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.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Cross Court Challenge

Thanks Hans Römer for sharing this drill on video. Looks like it was at a USPTA NorCal event. The instructions aren't clear from the video, but I think I get what they are trying to do. After watching the video, if you think I've missed something, please let me know.

This is a drill to work on sending and receiving cross court shots from both the net and the baseline. Perfect for large groups. Player should be able to rally.

Coach feeds balls from net post. Players are divided into two groups, one on each end of court. One group plays from baseline. The other group plays at the net. Both groups are lined up on the ad side of the court.

Coach feeds ball to baseline player. Player hits ball cross court to ad side net player. Point is played out cross court. Alleys are IN. One point is awarded for each correct shot. When point ends, both players move to deuce side and repeat. First end to 7 points wins.

Variation: Switch it up so that the points are awarded to individual players rather than groups/ends. Scoring could get complicated, so each player should keep track of their own score in this case. Have them announce their score before coach feeds ball. If you do it this way, you could also add a twist of sending each player to the opposite end of court once they have played the ad and deuce sides. If this is too complicated, keep the game as-is and play team vs. team, best two out of three and switch ends after the first round so that all players get a turn at both baseline and net.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Bill Bradley

I was reading this post on James Altucher's blog recently. In it, he talked about the time he interviewed basketball legend Bill Bradley. You don't become a legend without putting in the work, even if you are almost seven feet tall. One of Bradley's challenges he imposed on himself as a practice drill was to make 15 baskets in a row from five different spots on the court. If he missed, he had to start over. I love this idea for improving consistency and stroke technique.

Adapting the concept for a tennis lesson offers endless possibilities.

Challenge your students to hit X balls into play in a row from a given location on the court. You can have them rotate in one ball at a time (hit-n-git) or they can stay in until they miss. First player to meet the challenge, wins.

Add hitting locations after each challenge is met. For example, hit 10 balls in, in a row, from the deuce side service line. Once this is accomplished, move in and hit from return of serve position. Then to baseline position (notice they are progressively more difficult!). Repeat on ad side, etc. If your students are beginners, this could take some time to accomplish, so you can spread it out over a series of sessions, or give them, let's say, the month of March to achieve the goal. Definitely offer recognition or prizes for the winners.

For young red ball players, keep the number of balls required under 10. If hitting consistently is too difficult, substituted catching and throwing to a target instead.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Volley On The Move

Many of my students come to me as beginners - 'never-evers'. As such, they all love volleys because the volley is one shot in tennis that has the potential for immediate success. If I do my job and toss the ball to just the right spot, I can get a five-year-old hitting winning volleys during their first lesson. And therein lies the problem: it's too easy!

Volley on the Move is a drill by teaching pro Joey Rive, featured in a recent issue of Tennis magazine. Joey addresses the 'too easy' problem with many standard volley drills. I love that his drill is a live ball drill and thus gets players out of their comfort zones. You will need at least two players who can hit cross court and rally.

Both players start at deuce side baseline. They begin a cross court rally. One player remains at the baseline. The other player, who is working on their volleys, takes a few steps toward the net after every ball. Note we are not demanding this player hit every shot as a volley; only that they move in after every shot. As this player moves closer to the net, decisions become more challenging: to volley or not to volley? Half volleys and swinging volleys are okay. The point is to handle themselves well while on the move toward the net.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Goal Setting For Young Players

It's that time of year - everyone is scrambling to come up with some New Year's Resolutions that won't bore the socks of themselves. Studies show that more than 90% of resolutions fail. But we can always be part of the 10%! Let's take the basic principle and apply it to your young player's tennis future.

