Saturday, January 10, 2015

Volley On The Move

Many of my students come to me as beginners - 'never-evers'. As such, they all love volleys because the volley is one shot in tennis that has the potential for immediate success. If I do my job and toss the ball to just the right spot, I can get a five-year-old hitting winning volleys during their first lesson. And therein lies the problem: it's too easy!

Volley on the Move is a drill by teaching pro Joey Rive, featured in a recent issue of Tennis magazine. Joey addresses the 'too easy' problem with many standard volley drills. I love that his drill is a live ball drill and thus gets players out of their comfort zones. You will need at least two players who can hit cross court and rally.

Both players start at deuce side baseline. They begin a cross court rally. One player remains at the baseline. The other player, who is working on their volleys, takes a few steps toward the net after every ball. Note we are not demanding this player hit every shot as a volley; only that they move in after every shot. As this player moves closer to the net, decisions become more challenging: to volley or not to volley? Half volleys and swinging volleys are okay. The point is to handle themselves well while on the move toward the net.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Goal Setting For Young Players

It's that time of year - everyone is scrambling to come up with some New Year's Resolutions that won't bore the socks of themselves. Studies show that more than 90% of resolutions fail. But we can always be part of the 10%! Let's take the basic principle and apply it to your young player's tennis future.

For beginners:
  • Understand the scoring structure for your age group. Red Ball players use 1st to 7; Orange Ball and older typically use the traditional 15-30-40-game scoring.
  • Be able to keep track of the score during the game, regardless of who is serving.
  • Understand what the serve is (starts the point), how to do it (bounce, underhand or overhand) and where it's supposed to land (cross court service box).
  • Remember to call the score if you are serving. Always say your own score first.
  • Know all the parts of the court like you know your name: baseline, service line, service boxes, deuce and ad sides, alleys, the T, the back court, No Man's Land.
  • Look for opportunities to play an actual match. Clinics are great for learning skills, but as the saying goes, practicing tennis without ever playing a match is like studying for a test you never take. Look for free or inexpensive Play Days in your area. Too easy? Try Jr. Team Tennis or a Rising Stars one day tournament.
Beyond Beginners:
  • Serve with continental grip.
  • Serve consistently at least 7 out of 10 in.
  • Commit to advancing your skills to the next level of the tennis skill pyramid.
  • Commit to advancing to the next level ball. For example, if you are an orange ball player now, focus on getting to green ball level.
  • Learn how to use Tennislink to find tournaments or other events in your area.
  • Learn how to use TennisLink to track your state ranking and that of your opponents.
  • Learn the local rules for playing for your local high school team. In my area, 7th graders and older are eligible to try out, and many of our teams are No-Cut.
  • Attend more matches as a fan, such as
    • local high school team's matches. You might see some familiar faces, and they will be delighted to have the fan support.
    • an entry level pro tournament such as an ITF or a USTA Pro Circuit event. They happen all over the country just about all year long. They are free or inexpensive to attend.
    • a local college team match. There is some amazing tennis being played at that level, and often the matches are free or very inexpensive to attend.
    • If you are lucky enough to live near a larger event such as the US Open, Family Circle Cup, Indian Wells, Davis Cup, Fed Cup, etc., try to attend. Go early in the event before elimination whittles down the playing field.

Hope this got your tennis wheels spinning. What are some of your tennis resolutions?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Fence Trap

After scouring over 400 posts on this blog I cannot for the life of me find one on trapping the ball against the back fence to improve service toss and point of contact. How can I have overlooked this? It's a tried-and-true technique for improving serve, no matter the age or ability of the player.

You will need a fence or wall 2-3 feet taller than your player. Stand sideways next to the fence/wall with your non-dominant foot touching the fence/wall and your tossing arm closest to fence/wall. Toss ball as if you were going to hit an overhand serve, so ball needs to be 2-3 feet higher than your head, or about as high as player can reach with racquet. Trap ball against fence with racquet.

Players will soon find this is easier to do with a good quality toss out in front of them (which hopefully they have perfected by doing the Tap N Toss activity). Tossing behind them pretty much makes this impossible.

Once player is comfortable with this, have them turn 180 degrees and face the net, or move to the actual baseline. Visualizing the fence trap activity (now imagining the fence at the baseline), have them try tossing and 'trapping' the ball. Since there is no fence/wall in their way now, they should have a pretty good quality point of contact at the baseline.

Notes: if you are using a fence, avoid the support poles. Very hard on the racquet.

Here's a video of one of my Red Ball students performing the activity:

Also here's a great article from listing some other common-sense strategies for improving the serve.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Two and One

Another great drill from the folks at Tweener, this one taking it up a notch to combine consistency AND directional skills. Love it!

Coach feeds first ball to player cross court. Player must return two balls cross court, then one ball down the line. Coach then sends this DTL ball cross court, and player repeats sequence, now from other side of court.

Some options on adapting this drill for a group clinic of young beginners:

Place a colored spot or cone on each half of court on coach's side, say, red on deuce and green on ad. As they are hitting back to you, call out the color they are supposed to be targeting. Perhaps include side of court ( Red - Deuce! Green - Ad!) so they begin to understand where they are hitting to without the cone markers. Player stays in until they miss. Player hitting most balls in a row within a given time period, wins.

Relay style: Players hit one ball and move to end of line (hit-n-git!). Group is working together to see how many balls in a row they can hit to the correct spot.

Progression: Start this activity hitting from service line, then move back to baseline as students master it.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

One Minute Challenge

Thanks to the folks at the new tennis app, Tweener, for this simple yet effective consistency drill idea. I tried to embed the actual video but no worky, so try clicking on that link instead.

