Laying the Groundwork
by Ed Collins/Spring, 2008

For parents and pros, excerpts from past writings on the subject of teaching the beginner:
Learning what to teach when, game playing, progression methodology, etc.
Our role as teachers is never more important than when introducing the game to a new player. It’s during those first lessons that the student either comes to the belief that he enjoys tennis and that he’s good at it, or it’s not fun and that he doesn’t have a knack for it.
    It’s essential to understand how things tie together: Start with the concept that there are a few fundamental skills that enable one to consistently hit a moving target. Then add the fact that there are a few fundamental techniques that enable one to learn more complex techniques. Then add the notion that much about tennis is unnatural––from the grips to the strokes to the system of scoring. Then take into consideration that human nature is at odds with the whole essence of tennis, since most all of us are impulsive and/or easily bored.
A recipe for uncertainty would include (1) prematurely putting the beginner at the baseline; (2) hitting the ball too hard to him; (3) drawing his attention to every technical miscue, and (4) keeping score. In no time, besides concluding that tennis is difficult to play, he’ll develop awkward strokes, a late point-of-contact, a tight-fisted grip and a permanent fear of missing, or taking chances.
     What comes first (and seemingly forever) are four technical lessons that form a foundation on which everything else is built.
     (1) A loose hand. My beginning students are told to hold the racquet in a ready position with the non-dominant hand, the dominant hand open. (“Imagine you’re holding a bird that can easily escape your grip; when contacting the ball, hold the racquet just loose enough so the bird can breathe but can’t escape.”)
     (2) Heels up. Posture, balance, agility and hand-eye coordination are probable when the heels are off the ground.
     (3) Contact in front. Ball control is dependent on making contact in tennis’ strike zone––at waist height, away and in front of the body.
     (4) Exhale at impact. To relax the body and the hands, especially. To develop a natural sense of timing. To enable one to play a long point.

One step at a time
It’s cumulative––one lesson makes it possible for another to be learned, and so on.
     It was at the beginning of my career, during  a year-long apprenticeship with Dennis Van der Meer (founder and president of the USPTR, who trained under famed Northern Cal pro Tom Stow), when I began to learn what’s referred to as progression methodology. Simply put, it’s learning (and developing confidence in) one lesson at a time. Technique is learned in steps; shots and strategy are learned within the boundaries of the service lines. Dennis calls it mini tennis.

First comes tossing and catching

     A tennis/sports skill development exercise involves tossing-and-catching. Played without the racquet, the ball must be caught one-handed, on the descent; then tossed with the same hand, underhanded. (Later, introduce the fundamental of left hand, right foot; right hand, left foot.)
     It’s often necessary to spend time teaching the student how to make a soft catch (where the relaxed/open hand absorbs the weight of the ball).
 The following lead-up drill/game is played with both teacher and student on the same side of the court, within the boundaries of the service boxes, playing the ball over the center service line (or any line, for that matter). The teacher helps the student feel one of the game’s intrinsic rhythms by having him say “bounce” when the ball bounces, and “hit” when the ball is hit. The only technical rule is that the student must return to a ready position after each hit. (Saying “hit” also helps him learn how to breathe in synch w/the stroke.)
    The progression continues by gently tossing the ball back and forth, stopping it with the racquet face open. Both student and teacher are positioned just inside the service line. Then, instead of tossing, use the racquet to feed the ball. The next step is to maintain a rally by dribbling the ball before tapping it back (as many dribbles as necessary for control).The teacher clarifies the rhythm by saying “bounce aaaand hit” for groundstrokes, “hit” for volleys. The student verbalizes the rhythm (for his own shots).

Soft tosses, soft hits, out in front
Tap tennis teaches the student  to see and feel the ball being contacted in front and away from the body. From the forecourt, the ball is not hit, but gently tapped––tiny backswing and little follow-through.
     Play up-and-back/side-to-side tap tennis: From across the net, toss or hit balls randomly, encouraging student to hit ball at waist level. (What’s necessary is a preliminary demonstration, while the student imitates, of how to pivot, turn the back to the net, and run/sidestep back for the deep ball.)
     Lots of things fall into place when the habit of contacting the ball in front is created. For this reason, lots of mini tennis, tap tennis and soft hitting are played during the first months of training. There’s no way to exaggerate the importance of establishing an out-in-front point-of-contact made with a relaxed hand and body.

