The primary goal of a tennis lesson isn’t to make your student a better player in the single hour you have with them.
If that happens, great, but it’s a secondary bonus, not the primary impact of the lesson. The true goal of a one-on-one tennis lesson is to improve the quality of the student’s future practice.
Let me illustrate what I mean using a core concept from The Fault Tolerant Forehand:
Forehand contact happens with both the hips and the chest roughly square to the target.
Some kids possess this intuition immediately. If you simply toss a ball to their forehand side and tell them to hit it, they turn away from it, then spin back towards the net as they swing. For whatever reason, these kids’ built in athletic intuition is to use their core to accelerate the racket.
For other kids, that’s not the case at all. These kids pull the racket back with their hand, remain sideways, and then swat at the ball. Their athletic intuition, for whatever reason, doesn’t guide them to a stroke that engages their core.
Even without a private lesson, our first kid will probably turn into a decent player. He can learn to play tennis the same way he learned to walk. As he attempts the movements, his brain will observe the results, and then he’ll subconsciously adjust in order to teach himself the proper swing.
The second kid, on the other hand, will probably never have a good forehand without a coach’s intervention. Unless divine inspiration strikes him one day, and he starts striking the ball in a completely new way, he’s always going to be performing a fundamentally different movement pattern – a swat – than the movement pattern necessary for an effective forehead – a twist.
He might be able to slowly improve his swat forehand, and eventually he might even get it to the point of a match usable stroke, but he’ll never be able to engage his full musculature in the swing, because again, for whatever reason, his body just doesn’t naturally try to move like that.
This student needs to be told to turn as he swings, and he needs to be taught that the legs and trunk accelerate the racket, not the arm.
Without these instructions, this student’s practice is almost worthless, because he’s practicing a fundamentally flawed swing. We don’t want the subconscious parts of his brain working to optimize this swing, because it’s a fundamentally different movement pattern than the proper one.
What To Focus On
Kids who are 5-years-old also don’t have much of an attention span. Long, biomechanical discussions are certainly off the table, but even less academic, but still technical advice, is probably not going to land. With that in mind, let’s distill instruction down to five primary goals.
1. Start Sideways
Many professional players don’t actually turn their feet sideways and play the forehand from a neutral stance, but for most kids the “turn, then turn back” action is a little too complicated. If you see a young kid naturally playing the forehand from a semi-open stance, winding his hips and chest like older players do, do not force them to start sideways.
But, for most kids, force them to start sideways, otherwise they won’t be able to generate any power by twisting.
2. Twist towards the net
Twist towards the “target” is too complex for a 5-year-old, so “twist towards the net” is better. This will prevent them from using the swat forehand, and force them to develop an understanding that the core, not the arm, accelerates the racket.
3. Watch the ball all the way into the strings
Especially if the kid also plays baseball, they might not realize that you don’t look at your target in tennis. You look at the ball. Over the net, off the bounce, and all the way into contact. Your head doesn’t leave its position until the ball is gone.
4. Hit the ball in front of you
This one’s pretty easy to help the kid with if they’re not getting it. Just toss the ball to them, and then yell “go” or “twist” when it’s time for them to initiate their swing. Make sure to time your verbal cue to account for their reaction time – you’ll have to cue them earlier than you’d actually want them to start their swing.
What’s the most important factor determining whether or not this 5-year-old becomes a great tennis player? Is it his forehand? His backhand? His athleticism?
Nope, none of those things. The answer is actually quite simple – Does the child continue playing tennis?
The most important part of your job with a student that’s this young is to make them enjoy the game of tennis. If this kid is gonna grow up to be a star, then that necessitates a large amount of positive emotion associated with the game.
Ultimately, if the kid is smiling, laughing, and asking his parents why tennis class has to end after only one hour, that’s how you know you’re really doing your job.
July 25, 2021
I continue to be amazed at this author’s attention to detail. The fact that he has taken time to address our youngest players, demonstrates his devotion of the game. So many of us neglect those youngest students, whether in tennis or other endeavors, but it is obvious that the author cares so much for all of his students, and wants all of them to succeed, even the Kindergartners. That is truly laudable. It is also evident that the author has experience with students of all ages and has gleaned tangible strategies for improving not only the student’s technique, but, equally, or perhaps more importantly, the student’s love of the game of tennis.
