catching
    e. Body Awareness

Teach by Game Playing
The idea is to create games which lend themselves to skill development. Use a few well-chosen words. Show, donít tell. Tolerate mistakes,
be patient, positive and encouraging. Keep in mind that some lessons are not learned until the student is ready to learn them.

Total Body Movement
A child first exhibits total body movement when he squirms in his crib. Later: leaping, hopping, skipping, running, sliding, diving, etc.
    1. Walk (Learning to walk is the prerequisite to learning to run, hop, leap, jump, slide and skip.)
        a. The "Can you?" game: Can you walk slowly? Fast? Stop when I say freeze? Walk a straight line? Walk backwards? Walk confused? Happy? Sad?
    2. Run
        a. Churn, pump those elbows­­theyíll make you go faster.
        b. Can you run loudly? Softly? Without moving your head? Note that the student will take light, quick steps. Land on heel, push off on toe,
            smoothly, gracefully, quietly.
        c. Can you run fast and stop suddenly when I say freeze? Stopping suddenly is an import sports skill.
        d. Can you catch me?
     3. Hop
        a. On two feet. On one foot. In a circle. Big hops. Little hops. Sideways. Hop and use your arms. (Demonstrate how one uses arms in standing broad jump.)
        b. Balance on right foot, hop and land on left foot, slowly at first, and then speed up.
    4. Leap (Running, then jumping from one foot, landing on the other.)
        a. Leap high, land lightly. Jump the river (use ropes, cans).
    5. Jump (Spring into air, feet together.)
        a. Can you bend your knees before you jump? Use your arms? Touch the ceiling? (Hold something overhead.)
        b. Standing broad jump.
    6. Slide step
        a. Face child, his hands in yours. He imitates as you bring
             feet together, step, feet togetherÖ
    7. Skip (Do slowly, student imitating.)
    8. Skip and jump. Hands held at waist level, knees touch hands.
    9. Backpedaling. Walking backwards. Jogging backwards. (Safety precaution: head forward.) Leap backward. Skip backward.

Hand-eye and foot-eye coordination are improved when the player is balanced­­when his weight is stabilized and his head is motionless.
Itís the prerequisite of anticipation and agility.
    a. Walk toe-in, toe-out. Walk heel-to-toe with tiny steps. Side step. Crossover step (kareoke).
    b. Squat down, then stand up (using arms for balance).
    c. With hands held in front at shoulder level, balance on toes, squat down and rise slowly (to a count of 10).
    d. Play statues: move randomly, then say "freeze".

Run the lines
On the tennis court, starting at net at doubles side line, backpedal to baseline, slide to singles sideline, jog to net, backpedal to service line,
slide to center service line, jog to net, backpedal to service line, slide to opposite singles sidelineÖWhen reaching each corner,
squat down, touch ground with both hands between legs, jump up, hands extended above head, landing softly, knees bent, on balance.

    a. Pushball. Sit on floor facing child, with your feet touching. Roll a large ball back and forth. Increase distance with development.
    b. Stand and roll, two-hands, underhanded.
    c. Two, then one, underhand throw. Can you toss it so I can catch it in the air? On the bounce?
    d. Learn to lag.
    e. Learn to bowl. Can you get close to the ground so the ball wonít bounce when it leaves your hand?
    f. Overhand throw:
    Stand sideways;
    Hands together in front, left hand under right;
     Drop hands down together;
     Split hands, chin on shoulder (shoulders turned);
     Put the ball in your ear, elbow up and back;
     Take a step (left foot);
     Throw it;
     Follow through and touch your hip.

    g. Play catch. Toss to a target. Toss for distance. Start at    service line.

A child who catches well has confidence. He considers every catch a feat­­a reason to celebrate. Hitting and catching are similar.
Both require hand-eye coordination. Notes: catching is the most difficult of the BIG FIVE. It may be more productive to de-emphasize
precise hand-eye skills. It is also important to recognize the relationship between feet- and hand-eye coordination. A rhythm of
movement contributes greatly to catching success.
    a. Sit on floor, roll ball back and forth.
    b. From a distance of five feet, walk the ball through the air and into his chest, arms and hands.
    c. Pitch the ball underhanded with little arc.
    d. With two hands: bounce the ball down, catching it with arms.
    e. Soft catches. Toss ball to the side of the child, instructing him to catch it with one or two hands. Let the ball fall into your hand, like catching eggs.
        Watch the ball into your hand, then look at it     for a second.
    f. Football pass. While he runs, throw the ball away from him, so that he has to speed up to catch it.
    g. Hot potato. Progressive catches (jog slowly in place, stepping back with each successful catch). Circus catch (toss so itís difficult).
        How many times in a row can you toss it to yourself and catch it? Teams: How many in a row? In the air. Off the bounce.
    h. Advanced catching: palms up, palms down.
    i. Juggling. Starting with 2 balls in left hand, 1 in right, say (and toss) left, right, catch, catch. Then left, right, left, catch, catch.
    j. Toss and throw (serve practice). Sequence: (1) Start w/a tennis ball in each hand; (2) W/left hand, toss ball up, catch w/arm extended;
        (3) W/right hand, toss ball for distance.

