Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Red Ball Bounce Feed Lesson

I used this lesson plan during a recent Red Ball clinic and it worked like a charm. Hope you have the same success.

It's never too soon to teach your beginner tennis students how to bounce feed properly. You gotta walk before you can run, as the saying goes. Bounce feeds are an easy way for students to get a point or a rally started if they are having difficulty with an underhand or overhand serve. This lesson plan is composed of several simple activities in a progression that should culminate in the students bounce feeding and perhaps getting into a brief rally if we're all very lucky :)

Warm Up: Wacky Knees
Wacky Knees is a fun warm-up I have posted about previously. To recap, students stand at the baseline. They place a ball between their knees, then move forward to whatever spot you have designated, and underhand toss the ball across the net. For Red Ball players on a 36-foot court, I have them move from baseline to service line. Sure, they will eventually need to serve from baseline, but for young players and for warming up, cheating in a little bit to the service line is fine for now.

Underhand Toss Technique Tip: make sure players are tossing with a smooth underhand motion, not overhand, and are stepping toward the net with the opposite foot as they throw. They should use this same weight transfer step in the next progression, hitting the ball with their racquet rather than underhand toss.

For warm-up purposes, students rotate in and continue this activity until all balls are across the net. If you would like to make it more competitive, divide them into two or more teams with equal numbers of balls per team. First team to get all of their balls over the net, wins. If the ball falls out of the knees, player returns to baseline and tries again. Note: very young players may need to be reminded where to put the ball - for some reason my Red Ball players often tend to want to put the ball way too high up near the groin area. (????!!!!)

If you want to add more of a challenge, require the ball land in one of the service boxes. Even harder? Have it land cross court in the service box.

Handy for keeping score,
 but don't let them slow things down
If you have a larger group and want to cut down time waiting in line, have each student run over to other side of court as soon as they have tossed their ball. Once across court, they are in charge of retrieving one ball each (tossed by next player) and placing it in a hopper on that side. This way they can work on their ready position and tracking the ball. Also remind them to let it bounce before they catch it, as we are simulation a return of serve here. If you think they can handle one more skill on the return side, have them call balls In or Out after the bounce.

Caution - don't have them bring the balls back to the starting side, or you will never run out of balls and this will be a neverending warmup. Unless you are short on balls! If you are low on balls, have them retrieve and return balls from the far side and just end the warm-up when X amount of balls have landed in the proper spot across court. If you use this second option, they may need help keeping track of score. Pins are handy for scorekeeping but sometimes slow things down.

The Bounce Feed
Next step is to have the group or teams perform the same activity, doing Wacky Knees forward into a certain spot in the court. But now, instead of underhand tossing the ball over the net, have them bounce feed it over.

Bounce Feed Technique Tips:

Right-handed player turned 90 degrees
from net, racquet hand on baseline side
  • Player faces to the side, 90 degrees from net with dominant hand closest to baseline and drop arm (the one holding the ball) closest to net. 
  • Drop arm should be held out straight at shoulder height, 45 degree angle toward the net post. This angle is important. Most beginners want to hold both arms out in front, parallel to each other, like a Tennis Frankenstein.
  • Back of hand should be pointing toward sky with ball pointing toward ground. 
  • Drop ball, let it bounce, then hit it over the net. The ball is dropped gently; just release the fingers. It is not thrown, not tossed up in the air. 
Some students find a scooping motion helpful when swinging the racquet to lift the ball enough to clear the net. Some coaches don't like the 'scoop' analogy, but until we get to where we are understanding and hitting topspin, at this age (5-7), it's fine IMO. Some students will want to hit the ball before it bounces. For these, some students find it useful to simultaneously say, 'bounce, HIT' , or have you say it. Some young players don't mind if I stand behind them and we both scoop/hit the ball together a time or two. But some players don't like this, so I always ask first! Players who are struggling with this skill often benefit from the visual and the confidence they get from seeing the ball they just hit go over the net, even if they had a little help from me.

Begin with just requiring the ball to go over the net and inside the lines (not necessarily the service box - anywhere in playable court). When they master this, require it to land in service box; finally, in correct service box. 

Once they are bounce feeding pretty consistently from the service line, reverse the starting positions and have them moving (still using Wacky Knees) from some point in the court BACK to the baseline and bounce feeding from there. 

Remember you also want players on the receiving/returning side, catching balls after the bounce and working on calling In or Out. 

Keep the scoring format the same to avoid confusion. If you were having them empty the hopper in the first round, continue. If you were getting to X points first among teams, ditto. Try not to switch scoring formats mid-stream. The focus should be on mastering the skill (bounce feed), not the scoring format.
Your final goal in this lesson is to have a player on the other side of the net returning the amazing bounce feeds your students are now generating from their baseline, so we can have a rally!

For your final progression, transition to the returning player also having a racquet (instead of just catching the balls barehanded).  Once we have players at each baseline with racquets in hand, we're ready to rally! There are many ways to structure this, such as:

  • Bounce feed side is Challenger; returning side is Champ. Players rotate to Champ/return side after their bounce feed turn, regardless of outcome. 
  • More competitive: Players move to Champs/return side only if they win the point or series of points. 
  • Group/team based: Groups moving to Champs side as teams, either per point or after winning X amount of points. 

Use your imagination!

The Takeaway: encourage parents to let their players always start the point with a proper bounce feed when they are out playing together on their own.