July 27, 2021
Thanks a lot 🙂
July 26, 2021
Great comments from Loretta on a great article.
My first instinct in teaching kids the forehand (and backhand) would be to start them at contact facing the net. The same as adult beginners, and referenced in the Fault Tolerant Forehand book pg 29-32. Curious to understand this “start sideways” approach for kids.
July 27, 2021
Most 5 year olds aren’t strong enough to get the simplest effective forehand over the net. They need body rotation in order to generate enough power.
They also aren’t sophisticated enough to turn away from the ball, then turn back as they swing, so we have them start sideways so they don’t have to do the “turn away” part on their own.
July 27, 2021
That makes very good sense, particularly with regular balls and racket that’s too big. Have you tried with foam and low compression balls?
July 27, 2021
And the red ball Wilson mini-nets? I’ve seen kids as young as 3 get the ball over these nets, especially with foam balls. At the end of the day, it’s always good to try different things to see what works, that’s the art and science of teaching and coaching. Especially in sports training where there’s biomechanics and proprioception involved. It’s great that the book and blog posts pay attention to proprioception, it’s a very overlooked part of tennis training. I first came across the term 15 or so years ago but it was never given the respect and context it deserved in stroke development and tennis coaching education/certification programs.
I’m more convinced than ever that tennis is the worst taught sport around. The Hall of Shame is filled with destructive coaching cues that are still widely used, especially from the Vic Braden teaching system, gems like “swing like a Ferris wheel”, “lock in a 30degree wrist angle” to name a few.
Here’s a sample of a young junior being taught the forehand:
Kids Tennis Forehand Technique
July 28, 2021
Ooh… yeah. Not my favorite for sure. One thing you’ll notice in all of my writing is that I never call out specific coaches, only specific cues and such. I intend to continue that, because I’m not trying to get into the mud slinging streets.
Because you linked the video, I’ll give my 2 cents. This girl is going to have trouble driving the ball as she ages, because right now she’s training herself to use her legs to lift the racket. That’s not correct. The legs both drive forward and twist around. Lift on a tour level shot comes from a tilted torso, which transposes that drive and rotation into a more vertical swing. On very low balls, tour levels players will also sacrifice some of their rotational chain in order to swing up with their arm more, thereby gaining more net clearance.
I see a young pusher in the making.
Also, you have great eyes. I’ve seen that exact video you linked from Star Tennis Academy (a great channel), and those boys are being taught very, very well.
July 28, 2021
Also, the deflated balls and mini-nets are great. It’s tough to determine when to move kids forward – some are so talented they can hit on the rise, effectively, with real balls, at like 8 years old, while others are still pretty slow and uncoordinated at 11. But, overall, slowing down the game for little kids is very helpful.
July 28, 2021
Agree, best to focus on being “hard on the problem (bad coaching cues), not on the person (specific coaches)”. That was not my intention. However, sometimes there is a historical source for many of them. It’s frustrating dealing with coaches who have “bought into a branded coaching methodology or system” and aren’t open to reexamination and new/emerging coaching methodology and ideas. What’s worse is that these ineffective and harmful cues persist and continue to get passed on to learners of all ages. The way your approaching it is the most effective way, focusing on the cue and biomechanics problems.
I spoke today with a veteran coach who follows a branded methodology and is convinced that a vigorous pull of the hand backwards from contact using the bicep to bring the back of the hitting hand up to the side of the neck on the opposite hitting shoulder is the source of racket head speed. The coaching cue used is “find, feel and finish”. A slogan used is “it’s all about the finish”. I suggested that a loose arm and wrist maintaining a proper arm/racket structure and angle through contact combined with core body and racket rotation accounted for speed and spin production but he wasn’t open to it. The shoulder tilt concept might be too much to put forward at this time. 😂
Yes, the girl in the video is in danger of becoming a pusher. The cue used is “lift your center of gravity” and the training method often used is to have the player sit in a chair and then spring up out of the chair to “lift the ball”.
Agree re progressing kids based on factors like ability, aptitude, and desire, not age is the way to go. I’d say the same applies to adults however they too often resist progressive balls and rackets, and that’s a shame. That’s were good coaching comes in.
