You Can Teach Your Child Tennis
     by Ed Collins/September, 2006

Love for your child to play tennis? Then follow some simple directions and you can help. In the process you’ll have a good playing experience with him.

Teaching little kids to enjoy (learning) tennis is easy. First, all children enjoy running around; second, they enjoy hitting balls; and third, they like to play games (that they can win).

Things go awry when the parent spoils the fun by making it too tedious, serious, repetitive, technical, analytical, static, judgmental (this includes praising), verbal and boring.

Lead-up skills
What comes first is what I call soft catches and overhead tosses. (The basic skills in tennis are hand-eye coordination, agility, relaxation and serving.)
   1. Self toss and catch, where the ball and hand fall together. One hand first, then two (a ball in each hand).
   2. If necessary, two-handed body catches (bring ball to chest). From a distance of 8-10 feet, toss ball underhanded.
   3. One-handed catch. First, off the bounce, then out of the air.
   4. Side to side one-handed catches (left hand, right hand; a couple of steps). Later: random tosses.
First, off the bounce, then out of the air.

    Because serve and overhand toss are similar, a progression for teacing the overhand toss:
    Stand sideways, weight on back foot. Put ball in right ear (for right-handers). Lift elbow to shoulder level, point to back fence. Throw. Follow through so hand comes down, across body, ending at pocket level, weight forward, back heel up, tap toe.
    Throw for accuracy (sponge balls, indoors). Throw for distance. (Make a record.)

Tap Tennis
Anyone can “play” tennis on the first time out. Just follow this procedure.
   1. Establish some control of the ball. Carry it on the racquet, held in one hand. Bounce it down and catch it. Bounce up and catch (Toss it up, hit it up, let it bounce, soft catch at waist level.). Pick it up off of the ground w/racquet (and foot, if necessary).
   2. Self rally, tapping the ball up. On the court, standing outside the doubles alley: “See how many consecutive times you can tap the ball up, so it lands inside the alley.”
   3. Standing on opposite sides of the alley, alternate tapping the ball with child.
   4. Play Over the Line. By eliminating the net, the success quotient rises. Pick a line and play a game. The ball has to be hit over it. Use the center service line, where the ball must land in the service boxes. There are only two rules: (1) Left hand cradles the throat of the racquet in ready position, (2) Heels up, feet moving continually.
   5. Short court. Play a game on court , with service boxes as boundaries. (Wrinkle: Player may dribble the ball to himself a maximum of three times before hitting it across the net.) Rules: See #4.

Tennis technique evolves from this foundation of skills.
   1. Contact with the ball away and in front of the body.
   2. Contact of the ball in the strike zone—knee to chest.
   3. “Light” footwork (heels up, weight on the balls of the feet).
   4. A loose grip.

Play Scramble
The skills are seeing the ball, responding to its bounce, making contact at the optimal point with a loose and supple hand. And yet many students attempt to “learn” tennis waiting in lines, taking turns trying to make a full stroke at a ball that is tossed right to them.
    Play the game of Scramble, where the ball is tossed randomly, softly, up and back and side to side. The ball is tapped into service box, softly. (Put a target w/in the box, offer a prize to hit it, then watch the accuracy improve.)

Say “Bounce aaaannnnd hit”
The most basic lesson is getting in position to strike the ball.
    On high/deep balls, turn sideways and back up, making contact at waist level. It’s a matter of playing the ball on the descent. To teach the idea of waiting for the ball to come to you, for relaxing the body and hands prior to contact, to play the ball on the descent, to develop a sense of rhythm and timing, you say “bounce aaaannnd hit”—that’s “bounce” when the ball bounces, “hit” when he hits it. Then you have him say it.

Set the rules
Before you put the ball in play, insist on the following:
   1. Feet in motion (like jogging in place).
   2. Left hand cradles the throat of the racquet, hands down, dominent hand w/loose grip.
When playing games: “You can’t win a point if you go flat-footed or you fail to return to a ready position.”

* * *

The following examples of teaching methodology will guide you through the fun process of teaching (playing) with your child.

