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Youth Tennis

Q. “My grandson will turn 6 this April and seems very interested in playing tennis. Can anyone suggest references and/or successful techniques for teaching a 6-year-old the game of tennis?

From John S., Coldwater, MI:

The most important thing one can do to nurture a young child at this stage is to keep it fun. I can't stress this enough. If there is a club nearby, stop in to check out what the teaching pros are doing to develop children.

Set up targets (cones) on the court, and if he hits one of them or near it, make a big deal of the accomplishment. Positive reinforcement is crucial.

Another idea is to have them swing for the back fence. This helps to develop a longer stroke and depth over time.

I've also seen pros use a rubber chicken that is tied to a hoop positioned close to the net. The object is for the children to hit the chicken, which they get a good laugh out of, but this also teaches them to get the ball over the net and adds a safety margin to their shot. These can easily be built with pvc. Drilling holes in the upright along with the use of wooden dowels will allow height adjustment. As silly as this may look, I've seen it in use, and it works.

If your grandchild shows continued interest, a teaching pro can help with proper stroke mechanics.

Take your grandchild to a tennis match, and let him see first-hand what hard work can accomplish. Introduce him to the tennis atmosphere. Have him bring along a friend and get that individual involved so they can share the experience.

The USTA website is a great resource.

Also, contact the city recreation department in your area to see what might be available. At 41 years of age, I'll never forget watching an accomplished player when I was 5 years old. He was consistently ripping the ball and with butterflies in my stomach, I thought, “I'll be a great player like that one day.” The wonderful thing is… that magic is still there.

From Jason, Baltimore, MD:

I have been teaching tennis now for four years with one of the pioneers of teaching to children that young. After talking to child psychologists and doctors, the consensus is that a child of 6 years old can do many of the activities involved in tennis if physically mature enough.

The technique developed by my employer aimed specifically for kids does not need any special equipment. Children can use a slightly smaller racquet and REAL tennis balls. Using progression techniques (start right on the net doing volleys, then move back to service line, etc.), a child can hit a real tennis ball and see results. The key is to encourage stroke production of simple low to high mechanics and to give constant positive support.

As they get older, stronger and learn to anticipate the flight of the ball after the bounce, you can move them back further, while continuing to stress good mechanics. Children that young are strong learners but may not verbally or visually learn as well as older children, so remember that you can also teach them by physically taking their hand and going through the motion of a stroke with them.

Children are motivated by competition, but may not be able to get the ball over the net. Make competitions out of being able to complete their stroke, and they will still feel they are winning. And of course, HAVE FUN!

From Chuck L., Powder Springs, GA:

For a 6-year-old boy who has an interest in tennis, the key is to make the first experiences "fun." I suggest getting an instructor who has good references for teaching young people. A good instructor can make the initial experience with tennis lots of fun and worthwhile.

There are certain techniques I have found successful with young people to give them a basic understanding of the game and make it fun and enjoyable. "Game-based" activities tend to keep their focus and increase their learning ability. That is, instruct using various "games." Kids learn without realizing that they are learning. It’s fun for them. Keep things simple, don't make tennis hard to understand and too complicated. Teach the kids starting from simple to more complex, etc.

I have also found that parents can be of great help. Keep them informed as to what the child is doing, ask them to reinforce what you are teaching. I use a technique that I found very helpful called "The Tennis Report Card." It is an excellent technique to help young people improve in tennis, make it fun and keep parents involved. If interested, I can share this technique with you.

From John C., Edwardsville, IL:

In 30 years of studying tennis, I have tried every method of learning and teaching tennis. I appreciate the USPTA and PTR coaching organizations, both of which I've been a member of, but I don't know that anyone does it better when it comes to understanding how young students learn to play tennis better than Oscar Wegner of www.tennisteacher.com.

When I met Dennis van der Meer (founder of the PTR) in 2005, he told Oscar, "I use a lot of your stuff now," and Dennis and I agreed how great Oscar's videos proved to be in teaching tennis despite their then totally revolutionary theories.

Many great juniors throughout the world started their journey with Oscar's methods. The genius of Richard Williams was he saw the greatness of Oscar's methods years before most USA coaches, and Venus and Serena were the results. Even Bud Collins would tell you Oscar is the fastest and easiest way to learn tennis.