More than one grip
How the racquet is held determines the type of stroke and variety of shots one can master.
Lesson: In ready position, the student holds the racquet loosely, with a continental grip. (Waiting w/a  grip insures that the young student will not, over time, change his forehand grip from eastern to western; plus it facilitates grip changing. Left hand cradles throat of the racquet at the neck, fingers spread, arms down, comfortably straight.
     Gripping the racquet properly––in the fingers, so there’s a slight separation between forefinger and middle finger. A few suggestions: (1) Shadow practice the strokes, alternating forehand and backhand, changing grips. (2) W/backhand grip, tap the ball up (with the arm straight). (3) Against the backboard, alternate forehands and backhands, letting the ball bounce twice before striking.

In training the 12-an-under, I keep an eye on the forehand grip. Because so many high balls are hit at shoulder level, the western grip (palm under the handle) makes it easier to produce and defend this shot. And so, by necessity, the grip may change. Problems arise later, when the ball comes faster, lower and deeper (especially on hard courts). Limitations are numerous, from grip-changing on return of serve, to mid-court play, to an inability to flatten out the short ball, to approaching the net.
     Robert Lansdorp, coach of Maria Sharapova and Lindsey Davenport, says that allowing extreme western grips ruins kids’ tennis. He calls it “the disaster of teaching methods in American junior tennis.”

It’s cumulative––one lesson makes it possible for another
to be learned, and so on.

Accountability is taught from day one, when you ask the student to dribble the ball off his racquet 5 times before catching it. Then down 5 times. Then up with the backhand. Then off the bounce, in the alley. Then against the wall. Then with a partner, over a line on the court. Then over the net inside one service box. Then two boxes. Then on half of the court, from the backcourt. Then full court.

The student learns that the ball is always hit to a target––that tennis is a game of strategy. To communicate the idea, I play a game within the boundaries of the service boxes. I play tethered to the T, my student tries to pass and lob me. I encourage him to watch the ball and be aware of the court.
     Although we’re not keeping score yet, every time he hits a ball out of my reach I reward him by saying, “Your point.” Meanwhile, I remind him how to get the ball
 by/ over me when I repeatedly say, “Fast and low, high and slow.”  In the process, he learns the rudiments of passing shots and lobs.

The slower the foundation is laid, the longer the player learns.

Consistency comes first, but…
Looking ahead, a player is at an advantage when he can both generate and reduce pace.
     In the early going I invite the beginner to stand close to the net, then I challenge him to produce soft, loose-fingered volleys that bounce twice before the service line.
     Teaching racquet-head speed is fun for the young student. I call it slugfest: “You hit it as hard as you can, but keep your head still.” In serving, the drill is to try to hit the ball over the back fence.

Throws and half-serves
 It goes without saying that to throw well is to serve well.
     A teaching progression: Standing at right angles to the net, weight on back foot, elbow at shoulder level, pointing to back fence; put ball in right ear; throw; follow through so hand comes across body, ending at left pocket, left hand across chest, weight forward, tap back toe.
     Throw for accuracy (including sponge balls, indoors), and for distance (make a record).
     Serve technique is built by first establishing the point of contact. Practice half serves: Starting w/elbow up, racquet behind head, pointed skyward; toss directly over head; contact with arm straight; tap back toe, to demonstrate balance.

Volley soon to volley well
 In planning the beginner’s curriculum, consider the following: (1) Early focus on groundstrokes may result in late volleying insecurities. (2) Besides countering boredom, the proficient volleyer enjoys more varied shotmaking. (3) The all-courter has a greater appreciation for doubles. (4) By introducing volleys and groundstrokes simultaneously, the teacher makes it easier for the student to learn chip shots, drop shots and half volleys.
     The idea and feeling of volleying w/one hand on the backhand is accomplished early: (1) Student stands close to the net; (2) arms down, straight, relaxed; (3) continental grip, choked up on the handle; (4) con-dominant hand held behind the back; (5) teacher feeds 8 very soft balls, alternating forehand and backhand; (6) Relax, repeat; (7) Teacher feeds 8 random volleys.
   Random feeding usually results in the student guesses where the ball will go, so I say, “Carefully watch the ball come off my racquet, then respond with your hands and feet.” Later on I challenge the student w/a consecutive-hit drill: Points are scored only when followthrough is held for count of one, correct step is taken, and ball bounces two times w/in service box.

