Live Ball Tennis Drills: The Definitive Guide
It’s rare that I do tennis industry articles but this is one I thought I would write since people often ask me about what live ball is and how it works. This article is designed for players interested in joining a Live Ball or for tennis programs interested in offering one. We’ll talk about what live ball is, whether or not it’s popularity will stand the test of time, and if participating in live ball clinics regularly will improve your game.
What is Live Ball?
There is no strict way to run a live ball and there’s no strict way to define it. I liken it to defining a genre of music. If I say country music you kind of know what I’m talking about but within that genre there are so many different variations that a strict definition is problematic.
At its most generic Live Ball is situational point play without the serve, typically with little to no instruction, where one of the primarily goals is to play as many points as possible against as many people as possible (so you get a chance to react to different sorts of balls and styles of play).
Now the specifics on how its run will vary drastically. Some places have tons of rotations and stipulations and different court formations, etc. So for example you might have a one up one back configuration versus a two back configuration where the feed goes to the net person point is played out and if the challenging team wins three points in a row they take the champs spot… whatever. It can be run on as many courts as you want simultaneously with different rules on each court, different ways to determine winners etc. Personally I’m not a fan of this type because it’s too confusing, it’s difficult for players to establish rhythm, there’s no real communication with partners and there’s no chance to actually think about the point your playing.
My philosophy with group tennis classes is to keep everything as simple as you can especially when it comes to “games.” I’ve seen so many clinics get derailed by confusing games with lots of rules. Tennis is confusing and complicated enough on its own so when it’s game time just play points would be the advice I’d give newer instructors.
My Live Ball Format Explained
Strictly limited to 8 people on 2 adjacent courts for 1.5 hours. Participants must cancel at least 24 hours before or will be charged because it does really throw it off if people no show. 7 is doable with you if you have someone you can trust in the class feed one of the courts and you play (this has worked for me). If you work at a bigger club you can have a junior instructor fill in and you still feed. 6 is tricky unless you have people volunteer for singles on one of the courts or you change the format to put it on one court (won’t go into that in this article). 5 is easy on one court with a rotation happening but keep it to 4 players on the court with one side consisting of 3 people rotating. This can work really smoothly with the right group of people.
10-15 minute warm up in case you have stragglers where you can do line drills, etc
Assign Partners… if you know in advance whose coming you can actually write out all the combinations and matchups in advance so that you maximize the time. Letting people choose can often end badly or more likely will take way too much time. If you don’t know the people or whose coming I just point and say you with you etc. Again it seems a little barbaric and not professional but this is efficiency and maximizing time. People would rather play more than have me do a whole getting to know you routine.
Play all 4 back on two adjacent courts where the instructor stands in the middle of the two courts
Two attempts on feed alternating who receives the feed (the serve). So you feed deuce then add etc. If someone misses the first feed I tell them to call out “second serve” so I know they need it because a lot of times my head is already turned starting another point on the other court.
The only rule is that the first ball hit can’t be a dropshot (since all 4 are back).
Game is played 10 and then the teams switch sides of the court so that the other team gets a chance at the serve/feed. Typically if you have a well balanced live ball the team receiving the feed wins if they can hit a good deep ball to start the point. Now you might ask why not just flip around and feed to the other team… the reason is mainly because you have two games happening simultaneously that will end at different times. If you’re on one court you should flip around.
Have the team receiving keep score. Be strict about this not because you care about winning/losing but because it’s necessary to keep things flowing and guarantee more matchups. I always explain that to my groups and I make it clear if no one is keeping track of score you’ll just stay in the same place the entire time.
If the games are split you do some kind of quick tiebreak… usually a first to 3 points is fine.
The court that finishes first you just keep playing points for fun and it should never take more than 5 minutes for the other group to finish.
You call out the next pairings/court assignments and repeat until time finishes.
Now you can add stipulations do one up one back configurations etc but all those things take up time so be smart and gauge your group.
Why are Live Ball drills so popular?
Bottom line it’s just what a lot of people enjoy the most out of a tennis clinic. People don’t want to serve, they don’t want to return, and they want to hit as many balls as possible… typically from the baseline. Live Ball is the answer to this demand if you tailor it that way and don’t over complicate things. What I’ve learned from teaching group classes over the years is to keep things simple when it comes to the game portion (and the drills portion to be honest). Don’t have a game with a bunch of rules or stipulations. You’re asking for trouble. Just set the teams and say win the point. That’s what most people like. As I was told once but a very practical tennis instructor people like to play points, they don’t like to serve, and they don’t like to be criticized. The answer… Live Ball.
Will Live Ball Stick?
Live Ball has been around forever it’s only recently that a formal name has been put to it. There are a lot of players who just want to hit balls and play points. I see this in clinics all the time. They’re pretty checked out until the last 20 minutes when games start to be played so why not have a class tailored made for these people where that’s all you do. I think it will stick a lot more than some of the other novelty group classes like stroke of the week, cardio, AM/PM Drills, etc. A lot of people want to hit balls where there’s an obvious goal or purpose like actual tennis.
Will Live Ball Actually Help Your Tennis Game?
Yes and No. What Live Ball helps you with is simulated pressure and ball tracking. When you take a tennis lesson most of the time is spent diagnosing a problem and trying hard to fix it in a controlled setting by limiting variables to focus on something in isolation. I’m not going to try and work on your racquet path and then blast a ball at you at 100mph from the baseline (At least not right away). Live Ball helps bridge the gap between line drills and actual points. I think there is value in both. Now in Live Ball after the feed it’s anyone’s guess how the next several balls are coming over the net. That’s the point. It’s a chance to apply what you’ve been “learning” and “practicing” in clinics, lessons or self-teaching in a “Live Ball” setting. It’s really that simple and the idea is that by taking away serve and return you’ll have so many more chances than you would in an actual match where the pacing is so much slower and fragmented.
Now depending on how the Live Ball clinic is being run it may also help you with handling pressure. In my Live Ball I do games to 10 where after the first game the other team gets the “serve”/feed and each team gets the chance to change sides (Ad/Deuce) or devise a quick game plan or alter tactics. I do think this does help with actual match play in terms of simulating a bit of pressure when the games are close and also gives players long enough to try and form tactics/execute a gameplan. Most players don’t do this though and would rather just whack the ball which is fine.
That being said about 75% of points in real matches are decided within 4 shots and the bulk majority of those really being decided in the first 2 (Serve and Return). Serve and Return is taken out of Live Ball for the sake of speeding things up and giving players the chance to hit as many balls as possible. But with the top kids/adults I work with I encourage at least 60-70 percent of the time be focused on serve, return, and the following two shots. If you really want to get better at playing matches that’s where your focus needs to be. It’s not fun the way Live Ball is but it is the most important thing you can’t overlook or undervalue. And this where we should logically end this article. Live Ball is fun, typically a quality workout, and does help with ball tracking (something a ton of players struggle with) but it’s not going to help you in the areas that are most important as a match player.