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.