When his skills have improved, I challenge the student with a drill I call Up, Up and Over: Standing inside the service line, he receives a fed ball that he first stops to himself w/underspin; then he has the choice of either letting it bounce before hitting it back w/topspin or slice, or not letting it bounce, then hitting it back (without touching it w/his hand), with his choice of spin.

Back on one, hit ‘n hold
Essential backhand lessons: simple, small (and early) backswing, long (and forward) follow-through.
     While student imitates, demonstrate the groundstrokes, emphasizing (by verbalizing) the timing of the pivot on the count of one, pause on two, swing on three, hold finish on four.
       Momentarily holding the follow-through position––on backhand, chips and volleys, especially––assists the student in monitoring his stroke and balance; plus it helps him focus on technique, rather than allowing his mind to race ahead of the action, taking his eyes off the ball to anticipate its placement.

Angles and drop shots
Aversion to risk comes about when the player has hit tens of thousands of balls directly back to the opponent, near the service line, in the middle of the court.
     Changing the ball’s direction, or exploiting an angle, or attempting a drop shot feels too risky, especially when the student has waited forever to attempt it.
     The teacher helps allay the student’s fears in several ways: (1) By training him to play with a margin-for-error, identifying targets away from the sideline; (2) By encouraging him to make the ball bounce over the sideline (after first landing away from it); (3) By developing confidence in his drop shot and drop volley by aiming high over the net and in the middle of the service box; (4) By helping him believe that confidence in shot-making comes from taking calculated risks.

Slow going best

The slower the foundation is laid, the longer the player learns.
     If the intermediate player settles for a limited set of skills, he runs the risk of eventually losing interest due to boredom. For example, if all he can do is topspin his groundstrokes––if he can’t mix it up, play the ball on the rise, chip softly, hit angles, take balls out of the air, use an occasional drop shot, tennis becomes less interesting. These are the kinds of things that develop a player’s game, as wells as make tennis fun.
     Slow going also means time away from the court––for rest, motivation and perspective. At all levels of play, too much tennis is too much.
     Good tennis requires energy––both physical, mental and emotional. Staleness and fatigue lead to mistakes. A player misses shots because he’s conditioned to miss them––it’s simply a habit.
     Slow going also means a delay in playing tournaments until the child has developed a set of technical skills that won’t easily come undone when encountering the inevitable stress of tournament play.
     No doubt about it, early emphasis and more practice lead to initial success. But steady long-term progress is much preferable.

Building confidence
I’m teaching the forehand stroke: I start with the grip, first explaining its purpose, then helping the student find it himself. I demonstrate how to bounce the ball down, then watch him do it. I demonstrate how to self feed a ball with a shortened stroke, making the low-to-high shape of the shot. Then I watch him try it. I tell him that he’s feeding from the deuce court (the scoring term for when each player has won 4 points—an even number). Then I instruct him to hit two forehands, one crosscourt, one down-the-line. I teach him how to use the racquet to stop the ball (with underspin) when I toss it to him, and how to use his foot to pick it up off the ground.
     Before long he’s learned the grip, the technique for self-feeding, the low-to-high concept, the names of the court, the names of the shots, the rudiments of the  scoring system, how to stop the ball with underspin, and how to pick up the ball. He walks away buoyed with confidence from having learned some tennis technique and terminology.

Raise the bar just high enough
 The fact-based movie Stand and Deliver tells the story of an inner city math teacher whose lofty expectations were met by kids who, to that point, were allowed to underachieve. As high as the bar was eventually raised for his best students, it’s certain that, day by day, he never raised it too high.
     For most of us, the performance expectations we hold are well within our reach. We fail at a level that we can deal with. Our credo is “good is good enough”.
     To the beginner who scatters his shots within and outside the court, I tell him to alternate hitting crosscourt and down-the-line, to targets just behind the service line, away from the sidelines. Unsurprisingly, his shots find the court. And for the student who makes an unreasonable number of unforced netted errors, I place a chair at the service line, then instruct them to aim over and beyond it.

