Tennis Improvement Method (Juniors)

If you go onto read, or have already read, the section on adult lesson methods you’ll notice a lot of similarities. The 3 stages are exactly the same but the goals and general mindset differ a little bit.

Many adults get into tennis because it’s a fun activity that can also serve as great exercise. Really you don’t need any other reason. Drastic improvement is something you can strive for but certainly you don’t have to.

Likewise for kids, tennis can just be a fun once a week after school activity. But typically if you’re getting into private lessons the goal is improvement. Or another way of putting it is there are specific goals or targets you’re striving for. Maybe you want to make the high school team, maybe you want to make the singles lineup, maybe there’s a sectional or national junior ranking your chasing, maybe there’s a particular college you want to try and play for, etc. These are targets that require certain degrees of development. The point of this article is to explain an “affordable results” method that I believe works quite well for junior development.

If you’re goal is to be a top 100 player there is certainly a different trajectory that needs to be followed. One where tennis is basically you’re entire life from age 12 or 13 on and you’ll need to invest an insane amount of $ with no guarantee of things working out. At the end of the day 98% of people who go down this road never make the top 100 or top 50 because there are still a lot of intangibles that simply cannot be coached.

That being said, most juniors can go a long way without investing an arm or a leg assuming they’re willing to put forth a genuinely good effort.

The Formative Years (6-13)

Unless you want to be that crazy veiny tennis parent whose kid hates you it doesn’t make a ton of sense to put a racket in your kids hand before age 6. The really early ages (3-5) are all about developing basic coordination, the ability to run and stop, throw and catch, kick, etc (controlling the body). Some kids may be able to have some success hitting a compression ball (10 and under red ball) with a junior racket by age 4 but they will certainly struggle to do a lot more than that. I personally think practicing throwing and catching (you can use one of those RED balls if you’d like) are probably the most useful skills to develop at this point. Having zero hand-eye coordination and trying to hit a tennis ball with a racket is not a recipe for success. It’s a recipe for frustration and ultimately quitting. You want to make sure that tennis is a good experience whenever you introduce the sport to your child. If their first experience is traumatic they won’t want to play again.

I’ve written more on 10 and under tennis here but I’ll summarize my thoughts quickly. 10 and under tennis definitely has it’s place but if you take development seriously as soon as the child is strong enough to transition to a real racket and balls they definitely should. They don’t need to start playing matches immediately but the truth is there is no “perfect” transition model. There will be growing pains no matter when the transition takes place and I think getting those growing pains out of the way as soon as possible is in everyone’s best interest. With smart coaching (drilling) methods the player will not “necessarily” have to develop extreme grips to handle “high balls.” Even so most professionals play with extreme grips because they are effective.

The one thing the 10 and under model does not adequately address is the transition to the actual equipment… hmm wonder why? That’s because the jump to the real equipment is a frustrating one no matter how you spin it (pun intended). We’ll see just as many kids quitting tennis at age 11 or 12 and going to other sports when they are forced to go through the incredibly frustrating process of making that jump to the “full size” court and racket. If you have some kids making the switch at age 8 or 9 they will be miles ahead of the kids having a lot of success playing 10 and under tennis at ages 10 or 11. I don’t see how anyone could argue otherwise (but I’m sure they’ll try).

Anyway the formative years are really the time for your child to experiment with as many sports as possible. Most of the French and Spanish players that currently sit in the top 100 (22 at the moment) grew up playing a lot of soccer. John Isner, Gael Monfils and Nick Kyrgios are all fierce basketball players, etc. Force your kid to exclusively play tennis too young and you’ll very likely suffer the consequences. In the past things were a little different and the game just wasn’t as athletic as it is now (for a variety of reasons). Now the game is full of stellar athletes and if you want to compete at a high level general athleticism is important. Becoming a good athlete requires a certain degree of sporting diversity at a young age. The other major concern is burnout and unfortunately this happens all the time.

My recommendation would be 1 to 3 private lessons (sessions) a week with an emphasis on hitting A LOT of balls. If you’re (the parent) willing to do a little homework/research maybe 1 private lesson with 2 additional drilling sessions (led by you). As you’ll see with the model “technique” is very important so you need to make sure you have the knowledge. It’s honestly not that difficult to learn or teach good technique.

There are a few things to be aware of if you (the parent) take on the role of “coach” or primary “feeding” person. In these early years it’s all about fun. More than anything you want your child to enjoy their time on the court. Them asking you to play is a GREAT sign. If you have to force them on the court it’s not going to end well. You need to be EXTREMELY patient and be OK if a session goes horribly wrong. Many will and that’s just the nature of the beast. I’ve seen some parents work GREAT with their kids while others are definitely on the road to an unhealthy relationship. If you can’t remain patient or be OK with a “bad session” you need to take a step back and find someone else to take on the role. Most parents have the absolute best of intentions but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be the best coach or the best decision maker when it comes to your child’s tennis. It’s very easy to lose perspective and once you do it’s usually too late.

