Sunday, April 29, 2012

Mission: Impossible

Top 5 great tips I learned at the 2012 PTR Symposium - this was easily one of them. Mike Barrell's (yes, he of evolve9 fame) presentation Message Sent, Message Received included many great tips on how to insure your tennis instruction will sink in with young students. But this was my favorite: when you label something 'impossible', it eliminates expectations and your students will try it without fear of failure. After all, if it is 'impossible', what do they have to lose? and if they do by chance succeed at an 'impossible' task, you can imagine their satisfaction. It's a Win-Win!

Now we all know even though our 10U students are young, they aren't stupid. You need to be careful about which tasks you label 'impossible'. Make sure you use it judiciously, for tasks that are at least moderately difficult if not moreso. Two exercises come to mind that lend themselves to impossibility. One is dribbling 'edgies'. Another is a serve exercise detailed here. Both are difficult for beginners, but not truly impossible. And if your students happen to succeed at it, they will be absolutely thrilled with themselves. Mission accomplished!

Overhand Serve Warm-Up

Extra points if you know
who this is
This exercise has been extremely useful to me as a player. Any of my students old enough to learn an overhand serve have learned this warm-up from me also. The goals of this warm-up are:

  • literally warm up the shoulder joint prior to serving
  • regulate the ball toss
  • refine the throwing motion, central to a quality serve
  • improve level of focus on toss prior to hitting serve

All good things! What's not to like??!!

Start at the baseline.

  • Ask player to take one tennis ball and throw it overhand over the net with whichever hand they use to play/serve with. Look for a natural throwing motion, as if they are throwing a football or a baseball. Remind them the serve is a simple throwing motion, throwing racquet at ball. Look for a weight transfer or even a step with opposite (front) foot. 
  • Now throw it as high as possible but still over net
  • Now throw it as high and as FAR as possible over net - opposite baseline is ideal goal
  • Now get two balls. First ball is in toss hand. Second is in serve/racquet hand. Toss service toss, letting it drop to ground.  Then throw second ball as previously instructed, as high and far over net as possible.
  • Final challenge: Toss service toss. Try to hit this ball in the air with second ball, again with same throwing motion as high and far as possible.

At first this will seem nigh impossible no matter the level of player. But you will be surprised how often the tossed ball is struck, even upon the first time this activity is attempted. This activity is amazingly effective for teaching the correct throwing motion and enforcing the high level of focus required during the toss/serve. Remind student to recreate the throwing motion when they have racquet in hand and are preparing to serve.

And in case you are wondering, yes, I have hit the tossed ball on more than one occasion. :)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

King of the Court

Full Disclosure: the hardest thing about writing this particular blog entry was choosing which picture of a crown to use. Tons of great graphics out there!

Full Disclosure #2: I have a little trouble confusing this game with Champs and Chumps. In the interest of making sure we all have the two straight, here's the scoop.

King of the Court (or Queen, if you prefer - I have tried to come up with a simple alternative name for this game that works for both girls and boys but so far, nada. USTA likes 'Champion of the Court' but it just doesn't have the same ring, does it?) is another simple game that should be in every tennis instructor's repertoire. Very simple, very handy, very useful, and popular with players of all ages. Works for singles as well as doubles. Individuals or teams must win two out of three points to become King/Queen. Among a competitive group with good camaraderie, this game could go on for days. Everyone wants one last chance to become King/Queen.

As you may recall, in Champs and Chumps, only one point determines the new Champ. In this version, if you lose the first point, you still have a chance to prevail by winning the next two points.

Note I have also seen this played with only one point determining the new King/Queen. In fact, on the USTA's website Top 10 Games Every Coach Should Know, they have this game played with one point in singles and best of three in doubles. If you play it with only one point required to become the new champ, then what is the difference between this and Champs and Chumps, you might ask? In C&C there is a group of Champs taking turns playing against the Chumps. In this game there is always only one champ (singles) or two (one doubles team) on the Champion side.

Whoever wins the first round, that side is designated as the King/Queen side of court, and subsequent winners must move to that side. If you don't do that, and just let the winners stay on their side regardless of which side they are on, it gets confusing who is King/Queen.

Update: Duh! Over a year on, I finally have figured out the difference between these two games. K/Q only has one player on the winning side. Champs/Chumps has two groups of players on each end of court. So for example let's say you have a group of 8 players. In K/Q, you would have one player on the winning side and the other 7 trying to earn their way to be King or Queen. In Champs/Chumps, the group would be split equally with 4 players on each end of court. After each point, winner moves or stays on Champs side and loser moves or stays on Chumps side.

Champs and Chumps

A rose by any other name . . . 
If you are a tennis instructor and you don't know this game yet, shame on you. It's a simple little ditty. Singles or doubles, you make the call. One side is randomly designated 'Champs'; the other, of course, is 'Chumps'. Point is played out. Winner goes (or stays) to Champs side of court; non-winner goes (or stays) to Chumps side. Repeat. Equally good for singles or doubles.

The beauty is in the simplicity. Most levels understand this game easily. There are no tricks or hidden rules. You win the point, you are a Champ. You don't win, you are a Chump. The points usually play out quickly so everyone has plenty of opportunity to win at least once.

Recent trend is to give this activity the kinder, gentler name of Champs and SuperChamps. Theory goes like this: the word 'chump' is demeaning and insulting to some kids. This is the same trend that encourages us to say 'non-winner' instead of 'loser'. I understand and somewhat agree. I find myself saying 'non-winner' more and more often. But my players think Champs and Chumps is just funny-sounding, and I have not witnessed any ill effects from the use of this term so far. In fact, 'Champs and SuperChamps' is a sort of let-down because there doesn't seem to be any disincentive for either. They are fine losing because they are still some kind of champ, even though it may not be SuperChamp. So I will continue using 'Champs and Chumps' until it becomes expedient for me to switch. Meaning, if my boss tells me to stop. :)

2 Ball - 3 Ball

The best laid plans of mice and tennis pros . . . we have all experienced having a lesson all planned out, then someone doesn't show up, or extra players show up, and there goes your lesson plan! Never fear: your worries are over. 2 Ball-3 Ball is great for odd numbers of players. It can be used as a singles or a doubles activity. It also translates perfectly to any level player. I first played it as a league player at White Bear Racquet and Swim in White Bear Lake, MN, which I believe has since been acquired by the Life Time Fitness chain.