It’s mental
The aspiring player eventually learns that the definition of hard work in tennis is 100% concentration.
     At the same time the student is being technically grounded, the teacher helps him develop two essential ingredients: concentration and confidence.
     In a recent attempt to draw the best out of a young student, I challenged him to toss the ball into the ball basket from across the net––with the understanding that if he missed he’d have to do push ups. Just as I expected, he eyed the basket, paused for a moment, then gave it a try, only to narrowly miss. When he finished his push ups, I explained to him that it was his eyes and mind that enabled him to get close. “It’s just like the golfer lining up a put, or the basketball player preparing to shoot a free throw,” I said. When we continued playing I was pleased to see his improved accuracy.
To challenge the student’s serving and concentration skills, he plays a game of Serves Only, where he wins a point when making the serve, loses when missing. The beginner gets two serves, the intermediate one, the advanced player must hit to a target area.

The definition of hard work is 100% concentration.

A good test of skill is playing the ball from below net level. To practice technique and develop feel for the ball, the student practices hitting balls from the service line, below net level, softly, into the service box, crosscourt and down-the-line. Groundstrokes are hit with topspin, volleys with underspin. It becomes clear to the student that consistency can only be achieved by producing the strokes correctly. The student with an exaggerated backswing or an unorthodox grip may have trouble, which hopefully motivates him to make corrective changes.

“Good, now make two in a row.”
Human nature being what it is, we seek the easy way out. Tennis is played poorly when the player can’t string together a few shots, or make even one when faced with pressure of any kind. So it’s an important part of the process that the teacher introduces the ideas of sustaining concentration and executing shots in combinations.
     The teacher’s methodology here is decisive. By making the task too difficult, the student’s confidence is undermined. But by incrementally raising the bar, he thrives. (“OK, now make 3 in a row…now 4…now 5.”)
 Only a few of us are natural games-players. So a games-based approach to teaching helps encourage the student to simultaneously think and have fun.
     It’s not too far along in a student’s introduction to tennis that I teach him how to produce a drop shot. I’ve learned that it’s easier to teach technique if the student understands the relevance. Shortly thereafter, I’ll teach the lob. I do this by positioning the student just behind the service line, then, standing close to the net, I put a basket in no man’s land, instruct the student to hit the ball just over my outstretched arm and racquet, “so the ball rises as it clears my head.”
     Wait too long to introduce the drop shot and lob, and the student will come to the conclusion that these shots are hard. His inflexible muscle memory and rigid application of technique will convince him that such shots are risky. This mindset may never change.

 Without resorting to long-winded lectures, the teacher provides the student with an overview of the game and the basic mechanics and attitude required to play it.
     Tennis skills, the student learns, are physical and mental. They’re physical as in hand-eye coordination, footwork and balance––and mental, as in problem-solving, patience, concentration, emotional control, spatial awareness and the like. It’s true that if the student doesn’t know where he’s going, he’ll never get there.

First-to-ten is a feeding game where the instructor feeds balls randomly from no-man’s land. The student earns one point when he hits a ball that lands behind the service line, 2 points if it lands in the corner, 1 point for underspin shots that land near the service line, 2 points for drop shots that land within the service box. The student loses a point if the ball is netted or missed wide; however, no points are lost if the ball lands over the baseline. This game and its scoring teaches valuable lessons: (1) Depth is a key to aggressive tennis. 2) Soft/short shots make deep shots more effective. (4) A long mistake is consistent with ones’ strategy of hitting deep. (5) Consistency and accuracy are keys to winning. (6) It’s fun to play with pressure.
The idea, I explain, is to make points by combining two or three effective shots. I give Lisa the choice of the following 4 shots: topspin fh/bh down-the-line, drop shots and lobs. Then I proceed to feed balls randomly. After she makes what I consider an effective shot, I call out the shot (ex: “forehand down-the-line”). After practicing the shots for a period of time, we play what I’ll call the Point game. I feed balls and call “point” each time she makes a combination of shots.
     The goal is to encourage Lisa to think, to create, to execute. By calling out the shots and points afterwards, she is challenged to plan and execute.

