Thursday, May 31, 2012

Bobsled - Going The Way Of The Dinosaur?

A variation of tag team/relay tennis, but if you miss, you sit on the court at the T and dodge any oncoming balls. If you get hit, other team wins. If you play a ball successfully from your seated position, you can get back in line. It is possible that multiple players will be sitting on the court, bobsled style.

I have seen this activity done exactly one time and that was during a workshop demonstration. I got the impression it is popular with the boys high school team set - those who relish horseplay and don't mind getting beaned with a yellow ball from close range. Or if they mind, they don't dare admit it. I have never seen it done live during an actual teaching clinic or camp. My concerns about using it are of course safety-related. Having large solid obstacles (seated players) smack in the middle of the court - hmmmm. Also being in the south, I am concerned the court would be too hot to sit on comfortably. I think the kids might enjoy it, but I would only use foam balls.

Seems to me another safe variation of bobsled would be to motivate teams NOT to hit the seated players by changing the rule so that if a seated player is hit, they get back in line, as opposed to giving a win to the other team. This is already set up somewhat with the rule about allowing players to return to the line if they are able to play any ball from their seated position. But let's face reality - playing a ball from a seated position would be extremely difficult to do for younger players or beginning players of any age.

Am I being too granny about this? Do you use this game? Discuss.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Three T's: Tag Team Tennis

Extra points if you
know where this sign is from
Tag Team Tennis (TTT) aka Relay Tennis is enshrined as one of the Top 10 Games Every Tennis Coach Better Know Or Else. And with good reason! It is road-tested. I use it all the time and find it very effective for all ages and abilities. It's a good warm-up, simple to explain and execute, needs no props, is good for large groups, requires focus, and best of all, rewards consistency.

Divide your players into two groups. Send them to opposite sides of the court. Someone bounce feeds the first ball and a singles point is played out. Here's the trick: each player hits only ONE ball in the point. Hit ball, run to end of your group's line, hope next player is paying attention and runs in behind you to hit the next ball. Whoever misses feeds the next ball. You can play this without points for a set time period as a warm-up, or play it for points until one side wins.

Because this activity emphasizes consistency, no winners are allowed to be hit. Winners result in point for other team.


  • For players who have trouble rallying, they can play TTT by tossing the ball rather than using their racquets. 
  • Increase difficulty by stipulating particular shots to be hit - all forehands, all backhands, all cross-court, two bounces, etc. 
  • Racquet drop: once your players understand TTT, add this fun component. Whoever makes an error must set their racquet down and share remaining racquets. Game ends when one team runs out of racquets. Coach may call a racquet drop for any number of infractions such as not paying attention, feeding ball improperly, etc. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Get the t-shirt here
Here's another conversion of a popular game to a tennis application. Many players will be familiar with the traditional game, which makes this one easy to learn. Great for any size group and all but the beginner-iest of beginners.

Players pair up facing each other a safe distance apart, racquets in hand. Rather than the gestures for rock, paper and scissors, they will be shadow-swinging a forehand, a backhand, or a volley.

Backhand - beats forehand
Forehand - beats volley
Volley - beats backhand

Players begin in the Ready position. On the count of 3, player makes their shadow swing. Play a little Uptown-Downtown here, with winners moving 'up' the line and losers moving 'down'. In lieu of the beautiful logic that helps us remember who wins the original game, try this: it goes in alphabetical order. Backhand (B) beats Forehand (F) and Forehand (F) beats Volley (V), leaving Volley (V) to cycle through the end of the alphabet and come back to beat Backhand (B).

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Wipeout is another tennis oldie-but-goodie, an exercise in consistency cleverly designed as a lighthearted romp. It is easily adapted for all ages and abilities. Best for large groups but even with smaller groups you can get your point across.

Divide players into two groups and send to opposite ends of the court. One player from each group plays out a singles point. Teams alternate feeding first ball. First ball is a bounce feed and must bounce before played. The loser goes to the back of his/her line; the winner gets to add one player to the court to help play out the next point. So the second point will be 2 vs 1. If the side with 2 players wins the next point, they add a third player. However if the side with 1 player wins, the other 2 players are 'wiped out', sent to the end of their line, and a new player comes in to play singly against the 2 players on the winning side. If one side wins several points in a row, you could have 3, 4, 5 or more players vs. a single player on the other side.  Game is over when one team has all their players on court and defeats the last remaining player on the other team.

To simplify: the team losing the point is 'wiped out' and goes to the end of the line; winning team players stay on court and add a player.

Naturally you play singles lines on the side with one player; doubles lines on side with 2 or more players.

Yesterday I attended a Recreational Coaches Workshop and learned a fun new variation on this game. Instead of slowly adding players based on winning points, to begin play, all players take the court. Point is played out. Whichever player makes the error leaves the court. So the players are wiped out one by one until there is one victor. Some different rules apply to this version.