Since I learned it as a doubles player, let's use that as our example. Four players take the court. Extra players are waiting at the net post. Three of the players on court have two balls each tucked away in pockets/skirts. The fourth player has three balls. Whomever has three balls feeds the first ball, bounce or underhand feed (not serve). Play out the point. Player making error then feeds the next ball. Repeat. Whenever someone runs out of balls, they leave the court and the next player waiting comes in. Be sure this new player has three balls and starts the next point.

You have probably figured out that this is a great drill to emphasize consistency. The players who make the fewest mistakes stay on court the longest. For young players/beginners, make sure they hustle on and off the court. If they can't rally much, at least they should get a good workout running on and off the court! For my young players this also has a secondary benefit: reinforcing the importance of wearing clothing that has pockets or that can easily store at least two tennis balls.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

105: Clever or Confusing?

This game was included in a very fine presentation on games for 10 and Under Tennis by Aaron Fox at the 2012 PTR Symposium in Orlando. I have seen it before at other training sessions. I have never used it, and here's why: although the concept is sound and it worked during Aaron's presentation, I think the scoring is too nonsensical and detracts from the enjoyment of the game (why 105 and not 100?). I have see adults stutter and stammer their way through this activity, more focused on trying to figure out the mental math than they are on hitting the ball. Sure, if you keep at it long enough, the players may figure it out. But in my experience if something isn't fun right away, you will lose their interest, they will get bored, stop trying, etc. Double everything I just said if your students are 10 and Under!

A word here about drills you see performed in professional presentations. They always run smoothly, don't they? And for good reason. The presenter is there to give you as much quality information as possible in a brief amount of time. If he has volunteers helping demonstrate the activity, they are either friends/colleagues/students familiar with the activity, or adult volunteers from the audience. Either way, their experience will be markedly different from your group of 8-year-olds trying anything for the first time. I'm just sayin'.

So here's how 105 works: Object of the game is to be the first team to win 105 points. Points are awarded as follows:
  • Groundstroke winner: 5
  • Volley winner: 10
  • Overhead winner: 20
  • Errors: 1 point for other team
Switch ends once one team has earned 50 points.

Much easier?
And by 'winner' we mean that ball is untouched by the opposition. So if the opponent hits a volley winner, and you stretch for it and make any contact at all (even if you net it or hit out), the team hitting that ball only gets 1 point (for your error) instead of 10 (for a clean winner).

This game can be played by groups or teams in relay fashion, with the player losing the point rotating out and replaced by a different teammate.

A particularly fun aspect of this game: when it looks like one team is running away with the game, coach can change up the rules to help even things out. For example, winning team must hit all backhands, or all of their balls must be hit deeper than service line. You might think the winning team would resent this erosion of their lead, but they seem to appreciate the challenge. Heaven knows the losing team certainly appreciates it! Seriously, this is a great way to keep the game going for as long as you want it to go without one team getting hammered over and over again.

I like this game and I really want it to work. Next time I try it I might just shrink it down to 21 with points given being 1, 2, and 3 instead of 5, 10 and 20.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Dribbling Perfection

Strange Internet Factoid: If you Google 'tennis ball' and  'dribble', you will get lots of hits of players in other sports - dribbling with tennis balls! Guess tennis balls are the perfect combination of size, bounciness, cost, and availability. Yea, tennis!

Dribbling is one of those great basic skills that I strongly encourage my students to perform any time they have a racquet and a ball available. When the arrive early, when they have nothing better to do at home (outside only!), walking from the car to the court, you name it. Dribbling has many variations to keep it from getting too boring or too easy. It is one of my standard homework assignments. First lesson for all of my students includes some form of dribbling.

  • Foam ball/ages 4-6 - maybe it's not a true dribble but the idea is the same - I ask them to drop, then catch, the ball and repeat. For example, bounce and catch five times, then get a high 5.
  • Red/orange balls/ages 6+ - the true dribble. I show them ups (repetitive bouncing of the ball into the air off the strings) and downs (bouncing ball on ground by tapping it with strings). 
    • Progression: Dribble while moving along the lines of the court.
    • Progression: combine ups with downs by tapping ball into air with strings, letting it bounce on ground, then tapping into air again, repeat.
    • Progression: perform combo dribble with a partner. Stand a few feet apart. Tap ball into air, hoping when it lands on the ground it lands somewhere between them so that the partner can be the next one to tap it into the air. Repeat. Note this can also be done with younger players and foam balls without the racquets. Have them toss/catch after one bounce with a partner.

Sometimes we have a dribbling contest. For my beginners I let them decide which form of dribbling they will attempt. I set a time limit, usually one minute. Player dribbling the most times without a miss wins. If they miss, they start back at zero. They find this challenging because having to actually count the dribbles adds a level of difficulty.

Def not suggesting A-Rod is
a creative accountant. But we both
feel like crying when we have one on our court.
Caution: very sad to report every time I do this I have a 'creative accountant' in the mix. I usually ask everyone how many dribbles they completed. There is always someone who has figured out how to beat the system, listen to everyone else's score, and just pull a higher number out of thin air. I always try it this way first because it tells me a lot about my students. If there seems to be a discrepancy, I have two remedies. I would love to hear yours.

Remedy 1: Pair up the players. Have one doing the counting while the other is dribbling; switch and repeat.
Remedy 2: Allow the reported score to stand. Repeat the contest a few more times. Winner can participate each time but can only win once.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Ball Trap

Ahh, the ball trap drill - ding! ding! ding! - another favorite of Yours Truly! This has been demonstrated at virtually every on-court 10 and Under training I have ever been to, and I have attended many. Deservedly so. This is a very valuable teaching tool. If you are not using it yet, you should be.