Like a tree
8-year-old Louise possesses what I would call champion-like internal skills, but her physical skills are modest, which might be stretching it. It’s her balance and hand-eye coordination that is slow to develop. She reminds me of another 8-year-old I taught a dozen years ago who became a nationally-ranked junior and now plays college tennis. So who knows?
    To help Louise develop a sense of balance and good posture, as well as better stroke mechanics, I play the tree game. I ask her to identify two kinds of trees, one for the forehand, one for the backhand. When she finishes the stroke, she’s to pause on the follow-through with the racquet pointed skyward, like a tree. Each time she makes the ball in the court, with a “healthy” tree, she scores a point. (I routinely ask my beginning/ intermediate students to hold their finish position on strokes. It provides them an opportunity to evaluate their stroke, plus it helps maintain good tennis posture.)

Kids love to play goalie
With the teacher bouncing or rolling the ball, the little ones defend against the ball passing the service line. Their task is to stop it w/their racquet.
    The more experienced kids chase down tossed balls (from the same side) until they err in the net or wide. Or until the ball ball gets by them. Works best w/3 players.

Fast and low; high and slow
Within the boundaries of the service boxes, I play tethered to the T, 7-year-old Abby tries to pass and lob me. I encourage her to watch the ball and be aware of the court.
    We’re not keeping score yet, but every time she hits a ball out of my reach I reward her with a “That’s a point for Abby!” Meanwhile, I remind her how to get the ball by/over me when I repeatedly say, “Fast and low, high and slow.” When she makes an exceptionally good shot, I summon her to the net and give her a high-five.

What’s your record?
5-year-old Riley can hit 3 consecutive balls against the rebound net. That’s his record to date. Only once has he successfully alternated forehand with backhand. Plus he knows that he can throw a ball from one service line to a spot just inside the other service line.
    If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there. Quantifying performance is a key to motivation.

Loose and looser
Trying to get Abby to relax and not try so hard. I told her that when she hits the ball she’s to imagine that she’s holding a bird loosely in her hand. And in a ready position, she’s to hold the racquet in the left hand, letting the bird go. To make sure that her imagination had kicked in, I asked what kind of bird she was holding.
    “A blue jay,” Abby said.

Let’s play a game
“OK,  Axel, it’s time for the Hold-for-One volley test.”
    The 10-year-old’s eyes lit up.
    The “test,”  I call it, is to see how many technically correct and effective volleys he can make out of 10. For his shot to count he must execute the following: (1) hold his follow-through position for a count of ‘one thousand and one’; (2) finish the backhand volley with a straight arm; (3) keep the racquet head even with or above his wrist; and (4) the ball must bounce twice before the service line.”
    When Axel made six he acted disappointed.
    “That’s pretty good, especially for your age,” I said. “And nobody has ever made ten.”

Under one condition
“OK, let’s play,” I said to Hammy. “But under one condition.”
    It’s a matter of heightening the student’s concentration. Hammy is a talented 10-year-old who has yet to master the basic technique of making an initial, and then a complete shoulder turn on the backhand. He tires of repetitive feeding drills, and he enjoys playing points with me, so when I say “Let’s play,” he’s ready. Today I told him that, unless he prepared correctly on the backhand, I wouldn’t play.

Smashing game
Zach perceived the overhead as difficult, so he rarely ventured past the service line. Whenever he did, and was confronted with a hittable lob, he’d back up and play a high forehand. So lately I’ve been trying to figure out ways to help him overcome his fears.
    Not surprisingly, Zach’s smashing technique and footwork were faulty. His preparation was slow; he set his feet too soon; he struck the ball with his foot flat; and he hit the ball at less than full extension, pulling his head down in the process. Off the ground he’s a technical wizard, but over head his fundamentals were shaky.
    First we did some shadow practicing. I stood in front of him, on the opposite side of the net, giving him an example to follow. I explained the sequence: hands back, quick shoulder turn; pause with the racquet directly over head; feet in motion throughout the stroke; tall from the waist, head up during contact; and weight balanced on the balls of the feet. Over and over, I talked him through it. Then we played a feeding game.
    Rules: (1) Smashes must be hit softly; (2) Ball must land in the ad court service box; (3) Preparation must be early enough to pause w/racquet over head; (4) Weight must be on toes during contact; (5) Eyes must momentarily stay at point of contact.
Scoring: Zach makes a point whenever he hits the ball in the box w/o breaking a rule (I’m the umpire). I win a point if he misses or breaks a rule. Three-out-five games to five. Loser does 10 push ups.

