Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Alley Cats

Great activity for improving control especially if your players are young enough to be using bounce serves.

Two players in alley across net from each other. First player has 10 balls. Second player lays his/her racquet down to extend the service line across the alley. First player bounce feeds ball across net. Second player shags balls after one bounce, keeps score. 1 point for ball over net in front of racquet; 2 points for hitting racquet; three points for ball landing beyond racquet. All balls must land in alley. When balls run out, switch tasks. Whoever earns the most points with their allotted 10 balls wins.

Too hard? Have first player toss ball underhand instead.
Too easy? No bounce - underhand feed. Or add a time limit.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Team Formation Techniques

So the big thing lately is to align tennis with the other big team sports that are kicking tennis' booty, to be honest. Yes we are def talking about youth soccer but the other big three (football, baseball, basketball) are always lurking in the background, luring players with hopes for fame and glory in their high school/college/professional careers. I like to think tennis combines the best of both worlds. Singles and tournament play is perfect for those who enjoy competing individually. But doubles and team play either on school teams or in USTA's Jr. Team Tennis program also provides that great team feel that is so attractive to lots of us, not just the kids.

Even within clinics and camps there are lots fun ways to create a team atmosphere. Team-based activities provide camaraderie and also serve as a Great Equalizer when you have a broad range of talent among the kids in your group.

I like forming different teams frequently to allow the kids to get to know friends outside of their comfort zone. Left to their own, most kids will choose to stick with the safe and familiar. But random team formation techniques nudge them into interacting with new kids. I picked up some of these ideas from USTA QuickStart workshops. Others are variations on a theme and on-the-spot inspiration.

Random Team Formation Strategies
Most involve having the kids line up based on the following criteria, then dividing them into two teams.  Encourage them to work out the lining-up process among themselves.
  • Birthday month
  • Birthday day
  • Alphabetical by first name
  • By height - to make sure all the tall kids are not on the same team, have them line up by height, then count off 1, 2, 1, 2, etc. so that they are equally divided between the two teams.
  • By lot - picking a colored poker chip or clothespin out of a bag/hat
  • By name - random draw out of a hat. Alternate draws between teams.
  • By arrival time - assign a number as they arrive and divide them in half once everyone is there
  • Shoe size - I have seen this suggested but this does not work well with younger players - they usually have no clue what shoe size they wear. You could do shoe color - mostly white shoes vs other colors.
  • Birthplace - use city or state as the divider - for instance, one team will be everyone born in south Carolina, the other team everyone who is not. If the teams are uneven, try shrinking the criteria to smaller geographic locales. Again, this becomes problematic with younger players who may not know exactly where they were born. 
  • School loyalty - where they go to school, or what schools (colleges) they root for
  • Pro team loyalty - this is usually easier to divide by: fan of local team vs fan of other teams
  • The Big Freeze - without letting them know why, have them run around on the court until you say 'FREEZE'. All players on deuce side are on a team; others are on other team. This works well in combination with the Court Tag activity described in the Warm Up blog entry.
Once they are divided into teams, give them a brief period of time (30 seconds or less) to come up with a team name. I tell my students everyone on the team must be in agreement. If they are unable to come to an agreement within 30 seconds, I will choose their team name and I warn them they are guaranteed not to like it. I always choose something silly and slightly distasteful like Skunks or Dog Breath or Slimy Boogers or Cute Pink Kitties (the girls love this but the boys . . . ). Naturally any name chosen must pass my personal level of good taste and good sportsmanship. 

Occasionally I select the team names ahead of time based on props I have available. For example one year at summer camp I had found some cool (and inexpensive) foam visors at a local craft store. I bought a shark visor and a tiger. They were by far the coolest of all that were available. So our activities that day included the teams (Tigers and Sharks, natch) taking turns wearing the visors (optional - no one was forced to wear it). Also they had to manage the sharing of the visor-wearing themselves which worked out surprisingly well. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Target Practice

I love this activity, especially for larger groups or camps. It is highly adaptable for whatever skill level you have on court. It can be used for any stroke. For this example I will use it as a serve activity.

I set up three large targets on one side of the net. One is in the middle, one on deuce side, one on ad side. For a serve activity I like the targets to be mid service box or deeper to encourage deep service targets. For the targets use anything you have available; the more fun/outlandish, the better.  Those big blowup kid targets are fun but if you don't have those, anything from a big ring of cones or spots to couple of hoppers, hula hoops, a jump rope, 5 gallon buckets, on-court trash cans, etc. Just make sure each of the three targets is distinct from the others - you want it to be very clear which target is Target 1, Target 2, and Target 3.

Divide the kids into two teams (see separate blog entry for the fun of dividing and naming teams). Each team spins to see who starts on which side, ad or deuce. Set ball cart at the T or hash mark depending on where you have them serving from. One at a time, each team member takes turns aiming their serve at the targets. Each team member gets one chance, then goes to end of his/her team's line. Once a team member hits a target, the entire team then aims for the next target. First team to hit all three targets in order wins. Switch sides of court and repeat. Best two out of three wins.
Scoring variations:

  • one point for hitting across net, two for hitting target
  • 'Instant Win' opportunities:
    • ball lands in cart 
    • player returns ball returned by instructor
    • hitting instructor. Yes, I sometimes encourage them to try to hit me. I am tall - I make a great target. Depends on the level of players (and balls used!) if I try to get out of the way or not. We arrange this prior to start of activity.
If one or both teams are having trouble hitting the targets, switch them to opposite sides halfway through the hopper rather than waiting for one team to win (which could take forever if they are struggling). You may have to pause the game for a ball pickup if they are struggling with a new skill.

