Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Monster Doubles

Hands down my favorite
movie monster
Monster Doubles is a variation of Australian doubles. The goal is to introduce or improve on poaching and signalling skills. Best for players 8 and up, advanced beginners or higher. Originally seen in The Tennis Drill Book by Tina Hoskins. I have a link to it on my Amazon store page here.

Traditional doubles formation has one player starting at the baseline on their half of the court (ad or deuce), either serving or receiving serve. Their partner is closer to the net on the other half of the court.  So if the server is on deuce side, server's partner is on ad side closer to net and vice versa. Receiver's partner is usually around the service line helping call the serve and ready to react to opponent's net player.

In Australian doubles, player are still on their half of the court (ad or deuce) but shade closer to the middle line. So for example if the server is serving from deuce, they are closer to the hash mark than the singles sideline. Their partner is still up at the net but is closer to the middle of the court on the ad side.

In Monster Doubles, the net player is straddling the line down the middle of the court when their partner is serving. The idea is to cause confusion for the opponents and work on poaching skills. Imperative the net player signal their serving partner EVERY point, letting them know which way they will be moving. This helps the server know which half of the court to cover more quickly. So part of the fun of this game is to let them come up with their own super secret hand signals.

Note: traditionally hand signals are given by the net player to their serving partner with their free hand behind their back. Also, traditionally the server gives a verbal signal to let their partner know they have seen and understood the signal without the net player having to turn around and confirm.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Half-Court Hustle

Slow feet need not apply
I found this activity in The Tennis Drill Book by Tina Hoskins. It's a great warm-up activity. BTW I have a link to the book on my Amazon store page here.

One player, or coach, stands at net. Second player stands across net at service line. Net player feeds soft angle volleys, forcing second player to hustle to get the ball. Net player feeds quickly and continuously for one minute before switching roles or rotating in next player.

Too hard? use a slower ball and hand toss rather than feeding/playing with racquet

Monday, October 29, 2012

10 Ball Singles

Feed nice or this could get Messi
10 Ball is an exercise in consistency as well as the Golden Rule. As ye feed, so shall ye receive!

Divide players into two groups. One group is feeding; the other is playing out the point. The object is for each player in the playing group to attain 10 consecutive rallies. Playing singles, first two players begin on baseline. Feeder may feed ball anywhere in court. Player gets one point for every ball hit in play and minus points for any misses. Once one of the playing players has achieved the 10 ball goal, players switch roles and the Feeders are now the Players.

If you have enough courts, two players per court can play this as singles. If you don't have room, use one court and rotate players in each group every point.


  • Coach is feeder; players take turns receiving/playing the fed ball and racking up their points. First to 10 wins.
  • Sharpen specific strokes by only awarding points for featured stroke - forehand, backhand, lob, volley, etc.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Choosing the Right Clinic For Your Player

The facility is gorgeous, but does the junior program fit your needs?
Bless you HootSuite, Twitter, Google Alerts and all other such technology. Thanks to them I have found so many wonderful resources on the Internet. Today's gem is a great article at CAtennis on how to evaluate the various junior tennis group clinics available in your area. You can't tell a book by its cover!

The article lists 10 important features of a quality junior tennis program. I wholeheartedly agree with most and have made some of the same points in a couple of earlier blog entries here and here and oh yeah here. I only have two pickies, as we used to say in my writing critique group:

Point #2 of the 10 discusses the number of balls hit during the lesson. They suggest 250-300 balls struck per student as a rule of thumb. I think that's too many for very young players. I would argue 250-300 total balls struck during the class, not per player, is more realistic for players under 7. As the authors note in a different point, tennis instruction is no longer all about 60 minutes of dead ball feeds. Live ball drills and match play reduce the number of balls struck. Even though this is so, these types of activities are more beneficial to the players IMO.

Plus, how on earth can a parent tell how many balls are being struck? I have a second rule of thumb for you. Large ball carts can hold about 300 regulation size balls, so just see how many pickups are done during the lesson. Multiply by 300 and divide by number of students. If they are using the small hoppers, estimate 60 balls.