Players have one minute to hit 40 balls in play. In the video, the player is rallying with the coach. Player gets one point for every ball hit in. The catch is: they can only use one ball. So hitting consistently is key to keeping a rally going and eliminating wasted time chasing down the ball.

For young players you want to avoid anyone standing around waiting in line, even though it is only for one minute. If you have multiple courts available, great - have them pair up and play this challenge in singles half (longways) or full court. If you don't have multiple courts available, consider shortening the time period to 30 seconds, again to avoid lines and waiting. For young beginners I would also eliminate the 40 number and perhaps reduce it or just have the challenge be for who can get the most balls hit in play in the set time period.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Feed the Need: Tournament Fuel Strategies

I have already blogged about off-court advance preparation for playing a multi-day tournament. But I am often asked by parents about what their players should eat during the event. Naturally this depends on the player, but the same common sense fuel strategies that apply to other sports will also work for tennis.

Hydration and Electrolytes
WATER!! Water is so important for all of us humans, regardless of our fitness level. Be sensible. Encourage your child to never pass up an opportunity for a drink of water. Specifically I am thinking
of getting a drink 'on the switch', when players switch ends of court after every odd number of completed games. On the switch is the only time players are allowed to stop for a drink. If you don't get a drink then, you can't just stop and get one whenever you are thirsty. I have some students who think they are showing me how tough they are by never wanting to take a drink break. This is a recipe for cramps and failure. Of course, too much of a good thing can be harmful as well. Gulping gallons of water can lead to uncomfortable fullness, too many bathroom breaks/interruptions, and in extreme cases, extreme consequences too unpleasant to mention here. Okay, I will mention: yes, people have died from drinking too much water. A good strategy is to sip at every opportunity and drink when thirsty. Also take a drink of water if feeling hungry - thirst sometimes masquerades as hunger.

Sports drinks - I have already talked about electrolytes and why they are important here. Suffice to say moderation is what we are after. These drinks contain electrolytes, but they also often contain lots of sugar and artificial coloring. I have also found many of my students, like myself, don't care for them or tend to get a stomach ache when drinking them during competition. Not sure why, just FYI.

On to solid nutrition options:

Fruit - bananas, orange slices, frozen grapes, melons, basically any hydrating fruit your child enjoys. I once had a pound of plums disappear at a Jr. Team Tennis practice like they were little round purple bars of gold.
Yogurt - satisfying and easy to digest. Just don't overdo it as many yogurts can be high in sugar.
Nutrition bar - individually packaged, easy to toss in the bag, doesn't need a cooler. What we are going for here is a slow, even release of energy for your player. Nibble, don't gobble.

The Free Lunch
Tournaments often provide lunch for the players. What is offered varies widely. I have seen everything from cold cut subs/sandwiches to pizza to meat-and-three (it's a southern thing). You want to avoid the afternoon slump or worse, cramping, that can arise after eating a heavy meal for lunch. Definitely no fast food. Avoid anything that will require lots of effort for your digestive system. This diverts energy from other parts of the body which may be needed for chasing down lobs! You can call the tournament director and ask what they will be serving, or just bring your own snacks JIC (Just In Case). If it were up to me, I would offer cold cuts/subs for all tournament lunches. Good combination of carbs, protein and veg, not too heavy, and most people like them. When our facility hosted the Jr. Team Tennis Nationals recently, they also had a smoothie vendor. Smoothies are a tasty and more or less healthy snack option, but again, enjoy in moderation.

What NOT to eat is so much easier. Avoid the usual suspects:

Fast food
Fried food

Also avoid any foods new to your player that might be offered at the event. The chicken Caesar garlic wrap with tzatziki and quinoa may seem healthy and smell delicious, but tournament day is not the day to test if your player's stomach can tolerate whole grains and Greek food.

Bottom line: during the tournament, you want to eat like a world class athlete.
 WWFE (What Would Federer Eat?)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Serve Smarter

PTR certified teaching professional Marcin Bieniek has some great tips on serve instruction in the November/December 2014 issue of TennisPro Magazine. The tips are not so much technical info as how to include the serve in the lesson plan in such a way that students are working on serves more effectively. If you are a PTR member or subscribe to the magazine, good for you - read the article! If you don't have access to it, I want to just give a couple of highlights.

My biggest takeaway is Coach Bieniek's recommendation to start as many points as possible during the lesson with a serve. I need to do better on this. I have many young beginners for whom getting the ball over the net and into play is a challenge, much less getting a serve in. So we begin many activities with a bounce feed or a coach feed. My logic is to get more 'touches' (in the soccer parlance), because if we waited for a serve to be 'in', we would be waiting a looooooong time. However - sometimes we go way too long without at least trying some serves. My bad. I have been thinking this week about how to incorporate serves into my beginner lessons with out slowing play to a crawl.

I sometimes have my students try their two allotted serves. If they double fault, rather than awarding a point to the opponent, I toss in a third ball as a serve. This way they can keep hammering away at the serve, but there is still a chance there will be a rally if I throw a ball in, rather than teams constantly winning games by virtue of a series of double faults by their opponents.

I also sometimes have my students aim for the correct service box, but also instruct the returner to play anything they can get to if it comes over the net and into the singles court. I have the returner call it 'out' to make sure they know it is out even though I have asked them to play it anyway. Jury is still out on whether allowing them to play 'out' serves is worth the trade-off of getting a rally going.

Coach Bieniek has a couple other lesson plan tips that I like. One is to vary the placement of the serve portion of the lesson, rather than always having it at the beginning or the end. Another is to pair serving with recovery and hitting the next ball. I agree with him that often players are so enamored of their serve, they forget to continue to play the point! I will be elaborating on both of these in future blog posts.

Do you have any tips on improving the serve for young beginners without bringing the learning process to a screeching halt?