This drill requires two people, either two players or a player and a coach. They stand facing each other 5-6 feet apart. One is tossing; the other is receiving. Receiver has a racquet; tosser does not. Traditionally one starts with the forehand side as the backhand side is a little trickier. For very young players this can be done first without the barrier of a net between the two. Otherwise, do it with the net in between.

Forehand trap
Racquet is held in right hand for a right-handed player
Left hand covers or 'traps' ball
as it arrives on strings
  • Ask the receiving player to 'show me a target' meaning hold the racquet down low to one side and out in front of the body. 
  • Once a good target is in place, the other person tosses the ball gently, underhand, so that it will bounce before reaching the receiver. For very young players you may have to demonstrate an underhand toss. They will want to throw it overhand, especially if there is a net between them and their partner. They do not trust that an underhand will make it over. Oh ye of little faith! :)
  • Receiver traps ball by letting it arrive on his racquet strings, then covering it or 'trapping' it with the off hand. 
  • Receiver gently tosses ball back to partner. 
  • Repeat. 
  • Once the pair has completed X amount of toss and trap, they high 5 and switch roles (not necessarily places!).  
  • Once both have had a chance to trap, they stop and raise their hands to signal they have completed their task.
This drill is a thing of beauty. So much of benefit going on here.
  • Receiver must show a good target, and becomes trained to the idea of keeping the racquet out in front. They will quickly discover this task is magnitudes more difficult if they let the ball get behind them.
  • Watching the ball - receiver must watch the ball carefully. Track from toss, time the bounce. This seems easy but you would be surprised how difficult it is to keep the ball from springing off the strings once it gets there.
  • Tossing - the underhand motion is so close to what we want to see in a nice full swing. Soft hands, leading the ball to a target. 
  • Teamwork - who doesn't want to be the first to complete the task??? So they learn teamwork and cooperation.
Backhand trap for a right-handed player
Racquet is held in right hand; left hand comes
over top of racquet from behind to trap ball
Once you have completed the exercise on the forehand side, it's time for the backhand. The backhand side is a little trickier because the off hand has to reach over the racquet to trap the ball. Tip: don't bother trying to explain this. Just show them. In this case, a visual is worth many valuable lesson minutes. 

And now, it's time for the Caution:
In each of the on-court presentations I mentioned above, it is strongly encouraged that you will have two players paired up to perform this activity: one tossing and one receiving. This is great in theory because we are all trying to get away from boring lessons with lots of standing around in lines waiting to hit the ball. Totally agree! 


The very young players, say, 6 and under, probably will not be able to toss the ball gently enough and accurately enough to give the receiving player any chance at all of trapping this ball. It will either go into the net or sky high or a myriad of other places NOT on target. I agree this is the ultimate goal (to have two players partnering on the activity). Certainly try it this way first. But if you see that it is failing due to an issue with the underhand toss, quickly step in and start tossing it yourself. The value of the receiving portion of the activity is well worth the trade-off. I would much rather have you fudge a little bit on the tossing rather than disregard this valuable activity altogether because the tossing part isn't working.
Final note: I totally use this activity with beginners of all ages as well as return to it when strokes start to go awry with my non-beginners. It helps us get back on track and reinforces the importance of catching that ball out in front.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Serve Progression #1

The Serve: the most important stroke of this game. Expect to see lots of serve drills in this blog. I gotta million of 'em! This one is pretty basic. I first saw it at a PTR Certification and have used it in some form or other many times since.

Begin in the middle of the service box, not far from where your players may expect to hit a volley rather than a serve. Mark four spots across the court (represented by the red Xs in my cheesy homemade graphic at right). These four spots are the four spots one might likely serve from: out wide at deuce and ad (for doubles), and near the hash mark or middle ad and deuce side (for singles). Each player serves from each of the four positions, working their way across the court (usually from left to right or ad to deuce). After all have served at the first position, move back to position #2 at service line and repeat. Then back to position #3, halfway between service line and baseline. Fourth and last position at baseline. Allow 2 balls per serve, as in a real game. Assign points as follows:

Over Net: 1
Cross Court: 2
Inside Correct Service Box: 3
Foot Fault: - 5
In Net: - 2
Long/Wide: - 1

My adaptation to this scoring system: for my older players, I eliminate the first two options. They either get it in the correct box, or they get point penalties.

Because they are starting so close to they net, they have an opportunity to rack up the points before they get farther back on the court and errors are more likely.

Player with most points at end of rotations wins.

Caution: as with any activity where players are charged to keep track of their own scores, sad to say there is the possibility for, shall we say, creative bookkeepping. You may have to 'help' them keep score.

All For One . . .

If your brain didn't already drop 'and one for all!' then what can I say - you are probably too young to know about the Three Musketeers. This is a quick visual aid for learning a nice throwing motion for the serve. Blatantly ripped off from the amazing Sophie Woorons-Johnston at a PTR Certification in 2011.

Just kidding - this is what I meant
and why are there always four 'three musketeers'??
Have the students stand facing each other in a circle. They should be far enough apart that when racquets are pointed across circle, the tips or heads of the racquets may touch or slightly overlap. Begin with racquets outstretched pointing across the circle. If everyone is doing this, all racquets should be in center of circle. On your cue, all say, "All for one!" and raise the racquets behind their heads as if cocking to hit a serve. On your second cue, all say, "and one for all!" and the racquets reach out in front, slightly tapping at what would be a good contact point on serve. That is, arm fully outstretched, out in front.

Caution: explain clearly and do a couple of slow demos so that racquets are not banging around dangerously on the second motion.

French Open 2012 Poster - Love or Hate?

The French Open will be here before you know it (May 27-June 10). In addition to the usual red clay drama (will R-Fed ever win one? Will Rafa reclaim his throne?) we have a kerfuffle over this year's promotional poster. It has been called a 'piping hot mess' and 'a gang of puckered-up cyclopes'. Artist Herve Di Rosa titled his work 'Sensual mouthes and rebellious looks'. What do you think? I kinda like it.

