As a coach, you learn fast that in tennis, every student is different in style of play, character and body type. However, there are still many things that are similar among most young players (such as the love to play points in practice over doing repetition drills).
Over the years, I have noticed that most kids share the same common mistakes, some of them basic fundamentals that can easily be fixed in the young ages, but not as easy as the kids get older and bad habits become more difficult to fix.
Here is a list of the top nine most common flaws I see in many kids. Many of them are due to the lack of organized coaching during a child’s formative years. Many kids grow up with homemade games without the luxury of getting one-on-one lessons and when they start to get high level coaching, they have developed bad habits that are hard to change, but not impossible.
1. Lack of ready position
Having a good ready position is essential. It is surprising how fixing that simple thing can actually improve the quality of your shots right away. Placing the racquet in a neutral position, usually with a forehand grip, and leaning forward with knees bent allows for maximum balance, better timing and a cleaner, more consistent shot.
2. The split-step
So many kids neglect this subject and don't realize the importance of a good split-step before every shot (just a split second before the opponent connects with the ball). It’s not an easy realization, but the fact is that a good tennis player needs to split-step non-stop during a tennis match, the sooner they internalize this fact, the sooner they will reach the next level.
3. Taking an eye off the ball too soon
If I had one sentence to leave to this world, it would be to “Keep your eye on the ball.” This is golden advice. Actually, you have to keep your eye on the point of contact for an extra split second after the ball is gone. That's what all the great players are doing. Roger Federer is a great example of this. It is simple … if you try to watch the point of contact, you will make sure that you hit the sweet spot and thus increase the accuracy of the shot, maintain confidence and remain disciplined enough to trust the shot and keep the head down on big points. This is what separates the good from the great. Federer has done this the best and has been rewarded with pretty good results. Oftentimes, he will hit a winner without even looking at the result because he is so fanatical about keeping his eyes down where he connected.
4. Not hitting enough cross-courts during points
The old quote from Bjorn Borg is one of my favorites. When asked about the secret of his success, he replied, "Basically, I hit lots of cross-courts and from time to time, I go down the line.” To me, this is tennis in a nutshell. That way of thinking won Borg 11 majors in six years. Many kids early in their development fail to understand the power of the cross-court and pull the trigger too soon, going down the line when down in the point, allowing the opponent to take control. The cross-court, inside-out forehand and short-angle cross are all shots that, when hit well, can open up the court and create an advantage, plus, the cross goes through the low part of the net. The defensive cross-court allows for time to recover. Need I say more?
5. Not having the right grip on volleys
With 99 percent of kids hitting a two-handed backhand nowadays, it is getting increasingly difficult to teach kids to hit with a proper Continental Grip. Many of them use the "Fake Continental," which is between an Eastern Forehand Grip and a Classic Continental. Fixing that early on in one’s development can determine between having a mediocre volley or a quality volley.
Especially on the serve, but also on groundstrokes, many kids will change their grip right before the serve (during the motion) or on groundstrokes, they will switch grips after the split-step. This habit takes away valuable time and increases missed hits. Many kids don't even realize that they are doing it and when they fix the flaw. The result is immediate improvement and cleaner contact.
7. Going to the net on a cross-court
Obviously you need to mix it up from time to time, but eight out of 10 times, I would recommend approaching the net on a down the line shot. It simply allows you the best coverage of the net. Coming in on a cross-court exposes you to the easy down the line passing shot—it is a case of percentages. Many kids will go in on a cross-court shot and wonder why they lost a point they should have won. The ones who stick to the percentage game will win more points in the long run.
8. Not using the left hand enough (on a two-handed backhand)
The two-handed backhand (for a righty) is essentially a left-handed forehand with a little help from the right arm. Many kids never work on their weak hand and use too much of the dominant arm. I make my students hit left-handed forehands every day for a few minutes. Once they develop that muscle and become more crafty with their off-hand, it will take over the shot and create more power, and provide better placement and more versatility in the shot.
9. Having a consistent toss on the serve
Many kids have a solid motion and can generate a lot of pace on the serve, yet fail to make first serves with good percentages. Most of the time, it is due to an inconsistent toss. Once they fix the toss, it usually makes a visible impact on the first serve percentages and makes holding serve a bit more simple, not a small thing in this game, to say the least.
Gilad Bloom, former Israeli Davis Cup player and two-time Olympian, played on the ATP Tour 1983-1995, reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open in 1990, reached a highest ranking of 61 in singles, was Israel Singles Champion three times. Bloom has been running his own tennis program since 2000 and also was director of tennis at John McEnroe Tennis Academy for two years. He can be reached by e-mail at Bloom.Gilad@Gmail.com.