I have taught hundreds of young children successfully using this method, meaning they learn to control the ball quickly and easily. Start your child with this, and the USTA will have a life-long member.

From Anne D.:

The answer is appropriate equipment on the appropriate court size. For 6-year-old children, they should be using 21- or 23-inch racquets, playing with foam balls and on a 36-foot court – doubles sideline to doubles sideline.

Think of how children are introduced to any other youth sport – it is with modified equipment on modified playing fields. Tennis is now going to do the same thing. You will be hearing a great deal about the 36/60 project from the USTA in the next few months – stay tuned!

From David S.:

As a teaching pro for over 30 years (and one who has trained dozens of top state and nationally ranked kids), here is how I train juniors.

Begin with them at home on a PracticeHit device. This is a foam ball on a fiberglass shaft that is attached to a base, which allows the shaft and ball to oscilate when hit. With this device, you can work on developing the child's hand-eye coordination, while at the same time developing a swing path that is desired.

Too many kids (and adults for that matter) will swing at a moving tennis ball in ways that seem comfortable or what “seems right” for them to get the ball over the net and towards a target. Until you get them to be comfortable and familiar with a good swing path, you will see them swing in ways that are usually not productive to good tennis strokes.

It takes a lot longer to re-program kids into hitting tennis strokes that they will want to be proficient in.

I know a lot of people will tell you to "just let them have fun" and "don't discourage them"... This is the worst thing you can do because when they develop bad habits they indeed will get discouraged. Too many pros think that they will lose students if they don't make it a "hit-and-giggle" experience. No matter what, you are going to lose students... it is no different than kids in gymnastics or dance or karate or soccer.

However, you will lose fewer students when you teach them in a disciplined (but active) type of class, and they know they are working towards hitting balls like they see the better kids or players hitting. Most kids know when they are actually improving and when they are simply “dinking” the ball over the net to “play tennis.”

As a final thought to your question, check out my articles on TennisOne.com on "Training an 8-Year-Old." I am covering the methods and progressions I am using to train my 8-year-old daughter. Also, around May, I will be releasing my second book, “Coaching Mastery,” which is dedicated to coaches, teaching pros and tennis parents who want to train teams or individuals and the progressions to use within my "Advanced Foundation."

From Kenny S., Highland Park, IL:

Using a small racquet, show the child how to bounce the ball up and down with the racquet. Show him the forehand and backhand, and give the child balls to drop and hit forehands over the net, from the service line, and do it with the child.

On one side of the court, tap the ball to each other, like playing catch with a ball. Place the child on the service line, show him the backhand and forehand swing, shadowing, using your left hand if the child is a right hander, then drop feed balls to the forehand and backhand.

Do the same thing from the other side of the net. Try to get him to do three in a row of each shot. Also do this with volleys and overheads, always shadowing from the other side of the net how the shot should look.

Have fun, kill the ball, like it is someone you’re mad at.

Then start on one doubles alley and do running forehands and backhands, three or four. This is harder and will take time. Good luck!!

From John S.:

Try Oscar Wegner’s method at www.tennisteacher.com.

Oscar has an uncanny way of utilizing the natural body movement to develop stroke production, not like the familiar old style of teaching that has discouraged so many to leave the game. He has helped my game and my coaching immensely!

On his site, he has a video of a 4-year-old boy playing like a pro! There are also ages 5 and 8 playing extremely well, too. Check it out. All the best!

From Bill W.:

Have fun. My daughter started at age 4. She is now 8. In the past month, she won first place in two 10-&-under tournaments. We started by rolling the ball and then gently tossing the ball. But we have a ton of fun doing games. The USTA website has lots of fun games, but we invented our own. It was – and is – a way for us to spend time together and have fun.

I love the sport. I see that she is learning to love it, too. You know your child best, so do what is best for her.

Tennis is more than hitting a yellow ball over a net. It is about hard work, disappointment and grace in winning and losing. This is the way life is. I hope she learns about life through tennis. Do this for your child, not for yourself.