Fun feeding drills
At its worst, clinic feeding drills are an exercise in mistake-making. A few or a slew of students take turns missing half of the balls sent to them, contributing to uncertainty and self doubt.
    At its best, a feeding drill makes the students accountable for each ball  hit. A fun (and effective) camp drill I call Scramble Keepaway is played with these rules:
    (1) Instructor feeds from inside service line. (2) Balls are fed randomly, up and back, side to side. (3) Student attempts crosscourt and down-the-line passing shots and lobs. (4) Student stays in until he hits a ball that can be reached by the instructor (who cannot move). (5) With instructor counting consecutive hits, students compete.  

Can you get it?
During Chad’s lesson we played a mini-tennis/volley game that I called the Can you get it? game. No scoring in this one, just the challenge of making difficult shots. His shots must land in/near the deuce court service box, mine can be hit anywhere. I dip the ball at his feet, throw up lobs, float high balls, etc., applauding him every time he makes an especially good “get.”

Take your medicine
One way to get the point across to Chad is to try to hit him every time he offers me one of his soft volleys to my forehand.
    In our pass-and-volley game, the first four shots are “cooperative”. Standing just inside the baseline, my first two shots are a pass and a lob, hit right to him; thereafter, anything goes. Whenever he hits a volley well beyond the service line I return the ball so he can put it away.
    Today’s reminders:
    (1) Deep volleys aimed just beyond the serve line. (He needs a margin-for-error.)
   (2) Place, don’t smash, the overhead, (His attempts at slamming the ball usually result in mistakes.)
   (3) Angled volleys directed into middle of service boxes.

Get ready to run
A true test of technique is speed––when the ball comes hard, a well produced stroke holds up. And to hit the hard ball on the run is an even better test.
    Today I tested Axel's groundstrokes. From the same side of the net, standing at the service line, I tossed balls rapidly side to side. (Just as he made contact with the ball, I tossed the next one).
Meanwhile, I counted his successful shots. When he missed in the net or wide I stopped tossing. I explained to Hammy that he was being encouraged to play with a margin-for-error. “Since depth is a goal, long mistakes are tolerated.” I said.

A feeding drill/game for beginners
Points are won when student makes three consecutive shots. Balls are fed softly. The instructor earns points when the student misses. Regular scoring.
You’ve got some talent for this
“OK, Abby, get on your running shoes, because I’m sending you on a trip.”
    I feed balls side to side, up and back. When I loft up a deep one, I accompany it with advice: “Turn your back and run!” When she’s sufficiently pooped, I call her to the net and review her performance. I try to give her one piece of advice during each rest break. “You’re a very good runner,” I say to Abby, even though at this point she’s just OK.
“Let’s see how many out of five you can make. You stand at the T, I’ll feed you a deep, high-bouncing ball, then you turn your back, run back and play the ball at waist level. If you make contact above waist level you don’t get credit. You’ve got to hit it at the level of your belt buckle, not at head level. Tummy level. Not your shoulder, not your ear, not your chin, not your nose. Your belly button. Got it?”
    Abby giggled and walked back to find her position at the service line. Just before I fed the first ball, I asked her where she was going to try to make contact with the ball.
    “At my waist!” she practically screamed.
    For what seemed like two dozen times in a row, each time I fed a ball, I yelled, “Turn your back! Run!”

Make it go someplace, somehow
“When you hit the ball over my head you call that shot a…?”
“Lob,” said Abby, proudly.
    “And when you lob, does it go fast and low or high and slow?”
    “High and slow,” said Abby.
“And when you hit it a forehand low and past my backhand, you call that shot a…?
    No answer.
    “OK, if you hit the ball and it goes down the side line, past me, we’ll call it a down-the-line passing shot. And if you hit it across the court, and past me, we’ll call it a crosscourt passing shot.
    “So a high and slow shot is called what again?”
    “A lob.”
    “And a fast and low shot is called?”
    “A passing shot.”

Training 9-year old Ryan to be an opportunist: I feed groundstrokes, soft and short, side-to-side. He aims at targets placed in the corners of the service boxes. When, and only when, he hits a deep, well- struck ball, then he moves up on the following ball and hits it on a line.
    “Hit the crosscourt groundstrokes softly,” I say, “like you’re hitting an egg. Hit the putaways a little harder, but try not to break the egg.”

