How and why we adapt tennis

USTA Adaptive Tennis Committee | April 29, 2022

Why do we call tennis programs for people with special needs adaptive? It is because we can adapt, modify or change small parts of tennis instructions and drills to meet the wide spectrum of different needs and abilities.


Below are some ideas taken from the soon-to-be-released Adaptive Tennis Level 1 Curriculum Guide. The curriculum combines tennis lessons with a special education approach of adapting instructions to meet the needs of different players. Here are examples of what can be adapted, and how:

Scheduling: The athlete who has cognitive, developmental challenges, or brain injury or trauma history functions best when there is consistency and predictability. Knowing what to expect at every lesson is very helpful in self-regulation. 


  • Use a visual schedule 
  • Create a routine that is predictable
  • Frontload the expectations before getting on the court
  • Provide shorter activities and many breaks


Setting/Environment: Depending on the athlete’s abilities and challenges, managing the environment will support their needs, comfort and confidence.  

  • Work in a small group
  • Modify the size of the court
  • Work one-on-one with volunteers
  • Minimize noise, smell, and other sensory distractions
  • Group athletes of similar abilities or  compatibility 
  • Place athletes in different positions based on their needs

Equipment: Incorporate different visual aids and choose the right equipment to best help the athletes. Ongoing assessment by the coaches is crucial for the athlete’s success.  

  • Change racquet size, court size, and balls 
  • Use cones, markers, and other prompts to make things visual and easier to follow
  • Allow a variety of manipulatives that are safe on court
  • Utilize bright colors
  • Modify equipment to accommodate certain physical needs (with caution*)
    • Adapting equipment must be safe, and may require an expert’s consultation. For example, equipment should never be tied to a participant in a way that it would not release easily or break away. A racquet tied to someone’s hand may result in serious injury in a fall. Adapted equipment with an extra handle or assistive part should not irritate the player’s skin or cause blisters or abrasions. The material must be carefully selected to be smooth, allergy free, and secure to prevent injury.  Move United has a page dedicated to adaptive sport equipment. While tennis is not there yet, there are consultants that make other sports equipment who may be able to assist.  


Instruction: Individually-differentiated instructions can meet the needs of every athlete as well as the group.   

  • Make instruction multi-sensory

  • Utilize volunteers to assist an athlete’s individual needs 

  • Use a student/peer mentor to assist a newer athlete


Student Response/Assessment/Outcome: Adaptive athletes may acquire skills at a different pace or at different levels.  Individualize the goals and outcomes, and allow different methods to assess progress based on individual strength and abilities.  

  • Continuously adapt and adjust expectations

  • Keep goals attainable and positively challenging

  • Incorporate games and playful activities for assessment to reduce anxiety and pressure

  • Use a communication board and other aids to communicate best with the athlete 

  • Allow the athlete to demonstrate their version of the skills in the most positive environment

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