  • Players at service line or closer to net cannot play the first ball. 
  • As players are eliminated, remaining players are repositioned on court making sure rear positions are filled, then mid-court, and finally net.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Singles Shootout

As a native Texan, I have a soft spot in my heart for any activity that smacks of Wild West. I first read about Singles Shootout in a funky little handout containing loads of tennis 'carnival' games.It is a great activity if you have an uber competitive and fairly large group of players, regardless of their age.  Last time I used it was at an adult tennis social and it was a big hit. (Ha. Ha.)

Plus, it's simple - we love simple! Divide the group in half as randomly as possible. See this blog post for some ideas on random group formation. Send one group to each side of the court. Designate one side the Winners side - doesn't matter which. One at a time, they play out a singles point. Winners go to end of Winner line. Losers are out, done, gone, bye-bye, finito. After everyone has played once, take the group of winners, divide them in half again, and repeat. Eventually you will have the last two remaining players playing out their final point, and one will be declared the winner of the Shootout.

This is a very popular spectator sport - even when players are eliminated, they tend to stick around to see who will be the eventual champ. Make sure this moves quickly, especially if you have a large group to begin with.

No serving. Coach may feed first ball or players may bounce feed. If players are self-feeding, alternate sides for feeding.

I like this activity because there is no mercy, no second chance. Bring your A game or go home. It is a refreshing change from the vast number of kinder, gentler 10 and Under activities. Sometimes even my youngest students need a little reality check.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Tennis Bowling

There are some tennis instructors out there who turn up their noses at using formats from other sports. Tennis is a great sport on its own, they say. No need to stray from net-service line-baseline. What they really fear is that by borrowing from these other sports, players may be seduced to the other sport entirely. I have two things to say about that. 1) Coaches who disdain playing a little Tennis Baseball or Tennis Bowling have never coached anyone under 8 years old; and 2) I have enough confidence in tennis that I don't worry too much about the inevitable competition from other sports.

I first saw Tennis Bowling when I volunteered at a Kids Day at Family Circle Cup a few years ago. Imagine one full size court converted to six QuickStart courts thanks to numerous rolls of caution tape and 3M blue painters tape (this was before permanent 36 foot courts were all the rage). Now imagine hundreds of kids funneled through the various stations at the six courts, most of whom have never held a racquet in their hands. Chaos? You betcha. Fun? Absolutely. I lucked out and was placed at the Tennis Bowling station which turned out to be the most popular station because there was CANDY.

You will need twelve empty tennis ball cans, so start saving them now. Set up the cans in a triangle array as if they were bowling pins. Make sure there is some space between the cans - don't want to make it TOO easy. Player is some distance away. Object is to hit one or more of the cans with the ball. You may find it handy to have a throw down stripe or spot to mark where the player should be standing.

For your youngest players, have them fairly close to the target, maybe 6-10 feet. Use foam balls and have them toss ball to target underhand.

Something like this is easily available
at Wally World and inexpensive. 
Some variations for when a ball hits a can: award a point and make it into a tennis scoring exercise (first to 4), or remove each can as it is hit, making it more difficult as you go along. In the second example this could be played as individuals or teams with first to eliminate all cans or last can as winner.

If tossing foam balls is too easy, here are some progressions.

  • move player farther from target
  • move player across net from target
  • use different balls - red, orange, green, yellow (in order from easiest to hardest)
  • use racquet to hit ball to target rather than tossing underhand. Ball can be drop-fed by coach or self-fed.

If you are like me and hesitate to introduce candy into your instruction, that's fine. This is plenty fun without the candy. But if you want to use candy occasionally, it makes this activity extra special. Load the empty tennis cans with penny candy. Wide variety is best. If a can is hit, player gets to go over and select ONE piece of candy from that can. Let me tell you folks, that candy creates a level of focus unseen since the Hubble telescope went into space.

Hint: if you use candy, marking the spot where the player stands is extra important as you will tend to get some Cheater Cheater Pumpkin Eaters trying to move a little closer to their target.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Get Your Silly On

Recently read a great blog post about the importance of 'silly' when working with young children. Couldn't agree more! Silly does not come naturally to me. I have to work at it. But being around young children provides lots of opportunities to get my 'silly' on. Here's a few silly interludes that are popular with my students. And a few that are not.

Let's start with the Nots.
Silly Jumping Jacks - this is, or used to be anyway, a recommended activity at USTA QuickStart workshops. It is a sort of, for lack of a better word, punishment for any activity where someone may come in last. For example after explaining various parts of the court I usually call out the part and everyone must race there - Baseline! Service Line! Net! etc. The last one there is called out of the group and asked to perform something silly in front of the group. Silly Jumping Jacks is just regular jumping jacks with some silly movements and facial expressions tossed in - waggly head or arms, stick out tongue, whatever they want to do. Sounds good on paper but more often than not the student is so embarrassed not only to be slowest, but to add insult to injury, they are now called out to perform something ridiculous in front of the others. FAIL. I don't do this anymore. Every now and then the kid was class clown and was thrilled at the attention. But it isn't worth it to me for that one out of ten kids who actually enjoys this.
Donkey Kicks - see above. To perform a donkey kick, bend from the waist and place your hands flat on the ground, similar to Downward Dog if you are a yoga fan. Then kick your feet into the air. That's it.

