Unfortunately, very few certified tennis professionals coach high school tennis. If they committed to coaching at the high school level and recognized the privilege it truly is, I believe they would become better tennis instructors. When you coach a team, you have a variety of levels to develop, a limited amount of time to do it in, and a test on just how you are doing every couple of days.
That sort of pressure forces you to prioritize your efforts and focus on activities that will develop your players as fast and effectively as possible. Your students don’t have to just ‘feel’ they are improving, there is a match tomorrow and they will be keeping score!
Having coached a varsity girl’s tennis team to 15 consecutive state championships with a record of 223-1, I know something about effective junior development. As a USPTA professional of 32 years, what I have learned coaching a team also applies to junior development on an individual or small group setting.
I have put together five significant lessons I have learned that will guarantee consistent and often dramatic progress by your students or tennis team.
1. Concentrate on the fundamentals
The way the modern game has evolved, matches are basically determined by groundstrokes and serves. We work on cross-court/down the line forehand and backhand drills and games for at least 45 minutes every practice. A minimum of 30-50 serves are practiced as well. I put an emphasis on consistency, then depth, and then power.
So often, I see teaching pros spending inordinate amounts of lesson time on shots that will have little bearing on the outcome of a match. This is not the 1970s and the slice backhand is not making a comeback! The days when net play would decide the outcome of a match are also gone. Although a slice backhand or a drop volley may win some points, they are only a small fraction of the winning game profile and should be practiced accordingly.
Consistent strokes will beat most players, consistent depth will win even more, while consistent depth and power will save your parents from paying for college.
2. Try to correct serious technical errors
Of course with practice that involves constant repetitions, you will want to be reinforcing good form. Some technical differences must be corrected, while others are simply idiosyncratic and acceptable. For example, if someone was using a continental grip on the forehand or did not change to continental on the backhand, that grip has to be corrected as you drill these strokes. Some differences on technique are legitimate, as even Rafael Nadal does not play exactly like Roger Federer, but obviously their differences work for them both.
Many pros insist on changing strokes to bring in line with how they played 20-30 years ago or their view of how the game must be played. A coach must be more flexible and understand that the game has changed. A coach must also adapt to the personality and style of the player. If a player’s personality inclines toward caution, there is not point asking them to go for broke as often as possible. Changing an aggressive player into a pusher has as much chance of success as changing their height or the color of their eyes as the saying goes, “One size does not fit all.” A good coach must fit the development process to the player profile: Abilities, goals, personality and commitment.
3. Know your opponents
In high school tennis, there is a difference between what skills a number one singles player needs to win and the skills a number four doubles team needs. A number one singles player needs to have some weapons that can force errors. Power is more important when trying to beat a top player. At number four doubles, simple consistency, regardless of power, will suffice. As a result, a coach must adapt the practice to accommodate the varying levels of play. Drills to emphasize aggressive play are necessary for your top players, whereas lesser developed players must continue to work on consistency before they can play aggressive without becoming reckless (see unforced errors).
In private lessons, it is also important to note the goals and level of commitment of your student. If their goal is to make the high school team and tryouts are just a month away, you had better get the essentials down, whereas if they want to excel in tournament play and play in college, you can take a more expansive, long-term approach and start developing a more complete game.
4. Practice is not a lecture
I am a big believer in the method of teaching called “Guided Discovery.” With this method, you simply suggest certain possible solutions to a problem, continue to work the process and allow the player to figure out the solution. All too often, I see tennis pros give lessons that consist largely of them talking ad nauseam about some technical correction, while hitting very few balls. I feel like telling them there is no written test in tennis, you have to be able to perform and not recite. It is entirely possible to be hitting balls while you are working on technical changes.
Every teaching pro has had the experience of trying to get a player to make a certain change until one day the player suddenly “gets it” and tells you what you have said a thousand times as if they are hearing it for the first time. That moment will happen a lot sooner if you continue to hit while trying to move the changes from a cognitive/mind knowledge to kinesthetic/performance knowledge.
5. Make it fun
During my third year of coaching a girl’s team, I learned a lesson I have tried to remember. We were doing our groundstroke drilling and I, for some reason, was particularly insistent that we concentrate and cut down on dumb errors. After about a half-hour while we were picking up balls, I asked one of my leaders on the team, “Why was practice so sloppy today?” She gave me an answer I did not expect, saying, “Coach, we are just not having fun.” I was dumbfounded and did not know what to say. Am I supposed to tell jokes or do impressions?
After I put aside my defensiveness, I realized that I had to find a way to improve the team and do it without it becoming just another homework assignment. It is an art rather than a science, and you have to become more in tune to the dynamics of each individual team and ask them what drills and games they enjoy. Try to find activities that can be fun, yet still prepare them to play their best. It can be done, but it takes a willingness to change what is not working and find what will. Make the team your partner in developing them, they also want to play well, but it’s a sport and the process should be fun and must be fun.
There are so many dimensions to this great game—physical, strategic and mental—that I could have mentioned many more lessons that have served me well in team coaching. But I believe if you follow these five points, you and your students will have considerable success and a lot more fun.