July 28, 2021
For the record, I’m not convinced adults benefit from the deflated balls (coaches seem to be split on deflated balls in general). With the kids, they’re not physically fast enough or strong enough to play regular tennis, so I understand the argument that slowing the game down with deflated balls actually produces better technique. I’d need to be convinced this still applies with adults.
As for the Bicep thing… I mean, maybe. If he coaches kids like that, and they develop effective forehands, I’m not going to criticize it, I guess. I see SO much carnage at our club (and wrist injuries) from people forcing their follow-throughs, so I stay away from that kind of cuing.
July 28, 2021
Re the Star Tennis Academy video. Thanks for the compliment, not sure 🤔 where linked that video though, was it in a reply?
July 28, 2021
Yeah. You commented on YouTube.
July 28, 2021
Regarding regular balls and adults. Recently, I was watching some adult rec players trying to rally half court using regular balls and they couldn’t hit 4 in a row, this went on for 20 minutes and they were getting angry at each other. I asked them if they were open to a suggestion and they were. I gave them a green dot ball. Within 3 attempts they were able to rally 20 in a row without any technical advice. It’s not the first time I’ve done this with a similar outcome. I believe some USTA seniors events are starting to use modified balls to try and keep seniors in the game, many are defecting to pickleball because it’s easier on the body and easier to play. Regular balls present difficult challenges to unskilled players of all ages and for many that takes the fun out of playing. If they’re taking lessons from a skillful coach and have good hand eye coordination regular balls can work. The carnage I often see so often on court is people who don’t get taught strong fundamentals spending most of their time picking up regular balls.
There used to be a club near San Diego not long ago called the Bobby Riggs Tennis Centre. It’s now been rebranded to Riggs Paddle and Racket. Tennis has been removed from the name. There used to be 10 tennis courts. There are now 3 with the others being converted to 14 dedicated pickleball courts. The writing is on the wall.
July 31, 2021
Yep, I’ve seen the pickleball wave as well. I tend to work only with older adults who really love the sport of tennis and want to improve at tennis, so for those clients regular balls are a must. I could definitely see a brand of adult tennis for the less serious that uses deflated balls, but to be honest, that’s such a different sport anyway that maybe it is better for those adults to play pickleball.
Even as a tennis lover, I’m open to change, and maybe pickleball is a good change. Tennis is a sport of explosive athleticism. I’ve met many 60-70 year olds that are still great tennis players, guys who love the sport and are still in good shape, even though they’re seniors. Maybe it’s fine for those guys to play with the younger guys, instead of having senior leagues all to themselves, and for the more casual seniors to move to pickleball. I certainly wouldn’t want those excelling 65-year-olds to only have deflated ball tennis as their primary option.
August 1, 2021
It’s great that your working with older adults still thriving in tennis, that’s inspirational. Tennis is indeed a game of “explosive athleticism”. Unfortunately Father Time steps in as one ages into and beyond midlife making tennis just too difficult to safely enjoy for many people. Boris Becker recently said “tennis is a moving game, that’s why I don’t play anymore”. And he’s only 53.
For those lucky people able to play in their 60s and into their 70s, they can and should play with regular balls and play younger opponents if their UTR is high enough because physically they’re younger than their chronological age. However, the only racket sport option for most seniors with some mobility is pickleball or badminton or tennis with lower compression balls in a modified “orange court” because you don’t need to be “explosive” and quickly cover a lot of ground to play at a decent level and have fun. Tennis has to be innovative to keep people in the game, especially with the rapid and continued growth of Pickleball.
The PGA Champions Tour is a great example of the athletic demands of playing different sports and aging. These guys, in their 50s and 60s are playing events weekly that are broadcast globally and well attended, at the level not too far removed from the PGA Tour, many of them still earning millions annually from prize money and endorsements. There is no such equivalent in tennis, no one wants to pay to watch a bunch of older individuals who were once elite athletes stumbling around the court. Tennis as a business and spectator sport doesn’t lend itself to anything but elite “explosive athletic” performance, beyond the capability of former touring pros like Becker, Agassi, Muster, Lendl and most other aging former touring pros.