Basically the Nots consist of any activity where a child is singled out, usually unwillingly. But the really fun stuff is either something everyone is eager to do, or something silly the coach does.

Word of the Day - a little R&D (ripoff and duplicate) from the old Pee-Wee's Playhouse children's television show. I usually do this at summer camps where I am going to be seeing the same group of children several days in a row, because I like it better with a little continuity rather than one off. Works best for 8 and under. Each day I select a Word of the Day, tennis-related natch, and whenever I say that word, everyone must scream/yell. Play fair and choose words you know you are likely to use frequently: Ball, Net, Racquet, Shot, Forehand, etc.
Polar Bear Plunge - keep in mind I live and work in South Carolina, so any relief from the summer heat is most welcome. Again this is something I usually do once during a camp week, not regularly. Helps keep things fresh. I bring a large plastic tub down near the courts (not on) and have it about 1/4 full of ice and then filled about halfway full with water. We have a Polar Bear Plunge competition to see who can keep their hand in the ice water the longest. Completely voluntary -  no one is forced to participate. Sometimes they ask to put their bare feet in instead but I can tell you from sad experience this is nasty -  not recommended. Also some have asked to dunk their heads in after the activity is completed, and I am fine with that. Much fun is had by all.
Water Balloons - one of technology's greatest gifts to tennis instructors. Who doesn't love a water balloon, especially during a summer camp? Rather than have your garden variety water balloon fight, I use them for this serve activity. I modify it by eliminating the point system and just have them try to hit the balloon into the correct service box from increasing distances across the net. Just make sure all the little bits of balloon are cleaned up and the courts are dry enough to play safely when you are finished.
Woo-Hoos - this one I discovered purely by accident. Our courts are US Open Blue which makes it easy for the kids to see when their ball is in or out. So of course most of my instruction includes something about keeping the ball 'in the blue'. We were working on forehands one day with my very young beginners and one of them hit over the net and into the blue playable area. I was so excited for this player, I threw my hands in the air and shouted 'Woo-Hoo!' which startled the kids at first but since they copy just about everything I do, they soon joined me in the 'Woo-Hoo'-ing whenever they made a nice shot. So now our motto is, "In the blue - Woo-Hoo!".
Celebrate! - I blogged previously about appropriate on-court celebrations. Be careful with this one - too much of a good thing and all that. I had a student recently who celebrated every well-hit ball. Before the point was over. We had to have a discussion about that.
Human Target - when my students are struggling with getting the ball over the net and into playable area, I don't hesitate to encourage them to try to hit me with their ball. If they do I make a big deal about it in a silly way and we all have a laugh. Like I tell my students - it only hurts for a minute!

As I said, I really need to work on my silly skills. Any tips greatly appreciated.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

3 Reasons I Say 'Oui' to Wii

Parents often ask me about Wii Sports, specifically the tennis module. They are often a little sheepish or hesitant in bringing up the subject, as if they may offend me, or perhaps are concerned I will think less of them for admitting they allow their children to play Wii instead of the real thing. Parents everywhere, hear me now: I Love Wii! Let your kids play it all night long. Heck, keep them home from school a couple of days a week for a Wii Tennis marathon! Okay, maybe that's going too far. But seriously - I love Wii and am so thankful that the nice folks at Nintendo selected tennis as one of the five sports featured in their 2006 groundbreaking kinetic game console (the other four are baseball, boxing, golf, and bowling). Think of all the other sports they could have included. Soccer, lacrosse, and archery come to mind as newcomers to parks and rec offerings, direct and serious competitors for childrens' play time and parents' registration fees. I don't have any stats to back this up, but I think sports management types will one day look back on this event as the catalyst for an uptick in tennis participation. That, and the advent of 10 and Under Tennis, of course! :)

So what's so great about Wii Tennis, you might ask?
You can play it in your living room. A recent informal survey by Yours Truly indicates that while very few of us have a tennis court in our back yard, many of us do have a living room. Wii Tennis lets us scratch our itch just about any time we want to! In our jammies! Seriously, accessibility is great. Wii removes one more barrier (excuse) to playing tennis whenever you want.  Playing more often leads to improving quickly which leads to loving tennis which leads to playing more often . . . you see where this is going.
Score keeping. Even if you don't play tennis, you may have heard that it has a bizarre scoring method. You need at least four points to win a game. However, the four points are not 1-2-3-4. No, they are designated Zero aka the seemingly random 'Love'; Fifteen; Thirty; and Forty.  And heaven forfend if you end up tied at Forty-Forty aka 'deuce'. You then proceed to the 'ad' portion of our show (short for 'advantage') which could go on forever or until someone wins by at least two points. Confused yet? Several theories abound as to the origins of this strange scoring method. Suffice to say it has long been considered too confusing for young players. In fact, part of the 10 and Under teaching method includes the much simpler 1-2-3-4 scorekeeping system. However, if your children play Wii, they will learn this 'real' method because that's how tennis is scored in Wii, even the dreaded 'ad' portion. It is considered a very desirable skill among the 10 and Under crowd to be able to use and understand the grown-up scoring system.
Technique. I think parents are equally disturbed that 1) this is a dreaded video game and 2) using the Wii remote will create bad habits/poor technique that will be harmful once the kids get out on the real court.  Point 1 - hey, at least you have to move a little bit to play Wii, so it gets a pass IMO. Point 2 - mmmmm, maybe. But here's my experience: even though kids may quickly discover they can play this game with lots of wrist-flicking rather than using true tennis swings, they still need to think carefully about what shot to hit, where to place it, and most importantly, WHEN to hit the ball. Wii is excellent at the WHEN. In fact, there is another group of tennis-related activities under the Training section of this game. Unlike the main Wii game which is played as doubles, they are in an individual player format. They are fantastic in forcing you to watch the ball and time your contact properly. This translates directly to some excellent ball-watching and timing skills on the court.