While the focus of all Grand Slams is on the adult pros, there are also young players competing for a future spot in the limelight. 11-year-old Rachel Lim of New York (state) won the Longines Future Tennis Aces qualifier last week - in a tiebreaker! She will travel to the French Open and compete with other 12-and-unders from around the world. Sixteen girls competed in the Longines qualy. They were selected on two criteria: athletic skill and commitment to give back to the community. A 300 word essay on philanthropy was an entry requirement. So keep an eye out for a news feed in early June - fingers crossed as Ms. Lim represents the USA!

Tennis Ball Sandwich

An oldie but goodie - the Tennis Ball Sandwich. This is another activity that has bonus benefits. The obvious benefits are improved agility and coordination. The bonus is the teamwork component.

In its simplest form, two players pair up. One places a ball on his/her strings and the other covers the top of the ball, forming said sandwich. They carry the ball together to some destination, say, baseline to net and back. First team there wins. Any drops and the team must go back to the starting point, reset the sandwich, and start over. Super easy to make this into a relay activity if you have a large group.


  • Add layers to your sandwich by having three, four, five or more teammates carrying with balls layered between multiple racquets. For example let's say the object is to move from the baseline to the net and back. Once this has been accomplished, a third player on the team adds a ball sandwiched by his/her racquet. So now your sandwich consists of two balls and three racquets. This new team travels up to net and back; then add a third ball and a fourth player etc. until entire team has moved up to net and back without dropping. This could take a while!
  • You don't have to use a racquet. You can sandwich a ball between the knees and compete individually or as a relay team.
  • Or compete as a pair but sandwich the ball between your shoulders.
  • Rather than returning to the starting point, when you get to the net or other side of court or wherever your route takes you, deposit ball in empty tennis ball can or other container without using your hands. If you are doing the racquet sandwich, you must drop it in using the racquets. If you are using your knees or shoulders, ditto - maneuver yourself over the container and let the ball drop. No cheater-cheater-pumpkin-eaters! If you do this container version, you can add a timing component to the activity - whichever team gets the most balls in their container within, say, three minutes or so, wins.
  • Up the ante by turning a straight line course into an obstacle course using cones or other items to break up the route.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Talk to the Ball

So I'm reading some comments on the evolve9 discussion group at LinkedIn. For those of you who don't know, evolve9 is a European-based (England, I believe) tennis instruction organization specializing in young players. The discussion was about the use of training aids on the court. Lots of good info. Lord knows there are lots of training aids out there and it is useful to have recommendations (or warnings) from other instructors. But out of all the training aids you could spend your money on, fellow by the name of Brett Lennard chimes in with his two cents, saying his favorite tools are the players' own eyes and mouth. He is a fan of the exercise where you ask the player to say 'bounce' when the ball bounces; 'hit' when they hit the ball; and he adds one that I have not used: have them say 'split' when their opponent hits the ball. This last is to remind them to perform the 'split step' which we will cover in another blog post.

I agree with Brett and all the other coaches who use this tried-and-true technique. I find it especially useful for brand-new players, right up there with learning the parts of the court and the four basic strokes (forehand, backhand, volley, serve). Bounce-Hit performs two important functions.

  • It helps the player focus on the ball
  • It helps the player understand the variations in rhythm that they can control as they progress; specifically when we progress to hitting early aka 'taking the ball on the rise', we can refer to our Bounce, Hit days. Bounce . . . . . Hit! becomes Bounce-Hit!
oh and here's a third one
  • It has legs. Lots of older players still say Bounce, Hit! in their heads when they play. 
how about a fourth
  • Anecdotal evidence only, but when I give my students a secondary activity paired with hitting the ball, most students hit the ball much better. Not sure why, maybe because the left brain is now occupied with saying Bounce, Hit! and the right brain can take over the hitting process.

For my very young players, we start this activity as a group. I drop a ball and we all say Bounce! together. I give them homework where they drop the ball themselves, say Bounce, then Catch when they catch it. Catch is soon replaced by Hit when they have a racquet in their hands and either I am feeding the ball or they are bounce feeding themselves.

Still using the concept of speaking or reacting verbally to an action on the court:

  • Count out loud the number of rallies. Full disclosure: I still do this in my head (usually) when I play. I have a little bit of an adult ADD problem, and this really helps me focus on what is going on during the point as opposed to what  groceries I need to pick up at Piggly Wiggly, wondering if I remembered to put the clothes in the dryer before I left that morning, whether I should use I-20 or 378 due to traffic conditions on the way home, etc.
  • I have some students studying Spanish and Chinese so sometimes we count in a different language. When possible, I like to customize my lessons to integrate my students' interests outside of tennis.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Strokes of Genius

Let us take a slight divergence from our discussion of 10 and Under Tennis and examine a popular video featuring world-famous tennis player Roger Federer. If you are new to tennis, or new to ME, let's clarify that Roger Federer is one of the top players in the world. Many consider him to be the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time).  I confess he is my favorite player. I discovered this video by clicking on a link sent to me automatically when I signed up to 'follow' RF on Twitter. Sure maybe it's self-serving and a marketing ploy, but you can't watch this video without marveling. Dude def has the skills. And that sentence just may be the UOAT (Understatement Of All Time).

Things I learned about RF and tennis by watching this string of highlights:
  • How a 45 ball rally that you ended up losing could still be your favorite point ever played
  • Why you need to be able to pair lightning speed with soft hands
  • Greatness has nothing to do with how hard you hit
  • Greatness has nothing to do with how fast you serve
  • Everyone makes the same face when RF's ridiculously amazing winner goes flying by
  • What Andy Roddick looks like playing without a hat
Now back to 10 and Under topics - I heard that during an interview, RF was stunned to discover that until recently, 10 and Under tennis (short courts, modified equipment, low compression balls) was not taught to juniors in the United States; that they were expected to use full size nets and courts and yellow balls regardless of their age or ability. I believe his response was, 'no wonder!' Apparently this 10U approach has been the norm in Europe and elsewhere for years. Check the online tennis discussion boards and you will frequently find people wondering why Americans are no longer dominating tennis. Many feel this is one of the reasons - 'they' (Europeans and others) have been using this method for years and it has really started to pay off.