Body Awareness
The flow of movement: Small adjustment steps. A long stride to the ball. The relaxed knee. A coordinated turning of hips and trunk. A firm wristÖ
The player is aware of the position and movement of each body part. Itís called body awareness.
    a. The obstacle course. (Stepping over, crawling under, tunneling through.)
    b. Imitate an animal.

Run ën Catch
Underhand toss, bounce and catch, side-to-side: (1) Standing 10-12 feet apart; (1) In complete motion, catch and toss underhanded;
(3) Run to ball, slide back to center; (4) Random tosses.

Laying the Groundwork for Great Tennis

    1. The shake-hands, forefinger-spread forehand grip.
    2. Get to know racquet and ball.
        a. Golf tennis. Tap it to a target. (Later, roll the ball to him first.)
        b. Tap and catch. With your racquet, tap the ball up in front of student, let it bounce, then he catches it (one or two hands). Ask him to tap it up.
        c. Dribble up. With forehand grip, palm up, dribble the ball off the strings.
        d. Dribble down.  From waist height, as many times as possible. From standing, kneeling positions. Alternate tapping 5 down, 5 up (w/same side of racquet).
        e. Bounce-tap rally. Play within the alley. Alternate tapping ball up. If appropriate, keep score. Return to resting position.
        f. Pick up ball off of the ground w/foot and/or tap up. The rule: Never pick up ball or catch it with your hand.
        g. Stop the ball with underspin. Tap it up, let it bounce, catch it on the racquet, balance it for a moment, before touching it w/hand.
    3. Starting a rally
        a. Toss ball so that it lands in front of left foot, away from body. Catch on first bounce.
        b. Standing 8-10 feet from the net, tap the ball softly. Demonstrate short backswing and follow-through. Tap it softly so I can catch it.
    4. Resting (ready) position
        a. To facilitate grip changing and to relax, improve sense of timing: After the hit put the racquet back in your left hand. During stroke keep
            left hand down, at your side. Say ëleft hand and relax,í or ëopen your fingers.í In resting position, hold the racquet as you would a bird.
            Or donít send a ball until heís in the resting position. (Eventually, encourage student to use a continental grip in resting position.)
    5. Rallying and keeping score
        a. Objectives: to learn how to control the ball in a small area; learn concepts of in and out; how to keep score.
        b. Play two-square tennis (rally across a line). Or within the service boxes.
        c. Rule option: player may dribble ball to himself before hitting it.
        d. After point ends, slide hand up handle, taking racquet in left hand.
        e. When ball lands close to line, but out, hit it back, then call it out.
        f. With racquet, stop out ball from hitting fence.
    6. Movement, balance, ball control
        a. Volleyball tennis. Before sending ball over the net, player must dribble the ball up several times.
        b. Can you get it? Increase the difficulty factor. Feeding soft random balls­­wide, short, high and deep, at his feet.
        c. Feet- and hand-eye coordination are closely linked. Encourage a rhythm of movement by insisting that student is on their toes,
heels up, moving, before ball is tossed or hit to them.

45 degrees: Many things fall into place when the student addresses the ball at 45 degrees. His front foot is turned at a slight angle
and the point of contact is in front and away from the body.

    7. Introduce backhand
        a. After learning the grip (palm on top, thumb down), start with ball balanced on the racquet held with backhand grip,
            tap the ball up, let it bounce on the ground between every hit. How many can you make?
        b. Toss-tap-catch (with instructor, or partners).
        c. Run to the tossed ball, slide back to home base.

Form follows function: Donít get too technical. A textbook forehand has a long follow-through, but if you insist on it too early, the child will
miss more than he makes. Better to teach contact in front by encouraging a short stroke. Style will follow. Your goal is to have fun as you proceed
from lesson to lesson. Try to teach him something new but donít let it interfere with the reason youíre playing.
    8. Relax
        a. To help him develop his relaxation and timing skills, have him take his hand off the racquet immediately after the point of contact
            and support the racquet in his left hand. "Hold the racquet loosely when you contact the ball, like you're holding a parakeet; in ready position,
            let the bird go."
    9. Point of contact
        a. Demonstrate the waist-high point-of-contact position. While he imitates, demonstrate the backwards sidestepping necessary
        for deep balls. Say deep ball, get back!
        b. Touch and freeze. Feed the ball softly to student, instructing him to freeze upon reaching the point-of-contact,
            holding his position so that you can evaluate.
    10. 3-dimensional tennis.
        a. At the same time, see (sense) the ball, the court, the opponent.
        b. Instructor stands at the T, feeds soft balls to student, who hits passing shots, lobs, at his feet. Instructor may only take one step to the ball.
    11. Low-to-high, for net clearance and depth
        a. Students feed and catch balls back and forth, watching shots rise as they cross the net. The shape is elliptical.
        b. Playing inside the service boxes, they practice hitting low-to-high shots. (Netted balls are immediately picked up.)
    12. The volley: Underspin makes the ball bounce low
        a. Explain/demonstrate volley technique, underspin and bounce.
        b. Toss and tap w/partner: ball goes up, then down, bouncing in front of partner. (Feet moving continuously, hands in front, racquet head up.)
        c. Feed sequence: backhand, forehand approach (change grip), forehand volley, backhand volley.
    13. The timing of backswing, contact and follow-through
        a. While student imitates, stand in front and walk through complete strokes. Take the racquet back on the count of one, pause on two,
            stroke the ball on three, push off and recover on four.
        b. On both forehand and backhand, use left hand to draw racquet back (turning the shoulders).
        c. Long, forward follow-through, racquet pointed skyward (like a tree).
        d. Note: Regularly shadowing the strokes is essential to learning technique.