The targets really seem to help the kids who are struggling with the mechanics. They focus on the target across the net rather than obsessing over the bounce/toss/hit. The team dynamic also does wonders - I love hearing them cheer each other on to be the one to hit the target and advance the entire team.

If you want to use it for forehands, backhands or volleys, you will need to feed from across the net rather than having them pick their own ball out of the hopper. Make sure to feed quickly and keep them moving quickly to the end of their line after they hit.

To increase the difficulty, make the targets smaller or add a time restriction.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ball Pickup

Ahhh, the ball pickup - sometimes the bane of lesson time. It does serve a purpose. After all, those balls aren't going to load themselves back in the cart. It provides a brief rest period and logical time to stop, get a drink, and discuss previous or future activities. However, if not managed properly, it can eat into valuable instruction time and at its worst devolve into a battle of wills. Instructors are always looking for fresh ways to get this done. At first the kids are all excited about the pickup, wanting to get it done quickly, trying to beat each other out for fastest pickup or most balls picked up. But the honeymoon is over fairly quickly. Dawdling, dilly-dallying, and outright dodging of responsibility soon sets in. Some coaches penalize the dodgers; for instance, if one is caught dodging during one pickup, said dodger is responsible for all balls at the next pickup. I have resorted to this on occasion, but I much prefer motivation to punishment. Here are some tactics that work for me.

Racquet pickup contest - an ongoing challenge to see who can beat either my personal best or the PB of another class in number of balls balanced one one racquet. Last count was 41 balls by one of my older classes. Younger classes usual run in the mid-20 ball range. Winners get their pictures on our FB page.
Timed pickups - divide players into teams responsible for specific halves or parts of the court. All balls must be picked up by a specific and brief time (seconds/low number of minutes). Variation: time every pickup; every class competes to have quickest pickup.
Onesies - balls must be picked up by hand and deposited in hopper one at a time, at a brisk pace. A good workout!
Kangaroo pickup - if their shirts are loose enough, have them stuff their shirts with tennis balls. This is easier for the younger students than balancing on a racquet. Beware one unanticipated side effect (and in retrospect it shouldn't have been unanticipated) - one student picking up foam balls insisted they were her 'breasts' and she only wanted to pick up two at a time. She was 4. . . An alternative to this, again if the shirt is large enough, is have them use the shirt like an apron and carry the balls on the outside rather than stuffing them inside.
Fun pickup toys - got this from a USTA QuickStart Workshop years ago - purchase some inexpensive plastic beach/Easter basket buckets. Cheaper than tubes and easier for young students to handle. Get lots of different colors. Large cones also work well for this.
Siblings assist - if younger siblings are on the outside looking in, invite them inside the court to help with the pickup.
Rollerball - Here's another fun and simple ball pickup activity. I found it in one of USTA's QuickStart Coaches Resource booklets. Have the players roll balls to the cart. Player with ball landing closest to cart wins. My students always want to know: what do we win? My answer: RESPECT.
Lobster Pickup - extra racquets needed for this one. Using 2 racquets, sandwich ball(s) between racquets to move them to the hopper/cart.
Tennis Ball Sandwich - have players work together in teams of 2, again with the sandwich idea before depositing ball into cart.
Ken's Pick-up - from Ken DeHart - Player performs a physical activity such as a lunge, squat, jumping jack, etc. after picking up a set number of balls; i.e. do one lunge for every 5 balls picked up.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Champion Builders

This warm-up is familiar in most sports, is known by other names ('suicides' being one, but that is a little too macho and fatalistic for my taste) and has endless variations. At its core, it is any warm-up that begins with a  basic movement central to your sport and adds repetitions to improve execution of said movement and improve fitness. Here's how I use them in tennis.

My Champion Builders focus on the sidestep. Multiple players can perform CBs at the same time as long as they are spaced safely apart. Players begin on the outermost (doubles) sideline of the court, facing the net. They should have their eyes across the net, focusing on their imaginary opponent/the oncoming ball; not on their feet, on you, or their classmates. They should be standing with feet shoulder width apart and knees slightly flexed.They sidestep (in a straight line parallel to the net) to the nearest line which is the singles sideline. Then they sidestep back to the starting point. Repeat, going to the middle service line, then back to the starting point. On to the far singles line, then back to starting point. Finish by sidestepping all the way across to the far doubles sideline, then back.

Arms: hold an imaginary racquet in 'ready position' throughout exercise.

  • Progression: hold actual racquet in 'ready position' throughout exercise. Make sure students are spaced safely apart.


Direction: repeat entire series, this time facing the back of the court
Balance: before reversing direction and returning to the starting point, balance on outer leg for a count of five
Coordination: While sidestepping completely across court, after every three sidesteps, clap hands and turn 180 degrees so that they are alternating facing net, then facing baseline. Step-step-step-clap/turn, step-step-step-clap/turn. There should be a quick hop to make the 180 degree turn as they are clapping.

Recovery drill: begin exercise in middle of court rather than at sidelines. Sidestep to deuce singles sideline, then back to center. Sidestep to ad singles sideline, then back to center. Number of repetitions is up to you!
  • Recovery drill progression: Instructor or other student stands in front of class with back to class, holding a ball in one hand. He/she holds ball out to his/her left or right and class must move that direction with sidestep and appropriate shadow swing. This will improve focus forward and moving with the ball.
  • Progression: add shadow swings (forehand on deuce side, backhand on ad side) 
  • Progression: hold actual racquet. Make sure students are spaced safely apart.
  • Progression: perform shadow swings with actual racquet
Carioca: substitute the Carioca or 'grapevine' footwork for the sidestep