Point #10 stung a little bit. As a non-traditional instructor coming late to the party, I resent the comment that certifications are 'largely meaningless'. The implication is that any goofball can get certified. While I did not go through a junior development program, and the highest playing level I achieved is 4.0, when I did commit to teaching junior tennis, I went to the trouble and expense of doing it right. I received and maintain my certification. While neither USPTA or PTR is perfect, I think they are on the right track and have the correct goals at center: to provide quality tennis instruction. I would argue if the facility's staff cannot be bothered with becoming certified (said certification achievable by any goofball), one has to wonder why.

Anyway, as I said, I agree with 8 out of the 10 points so be sure to check out the entire article. Thanks CAtennis for a great read.

Ball Drop

Ball Drop is a fun activity great for warm-ups and homework. It is great for sharpening focus on the ball and improving quickness and agility. I first saw it demonstrated at a Recreational Coaches Workshop. Appropriate for all ages. You will need two balls and at least two people.

Players face each other 3-5 feet apart. I usually have them face each other across the alley on court. One player has two balls, one in each hand. He/she holds the balls straight out to the side, forming a T shape. They drop one of the balls. The other player must retrieve the ball before it bounces twice.

  • Too easy? increase the distance between the players.
  • Too hard? Toss the ball into the air rather than dropping it, thus giving the retrieving player more time to react and retrieve. Or, allow more than once bounce. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Tap N Toss

Note: this player is a lefty so she is tossing with her right arm
Tap N Toss is one of two activities I beg my students to use as their regular Tennis Homework (the other is Bounce, Catch). Once my students progress to overhand serves, it is imperative they have a consistent and high quality toss. Tap N Toss is a simple and effective way to acquire one. It can be done indoors with relative ease, so we avoid the excuse of not having a place to practice at home. All they need is a ball or any other item they can toss and catch easily and safely with one hand.

Find a line on the floor, or just imagine one in a space where you can toss and catch safely. Line up at this line as if it were the baseline - face sideways to the 'net' with your non-dominant side closest to the net. Hold the ball in your non-dominant hand. To begin the toss, lightly tap the back of your hand (the hand holding the ball) against the top of your thigh. Extend this arm straight up from your thigh. Arm should be straight - no bends at wrist or elbow. At the top of the extension, lightly toss the ball and catch it with the same hand that tossed it. Watch the ball the entire time, from tap to toss to catch.

That's it. Repeat 10-20 times until you can do this with zero drops. Do not overdo it. Stop if your arm/shoulder feels strain the first few times you try this. The strain should not indicate injury if you are doing this properly; it is just not yet used to doing this motion with this many reps.

Some tips:

  • If you are doing this correctly, you should not have to move your feet at all to chase after the ball. 
  • The ball should not be tossed a mile into the air. You want it to go about as high as you can reach with your racquet extended out in front of you at about 1 o'clock for righties, 11 o'clock for lefties. 
  • Take care not to toss the ball until your arm is at the top of its reach. 
  • Lift the ball into the air in a very mechanical, robotic motion. The less movement of elbows and wrists, the better. 
  • The less your ball spins as you toss it, the better. Spin introduces more chance of the toss going astray. If your ball is spinning madly, your wrist or fingers are too involved in the tossing motion. 
  • Tapping the thigh to start things off keeps your toss arm in alignment, preventing it from wandering around out to the side of the body, often resulting in an over-the-head toss.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Red Light, Green Light

Red Light, Green Light is great for teaching your youngest players to pay attention to your direction as well as other cues on court.

Players line up on the baseline. When you say Green Light, they move forward toward net. When you say Red Light, they must stop. First one to net wins.


  • Rather than saying Red Light or Green Light, hold up a red or green ball or other item
  • To make it a little more challenging, ask them to perform another task as they are moving.
    • Have the players balance a ball on their racquet as they are moving forward. Dropped ball = back to the starting line.
    • Carry a tennis ball between the knees.
    • Carry a tennis ball with a partner, ball wedged between outside of knees, hips, or shoulders

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Tag You're It!

Tag, you're it!
Tag is the Gumby of children's playground games. Its flexibility is second to none. You can change it up lots of different ways to make it fit whatever activity you need, tennis or non. Plus, what kid doesn't love a game where there is plenty of running? Here's a couple of easy ways to use Tag to warm up your tennis class.