Make three volleys
A feeding game: Three consecutive volleys, that land near the service line, and bounce low, earn the student a point. Make a mistake, or pop the volley up, results in a loss of a point. Games to five, play a set.
Softly, from inside the service line
Shortcourt: the training ground for tennis players. With the teacher feeding and playing points, here they learn how to soften their hands, develop feel and control, spins and angles, They learn how to move w/balance, take small steps, play the ball at waist level. They learn how to lob and drop shot, chip and drive the ball.

Make 5 points
It goes from technique to tactics. The student focuses less on strokes, more on playing points. He learns how to concentrate, how to string together shots. He learns that w/most points there’s a beginning, middle and an end. So we play this game:
A game is won when player makes five points.
A point is made when he combines at least three shots to win.
Miss first ball (serve or return), lose a point.
Miss putaway, lose a point.
No point is scored w/unforced error in middle of point.
With lower level, teacher walks; with intermediates he jogs, etc.

Like basketball
Make the drop shot fall into the ball basket. Make it rise above the basket, then ball, like a parachute.

Make 10 shots
Choose from drop shot, chip or drive (topspin). Make three consecutive shots, earn a point. Miss two in a row, lose a point. May not hit same shot three times in a row.

Pick a shot
You make a lot of decisions: you select the shot, the type and amount of spin, shape, the pace, the placement, your position w/in the bounce.
Side-to-side random feeding, student selecting from two shots: drives, chips.
    Then make it three, adding the drop shot.
    Make it four, adding angles (topspin or underspin).
    Five: lob.

Fast back, slow forward
The backhand only works when the racquet and shoulders are prepared early. As soon as you know, draw the racquet back, with the left hand, still at the throat (to help you relax your right hand). Like you’re opening a door for a welcomed guest. You do it fast. Then, when he enters, you shut the door, softly.

What’s important at the beginning
   1. Gaining a sense of control.
   2. Having fun using the racquet to play with the ball (by bouncing it up and down, tapping it against a wall…)
   3. Holding the racquet loosely (by using the non-dominant hand).
   4. Making contact in front and away from the body (by playing mini tennis; by tapping, not hitting, the ball).
   5. Having fun chasing the ball and hitting it back to or away from an “opponent”.

Three shapes
Slice comes in three flavors: drop shots, lobs and chips. The chip has the look of a laser beam––it goes low over the net and, properly hit, bounces low. The drop shot floats above the net, hangs for a second, then drops like a parachute. The idea is to make the second bounce land close to the first bounce. When striking the ball, you pretend it’s an egg. The lob can have a couple of shapes––it can go straight up, like a helicopter taking off, or it can go low-to-high, like a fly ball over the shortstop’s head.
    So we practiced the three shots for awhile, then played a game.
    You’re trying to get to 10 before I run out of balls. You get a point for every successful shot. The lob has to clear my outstretched racquet; the drop shot only has to bounce in front of the service line (but it must rise above head level); and the chip must stay below head level, and pass the service line.

What’s fun is having learned
I’m sitting on the clubhouse deck having lunch with the guys when five-year-old Riley appears at the doorway. He’s carrying his racquet and an oversize sponge tennis ball. Without saying hi, he first makes sure I’m looking, then he puts the ball on the floor, draws it against his foot with his racquet, lifts his foot up, bounces the ball down, then catches it with his free hand.
    “I can do it now,” he said with a slight grin, before turning to head out to the court.
To do what you couldn’t do before––that’s what motivates us. The teacher provides direction by presenting the skill, then encouraging the student to keep trying until he can do it.

