As it pertains to running a good clean group lesson—with juniors in particular—being organized with your time allocation is extremely important. Let’s be honest: If you allow them, kids can and will completely derail your lesson plan within the first minutes of the class. We have all likely received crazy requests from our students such as a request to play King and Queen of the Court for the whole hour or even a request to engage in a “Belting the Pro With the Ball” contest. If you teach tennis to juniors, you have most certainly been on the receiving end of such requests.
In all fairness, kids are going to be kids. They more than likely come to you immediately after school, after a full day of listening and paying attention. The last thing a child wants to do upon arrival at their tennis lesson is once again sit and listen intently to their pro waxing profoundly about the difference between a Semi-Western Forehand Grip vs. a Continental Forehand Grip. It goes without saying that such lessons should be saved for later, when the pro has the child’s full attention.
At my club, our teaching pros follow a general rule of breaking each one hour class into a 10/40/10 structure.
The first 10 minutes of the class (give or take a couple of minutes) is devoted to a dynamic warmup. “Dynamic” is the key word here. Allow the kids time to run and hit and make mistakes and blow off the steam that has built up during their school day. Pros should refrain from offering corrective techniques during this time, and instead focus on warming up and gradually raising heart rates. In my experience, kids are just not ready to listen in the first 10 minutes of a lesson. Instead, they are reconnecting with their group, getting a sense of freedom (from school and adults), and recalibrating their brains to a different activity. This is a really important time to back off a bit from preaching and reminding them that it is time to listen to yet another adult! If you play this right, this is your time to be the “cool pro,” simply by allowing them to have a little space.
That said, you certainly don't want chaos, just a spirited warmup. The dynamic warmup should be relevant to what the day’s lesson is going to be. Don't do a double-feed warmup to the backhand side if the day’s lesson is focused on forehands, etc.
Once everyone is through the first 10-minute phase and balls are picked up, it is time to actively take on the role of a teaching pro. Assuming the first 10 minutes were handled appropriately, you will hopefully have the attention and respect of your students. In this 30-40 minute period of time, the focus should be on instruction. Find your voice—know your audience—and make every attempt to shift the focus from yourself to your students. It is crucial during this time that you are not at all concerned with the students’ perception of you. That is, this is not the time to be the “cool” pro who impresses their students with trick drop shots and tweeners. This is the time when the best pros shine—the pros who take a group of kids in September and turn them into players by June. As a pro, it is critical that you know how to teach in both style and substance. You cannot fake this part. Stay organized with your message and do not overteach by being too verbose or scattered. Rather, stick to one correction for each child, so that each such singular correction can be absorbed.
The last 10 minutes or so of the lesson should once again be very active. During this time, you should aspire to incorporate the day’s lesson into a fun drill game or live ball game—depending on the level of the children that you are teaching. I have always found it most successful when the pro participates in the drill game and once again allows his or her fun side to shine before the lesson concludes. During this time, positive reinforcement, such as high fives, as well as team camaraderie, go a long way. This is what the kids remember most and what parents love to see—their kids having fun!
While this model clearly is not rocket science, you would be surprised how easy it is to deviate from your lesson plan if the one hour lesson lacks a structured framework. Stick to the 10/40/10 rule and you will find that your junior groups will not only learn more, but more importantly, have a lot more fun.
John Curtis is executive director at Manhattan Tennis Academy. He has held a number of positions at various tennis clubs, and was head coach of the NYU Men’s tennis team from 1996-2006. Afterwards, focusing on junior development, Curtis was the 2006 PTR Coach of the Year in the Northeast Region and in the 2009 PTR Member of the Year in Northeast Region. He can be reached by phone at (212) 359-9535 or by e-mail at John@ManhattanTennisAcademy.com.