So parents, relax. Your instincts are correct. It is perfectly fine to let your children enjoy this game. In fact, I challenge you to beat them at it. Bet you can't!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Any Feed aka Squirrel Crossing

Apparently you can purchase
this greeting card here
Whenever I play this game I get a warm and fuzzy. I learned it from my former boss, Bryan Hartley, who is one of the best instructors I have ever met. He just has a great way of communicating, no matter if you are a 5-year-old with the tags still on your racquet, a battle-weary club player, or a cocky high level junior. Bryan called this game Scum Feed. Jorge Capestany cleans it up a little by renaming it Squirrel Crossing. Both names make me giggle. Doesn't matter to me which you call it. Your players are gonna love it.

This game works best with more than four players. Four players take the court somewhere around the service line. Extra players are at the net post, ready to come in. Coach feeds the ball in; players play out the point. Whoever makes the error comes out and the next player in line takes their place. Play proceeds quickly, so those waiting at the net post must pay attention so that they know whose place to take after each point. Hence the name 'Squirrel Crossing' - as Jorge C says, at some point in the game someone at the net post is always caught napping, looking like a squirrel trying to cross a busy road.

Here's the twist: coach feeds absolutely ridiculous feeds to make things interesting. Always within the level of the players, but even lower level players can appreciate some ridiculous feeds. Bryan could do magical things with a ball and racquet. I can never hope to achieve that level of scummy feed. But I did learn a few tricks from him such as looking at one player while feeding in the opposite direction, or feeding a miserably high lob for someone to chase down, or hand-tossing a ball when they are expecting it to come off the racquet. You would be amazed how quickly their focus sharpens once they realize you will not be feeding the usual perfect-ball-to-the-forehand they have come to expect. They may complain at first, but don't be fooled! They love it! The crazier the feed, the better!
Squirrel Crossing doesn't get any better than this
Update: regarding the feed, I also sometimes let the next Squirrel feed the ball. Talk about some crazy feeds!

Roller Derby
Shout-out to Brian Clark, former tennis coach at USC-Lancaster. I learned this game while working at one of his summer camps. It's a fun activity for just about any level and age. The larger the group, the better!

Divide players into two teams. Teams face each other across net. Everyone is on the court at the same time, so make sure everyone is spread out and has plenty of room. Ball is fed and basically anything goes as long as they don't touch the ball with their hands.  Multiple bounces, multiple hits, carrying ball on racquet, multiple players handling balls, scooping it up the net to keep it from rolling, dribbling, you name it. In fact, the more players are involved in handling the ball before it is sent back over the net, the more fun this is! As long as the ball is still bouncing, it is live and playable. Once a ball is allowed to roll, no more bouncing, ball is dead and point is awarded to other team.

Some tips are required for safety and to keep a little control of the chaos that is bound (and intended) to ensue.

  • Safety first - especially with large groups. Make sure they start each new point spread out, even if they don't end up that way after the ball is in play.
  • First bounce must be within playable area but after that, anything goes. So for example if after the first bounce the ball rolls past the baseline or onto the next court, that's okay - team must pursue until they send it back over the net. Things can get a little crazy and ball may bounce back to other team's territory without being deliberately sent there. Just make a judgment call if it happens. This game is pretty loosey-goosey. 
  • Roller Derby works with a variety of balls but obviously is more lively with the yellow balls; foam balls come in second, then the various low compressions. The LC balls make this a bit more of a challenge since they don't bounce as much, but it is still fun.

Like Jail Break, this is a game that the kids will play endlessly if you let them. I usually save it as a reward at the end of a clinic. You can let them play it for a set period of time, or until one team earns X number of points.

One Bounce, Two Bounce

One Bounce, Two Bounce is a great warm-up activity for very young students. I found it at the Coaching Resources page at and tried it out. I have used a variation of this game before with very good results. Does 1B2B measure up? In a word, Yes.

My dog is great at catching tennis balls
but her underhand toss is TERRIBLE
This is a simple activity. Players work together in pairs. One tosses a ball to the other. Before tossing, player calls out either 'one bounce' or 'two bounces'. Catching player then catches ball after either one or two bounces. They take turns being the tosser or the catcher.

That's it.

Before you judge, hold on a sec. Sure, this is very basic and simple. But that's why you should like it, especially for players age 5-7.  I am fond of racquetless warm-ups so maybe this is a personal bias.