It’s common when the student possesses the pieces but can’t put them together.
     Point-playing is a matter of going from offense to defense, backcourt to forecourt, topspin to underspin, serve to volley. The teacher helps the narrowly focused student learn to play by practicing shots in both patterned and accidental combinations.

Midcourt decisions is a favorite drill to help the student learn which ball to volley, which to half-volley, and which to back up and hit w/topspin. The decision-making process is practiced when I rally with the student while he waits just behind the service line. He directs his shots into one of four squares (service boxes, backcourt), without hitting three in a row to the same square. (A continental grip in the ready position is essential.)
     This drill follows lessons on combining forehand and forehand volley, and the requisite grip change. And half-volley technique, practiced tethered to the service line. And footwork for retrieving lobs. And chasing down drop shots, slicing, while holding the racquet perfectly still. Etc.

“Imitate Me.”
The lesson is learned more easily when the student understands its purpose, but during the learning process, it’s pictures, not words, that completes the job.
     I often join the student on his side of the net to demonstrate. I stand with my back to him and say, “Be my shadow.”
     It goes without saying that performance is facilitated by knowledge. The student will know a stroke better when he can walk through it w/o the ball, in super slow motion.
     Another test of knowledge is to control the ball w/in the service boxes, taking full strokes, hitting it as slowly as possible. (This beginner’s exercise serves as a daily warm-up––forever.)
     It’s helpful to put several players of varying experience on the same court. Two alternate playing against one. The expectation is that both obvious and subtle lessons are learned by a form of osmosis.

Quantify performance
Measuring  the student’s performance is a motivational key and ultimate source of confidence. It also serves as an honest appraisal of a student’s performance, since most of us are self-deceivers.
  When feeding balls to your student, set up targets and challenge him to knock them over. Or count the number of consecutive shots made, or number made out of ten hit,  to a target area.
     By using a system of handicapping, play points where he has a good chance to win: 1) You can only walk, not run for the ball. (2) He gets one “mulligan” (replay point) per game. (3) He gets the point when he makes four consecutive shots. (4) You lose the point when you step inside the service line (to teach drop shot). (5) He gets a bonus point when hitting winners or forcing errors. (6) 1st serve bonus: By winning a point after making first serve, he earns a bonus point. (7) A drop shot that lands twice before the service line earns two 2 points. (8) Any ball that lands in the corner, closer to the sideline than the center line, closer to the baseline than the service line, earns 2 points.

 Video tape is convincing evidence of the progress that is hard to see day by day. Suggest to the tennis parent that every few months he tape the lesson, and keep it so he can feel good about his progress.
Measuring mobility and endurance, the Spider Run takes place in the backcourt, in the following pattern: Starting at the center mark, sprint to singles sideline, return to mark, to service sideline, to mark, to center service line, to mark, to other service line, to mark, to other sideline, to mark. Run 3 times in succession. Touch line w/foot, not hand. Keep a record of student’s time.

 Scramble is a simple drill that helps students discover the fun in making gets.
     The teacher feeds soft balls that are alternately easy, difficult and nearly impossible to return. Rules change, depending on the level of play and lessons to be taught. Examples: (1) Count number of consecutive makes. (2) A make is any ball that either a) just clears the net, b) clears the net and is not wide, c) lands in the court, or d) is simply touched (a good method to teach effort and improve agility). (3) Optional rules: the ball must be hit on the descent, or the player may not step behind the baseline.

Feedback please
The student should be routinely challenged to explain what he knows. It’s confidence building just to know basic tennis terms such as crosscourt, topspin, deuce and lob. And when the student can keep score, he feels like he’s accomplished something.
     I routinely ask the beginning student to explain the difference between a stroke, a shot and a strategy.
     I often notice more purpose in the beginner’s play when he can identify the basic 5 strategies (make the ball bounce uncomfortably high; make it land deep; hit it hard/away from the opponent; hit the ball short; approach the net).
     So that he can make corrective changes during point-playing, I ask him to explain his mistake. Three questions are answered, in sequence: (1) Was the ball hit solidly? (2) Where did the ball land––net, wide or long? (3) Was the ball hit with the appropriate amount of spin?