But it's not too late! Let's get on board with this 10 and Under program and start seeing some results!

Joe Dinoffer and his 5 Paradoxes

Today I'll give you a break from my prattling and let you read a great article by teaching professional Joe Dinoffer. Joe is a Master Professional with both PTR and USPTA. He wrote this article for TennisOne which is a great source of tennis instructional materials.

The 5 Paradoxes of Teaching Group Tennis to Children

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Call It!

In? or Out?
Remember, 99% out is 100% in . . .
This is an activity I just saw demonstrated at the PTR Symposium in Orlando at one of Jorge Capestany's sessions. Mr. Capestany rocks. He is a mighty fount of tennis knowledge. He has a great website here. If you ever have the opportunity to hear him speak, do it. As I continue adding posts to this blog you will see his name pop up frequently as the source for many great tennis instruction activities. I bow to him. I Am Not Worthy.


This is one of those activities I mentioned in my introduction to this blog, that look/sound good on paper but don't deliver in reality. I saw it demonstrated and really liked the idea. I have used it twice this week and while it did work somewhat, I have a couple of caveats. So here's the activity.

The idea is to teach players how to watch the ball and be able to call them 'in' or 'out' properly. Jorge had the kids line up in the alley. He then went across the net and tossed a ball over the net. They were to watch it carefully, and when it finally bounced into 'out' territory, the kids were to yell 'out!' together. This worked well in the demonstration because the kids were ringers and knew very well the difference between 'in' and 'out'.

With my red and orange ball classes, things were not so straightforward. The kids were confused about the multiple bounces before the ball got into 'out' territory, as well they should be. After all, they have been trained (by ME) from Day 1 that we only get ONE bounce in tennis. So they were wondering why all of a sudden we now care what happens after that first bounce. Once I explained about the multiple bounces for this activity only, they quickly figured it out.

Once that got straightened out, I found this exercise very useful to me to indicate who is having trouble understanding what is In and what is Out - you can tell by the little voices that call the ball either incorrectly or way before or way after everyone else. I will continue to use this activity with one change - I will toss the ball in such a way that the first bounce is either in or out, and avoid multiple bounces before the ball gets into Out territory.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Celebrate! (a little bit)

This fun activity is good for 5-10 minutes of distraction when you need it. Okay so I'm a little torn about this one. Tennis is supposed to be one of those sports where everyone shows restraint, practices good tennis etiquette, minds their manners. And I totally support that and like that aspect of it. But every now and then you have to cut loose. So every now and then, I have a mini-session on Personal Celebrations. I do this for a couple of reasons.
1) my students get a kick out of it
2) many tennis professionals do a little celebration from time to time, and I encourage my students to follow some of the pros to help keep their interest in tennis high. So if they see their favorite pro do a little celebration, and they want to emulate them, 's okay with me.You just have to handle this deftly so it doesn't veer into the Land of Poor Sportsmanship.

I usually have to give my students some choices on how to celebrate. That also is two-pronged:
1) how to celebrate
2) when to celebrate

How to Celebrate
These have gone over well:
The Happy Dance - this is just me doing a lame dance, mostly arms flapping or doing that circular motion that looks like one of Macbeth's witches stirring a cauldron. Usually this results in a few moments of stunned silence while my students try to figure out if they should call for help because I am having some kind of fit. Once I explain this is my Happy Dance and they should do one, too, because they just did something awesome, they seem a little mollified but still really embarrassed for me. Sometimes they try their own little Happy Dance which is always way cuter than mine.
The Fist Pump - a favorite in every sport. If you have not seen this article and comic drawn by Mickey Duzyj about the history of the fist pump in tennis, run don't walk and check it out.
Superheroes - Superman (pretend they are ripping off that confining button-down to reveal the big S on their t-shirt underneath) and Wonder Woman (crossing those magic bracelets!)
And thanks to Aaron Rodgers and the brilliant ad campaign designed for State Farm Insurance, I also offer the Discount Double Check move (the move formerly known as Putting on the Championship Belt) as an option.

When to Celebrate
Yes, many of my students have no clue when they should be doing one of these celebratory moves. They err on both sides - either celebrating any old shot, or not celebrating when they do something amazing. At this point we have a brief discussion on good sportsmanship (something you want) and taunting (something you don't).

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Pork Chop . . . I Mean, Ball Chase

Mmmmmmm . . . pork chop!
I love this homework activity because it is simple and it works for all ages and levels. I also like any activity that encourages watching for the ball like a junkyard dog eyes up a pork chop.

This activity requires two people.
  • One person stands 3-4 feet behind the other.
  • Front person stands with feet shoulder width apart or wider.
  • Rear person rolls tennis ball on ground so that it passes through front person's feet.
  • As soon as front person spies ball, he/she chases and captures it as soon as possible.
  • Alternate chaser/roller.
For a larger group activity, have the kids line up to do this. First person in line is first chaser. Second person is first roller. First chaser goes to end of line after capturing ball. Repeat at least once through entire group but you will probably find they want to keep going and going and going . . .

Increase the difficulty by rolling the ball faster or putting a limit on the distance the ball must be retrieved by.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Dynamic Warm-ups

Butt Kicks
Running lines is probably the most time-honored way to warm up prior to a tennis lesson. But you know how I feel about running lines all the time. Just to shake things up, I have been on the lookout for other ways to get the kids moving before they pick up their racquets.

Butt Kicks and High Knees- I have seen these in many workshops as well as training videos. The younger kids always giggle when I say the b-word or what sounds like 'heinie' so that's a plus. Pretty simple - just have them start at the baseline and run to the net and back with these two movements.

High Knees
images from
  • Butt kicks - heel must touch derriere with every step. 
  • High knees are the opposite of the butt kicks - knee must be raised 90 degrees or higher with every step.
Hop/Sprint - I think I saw this one on the Dynamic Warmup video which BTW if you don't own this, get it now. Very good stuff here. Anyway - player starts at doubles sideline. With both feet together, player makes very quick jumps in front of, then behind, sideline. When I say Go!, player switches from this quick hopping movement to a sprint to the far sideline.