  • For one thing, all you need is one ball and two players (or a player and a coach/parent). So this also makes a great homework assignment. Wait - you don't give homework? We'll talk about that in another blog post. :)
  • Secondly, you are going to insist they toss underhanded. Two benefits of this: 
    • They will benefit from this throwing motion when they start learning a bounce serve and a forehand. 
    • Many young players are not particularly good at tossing a ball underhanded at a target, which will come in very handy as they progress in tennis. So they are getting an additional benefit here even if they are not the one catching the ball. Use the opportunity to teach them a smooth toss, release toward target, step with opposite foot, shift weight from back to front, etc. 
  • On the catching side, this is a great activity for teaching them to track the ball. As soon as the tossing player calls out 'one bounce' or 'two bounces', you can see the gears start spinning, the focus ratchets up, and their body language says 'pounce'. Love it!
  • As simple as this may seem, my younger players really enjoy this. The tossing players enjoy being in charge when they decide how many bounces. They also enjoy making it a challenge for the catcher by tossing it higher, farther, etc. Let's face it - they like it when the catcher cannot catch their ball! (BTW the first bounce must land in playable area)
To wrap up: it's simple, it builds good fundamentals, and the kids enjoy it. What's not to like??

I mentioned I originally learned this activity with some variations, and here they are.

You know I am kidding about
this 'cone', right??
I was working a summer camp and the kids on my court were 8-10 year-olds. Rather than have kids tossing to each other, I had them all on the far side of the net, behind the full court baseline. Using yellow balls, I called a player's name and the number of bounces allowed. Then I fed the ball super high using my racquet. Important to call out the player's name first to avoid a mad rush to the ball and possible injuries related thereto. The older kids enjoy this version as it is a challenge to time a ball hit very high into the air. After the first round, where everyone has had a chance to catch a ball, I let each player tell ME how many bounces they would like. This allows them to challenge themselves (or not) rather than have me doing all the dictating.

Other variations:
  • For very young players, or for homework, you don't necessarily have to do this across the net. But adding the net as a barrier is a perfect way to increase the difficulty once the basics are mastered.
  • I often offer the option of catching the ball in a cone rather than bare hands - makes it easier and adds a little flash.
  • This summer I played a version where 3 bounces was an option. I had the players take turn bounce feeding the balls. 

Monday, May 14, 2012


Who doesn't love a good onomatopoeia? Inspired by this tennis activity, I may start a campaign to name ALL of my 10U games similarly: BANG! ZOOM! KER-PLUNK!

I found this activity while browsing the USTA's Coaching Resources page. You may recall this is where I found the Lobster Trap activity. Like Lobster Trap, I had some reservations about whether this activity would work as well in real life as it did in the video. In fact, if you watch the SPLAT video, it worked a little too well!

It's a simple activity. Create a small pile of balls, four touching and a fifth on top like a small pyramid. Two players face each other a few feet apart with the pyramid on the ground between them. They each place one ball on their racquet strings. Taking turns, they lift their ball into the air with their racquets so that it drops on the target. SPLAT!

My concern was that my younger students would become frustrated if they were not able to perform the SPLAT fairly quickly. Instead, here's what happened: they were intently focused on that little stack of balls in front of them. Like Lobster Trap, they became completely engrossed, and I had to interrupt them so that we could move on to the rest of the lesson. Yay! Love when that happens!

Teaching moment: I have been working with one of my students to avoid the temptation to swing as hard as possible at every ball. This activity did wonders for helping her understand the benefits of a lighter touch. And without me saying a word - she quickly discovered she could only SPLAT the target if she proceeded delicately. Happy to say this translated easily to her ground stroke production. Great improvement in a matter of only a few minutes.

Hint: someone is always trying to work the system. Some players were tempted to tilt the ball off the racquet at an angle so that it rolled to the SPLAT target rather than dropped there. After a few visual examples from Yours Truly, plus an admonition that rolled balls would not count as SPLATs, they got the idea and performed the task correctly.

Tip: This is a great companion activity to dribbling drills. Helps them lift the ball off the racquet and gently into the air.

Racquet Splat!
I found this variation in USTA's Learn to Rally and Play booklet. It is perfect for younger players. Instead of having a pile of balls as the target, use a racquet. Rather than have the players use their racquets to drop the ball onto the target, have them underhand toss the ball. Players are working together as a team. Award one point for each time the target (racquet) is hit.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

No Crying in Tennis!

Read full article on RFed's 2009 Aussie Open loss
 to Nadal at The Telegraph
Remember that great line from the Tom Hanks (and Madonna!) movie, A League of Their Own?

"There's no crying in baseball!"

As much as I would like to change the word 'baseball' to 'tennis' and have it be a rock-solid fact, we all know it simply isn't true. Even the Greats shed a tear from time to time. Yes, Roger, we are talking about YOU.

