What a 10-Year-Old Tennis Beginner Learned in 2 Hours
It's been quite a while since I had a beginner tennis lesson with someone who has never held a racquet in her hand.
This one was a 10-year-old girl.
Her mom brought her to the Academy for the beginner program, which includes two hours on Saturdays and two hours on Sundays.
In this first lesson, I noted that the girl was very talented in these areas:
The reason for this article is to show you all the things she learned in two hours.
- coordination (of arms and legs, as well as hand-eye coordination)
- visual learning
- thinking of several things at the same time
I also want to show you that the coach needs to adapt to the player's abilities, not stick to some format like In the first lesson we teach the forehand, in the second lesson we teach the backhand, and so on.
Here's what we did:
1. Racquet and ball control
She bounced the ball up and down, bounced the ball up with no bounce on the ground (and performed these exercises both right- and left-handed).
2. Playing "bounce up"
We took turns bouncing the ball up off our racquet strings, again performing the exercise both right- and left-handed. Then I showed her that she can use both hands on the backhand side. I didn't mention any grips, telling her only to keep her hands together.
3. Playing over a string (instead of the net)
I put a string from the net to the ball basket, and we played over it. Doing so is good because a tennis beginner often hits too low, but this way the rally keeps going, because I can still play the ball back.
4. Playing from the contact point
• I showed her the contact point and told her to bump the ball to me. First I told her when I would play to her forehand (5 times) and when to her backhand (5 times). Later I didn't tell her.
• She also learned the ready position. I had to remind her to get into it between shots, but not often.
• She learned the follow-through on the forehand and backhand. On the forehand I simply told her to catch the racquet and show me the butt of the racquet when she finished. Similarly, on the backhand I just told her to finish over the shoulder and show me the butt of the racquet. (To get her to extend after the ball, I had to correct her a little, but she understood quickly.)
• She learned the backhand grip (using the continental grip for the right hand) and she used it if I told her ahead of time that I was going to play to her backhand. If I didn't, she didn't change the grip. (This skill needs to be worked on.)
5. Split step
I demonstrate the split step, telling the player to hop lightly when I hit the ball. That's not exactly true, but I don't want to complicate things. If I start telling a 10-year-old girl that she needs to land exactly when she realizes where the ball is going, she will be overwhelmed.
So I keep it simple, and in time the player adjusts to the right timing.
The split step is the most important thing in the first tennis lesson. If I succeed in making this a habit, then the biggest obstacle to good footwork and reaction is solved.
Therefore, I kept reminding her to hop when I hit (probably for about 10 or 15 minutes) with some other reminders too.
This is an example of where a coach needs to adapt to the player's abilities. Many players (both children and adults) cannot think of many things at the same time.
So, I test them. I want them to learn a complete motor program for the forehand (or the backhand) and movement as soon as possible.
If they can absorb a lot of new information and apply it, then I go with it. If they cannot and get confused, I teach them in a more step-by-step fashion.
This girl was able to get it all, so I kept giving her more and more information to complete the whole movement, preparation and hitting action in one tennis lesson.
6. Recovery to the middle
When you recover after a shot, you must move to the middle of all the angles that your opponent can play. But this is too complicated for a child, so I just tell her to recover to the middle of the court after the shot.
All the above things were done playing from a contact point for a distance of about 5 meters over the string.
I didn't mention any stances yet. She hit mostly from an open stance on both sides.
7. Preparation and closed stance
We increased the distance to play from the singles sidelines. She didn't automatically turn more to hit harder.
So, I created a target to show her how far she needs to hit, but she still didn't use her body. She used her arm.
Therefore, I showed her that she should turn her body to prepare and take more of a swing. After 5 minutes she hadn't really got it, so I decided to combine turning with a closed stance, which would help her turn automatically.
I put 6 cones on ground – 3 left of the middle of the court and 3 right of the middle. She had to imagine hitting the ball over the cones and focus on getting into a closed stance.
So, she moved to different distances from the middle and tried to get into a closed stance. This was all shadow stroking. When she got a little better, I threw balls above the cones and she tried to hit with a closed stance.
That helped her turn the body and prepare. Note that I let her bring back the racquet in a linear way. By that I mean that I let her take the racquet straight back, with the racquet horizontal. I introduce the »racquet head up« method later if needed. Many talented players figure it out by themselves.
8. Play over the net in the short court (mini tennis)
Next we played over the net, and I was pleasantly surprised about how many things had already became automatic. She did the split step, recovery, follow-through and closed stance without me saying anything.
This is my goal and it is not often that I see a player »get« all that in one lesson.
9. Throwing the ball
The first thing before serving is throwing. I had her throw the ball from the service line over the net, and if she succeeded, we moved one step back. Eventually she was able to throw the ball over the net from the baseline.
10. Coordinating both arms
She held one ball in each hand and tossed the first one up with her left arm, then threw the second one over the net (as before). We did the same progression from the service line to the baseline.
11. Serving the ball with the racquet from the contact point
She held the racquet up in the contact point and tossed the ball in front of it, then bumped the ball over the net.
12. Adding a full backswing
Since she was well coordinated and I saw that she can toss and throw well using two balls, I showed her the full serve backswing.
She was able to do it on the third try. ;)
So now she was able to start with the racquet and the ball in front of her, then toss the ball, do the full backswing, and hit the ball over the net. Again we progressed from the service line to the baseline. (I let her serve with the forehand grip so that she got a good feel for swinging toward the ball and getting good contact.)
We had about 15 minutes left before the end, so I decided to just play mini tennis with her. I didn't do any volleys in this first lesson, since if she wants to play beginner tennis once or twice a week, a volley is not really important.
She will of course learn the basic volley technique soon.
I was pleasantly surprised with all that we achieved in the first lesson, just two hours. Of course, we took frequent breaks to drink and rest a little. It was about 35 degrees Celsius but luckily cloudy.
An important psychological point here is that when a child comes for the first time to tennis and has a private lesson with a stranger (even though he/she acts nice and friendly) the child is a bit afraid.
Which means the child will do EVERYTHING you tell them to do even if it is uncomfortable or tiring.
This is the best time to teach them the split step and movement. This footwork takes extra effort, making the child more tired than if she just stood there moving her arm backward and forward.
But that’s not playing tennis. Playing tennis involves movement, reaction, balancing and coordinating legs and arms.
After you are friends with children, they try to take shortcuts in movement. (At least 90% of the »modern« children I have taught do.) As a result, you have to remind them constantly to move.
Therefore, if you can make the split step and recovery automatic in the first few lessons, you both benefit tremendously: the child will play better, and you will save your voice from saying over and over: »split step, hop, happy feet, keep moving, …« ;)
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