One player is designated It. This player is charged with tagging as many other players as possible within a given time limit and within set boundaries. Players may not leave boundaries to escape tag. Tennis courts are perfect for this thanks to all the lines.


  • Tagged players must freeze
  • Tagged players are now also It and help tag others
  • Free players may un-freeze tagged players
  • Restrict movement gradually as the rounds of Tag progress: first round is entire half of court. Second round is area between baseline and service line. Third round is service box. Last round is alley. 
  • Or, start small and end big
  • Restrict movement to specific footwork such as sidesteps
  • Have It tag the others by carrying a tennis ball and gently touching them with it
  • Have all players balance a ball on their racquet while playing
  • Have all players dribbling a ball with racquet while playing

Monday, October 22, 2012

Empty Nest

I came up with this activity out of desperation. On occasion I have a small number of young beginners on court, 2-4 players. We are still working on the basics, meaning just getting the ball over the net and in play. It is tempting to feed balls the entire lesson just to give them the repetitions they need. But I desperately want to avoid that because it is BORING. So I tweaked my Five Points drill a little and here's what I came up with. Works great with uneven numbers.

This hopper is full now,
but when it is empty,
Players face each other across the net at the baseline. Max 4 players per court. If you have more than four, station extras at net posts or have them compete as teams in a relay format. Ball hopper is located behind one of the baselines safely out of play. Player nearest ball hopper has five chances to bounce feed ball to begin point. One point awarded for every ball that goes over the net and into play (basically rally ball). After first player has used their five tries, all rotate one position and the next player has their turn with five balls. Player with most points when hopper is empty wins.

To clarify point system: any player hitting a ball over net and into playable area gets one point every time they do it, not just the server. Server hits ball into play = 1 point for server. Returner hits it back = 1 point for returner. Server hits this ball back = another point for server, and so on.

Recently during a serve lesson I had the server alone on one side and two players returning on the other side. I allowed any ball hit over the net and in court since a) the players are not quite able to direct their serves cross court (next lesson!), and b) having two returners gave the returners a better chance at returning the ball. But if this causes too much confusion, have the odd player waiting at net post instead.


  • Increase the difficulty by restricting where balls may land (cross court, behind service line) or which stroke should be used (forehand, backhand, etc.).
  • Speed it up by allowing only one ball per player instead of five. This is great for fitness also - rotation after every point.
  • As players advance they can underhand or overhand serve instead of bounce feed.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Figure 8

Tennis students don't get too far into the basics without getting introduced to the Figure 8 footwork drill. You probably know the one - two spots are on the ground about 3 feet apart. You move around them in a figure 8 pattern with small but quick adjusting steps to improve your footwork. If you're ready to take this activity to the next level, try it with a medicine ball.

Student performs the footwork as described above. When they get to the forehand or backhand side of the 8, coach tosses them a medicine ball to the FH or BH side. They catch it with both hands, and toss it back from the side with both hands on the ball. This sideways, two-handed throwing simulates the FH and BH swing pattern. Confused? Check out a video of the exercise here. Thanks for the tip. You can find her blog there, or follow her on FB, or on Twitter @sandratennismom.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Human Net

Human Net is a fun but challenging activity so best used with advanced beginners or higher. Minimum four players needed.

Pair players up and form groups of two teams each, four total players. One team forms a net by extending their racquets toward each other so that the heads of the frames are touching. The other two players rally with each other over this 'net'. When an error is made, teams switch roles. The goal is to score the most rallies.

Safety tip: net players must stay alert as balls will be flying nearby. Rallying players are looking for control, not hitting winners.

Players keep rally scores individually rather than as a team.

Too hard? Have your players toss underhanded rather than hit with racquets.
Too easy? Restrict them to hitting only forehands or only backhands. Even harder: all volleys!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Productive Practice

Elderton is a big wheel in Canadian tennis
The concept of deliberate practice, aka 'practice with a purpose', applies to just about any area of endeavor. Wayne Elderton broke it down for us tennis players in his article here. As tennis coaches we encourage our students to get out there and play as much as possible between lessons. So when you are out there, make the most of your play time. As Wayne says, this means introducing an element of structure and focus to your time on court. In other words, always be working on something.