Just not in my space
“There are a number of things about tennis that make it unique. You call your own lines, the points are not of equal value, there are no time-outs, and any shot can be easy or hard, depending on the situation.
“You need to develop both physical and mental skills. So far we’ve spent all of our time developing the physical side of tennis. As time passes, we’ll spend an equal amount of time working on the mental part. In fact, today we’re going to play a game where my goal is to rattle your cage a little. I’m going to challenge you to challenge yourself.”
    The rules: From the ‘T’, I feed balls randomly. The ball must be hit beyond my reach––either crosscourt or down-the-line, or lobbed so I can’t touch it. And I don’t move. Make a shot, get a point, miss a shot, lose one. Objective: get to 10.
    “Up for it?” I asked Hammy.
    “Sure,” he said.
    “You’re sure?”
    I fed the first four balls softly and well within his reach. He made all four. On the fifth ball, he tried a lob that landed short.
    “Three,” I said.
    On the next ball he tried a crosscourt forehand that landed wide.
    “Two,” I said, immediately feeding the next ball.
    Hammy tried a drop shot, but it caught the tape.
    “One,” I said.
    He made a couple, then missed a couple. When he received his first negative score he gave me a surprised look. When he got to minus four, I was looking for signs that he would crack. But he hung in there. Meanwhile, I was feeding balls side to side, up and back, and he was starting to tire. When he finally made number ten, I called him to the net.
    “What do you think?”
    “I got tired…and nervous.”
    “Let’s do it again after a break,” I suggested.
    It’s such a simple drill, and it encompasses so much about the game. You help the student see the court better and develop his racquet skills. By standing in the middle, they get an appreciation for its width and length. Secondly, they are accountable for each and every ball. Thirdly, since the balls are coming one after another, the drill tests the student’s concentration and temperament. To be successful, he can’t fret over the missed shot, he has to focus on the next ball. Fourthly, the randomness of the feeding helps the student develop a sense of balance and movement skills.

At least she understands
Taryn’s mind races ahead of the action. When it comes to serving, her eyes leave the ball a split second before contact.
    “First you have to hit the ball,” I lecture her, while demonstrating, “then you look to see where it went.” I asked her to try again.
    But she couldn’t do it. Even with constant reminders, as her racquet went up, she pulled her head down.
    “When you’re absolutely sure the racquet  has passed the ball, then look. By then the ball will just be passing the net.”
    I watched Taryn has she unsuccessfully tried to keep her eyes and head up.
    Then I put my racquet down, stepped close to her, took her head in my hands and tilted it skywards. “Look up, there, where the ball is,” I said. “See it. Stare at it. Glare at it. After it’s gone, look at the spot where it was, right there where those clouds are…No, pretend that the Goodyear blimp is there, and there’s a message in flashing lights, just for you. It says…”
    “Look down now,” said Taryn.
Good mistakes
Ten-year-old Dylan takes a high ball from behind the baseline, hitting it straight down into the net. On the very next point he loops a topspin forehand that lands a foot beyond the baseline.
    I ask him where he was trying to hit the ball when it went into the net? “Uhhh” is all he manages to get out.
    “And the long mistake, where were you trying to hit that one?”
    He shrugs his shoulders.
    “If you aim at nothing, that’s what you’ll hit.
    “Both mistakes result in the loss of one point. But the second one, the long one, makes sense. You were trying to hit the ball deep and your mistake was consistent with your strategy. It’s almost as if you get credit for good intentions.” 

You win, you lose
“It’s a simple game––” I explained to ten-year-old Axel, “we win and lose points by hitting winners and making mistakes. But in this game there’s such a thing as a smart and a dumb mistake. Smart mistakes result in the point being replayed, dumb mistakes count. And I’m the umpire. I’ll give you a couple of examples:
    “If you string together a few shots and miss the short ball, I’ll call that a smart mistake, in that you worked the point to get your shot. But if you hit a ball wide from way behind the baseline, I’ll call that a dumb mistake. If you lob long once or twice, I may call them smart mistakes, but if you do it three times in a row I may call the third one dumb.”

Not a shot, the shot
So far Stefan doesn’t get it. He needs some games-playing skills, so I explain.
    “Make the shot, not one shot out of nowhere, but the shot at the end of a sequence. You’ve made a shot and for this you get credit. It’s worth one point. But, if you string together a few shots, make me run side to side, then you get a short ball, and you make the shot, you receive more than just the point. You get confidence. Because to make the shot is hard. Get to the point where at least you’re missing the shot.”
   Later in the lesson we played a volley game that helped Stefan focus his attention. The goal, I explained to him, was to make points by combining shots. He stood in the middle of the deuce service box, I stood just behind the service line on the deuce court. In this game I put the ball into play, which must first be returned right to me. From then on the ball can be played anywhere, but it must be hit softly. To earn a point the student must make (at least) a two-shot combination, finishing the point with either a winner or force me into missing.
    The student loses a point by missing the first ball, or when he makes an unforced wide mistake on what I called the finishing shot.
    A point is not scored whenever I make a winner or when he makes any other error.
Earn some money
Despite Louise’s improved technique, her shotmaking is unpredictable. The ball can and does go anywhere. So today, in an effort to assist her in gaining some ball control, I placed eight tripods of balls all along and just behind the service line.
    “Knock over a target (on one bounce), win a dollar,” I said.
    Louise’s couldn’t believe the offer. And much to my surprise, her shots regularly started falling in the court. Next lesson I’m going to put clusters of targets on each side of the court, and require her to hit crosscourt and down-the-line. I’m confident that she’ll be able to do it. And to think that a few lessons ago she doubted that she could even get the ball over the net.

