Hands free tennis coaching
When I first started coaching tennis fulltime in 2002 the ‘game based approach’ was hitting Australian tennis shores. Traditional tennis lessons was where kids are in long lines and then play 1 forehand, 1 backhand and then go to the back of the line again. Game based approach had been done for longer in the UK, Canada and Europe but the basic premise was to keep players more active in the lessons and at the same time let them improve their perception and tactical skills by actually playing the game and not being fed perfect balls. I am all for game based approach and its been an important part of our coaching culture at Scarborough Tennis Academy. Yes you still need to teach technique and yes you can teach technique and let them rally through games like king of the court.
Since becoming a parent I have read a lot about raising kids to be independent. Parenting can range from ‘free range’ to ‘helicopter’ to ‘tiger’ parents. As a parent I think all of these types of parenting styles may need to come in to play at different moments along the journey depending on the situation and child. However I do believe the ‘helicopter’ style parenting and lets call it ‘helicopter’ style of tennis coaching achieves short term results. Too much supervision and instruction means the child misses out on the intrinsic motivation that can be developed through a more independent approach. Where possible, let them learn things themselves. Facilitate the learning and create environments where kids can practice and ask questions without too much judgement or instruction. If kids can work things out themselves or at least believe they have worked things out themselves then they will have more ownership and pride over that skill acquisition. Here is a nice article on raising independent kids.
Private lessons has more instruction and has a larger technical component. The key in those lessons is to get your technique explained in really simple terms. Use metaphors and simple language to help them understand and then practice it in fun and motivating ways. Group lessons however are based around game based approach. In group lessons however the game based approach rules supreme. I have recently been experimenting with ways to take this independent learning and combine it with game based approach. The objective being to create as many ‘Independent’ tennis players.
Independent tennis players
Obviously once kids can serve they are independent. The next best is what is commonly called a donkey drop which is effectively a forehand serve. But why cant kids start with the backhand? Or a volley? The answer is there is no reason and kids can easily be taught this. Kids can set up their own donkey drop version of a backhand and both volley’s and further along they can start with a full overarm serve, a slice backhand, a drive volley and an off forehand, off backhand etc.
So if us as coaches put our energy into teaching these different ways to start the rally then the player can become independent. This means that with a racquet and 1 ball, they can practice these various ways of starting the rally not just at the tennis court but when they are on holiday, if they are on the driveway and if its volleys then it can be practiced at the park or at the beach. So what this also does is remove the coaches feed. The coaches feed was paramount in the old school and in the game based approach the coaches feed is often used to start the rally.
Benefits of removing the coaches feed
- The player feels empowered to start their rally. If they can start the rally, they feel like they can play.
- The player can work on correct technique on various strokes and get alot of repetition.
- The coach is free to roam around to different parts of the court/s. The coach can be on the serving end or go down the other end of the court and teach the receivers about ready position and reacting to the incoming ball. The coach can motivate from different positions whilst providing good dynamic energy moving around and helping the kids.
The biggest benefit in my eyes is that the kids believe they are tennis players. Kids can kick a soccer ball or a football or throw a frisbee or a netball. Teach them how to hit their own tennis ball and then teach them how to receive the tennis ball. This removes tennis as being a sport that is linked with attending tennis lessons but as something to play whenever there is free time.
I do 1 red ball Mini class each week and last term as the coach I didn’t hit any tennis balls to the kids. I did demonstrate how to hit or receive tennis balls but starting the rally was in the control of the kids. After just a few weeks, these 6 or 7 year old’s can all start with a forehand easily, a backhand most of the time, a forehand volley and sometimes a proper serve. What starts as 1 shot can become 2 and then you can build from there.
Of course you can still teach the fundamentals and starting the rally is just the beginning of what is required in tennis. But if all the kids can start their own rally, then statistically speaking they will hit more tennis balls more often. Adapting to this as a tennis coach may be awkward at first as you may feel like your not contributing to the lesson. But you are facilitating the learning process which is a very important job.