Narrowing down what to work on can be a challenge. Consider mastering the basics before attempting loftier goals. For example, before you work on a monster kick serve, make sure you can get a respectable first serve in seven times out of ten. Can you give it different types of spin? Can you place it in one of the three main target areas of the service box? Once you master an impressive level of control over any given stroke, it is time to pursue some advanced skills. You have to walk before you can run.

Time is also an issue for many. The spirit is willing to get out on court five times a week, but the schedule just will not allow it. So for those times you can squeeze it in, make the most of it.

  • Ball machine - the ball machine can be your best tennis friend. You can hit more balls in 30 minutes on a ball machine than you will in two or three entire doubles matches (3-6 hours). The repetition is invaluable (assuming your are practicing proper technique). Be careful not to overdo the first couple of times you try it. 
    • Consider having a friend come along - many ball machines have the option to send balls to multiple locations. So you can work on your forehand while your friend works on their backhand. Plus that reduces the number of balls you each hit by half, thus reducing the chance of overdoing it.
    • Have a friend video you as you hit to help make adjustments to your stroke. I am always amazed at how people's perception of their own technique bears little resemblance to reality. Video doesn't lie! A common culprit: the follow through.
    • Use the last hopper of balls during each pickup as serving practice. It's a nice break from all that hitting, and the serve can always use some work.
  • Hitting Wall - no time or budget for a ball machine? A hitting wall is also your best friend. It is never late. It never misses. If you have never enjoyed the tennis 'zone' you can get into while hitting against a wall, you are missing a treat. Great for forehand, backhand and volley practice. Invite a friend and double the fun. Yes, the garage door is a great substitute if no true hitting wall is available. Pick up some foam balls at your local tennis shop to eliminate dinging up the door. You will be surprised how challenging they can be.
If you are just going out to hit with friends, give yourself permission to work on something, even if it means you may lose the friendly. This is the perfect opportunity to grow as a player. Don't waste the chance. If you really want a challenge, be candid with your opponents and tell them what you are working on. Encourage them to hit to your weak spot. Just be sure your weak spot is no longer your weak spot when you play them for reals!

Sometimes you need to just go out and enjoy tennis without it always being 'work' - you know what they say about all work and no play. But if you indulge yourself too often and your tennis is always 'play', your matches will be a lot more work than you want them to be. Keep your matches enjoyable by including some Purpose in every Practice.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Tween Rally

This activity is for young players to help them control both racquet and contact with ball. You will need at least three players. Two players face each other a few feet apart. A third player stands between them with feet apart. The two players pass a ball to each other along the ground. The ball must pass through the legs of the third player. If the ball touches the  middle player or does not go between their legs, the player who missed is now in the middle.

I find my young players delighted when I add the option to make a ridiculous and obnoxious sound effect when the ball misses. :)

Monday, October 15, 2012


Don't let the name scare you off. This is a drill from coach David Edwards-Kiely @dkcoach1 on Twitter. It can be played as singles or doubles. Recommended for advanced beginners and up as players will be expected to be able to hit an overhead as well as volley.

Two (for singles) or four (for doubs) players are on court. One player feeds a lob and his/her side of play comes in and prepares to volley the baby smash the lobbed team will be hitting back to them. Play out the point. That's it!

Coach David recommends playing this will all varieties of balls to mix things up and serve as an equalizer for different levels of players. He says his students love it. Thanks Coach David for the share!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Catch Me

Here's a simple warm-up perfect for young beginners. Great for one player or one dozen. You will need enough room for them to spread out.

Each player has one ball. Player tosses ball high, then catches their own ball after one bounce. Toss should be at least head high. Some players inevitably get into a competition to see who can a) toss the highest and b) actually catch it. That's great - let them!

  • Have a Toss Off where players are eliminated if they drop their ball. Last player left is the winner. Remember, ball toss must be at least head high.
  • Toss Off can be a combination of most catches of highest tosses.
  • Pairs of players toss/catch to each other.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


I saw this warm-up in a PTR 10 and Under booklet. I love the concept. I have updated the name to something a little more imaginative. It deserves it!