Is there anything more heartbreaking than a six-year-old crying his/her eyes out? Yes: a five-year-old. Seriously, when they turn on the waterworks, I just want to hug them and make everything okay. Sometimes I do. But I am finding out this very often leads to more teary episodes in future. My policy on tearful students is evolving. I actually have said on a couple of occasions, "there's no crying in tennis" in an attempt to lighten the mood and also in hopes that they will take me literally and stop. This has not worked yet. :) What I am finding more effective is a more businesslike approach. I determine the cause of the tears, and if it is not tear-worthy, I explain why there will not be any more tears on that topic. Sometimes tears are warranted (yes Roger I would cry, too, if I took a six figure hit by coming in second at one of the slams) but rarely on my court, so I feel pretty confident insisting the tears be dried and we move on to the next activity.

While we want to attend to the needs of all of our students, it is important IMO to control the level of disruption. The other students who are not having an issue deserve their full portion of instruction. Important to get back on task as quickly as possible.  Teachers and parents everywhere recognize the value of one tried and trusty tactic: misdirection. Occasionally the cause of the upset is the student's inability to perform an activity either to their satisfaction or in keeping up with the other kids in the class. Completely understand! (I remember years ago being the Weakest Link in an upper level clinic on hitting a slice forehand. Believe me, I wanted to cry.) Rather than forcing the issue, I usually progress to a different activity, do a ball pickup, have a water break, whatever and keep things moving. Important not to let the lesson devolve into focusing on why Susie or Johnny is having a meltdown. And yes, I have just as many boys cry as girls at this age.

I don't have many Greats on my court. But every now and then I do have some tears (usually not from me). Teachers of 10 and Unders should be prepared for the inevitable. How we handle these situations is often a matter of individual personality. I've shown you mine. How about yours?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Excel at Exceeding Expectations

Just came across these great resolutions from a tennis pro in England. Seeing as how I'm writing this in mid-May, one might argue it's a little late for resolutions. But one might also argue it's never too late for excellence. In fact, one of the presentations at the 2012 PTR Symposium was entitled Developing A World Class Teaching Staff. Great info for us coaches, great tips for parents shopping for tennis instruction for their kids. There are the obvious ones - be on time, dress appropriately, positive attitude. Here are some highlights from both lists with my own spin on what I am trying to accomplish every time I step out on the court with my students.

Variety - make it fun - keep them guessing. Sure, I will repeat some of my (or their) favorite activities from time to time. But I save those for special occasions when rewards are in order. Some coaches may argue they run the same drills time after time because their students have not mastered them yet. But too much repetition can also be the sign of a lazy/bored/burned out coach. Yeah, I went there.
Organization - some coaches are so experienced, they have hundreds of drills buzzing around in their heads and can make their selections like John Belushi in the cafeteria scene from Animal House. Alas, I do not yet have that skill. I rarely walk on the court without my handy Lesson Structure form, direct from the PTR Junior Development workbook. I also keep them filed by student/class as a handy reference of how far each of my students has progressed and what activities we have already done (see Variety, above).
Respect - my students and their parents are my customers and as such deserve my complete attention when we are together. Long way of saying no casual cell phone usage on my court, by me or anyone else. IMO this is right up there with yawning in someone's face. Always disappointed how often I see pros checking their phones during ball pickup,  water breaks, while their kids are running laps or lines (see lazy/bored/burned out above), etc. Once even saw a pro talking on the phone with one hand while hitting with a student with the other. Don't be that pro!
Productive - I aim to incorporate match play or something related to it in at least some part of each lesson. After all, that's why my students are there: to learn to PLAY TENNIS, not to learn how to practice. Too often students take weeks or even months of clinics and have never once played out an actual point, or learned how to keep score. If there's not a ball cart in the middle of the court across the net, they are completely disoriented. IMO this is a big red flag. Parents, do not be alarmed if your players are not spending the entire session standing in lines hitting balls. In fact, you should be overjoyed.
Aware - Every student's needs are different. Every student learns in their own way. My goal is to use the lesson structure as an organizational tool, yet be flexible enough and knowledgeable enough to offer Plan B when something is not working.
Development - My students aren't the only ones who are learning. New tips, new drills, new activities, new learning opportunities are always on the horizon. Maintaining and advancing my certification is a top priority.

Wow, this is a healthy list - and it is just the highlights! As you can see, a lot of elbow grease is needed off-court to make things sparkle on court. Here's hoping your local tennis instruction experience is exceeding expectations!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Tennis Baseball

'Tis the season for the other little ball, so why not incorporate some baseball into your tennis activities? I get a goodly number of students who play baseball also. I do use some baseball analogies for Do's

  • Doesn't matter if you're swinging a racquet or a bat - follow through!

as well as Don'ts

  • Hitting home runs - in tennis when you hit one over the fence, it's the other guy's point. Once I point this out, there is universal agreement no one wants this.
My Tennis Baseball activity is pretty simple. I throw down four spots in a more or less diamond shape, one for each 'base'. If you are looking across the net, Home base is where the singles line intersects with the service line on the ad side of the court (to your right). First base is midway up the middle service line, closer to the net. Second base is directly opposite Home on the deuce side of the court (to your left), and third base is back at the baseline hashmark. This way, since most players are righties, they are moving right to left in front of you, hitting forehands. Lefties can just hit from the other side of the 'plate'.

