Does your child want to play?

by Peter Marrack

Fall 2018

When working with kids, fun is number one.

What I’m about to offer is my opinion on how to teach kids tennis. I’m sure there are many ways to go about this, just as there are many ways to make a grilled cheese sandwich. But from my own experience as a kid and as a teaching pro, these methods strike me as most effective.

When working with kids, fun is number one. If you want your kids to continue pursuing the sport, you want them to leave the court with smiles on their faces. Tennis is a difficult sport to learn.

Sometimes it’s too idealistic to expect your kid, who may or may not still be wetting the bed, to go out there with their miniature racquet and knock the ball back and forth like a young Djokovic; in many cases they don’t even know who Djokovic is; forget about Raonic. If they’re a natural talent and can, great. If not, set your ego aside; yeah, it could be genetic, but who can predict what the tennis gods choose to bestow on your child. In any case, if they’re having fun, and want to get back on the court, chances are, over time, they will get better. But if you push too hard at the beginning, because they’re not fulfilling some prophecy you immaculately conceived when filling out the brochures, they might just throw in the blankie and opt for karate; and what could be worse, as a parent, than spending your time after work underground in a dingy dojo, right?

So how do we make it fun? Well, there are a couple of variables to consider.

So how do we make it fun? Well, there are a couple of variables to consider. First, they need to be in an environment conducive to learning. That might be with their friends, or it might not. Just because they’re in a group with their friends doesn’t necessarily mean they’re enjoying their time on the court. It depends.

Do their friends push them in a positive way to get better, or do they hold them back? I’m confident enough to say that in most cases the parent can accurately gauge who is a positive influence and who is not; but of course there are exceptions. That’s why it’s important to keep a line of communication open with your child’s coach. You should be able to gauge the competence of your coach the same way you determine whether a particular friend is a positive or negative influence. Feel it out. Despite what you may think of you child, rarely is it the case that they NEVER encounter challenges or obstacles while on the court with their coach. Therefore, I would be skeptical of a coach who never expresses anything but gratitude for being paired with your child. As for the coaches themselves, they need to be confident enough in their own teaching to voice honest feedback to parents. Communication is everything. Except in rare cases where a child is absolutely unmanageable--everything short of a straightjacket has been attempted—there shouldn’t be a situation or challenge the team of parent/coach cannot overcome.

These are a couple of challenges I’ve encountered: you have a kid who genuinely enjoys his time on the court; they’re improving; they’re having fun. But when it comes time to graduate them to the next court they resist. Maybe they’re comfortable with their friends, or with you, the coach, or they’re just a little shy; the next court up is scary; it’s new. All of sudden instead of looking forward to tennis, they want to skip it; a tummy conveniently starts to hurt on the car ride to the courts. I had this happen recently with a student and I had to make the tough call of keeping them on my court. I often wonder if it would have been more beneficial for them to endure a couple of tearful classes if it meant greater gains. Then again, what would these gains have really meant? One less student? An unhappy kid? I chose fun in this circumstance, and having consulted the parent, felt confident in my decision.

Another challenge was a child who came to me with no tennis IQ.

Another challenge was a child who came to me with virtually no tennis IQ. Tennis simply didn’t run in the family. I had an elder sibling and she used to cry every time she came to her lesson. With this child I decided to set very simple goals. Positive reinforcement is everything. Tennis itself—hitting balls over the net--wouldn’t make her happy, so I needed to disguise each drill or game as something different. Footwork drills became dances; ball pick-up trick-ortreating; sometimes I would even sing the instructions. And guess what? It worked! She started to leave each lesson with a smile, and began making baby steps with her game. I would let things go like hitting two-handed forehands instead of one- and rarely broached the matter of the serve, which happens to be the most important and most difficult stroke. After all, she was only 6!

The first blow, however, occurred on a family vacation to some tropical destination down south. I recall an unhappy email from one of the parents; they weren’t happy with their child’s progress. My first instinct was that I had misread. They seemed to have forgotten--or never knew it in the first place--that when they came to me the child was not keen and even less naturally inclined to excel at racquet sports. I chalk it up now to lack of communication between myself and the parent. That was my fault. Nevertheless, how bad could it have been? Had some tropical gale blown every ball just out of reach? Had they misunderstood the feedback and instruction because of an island accent? In any case, when they got back, I made a conscious effort to better communicate the child’s progress, and we got back to it.

Unsurprisingly, the child continued to improve. I started peppering my songs with real advice and instruction--use one hand on your forehand, keep the strings pointed this way--and the child reacted. I realized that I had lured them in with the fun aspect, and now could be a bit more serious and push harder. Now the student is making real steps toward progress and developing a real game. And coincidentally the parent seems more pleased. Though I do still bribe her kid with cookies, when necessary.

You’re never short of surprises or challenges in the coaching business. It all sounds so simple and straightforward when I put it down like this, but it’s really not. There’s just as much of a learning curve as a pro, and this is coming from someone who only knew tennis—lived and breathed it--from the time they were in 3rd grade. By today’s standards, I started late. Age 8. But I’m confident, as much as the game has changed and continues to change, of one constant: people play tennis because it’s fun. There’s nothing quite like it, and it can become a life-long passion. But for all the amazing times I can still recall times when I wanted to set the racquet down. And that’s when I needed to step back and rediscover the essence of the sport--it’s fun!

Tennis is great for maintaining that childlike enthusiasm and whimsy--what we mustn’t forget when we step out into the real world and become doctors and taxpayers, or more importantly, parents and teachers. Let the kids do what they’re great at. Swing away, children!