Mid-court softball
It’s beneficial for students of similar level to take occasional semi-private lessons. It motivates the students to concentrate, plus it provides an opportunity for me to watch them try to incorporate their skills.
    Today Axel and Aaron, two promising 10-and-unders, played Mid-court Softball, a game which allows me to see how their tennis brains are progressing.
    It’s a two-on-one game with me being the partner. It’s played from no-man’s land, with the following two rules: (1) The ball can only be hit softly (but it can be spun); and (2) players may not take any steps behind the baseline, and only one inside the service line.
    I’m hoping that one or both of these guys had a revelation today because, for quite a while, they certainly made enough mistakes to learn from.
     It was interesting that both quickly figured out that the drop shot was a worthy choice; neither, however, saw that a deep ball into a corner was an option.
    After I hit my fourth or fifth winner, softly, deep and with topspin, I stopped the game and made a point of it. “Hitting deep to a corner is always effective, even without pace.”
    One of my next soft drives was returned with a floater. Aaron moved forward and hit an angled volley for a winner.
    “Now we’re getting the idea.”

 Now I’m going to grade you
Ten-year-old Carley is in the process of making a transition on her serve. She’s learning how to serve with a continental grip and apply spin.
    During her lesson today she’d remember one skill, then forget another. Over and over I reminded her. Each time she’d give me that Oh yeah look. So I told her I was going to start grading her on each serve.
     “To get an A,” I said, “ you must first pause with the racquet pointed at the target, using a continental grip with an open hand;
    then you must position the ball toss over your head, pause with your hand extended; then tuck it into your rib cage;
    then you must keep your eyes up until the racquet passes;
    then you must follow through across your body, racquet pointed to the back fence, holding your finish with your weight balanced on your front foot.
    Forget one technique, get a B, 2 a C, 3 a D, 4 an F.”
    Amazing how well Carley concentrated.

No frying pan serves for this 10-year old
I used to call it the “frying pan” style of serving. That’s where the racquet finds itself in a horizontal, not vertical position at the top of the backswing, And always with a forehand, not continental, grip.
    I told Taryn that when she wins her first trophy, “it won’t have a figure of a girl in this position, that’s for sure. It’ll look like this.”
    I showed her the technically correct poised-for-power position, with the elbow at shoulder level, knees bent, tossing arm extended, right arm reaching for the back fence, racquet pointed skyward.
    Then I suggested we practice the serve beginning in this position. Eliminating the windup enables the student to focus on the point of contact and follow-through.
    “With a continental grip, forefinger spread, start each serve with the racquet pointed up and turned in slightly,” I explained and demonstrated. “Pretend the racquet is a mirror; check yourself out before each toss.
    Standing at the service line (makes it far easier for the student to relax, focus on technique), I stood in front of Taryn as we alternated hitting serves. Prior to each serve, I pretended to look in my mirror.
    A few minutes later I heard Taryn say: “I’m looking quite beautiful today.”