Players form a circle. They move together in one direction with shuffle/side steps. They simultaneously pass a ball hand to hand in the opposite direction. A great coordination challenge!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Toss Relay

Hitting, throwing and catching stuff
for fun has been around for ages
Tennis, like many sports, is a variation on throwing, hitting, or catching something. Sounds simple at its most fundamental level. But we can't assume that all of our young students are able to perform even the simplest of skills. If you don't believe me, ask a group of red ball beginners to throw a tennis ball over the net.

I recently heard it said that due to a variety of reasons (school funding cuts, economic hardships, video game culture, childhood obesity) many children today are athletically illiterate. They spend very little time performing physical activities. You may be the first person who has ever shown your students how to catch, hit, or throw properly. This simple warm-up will help develop a sound throwing motion as well as build target skills. Best with medium to large groups.

Divide players into two groups. Send each group to opposite courts. Once there, each group forms a single file line. The first players in each line come into the court. One of them tosses a ball to the other. As soon as he/she tosses, he/she goes to the end of his/her line. When opposite player catches ball after once bounce, he/she then throws the ball back across the net to the next waiting player across the court, and goes to the end of his/her team's line. Continue until everyone has had plenty of opportunity to throw and catch.

Encourage proper throwing form - stepping with opposite foot, weight transfer, natural finish, etc.


  • Underhand toss
  • Overhand toss
  • Cross court only
  • Switching halves of court (deuce, ad) on demand to reinforce knowledge of sides of the court
  • for even more exercise, have them run to the end of the OTHER line after their toss/catch

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Sharks and Fishes

Sharks and Fishes is a variation of Jail Break/Dogpound, with players earning the right to continue hitting by hitting well. I first saw this game described in a TennisPro magazine article by Patricia Egart.

All players begin as Fish in alley or on sideline across net from coach. Coach tosses ball toward T for first player in line to run and hit. If ball lands across net in playable area, player remains a Fish and returns to sideline and it is the next player's turn. If any player misses two balls, they become a Shark and run to the other side of the net where the coach is. They can become a Fish again by catching any ball hit over the net by a Fish. If they catch a Fish's ball, that Fish becomes a Shark.

As with Jail Break, for younger players I allow balls to be caught in air or after one bounce.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Mystery Ball

Tennis coaches everywhere have probably already played this game inadvertently. Who of us hasn't been feeding balls quickly, reaching into the cart automatically, only to have the drill come to a screeching halt - or at least have the students screeching, "Hey! That was an orange (red/green/yellow) ball!" When this happened to me for the umpteenth time the other night, I figured, why not do it on purpose and make it into a fun reaction time exercise?

If you have an opaque hopper such as the Gamma black fabric bag hopper, this will be more fun. If not, try to block the cart/hopper from view as you are feeding. Load the cart with a variety of red, orange, green, yellow, and yes, even foam balls if you have them. Players must play whatever ball is fed, luck of the draw. This should improve reaction time and control.

Use this on stroke-specific lessons such as backhands or forehands.
Use it for a fun feeding drill such as Squirrel Crossing.
Great for lessons on touch such as volleys and drop shots.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Proximity Drill

Baseball players have it easy. They stand in one spot until someone throws a perfect ball for them to hit. If the ball is not in just the right spot, they don't have to hit it! Wouldn't it be lovely if the same rule applied in tennis?

I see lots of players of all ages struggling with a very important concept: proximity to the ball on contact. Other things look good such as their swing and their footwork, but they are not maximizing their results because they are not clear on where they should be standing and where the ball should be in relation to them when they hit it. I think part of the reason, especially in young players, is that so many of them start off by being asked to stand on a spot while balls are fed to them. They are not sure how to translate their newly found hitting skills to hitting while on the move. Or indeed, why they should have to move to hit the ball! So I have taken a common children's game and adapted it to my need for a Proximity Drill.

There's a simple warm-up on some of the tennis sites called Mirror, Mirror. It is played lots of places other than the tennis court but works well there, also. In Mirror, Mirror, two players face each other about 3 feet apart. One player mirrors everything the other does - arm/hand/foot movements, facial expressions, etc. - maintaining the 3 foot distance between them all the while.

Forehand example. Player on right
represents The Ball.
Borrowing the idea of maintaining a set amount of distance (Point of Contact!!), I have two players face each other. One is designated as The Ball. The other player has their racquet in hand, held at desired point of contact. Coach determines starting spot for ball, either forehand or backhand. So if we are working on forehands, the player should hold their racquet out in front of their dominant side at an angle, where they should be making contact with the ball. To begin, The Ball stands just at the edge of the other player's racquet. When coach says Go!, The Ball moves.