Zig-zags - running baseline to net and back, players zig-zag using their shuffle step at a slight angle alternating to their right, then to their left.

I saw the next two activities in magazine a few years ago

Ground stroke sprints - beginning at baseline hash mark, player moves quickly to a spot near the deuce side singles sideline and 2-3 steps inside baseline using a shuffle step. Then back to hash mark. Repeat to ad side. Player is basically tracing a wide V shape on the court with the bottom of the V being the hash mark and the tops being on the deuce and ad sides. This is to simulate moving to an out-wide ball, then recovering to the center baseline. I ask them to do a shadow swing of a forehand on the deuce side and backhand on the ad side (reverse this if your player is a lefty).

Volley sprints - same idea as groundie sprints but begin at service T. Move forward at an angle to middle of deuce side service box, shadow volley, back to T, repeat to ad side, shadow volley, back to T.

This one I just learned from a session by Jorge Capestany at the PTR Symposium in Orlando. It gets the quads firing.

X Marks the Spot - embellish the above sprint drills by making the hash mark or the service T the center of an imaginary X rather than a V. Player does the same movements but adds a sprint to a location behind the recovery point on each side as well. So for ground strokes, start at the hash mark. Run to forward diagonal location on deuce side. Recover to hash. Sprint to rearward diagonal location on deuce side. Recover to hash. Repeat on ad side. Remember your shadow swings at each tip of the X. This benefits greatly from a few spots thrown down when students are first learning the drill. As Chuck Kriese says, 'if your legs ain't burnin', you ain't learnin'".

For the above three sprint drills, if I have a small group I have each player give me a certain amount of reps or a timed amount of running the activity. For a large group I have them running one rep each and rotating through the activity quickly. You can run the ground stroke and volley sprints simultaneously since they are shadow swinging and you don't have to worry about live balls. 

Son of Caterpillar

Bean bags - very handy for young beginners
The other drill I have seen also called Caterpillar is one of those that looks great on paper and even in video but I have had little success with it. The idea is to have the students stand in a line shoulder to shoulder. Place a ball on the racquet of the player at one end of the line. Player passes ball to racquet of adjacent player, then runs behind players and becomes last player in line. So ideally the line is inching along, growing longer at one end. Play continues until you run out room. If they are younger players and are having trouble passing the ball without drops, use a bean bag instead. Click here to see the activity (aka Inchworm) in a USTA video.

This is a simple activity designed for very young players. The problem I have always had with this drill is that they are very confused about where they should go after they pass the ball/beanbag. They either stand their too long, or run in front of others, or think they are done after they pass the ball. It devolves into me yelling instructions about where to go and what to do, then the other kids get distracted and confused. It is always a disaster and I have just stopped using it.


Caterpillar - Not!
Insanely colorful birds. Not sure
but they might be tanagers??
If you dig around in the USTA's playbooks for 10U tennis, you will find a couple of different drills called Caterpillar. I have used both. This one is my favorite and my younger students always enjoy doing it.

  • Line up players single file, feet at least shoulder width apart. I like for them to be pretty close to the player in front of them. 
  • Coach stands 5-10 feet away, facing them. 
  • Coach rolls tennis ball along ground. 
  • Players must move together (preferably using their shuffle step!) so that ball rolls between their feet from front of line all the way to the end of the line without touching anyone.
  •  If it touches anyone, that player moves to end of line. It is much easier to move and adjust your position correctly at the front of the line, so you def don't want to be sent to the rear.

I start out rolling the ball straight at them until I see they understand the activity. Then I start rolling the ball further away from them to make it a little more difficult. Variation: let one of the kids roll the ball.

Click here to see a video of the Caterpillar drill, thanks to These kids are bigger but no worries - my young players (5-7) are able to do this drill just as well (maybe better).

Ball Toss

This is a simple but useful three progression warmup. All you will need is some tennis balls.

Partners start a few feet apart in the open court, tossing ball underhand to each other. One bounce, then catch. Work on controlling the toss and keeping the body in front of the ball. You want them to catch it with both hands in the center of the body so that they are repositioning themselves relative to the ball. This translates well into setting up/preparing to hit. For younger players, it helps reinforce the 'one bounce' principle they will need when they start to rally and play.


  • Add a target on the ground such as a hula hoop or a spot for them to aim their toss/bounce
  • Have partners take a step back after each successful catch. If you have enough pairs, last team making successful catches wins.


  • Add a barrier between partners - move to net and toss must now go over net before first bounce.
  • Toss while side shuffling across court facing each other across net.
  • Perform same series using racquet to feed ball rather than tossing underhand.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Racquet Grab

This warm-up is a great icebreaker for the first day of a new session or camp. Unlike some warm-ups, they will need their racquets for this activity.

  • Have the kids form a tight circle with everyone facing into the center.  
  • Have them hold the racquets head down touching the court and held upright by the handle. Usually only one finger on the butt cap is all that is required to hold the racquet vertical. 
  • Explain which direction they will be moving - your choice, to the right or to the left. Make sure everyone knows which is right and which is left. 
  • On your command (I usually just say 'Go!'), they are to move one spot in that direction and keep their neighbor's racquet vertical. They do not move their own racquet - racquet stays in place and therefore must be caught before it falls when people rotate one position left or right. This requires a light touch and quick feet. 
  • After they have done this successfully a few times, have them change direction.

After they have mastered both directions, after each round have them take a step back, enlarging the circle.

Whoever drops their racquet is eliminated. Last one standing is the winner.

Learning the Court

Diagram found at
I may not run lines at every class, but I do use this one often with new classes/students. It is an easy and effective way to teach them the various parts of the court and saves me time in the long run. If I do this from the beginning, I avoid time wasted explaining where I want them to stand or target in subsequent activities and drills.

At our initial meetings they must know a few simple parts of the court: the net (a gimme), the baseline, and the service line. Just three. When I say one of those three parts, they must go there. Ideally they must run there. Once they have this figured out on one half of the court, I point out to them that there are duplicate parts on the other side of the net, and include those in our game by saying 'other baseline', 'other service line', etc. The quick minds figure this out and eventually I don't have to say 'other' because they know either of the baselines/service lines is the correct location to run to.