Oh, I get it now
Shortcourt (aka mini tennis) has always been a training ground for my students. For beginners, and even advanced, the benefits of being able to slow down the ball and control it within a confined area are great.
    I’m sure that Taryn experienced a mental breakthrough today. It was while we were playing shortcourt that I think she finally developed a feel for it all. Call it court awareness, spatial awareness, ball sense or whatever, I think she understands now.
    After losing a half-dozen points in a row to me, where she hit the ball short and I angled it away, I suggested she come up with a solution “or suffer the consequences.” When she finally hit a deep ball, I purposely returned it short. When she angled the return away, I dropped my hands and feigned alarm. When she did it again, I told her that she was starting to make my life miserable.
    Whenever I sent Taryn a wide ball she would respond by panicking. She’d either miss it or send it back short and down the line. To this point, although her groundstrokes are generally well produced, they are mechanical and inflexible.
    I showed her how to toss up a defensive lob by hitting the bottom of the ball with an abbreviated follow-through. Later, I taught her how to take early advantage of  a short ball by chipping it early in the bounce.
    I set up the ball machine up to feed soft floaters. While Taryn stood behind me, I demonstrated how one has a choice between hitting, chipping or volleying this ball. If I’m out of position, you may decide to take it early, by chipping or volleying it. If I’m in posiition, you may want to hit it hard, to force a mistake or short ball.
    It took a while for Taryn to get the idea of simply blocking the chip. At first her stroke was too big, her wrist too floppy, but eventually she got the idea. Then we played a game that she enjoyed.
    We alternated hitting balls, choosing among these three shots, earning a point for every successful shot. When it was my turn I would call out my intention just prior to its execution. “Close and volley…back up and topspin…move up and chip…” I wanted Taryn to see when I deciding and how essential it was to move to the correct position within the bounce.
Not easily predictable
My most successful student would never blindly follow my directions. She had a mind of her own, and it was a good one. She was a good games player.
    I could never expect her to practice a shot repetitively for any length of time before she would throw in something different.  If we were working on backhands down-the-line, for example, she’d hit maybe a dozen before going crosscourt, or drop shoting.
    She was always playing. Even in a feeding drill, she couldn’t get the game out of her head. She possessed an intuitive sense for tennis. She knew where her opponent was likely to hit the ball, and she knew how to exploit a weakness.
    Most of us would do the same were it not for the confidence factor. When there’s substantial self doubt we don’t think clearly. What results is an unchanging, easily predicted response: the same pattern, the same shot, hit in the same situation.
    What motivates me as a teacher is thinking of ways to promote this games-playing skill in my inexperienced and/or predictable students.
    With beginners, one attempt I’ve used on occasion, is to play a toss and catch game within the service box (mini tennis on half-court). The rule is that the ball must be caught in the air or on one bounce and that it be tossed softly underhanded.
    In most cases, what results is two players tossing the ball back and forth to one another. I’ll stop the class, then demonstrate the possibilities, tossing balls up, back, and side to side. After this exercise, I introduce the game of full-court mini tennis, then hope for the best.
    Lately I’ve been having some success in teaching volley skills by playing a game within the service box where, as the defending baseliner, I can’t step across the service line. (The student must first hit the ball in the back of the box before attempting to go short.) This gets the student to do two things: one, see the length of the court and two, by relaxing his grip, feel the soft volley. The follow-up game is played on the full court (but still half-court).
    I play similar games from the backcourt, encouraging angles and drop shots.

Hit and hold your finish.
Somehow what came before becomes correct.

    Neither Karl or Alex are blessed with a natural sense of timing.  Both, I predict, will be singles hitters in baseball and placement-type players in tennis.  To help the 8-year-olds loosen up we played a game that today I called Slugfest.

    “Hit the ball as hard as you can, without losing your stroke.
    If the ball lands behind the service line you get one run.
    If it hits the fence in the air you get a home run.
    If it lands short of the service line or between the fence and baseline you don’t get a run but you’re     not out.
    Miss in the net or wide and you’re out.
    Hit the ball over the fence and you retrieve it. 
    Hit the ball more than 8 feet over the net and it’s a foul ball.

    The purpose was to get them to play down the center of the court, to get some sense of where the sidelines are, and to have fun. Scoring wasn’t easy to keep but fun was had by all.
    The first subject I presented to Evie was in holding the racquet.  I wanted her to develop the habit of supporting the racquet's weight in her non-dominant (left) hand. 
    "Open the fingers of your right hand when you're waiting for the ball," I said.  "Loosen your grip and let your little fingers go off the handle."

“I’m going to give you some homework,” I told Evie.  "If you want to take lessons you’ll do the homework three times a week for a minimum of 10 minutes each time.  My job is to explain the homework so you can practice it by yourself.”
    Before I explained the drill I showed Evie how the face of the racquet needs to be aligned with the shot.  I showed her how the forehand grip keeps the racquet face facing forward (perpendicular to the court) and how, on the backhand, if you don't change grip it makes the ball go up.  “So you need to learn how to change grips to keep the racquet in the right position,” I said
    I showed Evie how to find the continental grip and then I showed her how to tap the ball in the air using the grip and keeping the arm straight.  I explained the technique and then told her that when her arm “collapses” she must stop the ball (with the racquet) and start over a gain. 
    Her first attempts were unsuccessful.  She failed to find the correct grip, she bent her elbow right away, and she couldn’t hit more than three consecutive bumps.  She got so tense her left arm straightened up, she spread her fingers and grit her teeth. I asked her to stop, then I demonstrated how to do it relaxed.  “Rest your left hand on your hip, open your mouth slightly, keep your arm straight.” Within a few minutes she got it.