Relay races and games
        a. One ball per team, ball balanced on racquet, dribbling up or down. (Running, skipping, sliding.)
        b. 30-second race, sideline to sideline. Count out loud.
        c. Shortcourt toss-and-catch singles, doubles, 3 vs 3. One bounce only. Toss from spot where caught. Alternate serving regular scoring games. Make up rules.

At bat, on deck, in the hole
An alternative to standing in a line, not paying attention: From no-manís land, on deck student shadows at bat student at service line.
After series of balls, student slides to the sideline, backpedals to baseline, slides across baseline, jogs to in-the-hole position, waiting with
racquet held in resting position. (Options: (1) add one waiting position at baseline; (2) ball-shagger stops/controls ball w/racquet.

    14. Lob and pass, crosscourt and down-the-line
            a. The student learns how to create shapes with the ball. Demonstrate a low-to-high passing shot, compared to a low-to-high offensive lob.
                Call it 'fast-and-low, high-and-slow'.
     15. On the descent, on the rise, half-volley, volley
            a. The student learns that optimal contact with the ball is made at various points within its bounce. Play a game where student must stand
                and play w/in service box (step behind service line, lose point).

Teaching anticipation and balance: Run up to chip, back to topspin With two students at service line (one in ad, one in deuce courts), instructor feeds
short balls to chip, high deep balls to topspin (play on descent). Progression:
    a. Practice technique and footwork for each shot.
    b. Alternate shots to each student.Alternate shots to both students.
    c. Feed balls randomly to both students. Now the students must pay attention in order to respond to the fed ball. The drill teaches them to maintain
        their balance and take a quick first step to the ball.
    d. With more than 2 students, rotate positions.

Rules define the game
After explaining the basic rules of the game (over the net, one bounce, inside the lines, which are good), instructor creates a dialogue
(questions and answers), to guide student to discovering technical and tactical lessons/solutions. (And underspin makes the ball bounce
low or high? And the serve is hit from behind the baseline or service line? And when you hit your forehand to my backhand the shot is called
crosscourt or down-the-line? And the ball that is hit over my head at the net is called what? And the first point is played on the deuce or the
ad court? And you switch sides at 2-all or 3-2?) The instructor encourages student to think and ask.
    16. Serve is hit up, not down
        a. Stance: sideways to net (heels together, step back)
        b. Point racquet at target, draw it down and back, to poised-for-power position.
        c. Tap ball up from poised-for-power position. Elbow at shoulder level. Racquet face behind head. Make contact above head, as high
            as you can reach. Follow-through across body, racquet touching left leg.
        d. Toss: Start w/hand sideways, touching thigh; straight up (like an elevator); ball falls back into waiting hand.
        e. Hold racquet in fingers, not palm of hand. Choke up, little finger dangling. Follow through, tapping right knee (meanwhile,
            keeping head/eyes up, focused on point-of-contact).
        f. Complete tossing motion/backswing: Racquet resting on fingers, hand open; Down and up, catch and hold.

    a. Start tennis class with movement, socializing allowed. The no-talking rule begins with instruction/explanation.
    b. Students need to see a demonstration, imitate the demonstrator.
    c. Eliminate net to lessen tension.
    d. To teach rhythm and timing, repeat "Bounce aaaaannnd hit." (Move feet to play ball on descent, at waist level.) "Back on one, pause on two,
        hit on three."  (Prepare early, develop sense of timing.)
    e. Say when before what. "When I say ëgoí you may begin to play. The objective of the game is toÖYou do that byÖGo."
    f. Friendly or no competition between students under-8. Most donít get it yet. But, individually, you may encourage the concept of
        points and winning. The goal is to structure the games where the student always wins. "Make four in a row and win a point." (Donít compare scores.)
        Option: A feeding game where the student when he scores 10 points. Shots inside service line = 1 point. Beyond service line = 2 points.
        Netted/wide shots = minus point. Feed ball randomly side-to-side.
    g. Give positive specific feedback. "Higher net clearance­­make the ball rise over the net." "A  longer stroke­­hold your finish with hand in front."
    h. Award bonus points for style/good intentions. "That was a very good stroke­­you get a bonus point."
    i. A mix of repetition and games: The games-based approach  not only facilitates learning but is more fun.
    j. Students welcome structure and discipline, regardless of how they act. Itís more fun when you know how.
    k. End the lesson with homework assignment.