At the next meeting we go over these three and add the alley and the service boxes. Once these five are second nature, usually at the third meeting, I add the T, the hash mark, deuce side, ad side, and finally, No Man's Land.

When I first saw this activity, there was an added component of incentive to speed. In other words there was a penalty for being the last one to the location. The penalty was to call out the latecomer and have him/her do some silly activity in front of the group. Suggested silly activities were silly jumping jacks, donkey kicks, making silly faces or noises, etc. IMO these do more harm than good. Occasionally you will have a class clown in the group who loves being the center of attention. But in my experience a) this is rare - tennis does not seem to attract many class clowns; and b) if you do have a class clown, they will deliberately arrive last at each location to get another chance to perform in front of the group.  Additinally, the non-clowns run like the hounds of hell are after them to avoid being called up and publicly humiliated in front of their peers. So I dispense with the penalty altogether. I just call the parts with authority, and they seem to know without me telling them to get there quickly - lots of hustle. If they are not hustling I definitely urge them on.

Running Lines

Start at lower right or left corner
Work your way over to opposite side
Running lines is an evergreen tennis warm-up. Part of me thinks this warm-up is lame, lacks imagination, and is the sign of a lazy coach. The other part thinks any tennis student worth his/her salt should know what this warm-up is and in fact should arrive at the court and start running the lines unbidden because they're tennis students and it's a tennis thing. So as per my usual, I compromise. I teach it to my students, but I don't overuse it.

It's simple enough for the youngest players. Player starts at the baseline where the baseline and doubles sideline meet. He/she follows the line up to the net, turns and retraces his/her steps back to the baseline, follows the baseline a few steps over to the singles sideline, and follows it up to the net. On his/her way back from the net, he/she turns at the service line, follows it to the T line, then up to the net and back. They continue 'running the lines' until they get all the way to the far side of the court and then return to the starting point. Usually there is more than one student, so they are lined up at the starting point. Once one student starts running up the second line which is the singles sideline, the next student in line may begin so that they are not running into each other. I have them start with a light jog. If we are doing more than one repetition, the subsequent reps must be run faster.


  • For older, more experienced and coordinated players, you may choose to have them back pedal from the net.  For my younger players I have them jog or run the entire thing facing forward; in other words, no running backwards for safety reasons. 
  • You may also have your students side shuffle any horizontal lines such as the service lines. 
  • For older players, you can add the carioca step for some or all of the exercise. 
  • Increase the level of difficulty by increasing speed and repetitions.
  • Have them 'walk' the lines, but they must be dribbling either ups or downs or combination as they proceed.

Bouncy Rocks

I have a few 'bouncy rocks' in my ball cart. They come in handy when you are looking for a change from the usual tennis-centric warmup activities. The irregularly shaped solid rubber objects come in bright colors and patterns and are the right size for the smallest of hands. They aren't cheap, but they are sturdy and will last forever if you can keep track of them. They can be found online here and other places.

Rock Balls
Granted your youngest players will likely not be able to catch them on the first or even multiple bounces, but they get a kick out of the crazy bounces and chasing them all over the court. The older players will be challenged to use their agility, balance, and speed to keep up with these things. I don't have any uber-organized activity for them - just trying to catch them is difficult enough. For the younger kids who have trouble catching them, just toss the rocks and whomever comes up with it gets to toss it next.

Take some precautions as they are hard and dense for their size, and would definitely sting if you got hit with one. Underhand toss only! Also make sure they don't try to hit them with their tennis racquets - otherwise I hope you have a stringing machine at your club.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


This is one of my favorite warm-up activities because the kids enjoy it so much. I learned it at a USTA QuickStart Workshop. You will need a goodly number of cones, 10-12 or more.

The Prep

  • Arrange cones in the area between the service line and the baseline.
  • Divide players into two teams (see separate blog entry for ideas on team formation). 
  • Have teams spin racquets. Winner gets to choose which team is Godzilla first. Other team is Hero. Repeat this activity at least once so each team has an opportunity to be Godzilla.
  • Be prepared to time the activity. 

The Game

  • Line up teams on either side of court sidelines facing cone area. Godzilla's job is to knock over the cones using fingertips/hands only - no kicking. Hero's job is to right the cones. 
  • Ready-Set-Go - Godzilla begins knocking over cones while Hero works feverishly to right them.
  • When Time is called, both teams retreat to their sidelines.
  • Cones are counted, number of cones up vs number down. Whichever team has the most cones, wins. 

One minute per round is plenty of time for this activity. Be on the alert when time is called - there is always someone wanting to make one more 'adjustment' to the cones.

Ball Thief

Ball Thief is one of those beloved tennis warm-up activities that has those endearing qualities tennis instructors love. It requires only a little preparation and minimal extra equipment, and it's fun! I first saw it at a USTA QuickStart Workshop.

A number of balls is placed in the center of the court (near the T). The number of balls should be double the number of players. Balls should be contained somehow. I have seen hula hoops used, or buckets, hoppers, etc. Push comes to shove you can just have them lying on the court but in a circle or a mound to start off to make it clear these are the balls to be used in this activity and create a little visual interest.

Players are spread out in a circle or other shape as long as they are all equally distant from the balls in the middle. They lay their racquets on the ground at their feet. The object is to get three tennis balls on their racquet within a brief set time period, usually one minute. They may only retrieve/transport one ball at a time. Once the balls are all gone from the middle supply, they may rob balls from other players' racquets, again, only one ball at a time.  This 'robbing' factor is why it is important to have the correct number of balls. If there are too many balls, there will be plenty in the middle and no reason to start robbing off other people's racquets, which is half the fun.

This can be done individually or as a team. If as a team, one player can be designated as the 'keeper' protecting the team's supply of balls from other raiding teams.

This is a fun activity but as you can imagine there is a very good chance there will be some disgruntlement and even tears when players start robbing balls off each others' racquets. I have seen many players intent on defending their racquets after they get their three, very irate when others try to take them, and really hesitant to take balls from others' racquets. Important everyone understands it is okay to rob from other racquets. In fact, it is encouraged!

