Poonky - Training An 8 Year Old Tennis Junior
I've recently had a chance to train a young Thai girl named Poonky for 2 months. Poonky just turned 8 years old and is currently ranked in the top 10 in Thailand under 8.
Before I move onto drills, there is just one thing I wish to mention: children in most European countries DO NOT play tennis on full court at the age of 8, especially not in the official tournaments.
Typically, we play "midi" (from medium) tennis, where the court is 3/4 the length of the normal court.
Why is it so important not to play full court tennis, even though most skilled children at 8 can play from the baseline?
Because they will inevitably start playing high loopy balls, which are very hard to play back for children who are still small. So at this age, high balls work really well and kids use them in competitive situations.
The problem with this is that most kids will naturally develop a heavy western grip on the forehand side, which will enable them to hit high balls much easier.
If you combine this with the main winning tactic at this age, which is looping high balls to each other, you'll see that this will inevitably cause big problems in their future development: players with a heavy western grip rarely manage to hit through the ball and their feel for other grips is very poor.
They also develop too much spin and too loopy balls to really play aggressively at the later stages of their development.
But if the kids play "midi" tennis, then high loopy balls are very difficult to play (the court is too short), so children automatically learn to play angles and more aggressive shots. It's also much easier to come to the net and there is very intensive running left and right.
However, since I was in Thailand where kids, even at 8 years, play full court tennis, I had to adjust my coaching and Poonky's main training plan to these conditions.
1. Warm Up - Two Lines Drill
The Two Lines warm up is one of warm ups Poonky did before we started the lesson. I like to change warm up routines since they quickly become boring and the players don't really intensively warm up.
As you can see in the video, Poonky still lacks leg coordination and balance, so drills like this are a must for her and all other children at this age.
Poonky would also do a few dynamic stretching exercises (2 min.) after this warm up and then we would start hitting from the service boxes.
We would usually play one of the warm up drills on the mini court, to further develop her coordination and footwork.
2. Forward - Backward Footwork
As I mentioned in the beginning, at this age and when playing on the full court, kids have the most problems with very short balls and very deep high balls.
There are two reasons:
1. They don't see (judge) the ball early enough. Their depth perception is typically very poor. While they can quickly see whether the ball goes left or right (and start running), they see very late whether the ball is short or long.
2. They don't move in the most efficient way. Most try to shuffle, like Poonky moved in the first few tries.
When the ball is short, they should run normally towards the ball and start positioning into a more sideways position and closed stance, one or two steps before hitting the ball.
And when the ball is deep, they should run backwards with cross-over steps which enable them to move faster and it's much easier to move the weight forward, once you stop moving backwards.
Observe Poonky's footwork and try to see when she uses the correct - faster and more efficient - footwoork and when she doesn't make it.
Also note whether she finds the right distance from the ball (in front and on the side) or not.
I don't make her aware of misses or wrong distance from the ball, until I see that the correct footwork is almost automatic. Doing that would only confuse her and she would even more often forget about the main purpose of the drill - footwork.
The last variation of the drill - short to the forehand, long to the backhand, short to the backhand and long to the forehand, is one of the most popular footwoork drills in Spain.
A friend, a tennis coach from Spain, told me that Emilio Sanchez would do 80 balls in a row doing this drill. And he would do this drill very often...
3. Reactions & Fun Net Dame Drill
Reactions can be improved the most from the age of 7 to 14. After that, the window of opportunity to develop reactions is closed and there's not much you can do later.
Quick reactions are the key in the modern tennis, where most of the game consists of hard hitting and thus, trying to take the time away from opponent. This is especially true when it comes to returning first serves and playing at the net.
The first drill in the video is one of those tennis drills that all kids like. The goal is to catch the ball before it bounces and quickly prepare for the next one.
I usually play 6 to 8 balls in one set and then rest for 10 seconds for the next set. With Poonky we would usually do 6 to 8 sets all together.
The best time to play this reactions drill is at the start of the lesson (to activate the player), before practicing at the net or at the end of the practice, if the player is not too tired.
The second drill, where we play some volleys and a smash, is another drill to keep the player alert, have some fun with volleys and quickly react to the smash.
I did very little work with Poonky, explaining what she needs to do when volleying. She knows the she needs to impart some slice on the ball, but the rest of the technique (short preparation, short follow-through) just developed automatically, through this and a few other similar net game drills.
Poonky needs to develop volley technique by the age of 12, but right now she will almost never go to the net in the real match. The court is too big, she is too small and her opponent can pass her or play over her even by missing the shot. ;)
So, I don't really emphasize the volley in training lessons. Instead, we often play this fun net game at the end of the practice to repeat a few volleys, practice split step and finish the practice in a positive way.
More drills and videos coming in Part II - quick preparation and using the body rotation...
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