Q. “I am 13 and a current USTA member. I have some difficulty hitting with good topspin. Is it becuase I am a bit weaker? I am 5'5" and I want to gain some strength. Does anyone know how to gain a bit more strength at age 13?"

From Corey, Bala-Cynwyd, PA

At 5'5" you probably have the strength, you just need to use your body more in your shots! My Coach tells me to "turn the knob" on my shots. Just make sure that you are really using your wrists to roll over the ball, and if you want more strength, make sure you lean into those shots. It works for me!

From Tim T.

Strengthen your core as that is where you will get your biggest advantage. You can work on arms and shoulders too but that is more muscling your way through. Everything starts at the core. An easy one and very effective is to get in position like a push up then drop to elbows on the floor and up on your toes. Body in straight line. Hold that position for 1 minute and do 3 times to start you will feel it and then work up from there. Do it during commercials on TV. Once you can do have friends try and they will think it looks so easy but can't do it!!!

From there look at some Pilates DVD's or online for others. Also great for flexibility which will keep your overuse injuries down!!

I wouldn't do too much with heavy, heavy weights as you are still growing and don't want to hurt any growth plates. YOu can do a lot using bands, and your own weight in this type of work. Also try using the total gym and exercise balls a lot.

Have fun. It is a great lifetime sport.

My daughter is now 22 and had a trainer while doing sports in HS for 5 years and this is one of his favorites. He also works with many pro athletes in Tampa area.

From Paul, Pleasant Prairie, WI

Nothing beats sit-ups and push-ups. No equipment is necessary and they build a variety of muscles.

From Bill W., Grapevine, TX

I am 5’6” and I can hit a ton. Not because I am strong but rather I have racquet head speed and good technique. But this sport is not about power but about consistency. It is about using your strengths and taking advantage of your opponent’s weaknesses. It is just as important to know when to go for the power and when not to. You could use foot speed, conditioning and/or brain power rather than physical power. Look at Justin Henin-Hardenne. She is 5’6” and about 130 lbs. She can knock the cover off the ball, but she is, more importantly, smart. She knows her game and she chooses the right strategy to defeat her opponents. Most players do not know their true strengths, so they can not promote them. Rather than lift weights get a consistent game that matches your strengths. You will be hard to beat.

From Tom F., Pittsburgh, PA

Your size has little to do with hitting topspin. Make sure you are using the open stance with a semi-western grip. Make a loop backswing with SHOULDER AND HIP ROTATION. Then drop racket below the oncoming ball. Strike the ball at waist height using your shoulders to swing the racket. Your rackuet MUST be moving foreward from low to high through the hitting zone toward your target. Let the racket follow through naturally.

From Rance, Bronx, NY

Well, I feel your pain on this one, being only 5'6" myself. If you want a little more depth and power on your groundies, bulking up and trying to overpower the ball isn't necessarily the best way to go. What you want to do is work on your footwork and racket prep. On the forehand side start leaning into your shot upon contact. The key is getting there ready to strike the ball early and out in front. You want to be taking a step foward into the court upon contact. On the backhand side I'm guessing you have a bit of trouble with high balls so instead of waiting for the ball to bounce and then drop into your hitting zone, take an extra couple of small steps in and catch it on the short hop. Try to visualize a clock on the ball. To go crosscourt you want to hit the ball between 5 and 6 o'clock on the forehand side 6 and 7 o'clock on your backhand side (reverse it if you are left handed). Also if you hit with a wide open stance try to close it up some. A wide open stance can give the illusion that you have more time then you actually do to hit the ball. So instead of catching the ball in your power strike zone you hit it late thus causing your ball to drop short into the opposite court. I worked on leaning into the ball on the forehand side and catching it of the short hop on the backhand side against the wall. Remember, speed is power, so try wearing a wrist weight (about 1 lb) when you are practicing your strokes. Work on your leg strength and midsection area. Your legs provide the stability with your torso providing your torque. This will help you to take your time, set up and explode through the ball. Most importantly, you are still only 13 so if you keep your technique tight and polished you will start to get the power you are looking for naturally as your body starts to mature. So don't overdue it with the weights. I do a lot of push-ups, sit-ups, calf-raises and lunges working on my forearms twice a week with light weights at higher reps.

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