For beginners:
  • Understand the scoring structure for your age group. Red Ball players use 1st to 7; Orange Ball and older typically use the traditional 15-30-40-game scoring.
  • Be able to keep track of the score during the game, regardless of who is serving.
  • Understand what the serve is (starts the point), how to do it (bounce, underhand or overhand) and where it's supposed to land (cross court service box).
  • Remember to call the score if you are serving. Always say your own score first.
  • Know all the parts of the court like you know your name: baseline, service line, service boxes, deuce and ad sides, alleys, the T, the back court, No Man's Land.
  • Look for opportunities to play an actual match. Clinics are great for learning skills, but as the saying goes, practicing tennis without ever playing a match is like studying for a test you never take. Look for free or inexpensive Play Days in your area. Too easy? Try Jr. Team Tennis or a Rising Stars one day tournament.
Beyond Beginners:
  • Serve with continental grip.
  • Serve consistently at least 7 out of 10 in.
  • Commit to advancing your skills to the next level of the tennis skill pyramid.
  • Commit to advancing to the next level ball. For example, if you are an orange ball player now, focus on getting to green ball level.
  • Learn how to use Tennislink to find tournaments or other events in your area.
  • Learn how to use TennisLink to track your state ranking and that of your opponents.
  • Learn the local rules for playing for your local high school team. In my area, 7th graders and older are eligible to try out, and many of our teams are No-Cut.
  • Attend more matches as a fan, such as
    • local high school team's matches. You might see some familiar faces, and they will be delighted to have the fan support.
    • an entry level pro tournament such as an ITF or a USTA Pro Circuit event. They happen all over the country just about all year long. They are free or inexpensive to attend.
    • a local college team match. There is some amazing tennis being played at that level, and often the matches are free or very inexpensive to attend.
    • If you are lucky enough to live near a larger event such as the US Open, Family Circle Cup, Indian Wells, Davis Cup, Fed Cup, etc., try to attend. Go early in the event before elimination whittles down the playing field.

Hope this got your tennis wheels spinning. What are some of your tennis resolutions?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Fence Trap

After scouring over 400 posts on this blog I cannot for the life of me find one on trapping the ball against the back fence to improve service toss and point of contact. How can I have overlooked this? It's a tried-and-true technique for improving serve, no matter the age or ability of the player.

You will need a fence or wall 2-3 feet taller than your player. Stand sideways next to the fence/wall with your non-dominant foot touching the fence/wall and your tossing arm closest to fence/wall. Toss ball as if you were going to hit an overhand serve, so ball needs to be 2-3 feet higher than your head, or about as high as player can reach with racquet. Trap ball against fence with racquet.

Players will soon find this is easier to do with a good quality toss out in front of them (which hopefully they have perfected by doing the Tap N Toss activity). Tossing behind them pretty much makes this impossible.

Once player is comfortable with this, have them turn 180 degrees and face the net, or move to the actual baseline. Visualizing the fence trap activity (now imagining the fence at the baseline), have them try tossing and 'trapping' the ball. Since there is no fence/wall in their way now, they should have a pretty good quality point of contact at the baseline.

Notes: if you are using a fence, avoid the support poles. Very hard on the racquet.

Here's a video of one of my Red Ball students performing the activity:

Also here's a great article from about.com listing some other common-sense strategies for improving the serve.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Two and One

Another great drill from the folks at Tweener, this one taking it up a notch to combine consistency AND directional skills. Love it!

Coach feeds first ball to player cross court. Player must return two balls cross court, then one ball down the line. Coach then sends this DTL ball cross court, and player repeats sequence, now from other side of court.

Some options on adapting this drill for a group clinic of young beginners:

Place a colored spot or cone on each half of court on coach's side, say, red on deuce and green on ad. As they are hitting back to you, call out the color they are supposed to be targeting. Perhaps include side of court ( Red - Deuce! Green - Ad!) so they begin to understand where they are hitting to without the cone markers. Player stays in until they miss. Player hitting most balls in a row within a given time period, wins.

Relay style: Players hit one ball and move to end of line (hit-n-git!). Group is working together to see how many balls in a row they can hit to the correct spot.

Progression: Start this activity hitting from service line, then move back to baseline as students master it.