JUNE 2017 -- When a young junior student shows up for her first lesson, it is typical for the pro to hit with her a bit to see how she is hitting the ball. Then the pro will go over how to hit a forehand and proceed to feed balls to the student to let the individual practice the technique that the pro was demonstrating. Weeks go by of lessons and the student makes progress by correcting her technique and may even develop the ability to produce topspin. Months go by and perhaps the student has developed relatively good technique. The parents are happy, the student is happy.
The student has been taking lessons learning how to hit the ball. It is now time to attend a one-day tournament or low level junior event. If the student is lucky perhaps she wins a match but has lost three or four. The parents go back to the pro and say their child was not able to keep the ball in play and missed too many forehands and/or backhands. The pro goes back to making technical corrections and smoothing out the strokes with fed balls and cooperative rallying. Another one-day tournament or beginner level tournament comes around and again the student has lost all two or three matches (depending on the format). The pro continues to help the student try to perfect the technique.
What will happen to the student if this trend continues? The student may continue because it is something her parents want her to do, or she will become frustrated with her lack of success and may no longer play this great sport. What happens to this pro? The student may leave for another pro looking for better results, in which case, the pro needs to replace this lesson or lose income.
This has happened countless times and will continue to happen until we as pros look beyond the pursuit of perfect technique and focus more on playing the game of tennis. Tennis matches are not won on perfect technique. Matches are won based on a player’s ability to construct points and put the opponent in a situation that he does not want to be in. This is not to say that technique should not be taught, but rather that more focus should be put on point construction and hitting specific targets that will allow a player to control the point.
As I entered the tennis industry, I was overly focused on perfecting the player’s technique. Through the many conferences I have attended, I have learned one important fact about teaching and playing tennis. As Craig O’Shannessey of Brain Game Tennis says, “How you hit the ball matters, where you hit it matters more.”
When teaching technique, pros will feed a controlled ball right to the student’s strike zone for him to achieve success. Once the student gets out of that controlled environment and into the match play arena, the technique typically breaks down rapidly. How can we counteract this inevitable struggle?
Receiving and shot selection
Once a student has a grasp of the basic swing path, then the focus of the lessons can shift to more important matters. Receiving the ball and shot selection are possibly the two most important areas of junior development. When teaching players, we need to place more emphasis on how they receive the ball. Are they able to adjust to a change in direction and hit the ball when moving? Can they move in a way that allows them to receive the ball in their strike zone? I was once running a 10 and Under clinic with 12 to 15 kids. We would go over technique and have the kids play doubles points champ-of-the-court style. Frustration was building because the kids could not get the ball in play after the feed. The next week we spent half the lesson working on receiving the ball. We divided the court into different zones, and based on where the ball landed, the player needed to be in the appropriate zone. After covering this we sent them to play champ of the court and the results were unreal. The kids were rallying and playing tennis. The kids began to love playing and competing. We spent little time teaching technique yet they made such a drastic improvement simply because they were able to receive the ball properly.
Hitting to the target
The next issue to focus on is the ability of the player hit to the necessary target. For too long, lessons and clinics have focused on “playing catch.” As teaching pros, we want the players to hit lots of balls to make their time on court worth it. Players are sent on court with the goal of hitting 10, 20, 50 balls in a row without missing (depending on the level). Consistency is important but according to O’Shannesey’s research, we know that the average point in tennis lasts four shots or less. Best-selling author and international speaker Frank Giampoalo describes tennis as a game of “keep away” not “catch.” What patterns of play can a player use to create an opportunity to end the point? How can the player use his better shot to hurt his opponent? In our red ball group during this winter session, our focus was on hitting to specific targets and playing keep away from the opponent. We went over technique for about five minutes at the beginning of the class, and then it was all about hitting to a certain area. The kids were rallying and constructing points by the second or third class. Could their technique have been better? Absolutely, but they were playing real tennis.
When do we start this process of playing tennis rather than just perfecting strokes? As mentioned before, once the student has a grasp of the swing path we can incorporate movement/receiving the ball with hitting to specific targets or areas of the court. The age of the student does not matter in this process. Kids don’t want to hear about forearm pronation or racquet acceleration; at the younger ages the kids don’t know what those terms mean. If you can get them to receive the ball and hit it with direction they can begin to play real tennis. As pros we give lessons to help students enjoy playing the game, not just enjoy hitting a ball.
To summarize, teaching pros need to help the student establish good technique but not spend the entire lesson on it. Once the basic technique is established, movement/receiving the ball and hitting to appropriate targets (shot selection) are critical to create better tennis players. There are good ball strikers and then there are good tennis players.
Dan Beedle is a graduate of the Professional Tennis Management program at Ferris State University in Michigan. He is Assistant Head Pro at Windyke Country Club in Memphis, Tenn. Beedle has been USTA Louisiana and Southern Pro of the Year, USPTA Southern Assistant Pro of the Year, USPTA Top 10 Education credit achiever, and is a National Cardio Tennis Trainer.