Players take turn hitting fed balls from each of the four 'bases' in order: Home, First, Second Third. First base must hit a volley; all others bounce first. Balls must be hit across net into playable area. Player advances one base after each successful hit. If the ball does not land in playable area, player stays at that base until a good ball is hit. Score is kept like baseball - one point each time a player completes the circuit and arrives back at Home base. 

You can play for a specific time period, or until the hopper is empty, or until one player scores X amount of points, say, first to seven. Peanuts and Cracker Jacks optional.

  • Repeat using only backhands, making everyone a switch-hitter. 
  • Add points for depth of ball hit. In front of service line: 1 point; behind service line: 2 points, etc. Add a small target area anywhere you choose. If hit, this is a home run.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Jail Break - Most Popular Tennis Activity Ever?

When all else fails, break out the Jail Break. If I were to design a curriculum for Tennis Pro 101, it would begin with a class on how to run this game. I have used this activity many times, often by request, for hundreds of players, and only once had a player who didn't like it. She was unable to bear the disgrace of going to Jail, dissolved into very affecting 6-year-old tears and of course was immediately released by the soft-hearted jailer (me). Those are pretty good stats, so I keep playing it.

It's camouflaged as a bunch of rowdy fun, but Jail Break does offer some hidden teaching opportunities. At its heart it is another exercise in consistency. Also excellent for ball tracking skills.

  • All players line up single file on far side of court. 
  • Coach is across the net at about the service line. 
  • Coach feeds ball across net. 
  • Player hits ball. If ball lands in playable area across net, they are safe and go to end of line. If anything other than a playable ball is hit, player goes to Jail. They must relinquish their racquet and come over to the coach's side of the court. 
  • Last player left on the free side of the court who hits safely is the winner.

There is a catch (Ha. Ha.) - while in Jail, players may regain their freedom by catching any playable ball in the air. If they do catch a ball, they are released from jail and return to the hitting side of the court. The player whose ball they caught then comes to Jail.

Safety tip: jailed players should stand no closer to the net than even with coach (as I mentioned earlier, at about the service line). You don't want them up at the net getting beaned either from a fed or a hit ball.


  • Caught ball may be caught in the air or after one bounce. 
  • In order to prolong the game, Coach may stage a Jail Break at any time. Prefer doing this with low compression balls only. Coach yells 'Jail Break!' and starts throwing balls (gently) at any players in Jail. Jailed players make a break for the free side. Any players hit must remain in Jail. 
  • Coach's choice on offering a second chance at a fed ball. I usually only offer one chance unless I feed an absolutely horrendous feed. 

Jail Break is a great activity for large groups of varying abilities. The great equalizer: spice up the game by feeding more difficult balls to the stronger players.

Keep up a lively pace, having the players hustling back and forth and feeding quickly but safely.

I have also heard this game called by the kinder, gentler name of Dog Pound. But most of my players prefer the traditional name, and I agree.

Sharks and Minnows

I have always liked this warm-up. But when I recently described it to my Orange Ball class for the first time, several recognized it by a newer, better name. So the game formerly known as Chain Tag will henceforth be called (on my court, anyway): Sharks and Minnows. I know, right? Just goes to show you can look anywhere for a fun game to adapt to tennis, even under water.

It's your basic game of tag, with a twist. One person is designated 'it' or in this case, a Shark. All others are Minnows. The Shark must chase the Minnows and tag them by touching them. Once others are tagged, they also become Sharks and assist tagging the remaining Minnows. The twist: Sharks must hold hands as they pursue Minnows so that the Minnows know who is a Shark and who is not (it's a little more obvious in the deep blue sea).

Further adapting this game to the tennis court, I require they remain inside the playable area on one half of the court. Last Minnow tagged wins, and is the first Shark in the next round. Thanks to my Orange Ball class for the great suggestion!

Four Square

Here's another great takeaway from the recent PTR Symposium in Orlando, from David Brouwer's presentation on teaching progressions for 10 and Unders. He had several good activities, one of which I mentioned in an earlier post. Anyway, the overall concept is to become familiar with the types of games kids play elsewhere, playground and otherwise, and adapt them for tennis use. This one is so obvious, if you haven't thought of it before now, you will ask yourself: why not?

Are you ready for it? It's the playground game Four Square. Aggghhhh, I know, I know - it's so obvious! Those service boxes = four squares . . . Eureka!

In case it has been a few years since you last played, Four Square works like this: There is a big square drawn on the playground surface. Divide it into four smaller squares of equal size. Number the squares 1-4. Object of the game is to get to square 1 and stay there. Four players each stand in one of the squares. They take turns bouncing a ball to each other. Ball must be caught on one bounce. If anyone misses, they move down to square 4 and everyone else moves up one number.

With very minor adjustments, this works great on a tennis court. Use the four service boxes as your four squares. Naturally there is now a net bisecting the playing area in half, a new and valuable feature. Otherwise the game is more or less the same.

  • To make it more tennis-like, I require every ball to travel over the net. So cross-court and straight ahead is fine, but no passing to the person on the same side of the net as you. 
  • Also I strictly enforce the one-bounce rule. No bounce (catching in the air) is okay, too.

