The best, worst and overlooked parts of modified tennis
The mini tennis revolution swept across the tennis world around the turn of the millennium. Canada, the UK and I am sure several other nations were early adopters of the mini tennis revolution sparking with it a lot of divisiveness about whether its a bunch of bull-dust or if it actually will help more people play and develop their game. I was in Cambridge, UK, in 2005 as a full time coach at Next Generation Clubs and Mini Tennis was highly adopted. As a natural innovator type and also being fairly early in my early coaching career, I embraced all parts of what it was all about.
I liked the progression of colours as an engaging way for players to take to the sport. It also made sense to me that nearly every other sport had modified their game and tennis had not. The traditional type of coaches remained skeptical of the innovation. Some for several years and some probably still to this day. The ‘Why do we need that, players can easily learn on a yellow ball’ types probably had plenty of reason to be skeptical. Sometimes academic research wrapped up in a shiny, marketing campaign, might look good but not really crossover to real life. National governing bodies do great things for the sport but also often miss the mark of what really happens in a club or program. Plus finally those coaches with a history of producing players and popular programs have every right to be skeptical of change for changes sake. But now 18 years later and an untold amount of lessons using low compression balls, I can confidently say I believe that its a very positive revolution of the sport.
What are my favourite parts of modified tennis?
Perception skills get developed easier and faster. Slower balls means easier to judge and this means longer rallies, more consideration for technique and placement of the ball along with the confidence and ‘buy in’ you get from a child who starts to experience success. The way it helps kids really control the ball is so important where they can be so much more intentional with their ever developing game plans. Technically yes, the slow ball is great but the bounce height is even more important. High bouncing ball can cause problems for kids from extreme grips, to moonballs, to abbreviated technique (cause the balls fly off the racquet) to other bad habits relating to trying to cope with a ball bouncing above their shoulders all the time.
What is my least favourite part of modified tennis?
Setting up mini nets, taping up 3/4 courts and how difficult they can be on a windy day. At Scarborough Tennis, we actually rarely set up mini nets or have permanent taped or painted lines and instead we wind down nets and play in the service boxes or use cheese sticks (thin markers) as a guide for 3/4 court. If I had less courts or focused only on red ball then we would always use mini nets as you can fit lots of kids on the court and it does work pretty well. Our coaches though are busy and have a progression of different consecutive lessons with red ballers just one of the stages. We don’t want to have mini nets permanently set up as its look messy and annoying for all other non red ball players at our academy and club.
Does moving up a ball mean that you are moving up a level?
Not always! Although nearly every kid and parent thinks this must be the obvious progression upwards, this depends on a few factors.
Size – If the child is really tall then their hip to rib height is higher than their smaller class mate. So this is something to consider but would also depend on some of the other factors below.
Technical development – To our passionate young players, we want to introduce ALL the tennis skills such as slice, drop shot, smash, drive volley and more shots sometimes saved for older years. We would rather get some of these fundamentals with the low compression balls to help develop the young players confidence and allow them to ‘try out’ these shots in their modified environment.
Power – Other kids are doing a decent job technically but just not generating enough power on the shots to benefit from moving to the next ball.
Control skills – Related to technical development but if a kid cant rally with you for more than a few shots with a red ball then they are not ready to move up. Its easier to rally with a low compression ball and modified court so once they begin mastering those skills then they can take it to the next stage.
Age – If a brand new player who is 11 years old comes into our Hotshots program they go into a green ball hotshots class. They could actually benefit from doing red ball or even orange ball but then they will be with 5, 6 or 7 year old kids which is a quick way to make them quit after a term. So yes social factors have to come into it and where idealistically you can develop them better on a lower compression ball, you need to appreciate that not all players are looking to have pristine technique and an array of shots and game plans by 16 years old! Sometimes playing ok tennis with friends is more important.
So in many cases its our more passionate young players we encourage to keep developing through orange and then green ball for as long as is appropriate to help their game for the long term. Point being that many of our orange squad players would beat most of our Hotshots green players and our green squad players can beat plenty of less experienced yellow ball players. So recruiting passionate players with potential out of Hotshots and into our Junior Club squads is very important as then we can really focus on developing them long term.
But as a guide it would look something like below:
- 3-6 years old – Red Ball
- 6-11 years old – Orange Ball
- 8-14 years old – Green Ball
- 10-18 years old – Yellow Ball
Minimum time in each stage – 2 years
Average time in each stage – 3 years
Maximum time in each stage – 4 years
Director of Coaching