What to and not to say
The fault-finding teacher can and does put the student in such a state that he can’t make a move without second guessing himself. Even if the advice is sound, the student interprets it as criticism. Under a barrage of information, he can be made to feel dumb, awkward, unsure of himself. The well-meaning teacher wants to build confidence, but, instead he turns him into a self-doubting person who forever asks himself, “What did I do wrong?”
 I continually remind myself to hold my tongue. Just one lesson, one change, one thought in his head at a time; let other mistakes go. Some mistakes are symptomatic of others; eventually they’ll disappear.
     It’s often that I present the lesson this way: “Here’s what you’re trying to accomplish…For the next few minutes I’m going to hit/feed balls with/to you and watch you figure out how to do it.”

Under a barrage of information,  he can be made to feel dumb

Essential to success in tennis is resourcefulness. On court it’s up to you to seek solutions to motivation, technique, tactics, and emotional problems.
     When a student’s parent sits stoically courtside during a lesson, I’m encouraged; when they openly criticize, I cringe. And sometimes, when they offer non-stop praise, I intervene.“Your responsibility is to help me teach this child to be self reliant. Among other things, this means playing to please himself before others. I don’t want him looking at you, to see your disappointment, or your approval.

Teaching is much about motivation
 Most of us live in the coast mode––our effort level is set just high enough to appease parents and teachers. A child’s eventual success can drive a parent to levels of involvement where it seems to be more about him than his kid. It’s for this reason that I counsel parents not to (regularly) watch their child’s lessons or tournaments. The strategy is to help the take ownership of his tennis.

Beginning tournaments
 The point of all the technical lessons is typically unclear until the child plays in some kind of competitive event. Win or lose, the child usually returns to his next lesson with a new sense of purpose.
     From my experience, what the young player first needs is a social tennis event––one that places an emphasis on participation and fun. A formula that works well is to involve adults in a doubles mixer of some kind.

 Winning is the ultimate goal but to overlook (specific) improvement is foolhardy.
     Progress is measured in these ways: (1) Advancing in tournament play, (2) Scores of individual matches (e.g., winning in 2 sets, giving up fewer games in 2nd set; or losing, earning more games in 2nd set).
     Specific progress can measured by (1) the number of 1st serve/double faults made; (2) number of points won by forcing errors; (3) number of unforced errors; (4) consistency, accuracy and/;or depth of forehand/backhand.

Learning the hard way
 The plan for improvement can vary from student to student, but the two common ingredients for all are a sustained effort coupled with a positive attitude.
     Almost learning is commonplace. When the insecure student encounters a setback, frustration and a feeling of resignation may rear its ugly head. It’s here where the teacher/parent contributes by helping him understand that it’s confidence he seeks, and confidence is earned only by confronting difficult situations, overcoming shortcomings, plugging away at tough lessons. It also may help for the student to realize that it’s often the modestly talented hard-working player that performs well under pressure.
     The ultimate goal, one must come to believe, is to be the best you you can be.

A good bad experience
 It’s not that criticism is bad; far from it, a timely critical comment can be just what’s needed to get the player on the right track. The problem is that it’s easier to find fault than perfection.
     And criticism is often misinterpreted–– it’s taken personally. This is especially true for parents who are so emotionally tied to their children that even good advice is taken badly.
     For a parent with a cynical side, the loss is seen as permanent, the coach sees it as temporary; he puts it this way: “That performance wasn’t good but the experience was. You’ll do better next time.”

 It is about winning
 By scheduling practice sets, challenge matches and selecting tournaments, I assisted players on my college teams in maintaining a positive win-loss record.
     Parents must be careful not to undermine their child’s confidence by regularly putting him in competitive situations where his chances of winning are not good. For example, entering him in open/advanced tournaments when he has yet to succeed at satellite/intermediate events.
     A non tennis-playing parent must appreciate the fragile nature of one’s psyche. The parent must learn how tough it is to perform in a competitive contest against a similarly anxious kid who would prefer that he lose, in public, in front of parents, where the result is posted on a board (and the internet) for all his counterparts to see.