For very young players, I have them start with a big soft bouncy rubber ball rather than tennis racquets and balls. Progress to a smaller ball, then to using balls and racquets.


  • Very quickly the players will understand the importance of where they place their pass. This can lead to taking too much time between passes, so sometimes I enforce a time limit of no more than 5-10 seconds between passes.
  • When using balls only, I have them toss from the side of the body, both hands on the ball, to simulate the motion we want to see when striking the ball with a racquet. No granny passes or overhead passes.
  • I haven't found the need to mark the service boxes with 1, 2, 3, 4.  I just designate #1 at random, and the others in order either clockwise or counterclockwise. The kids learn quickly where #1 is!

3 Monkeys

Props to my BFF Kim Ozmon at Rock Hill Tennis Center for teaching me this game. No one knows how it got its name - the number, I get, but the monkeys?? So feel free to update the name if you are not a monkey fan.

This is an activity that rewards consistency. Here's how we played it together. You will see that it is easily updated to complement most any skill you are working on with your students. I find it works best with my older and more advanced beginners who are actually able to rally.

Let's say we are working on cross-court shots. Two players take up positions at the baseline cross court from each other. One hand- or bounce-feeds the first ball. Players must hit first three rallies cross court. Once this is completed successfully, anything goes and players play out the point.

Increase the number of rallies required before 'anything goes' - 5 Monkeys, 7 Monkeys, 9, etc.

Variations: rather than cross court shots, you could try

  • Straight ahead
  • Topspin
  • Slice
  • Moonball
  • Volley
  • Backhand

. . . you get the idea. Endless variety coupled with increasing the difficulty by adding to the number of shots required means you can adapt this simple game to just about any lesson plan.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Lobster Trap

I just tried this warm-up for the first time recently. Saw it here (complete with video) and frankly had very low expectations. I envisioned a lot of poor tosses, clanking racquets, frustrated kids, overall a hot mess. But I liked the name, liked the concept, so I took it for a test drive. Happy to report I was completely wrong and my students (6- and 7- year-olds) performed admirably. We were using the red low compression balls (not foam). Sure there were some misses, but they enjoyed it anyway.

If you haven't seen the video above, it's simple. Two players face each other a few feet apart. One player has two racquets (their 'lobster claws'). The other has a ball. Player with ball gently tosses ball underhand to player with racquets.  Second player must trap ball between the two racquets. Ball should bounce before being caught, but some students can catch it in the air - your call.

I had them start on the same side of the court. Five chances then switch roles. Soon they mastered this so I put them across the net from each other. They enjoyed it so much I had to cut them off so we could get to the rest of the lesson. Two thumbs (or claws?) up!

Hint: I did have to remind them to stand farther back to give them a better chance at trapping the ball by running forward rather than letting it get behind them.
2nd Hint: some of my younger students (5s) did not know what a lobster was. So we had a brief educational conversation about sea creatures before continuing our activity.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Battle Cones

Battle Cones has a great name, doesn't it? Makes you want to go out on the court and, well, take names. When I learned it at a QuickStart Workshop, we played it on 36 foot courts with foam balls and we had a grand time. Keep in mind we were all 3.5+ level adults. No surprise to learn it needs modification to work at a 10 and Under level. The good news is, it's easy to modify.

In its original format, Battle Cones is an activity to improve control and consistency.
  • A group of cones is set up somewhere on the court. 
  • An equal group is set up on the other side of the net. Depending on what you are working on, they may be cross court from each other, or straight ahead, or some combination. Just make sure there are the same number of cones on both sides.
  • Players are divided into two teams. 
  • They take turns rallying cross court, attempting to hit each other's cones. 
  • Whenever a cone is hit, it is removed from the court. 
  • When a team has lost all its cones, it loses and the game is over. 
Just stop for a minute and think of all the possibilities here based on how you set up the cones: cross court deuce for righty forehands, or maybe one deuce and one ad to have one team working on backhands, or maybe work on down-the-line shots, wide target volleys, or deep for lobs - you get the picture.

Handy tip: I put a tennis ball atop each cone to make it easier to determine when a cone has been struck.

I have modified this activity in a variety of ways because although my young beginners do not have the skill to control a ball to the degree that makes this activity agreeable, I do like the visual target of the cones for other things.

  • It reinforces which side is deuce or ad.
  • It is a great way to subtly reinforce hitting cross court, down the line, or whatever you are working on that day. Just set up a bunch of cones and let them start hitting.
  • Removing the cones when they are hit is a very simple yet effective way to let the players know when progress is being made.

Case in point: yesterday my 8Us were having trouble hitting the court much less hitting the cones. So instead of removing cones when hit, I awarded points when the ball was hit into the side of the court where the cones were set up. Extra points given if they actually hit a cone, and I did remove that cone.  We began by tossing the ball underhand to the cones. Then we worked on bounce serving to the cones, and finally worked on them hitting a fed ball toward the cones. Progressively more challenging, but by the end of the session believe me they were well aware of a cross court target!