Safety tip: the player with the racquet never swings or attempts to hit the player acting as The Ball. 

As The Ball moves, the player with the racquet must constantly adjust his/her position to keep The Ball out in front of them at the optimum point of contact. Both players move with small - but quick! - adjusting steps. Player with racquet must be facing net, keeping The Ball between themselves and the net, at all times. After a few minutes of this, have players switch roles.

If done correctly, this drill will get hearts pounding quickly, so no need to overdo it. The goal is to help the players visualize the optimum point of contact more easily as they remember where their human-size ball was during this warm-up.

Thursday, October 4, 2012


Easier said than done?
I first saw this deceptively simple warm-up at a recreational coaches workshop. It is definitely a right brain activity, like rubbing your tummy while patting your head.  Coaches, strongly consider practicing this before you demonstrate it to the troops the first time.

Two players face each other. One has two balls. One ball is tossed to the other player underhand. The other is tossed overhand. This occurs more or less simultaneously. Naturally the receiving player is expected to catch each ball. Receiving player then becomes tossing player. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Sounds simple enough until you try it. If it is indeed too simple for you, try the progression of moving sideways across the court while you are tossing.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Clean Lean

Note Dementieva's feet are lined up on the
baseline, creating the open stance
I found this drill by coach Mike Metz at a website called PlaySportsTV. I did give it a new name as it didn't really have a catchy name, so there ya go. I like that is in two parts, providing a simple progression that should lead to mastery of an open stance forehand. We have used the first part as a warm-up activity (Stretch Catch).

Player faces coach or partner. Coach/partner tosses easy underhand ball to player's forehand. Player leans/lunges to that side while still facing forward to catch the ball with dominant hand. After several successful catches coach may toss multiple balls to challenge player's catching ability.

When player demonstrates mastery of the lean/catch, add racquet. Player should demonstrate a smooth medium open stance forehand with the same lean/sideways lunging motion - while still facing forward - that they used when catching the ball.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Son of 7-11

Not sure who is challenged more in this game,
the players or the coach!
Here's another version of 7-11 as promised. It is a little more complicated than the serve/return version but is equally valuable in teaching the concepts of attacking and defending. In this version, the defending team must win 11 points before the attacking team wins 7. Thanks Aaron Fox for including this game in his presentation at the 2012 PTR symposium in Orlando.

Set up two teams, either singles or doubles. Designate which is the attacking team and which is defending. Both begin play at baseline. Coach feeds first ball. Aaron's instructions do not indicate which team is fed, just that first ball must be a baseline feed. As you read the instructions I think you will agree with me the attacking team is always getting fed in this game.

Remember, the object of this game is for the defending team to win 11 points before the attacking team wins 7. Here's the kicker: the defending team earns points one for one. Every point they win on court, they earn a point in the game. However the attacking team is scored differently: they must earn THREE points in a row on the court to earn ONE point in the game.

  • Keep in mind first fed ball is to baseline. 
  • If attacking team wins this point, second fed ball is a volley
  • If attacking team wins this second point in a row, third fed ball is an overhead. If attacking team wins all three in sequence (baseline, volley, overhead) they earn ONE point. 

As if this weren't complicated enough, there's more. If the third point won by the attacking team is won on an overhead winner, the defending team goes back to ZERO.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Stretch Catch

Your students will definitely use
this motion on court
Stretch Catch is included in USTA's QuickStart Tennis recreational coaches resource book for ages 9-10. It's simple and effective, and perfect for Tennis Homework. Since USTA is transitioning away from the QuickStart name, I don't know if these books are still available. To save you the trouble of hunting through their coaching resource page, here's the activity.

Player and coach (or other partner) face each other about five feet apart. Coach tosses ball underhand to player. Toss should be to forehand or backhand side, not directly to player. Player should lean to left or right to catch ball in air while maintaining good balance. Player should remain facing forward rather than turning to side to catch ball.

Too easy? Stand farther apart and/or toss ball farther from player.
Too hard? Let ball bounce before player has to catch it.