Number of balls you start with is unimportant, as long as it is lots of them. Player/team with most balls on their racquet at end of timed period wins.

Tennis Horse

Not exactly what I had in mind . . .
Riders at Old Naval Academy Dairy Farm, Maryland
Hope those are non-marking hooves
I thought I knew how to play basketball 'Horse' until my husband informed me I had it completely wrong. Since I never played organized basketball, my take on the game of 'Horse' is a little skewed. But I have found a couple of ways to make the basic idea work for some tennis activities. You can either play with the goal of accumulating letters and spelling 'Horse' first, or do the opposite - the goal is to avoid losing all the letters of the word 'Horse'. Depends on whether you want to focus on the positive (glass half full) or illustrate negative consequences of errors (glass half empty). Both are useful. Either way, this is the activity. Horses optional.

  • Players compete individually or as teams.
  • Targets are identified across net. Physical targets can be used, but simplest is to identify parts of the court as targets. This achieves a secondary goal of reinforcing parts of the court. For example you have four choices of target: deuce side short (inside service box), deuce side deep (beyond service box), and ditto on the ad side.
  • First player stands in middle of service box and calls his/her target across net, then bounce feeds to target. If unsuccessful, next player goes until someone is successful at first shot. When someone is successful on this game-starting shot, the next player must make the same shot. If they are successful, next player attempts, continuing through all players until getting back to the original successful player, who then calls a different shot and the process begins again. Note: if you cycle through all players back to original player, and original player does not hit his/her second called target, the next player in turn has the chance to call the new shot. This aspect of the game teaches them that being successful/controlling the shot literally puts them in control of the game.

Glass Half Full scoring strategy
Letters are awarded for successful shotmaking. First player to spell 'Horse' wins.

Glass Half Empty scoring strategy
Any unsuccessful shots result in that player receiving one of the letters spelling 'Horse'. Once any players spell the entire word, they are eliminated. Last player standing is the winner.


  • Spell a different word, maybe something tennis related, like 'Tennis'
  • Add an Instant Winner aspect - add a challenge, that, if met, immediately ends game and person meeting challenge is declared Instant Winner. On my court this is usually if a ball hits a small target like a cone or hopper.

Too easy?
  • Make the targets more difficult either by making them smaller or moving the start point farther from the net. 
  • Make the feed underhand, no bounce. 
  • Make it a timed activity - must be completed within certain time limit, or whomever has best score after certain time limit wins. 
Too hard?
  • For younger players use glass half full only
  • Spell out a shorter, easier word. Three letters max. Fun to let them choose a word they know how to spell.
  • Make targets easier - 
    • deuce or ad side only, 
    • or anywhere within playable area over net, 
    • or anything over net gets a letter

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Cats and Rats

Nothing gets young children running and screaming like a good game of Cats and Rats.  It's simple and effective.  I first saw this done in USTA Jr. Team Tennis - SO to Tedi Doncheva's JTT program at Rock Hill Tennis Center.

Objective: cats chase rats, but sometimes the rats chase back. This is a game of tag but who is 'it' changes depending on who is chasing who. Or whom???

  • The players will need plenty of room to run, so if you can run across several courts, great. If not, make your activity space between the net and the baseline.
  • Divide the group into two teams. This works just as well for two students as it does for twenty. 
  • Designate one group as Cats; the other is Rats. 
  • Cats/Rats may only run toward/away from each other in a straight line.
  • Start with Cats facing Rats 6-10 feet apart. Whomever you call out, that group is doing the chasing. So to start things off, you can shout Cats! and the Cats chase the Rats. Then alternate calling out Cats!, then Rats!, so that they are constantly having to stop and reverse direction to either chase or avoid being chased. 

The kids love this game. The only tweak I would offer is to have two animals that don't rhyme - sometimes it is hard for the kids to make out what you are yelling if the words sound too similar. But most of the time they don't seem to mind and it gets their hearts and legs pumping.

Lily Pad


Lily Pad is a great fun little warmup. It is a tried and true basic, def belongs in your toolbox. I first learned it years ago at a USTA QuickStart Workshop.

You will need some spots. Two for each player is ideal, but if you don't have enough, you can restructure the activity into a relay and still make things work.

I like to do this activity in two phases: first as a partner activity and second as an individual activity. You'll see why I do it in this order in a minute.

Objective: 'Frogs' (players) move from one sideline to the other by advancing the 'lily pads' (spots) in a straight line across the court. Frog may not step off lily pad or he/she will fall into the 'swamp' and dire consequences will ensue.

  • Pair up players (see Team Formation for some ideas on how to do this). 
  • Place two spots straddling one of the court sidelines; one spot outside the court, one inside. 
  • Designate one of each pair of players as 'Froggie'; the other as 'Froggie Helper'. 
  • Froggie starts on spot inside court. Helper's job is to move the other spot ahead of Froggie as quickly as possible but within stepping or hopping distance. 
  • Remember, Frog must stay on spot at all times. If he/she falls into swamp, he/she starts over. 
  • When each pair gets all the way across the court, they switch roles. Froggie is now Froggie Helper and vice versa, and they work their way back to the starting point. 
  • First team to return is the winner.

Now that they have this figured out, or so they think, transition to an individual competition. If you don't have enough spots to give each player two, divide them into teams with only one player per team racing at a time. That way you will only need a total of four spots.

Repeat the above activity, with the big difference now being there is no 'helper'. Player must squat, twist, pick up spot, toss it, hop to it, and repeat, all on their own. They will soon discover the perils of tossing the spot too far! If they fall into the swamp, back to the starting line they go. It is interesting to see which players figure out it is better to toss it closer and move quickly than to toss far. They may be able to hop or leap far, but it is pretty much impossible to turn back and retrieve the other spot once you have leaped too far ahead. At this point they will really miss their Helper! First Froggie or Froggie Team to make it across the court and back, wins.

This is a great activity to videotape for your club website - lots of giggles. Froggie sound effects strongly encouraged!