Speaking of which picking a coach can be a tricky thing. At this age (and really any age) the most important thing is to make sure the child likes the coach. That’s how it stays fun and becomes an activity they look forward to. Hate the coach = Hate the sport.

Development (12-18)

By around the age of 12 or 13 it’s time for your child to make a decision. Some kids will know by age 10 or 11 that the only sport they really love is tennis or basketball or whatever. If that’s the case go with it. I know I hated playing baseball but was forced to continue… I continued but didn’t put forth any effort resulting in a waste of everyone’s time. If you’re child gets to age 12 and says they hate tennis clearly tennis isn’t the sport for them. Maybe they really get into photography or painting…support that if you can. In theory if they’ve been working with a coach they like (good experience) they’ll want to continue and hopefully be inspired to get even better. Once you know the tennis court is actually a place your child wants to be it makes everything else so much easier. Remember that you (as the parent) can want something so bad and it can be in the child’s best interest but if they don’t buy into it they’ll end up losing to the players that have…. Of which there are thousands worldwide.

The Model

Stage 1 – Technical

Kids pick things up FAST in order to adapt to their environment. The same thing cannot be said for adults. Visual examples, either physically demonstrated or virtually conveyed (YouTube or some other site) are very effective. I’m always shocked when I shadow a stroke to a kid and they pick it up almost immediately. You want to start emphasizing good technique as soon as possible. This is why if you’re taking on the role of the coach (full or part time) you need to educate yourself a little bit. There are TONS of free resources out there. Also, 1 on 1 is very helpful and will make the learning process that much quicker.

Stage 2 – Repetition

There is still no way to get around this. A LOT of balls need to be hit. But if a junior has good technique going in it actually tends to be a lot less time than you might think. The bigger issue is attempting to break habits or re-teach technique to players who’ve been compromising form for one reason or another. For example there are a lot of players who pick up a racket for the first time in high school. The high school environment forces you to play matches almost immediately and if you don’t have good technique you’ll compromise form just to keep the ball in play. When this happens bad habits form which means a lot more time and energy has to be devoted to the repetition stage. SERVE is a BIGGY! Match play is never a bad thing as long as stage 1 (technical) and stage 2 (repetition) can quickly be reinforced.

Stage 3 –  Match Play and Adjustments

In my opinion the 10 and Under tennis initiative forces match play WAY TOO FAST simply because it’s a lucrative venture. Let’s make a bunch of 10 and under tournaments and teach kids how to cheat even earlier. Most 7 and 8 year olds are not ready to be put in a “singles” match environment. There’s nothing wrong with match play I just wouldn’t recommend formal tournaments to kids who can’t handle or understand losing. In tennis you lose all the time and it’s important for all players to understand that. When the kids are responsible for calling their own lines and you have crazy veiny tennis parents on the sideline you’re asking for trouble and a BAD EXPERIENCE. The goal is to limit those bad experiences while the child matures into a teenager and can eventually make up their mind about what passions they want to pursue.

Playing matches with friends, parents, coaches is really the way to go at a young age. They’ll be more likely to follow the rules and by extension will hopefully learn the valuable lessons of sportsmanship. Once the player can handle losing they’re ready for sanctioned tournaments (this could take a while).

One quick caveat; learning how to cope with losing and getting frustrated are different things. Frustration on the court is an inevitable part of development and something that every player has to work through. Cheating, gamesmanship, and being a sore loser are completely different animals to getting frustrated with your own performance.

By the time a player reaches the age of 13 or 14 they should really start playing about one tournament a month (10 to 14 in a year). It can be expensive so be smart about it. Look for tournaments with first match loss consolations and/or have the tournament schedule get a little denser in the summer when the fees aren’t as high. If development goes according to plan by the time they’re 15 or 16 they’ll mostly be playing the higher level tournaments so the schedule will basically be made for you.

Match experience extends beyond tournaments and onto the practice court. This is an opportunity for the player to develop some mental toughness where they can also learn to analyze their performance (without the pressure of a tournament match). It’s amazing how many players can’t even tell you what their best shot is.

For example if a player notices they were having a really tough time hitting their backhand down the line in a practice set you can jump back to stage 2 and work on that. I would recommend finding a flexible coach who’s capable of playing practice sets to guarantee that stages 2 and 3 can be jumped between fluidly. Or if you go to more of an “academy setting” make sure there are quality hitting partners (hired help) that can simulate match scenarios really well. There are some great tennis PLAYERS (converted coaches) out there who can’t drop their level to suit different players. Make sure you try and vet that in advance as it can make a world of difference for younger (13-16) junior players.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day every case is different and every player has a ceiling. But the one thing that is required for long-term success is a passion for the game. Passion isn’t something that can be coached in an hour lesson. If tennis can be a fun and enjoyable experience early on it does wonders down the road. As you can see the model isn’t complicated but it takes time, dedication, and a willingness to go through some growing pains. But, if passion is a part of the equation the tough times won’t really be so tough after all.