Against the wall
…Drill #2 was tapping the ball against the backboard, using forehands.  Before I demonstrated I explained how little energy is needed to control the ball.  “The ball is filled with air, the strings are springy––you don’t have to do much to make it go fast.”
    Evie tried to keep the ball in play against the wall but her rigid footwork prevented her from maintaining a rally.  I stopped her.
    “Watch my feet as I demonstrate for you again,” I said.  “See how I'm on my toes and moving continually?  Now you try.”
    This time Evie kept it going.
    Drill #3 was to back away from the wall far enough so she would have time to allow her non-dominant hand to support the racquet. Again I demonstrated and again Evie had trouble. Another demonstration and she got it.
    Drill #4 was tapping backhands against the wall. I showed her how to keep the right arm straight and let go with the left hand immediately after the hit.  (I believe in teaching the two-handed backhand with a dominant right hand, where the left hand plays a supportive role.  Letting go after the hit helps get this across to the student.)   
    Drill #5 was shadowing the strokes. I stood about 15 feet in front of Evie and walked her through the strokes. I asked her to pose on the follow-through and look across her right arm on the forehand and left arm on the backhand. 
    After taking a few turns of me shadowing, her shadowing and together shadowing, I was satisfied that she had a basic understanding of the mechanics of the stroke. Then I fed her balls.
    On the first one she slapped the ball across the net and ignored the technique.  I told her that I didn’t mind if she messed up the beginning or middle of the stroke, but that she “fix” the follow-through and hold it for a count of two.

Then came the first lesson… 
“The idea in tennis is to control the ball. Your first test is to hold it on your racquet and walk or, if you can, jog around the court. When you return to your position we'll have the next test.”
    Immediately the kids took off walking, jogging, laughing and, for some, chasing their ball.
    When they returned I showed them how to find the forehand grip and how to bounce the ball down.  “Little energy is needed to propel the ball,” I explained.  “You don't need to swing much––just let the racquet do it.” 
    After practicing I sent them on another lap. When they returned  I demonstrated how to tap the ball in the air, using the forehand grip.  I explained how the ball can bounce “funny” and that you have to play tennis on your toes, so you’re ready to respond.
    After demonstrating I sent them on another lap, this time bouncing the ball in the air.  When they returned I picked out a student and demonstrated an exercise I called Toss, Hit and Catch.
    In this simple game one student tosses underhanded to a partner who tries to tap the ball so he can catch it.  It’s like the game of Pepper in baseball,” I said.  “You tap it softly and try to catch it. Keep your feet moving throughout the game.”  (Both the hitter and the tosser.)
    To keep order I told them to play across the court, each player standing on the singles side line.  “You toss ten, then you hit ten,” I suggested.  “If your partner sends the ball right to you, chest-high, you say 'Good shot.’”
    Immediately the kids ran to their positions and gave it a try.
    After a few minutes I stopped the class, got their attention, and introduced the first rules.
    One, when hitting, or tossing, you must be on the balls of your feet and keep moving. Two, when you’re waiting for the ball you must hold the racquet in your left hand.  To get my point across I added that if you break a rule, and I catch you, you become the tosser.

Shadow practice 
    The student walks through the technique, and in doing so, learns essential lessons about tennis.
    As in many art forms that take place in time and space, there’s an inherent rhythm that, once a student keys into, makes it easier to understand and execute.   
    Feet start moving before the action:  with the hand relaxed, the racquet is drawn back on the count of one; the racquet pauses on the backswing on the count of two; the sweeping, low-to-high stroke coincides with the count of three; and the follow-through (and footwork recovery) take place on the count of four.
    From the moment the ball is first struck the beat goes on:  one, two, three and four.
    Without the ball to frighten, the student jogs and walks through the stroke.
    “There’s no reason not to perfect the technique,” the teacher says. “You just have to visualize the form, feel the rhythm, relax (and think) while you do it.”  (A tall order for any beginner, but one that gets easier ––with practice.)