David W. Smith Senior Editor, TennisOne
Let's face it, tennis lessons don’t come a dime a dozen. More like 300 to 500 dimes an hour. But what are you getting for your hard-earned dimes?
But in some areas, tennis pros do indeed seem to come a dime a dozen. You can find fliers, posters, and business cards floating around public courts in such areas like littered wrappers of Power Bars or worn-out over-wrap grips. These “professionals” drum up business and try to build a clientele through word-of-mouth or just by being available to teach. Some are legitimate pros who know their stuff…others, not so much. Even at clubs, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and those who smell funny! I’ve seen the “used car salesmen,” (not a slap on those who sell cars, but the concept of pros who only know one method and refuse to learn or explore better ways…kinda like a car salesperson who only has one type of car to sell!)
In my 35 years teaching tennis, I have to say that the majority of people seeking tennis lessons are those who want to teach their young children the game or want to take their own game to a higher level. In regards to parents, this is because they see tennis as not only a lifetime sport, but one that many wish they had started playing at a younger age. Regarding adult students, I can’t tell you how many ex-football, basketball, and baseball jocks came to me with a similar wish: “I wish I had played tennis at a much younger age.”
Indeed, people in many sports see the value of starting any beginner off on the right foot, so to speak.
But what IS the “right foot?”
It is interesting to hear parents talk about tennis as it applies to their kids. Many say they, “just want their kids to enjoy the sport.” Others say, “I just want them to play reasonably well.” And still, others say, “I just want them to have fun.”
Few challenge their kids with the intention of saying something like, “I want my kid to be able to reach his or her potential in tennis.” It’s as if establishing—or even verbalizing—the goal of reaching one’s potential will destroy the child’s fragile ego. Much like we see in the dumbing-down of education, we often see pros, coaches, and parents resist anything that challenges a child to overcome adversity, frustration, and difficulty. But, in doing so, we reduce the opportunity for almost every kid who is prescribed such avoidances, the chance to reach their potential…or, even see what that potential really is.
Thus, when a student takes any lesson, be it piano, golf, karate, dance, or tennis, the decision or desire to reach ones potential must be sincerely realized and then the lesson will have long-term reception as it pertains to potential. As I’ll mention in a moment, the DESIRE to reach high levels of skill—and thus come closer to true potential—is something that can change almost overnight.
But What is “Potential?”
Potential is the level of achievement that any person of any age can achieve within four areas:
I have discussed these four elements before in other articles, so I won't elaborate on each here. However, there is one area that will severely limit any player's potential regardless of the other three. And that is "education."
Education As It Applies To Sport or Any Skilled Activity
Education here refers to the information provided by a pro, coach, or parent, in the teaching process of any lesson. Education can be the description of “how” to hit a ball. It includes the progressions and processes that a pro might walk a developing player though. However, it also includes the “why” to hit a shot a given way. (Grip, stroke, footwork, swing path, etc.)
The “why” in hitting any shot in tennis gives the student the ability to be a critical thinker on the court. Instead of simply reacting to a given shot as a conditioned animal might respond to an external stimulus, students who understand why shots are hit have the ability to embellish and differentiate shots as the situation dictates. It also allows them to be more proactive on the court.
Unfortunately, there is a level of ignorance in the teaching realm that can not only deter a player from enjoying the game more, but can permanently hinder the player’s potential even as they may indeed have the athleticism, desire, and opportunity to excel at the sport.
Learn Through Attrition?
I’ve seen hundreds of parents simply toss balls to their kids with the belief that through simple attrition, their kid will continue to improve. Let me say that EVERY kid will improve their ability to hit the ball, and learn to hit the ball high enough and hard enough to clear the net and land in. But, unless they are taught the concepts related to spin and a repeatable, reliable swing path, the student will only learn to control the ball through these other two variables: height and speed.
Over time, the student will become frustrated as he begins to want to hit the ball harder. Adding pace to a stroke that doesn’t produce optimal spin and swinging a racquet without consistent and intentional control will only create exponentially more errors. Thus, such players are relegated to creating control by what I call “Gravity Reliance”…that is, hitting the ball hard enough to clear the net, but soft enough to still land in. This is often referred to as “dinking.”
Parents need to realize that while it is a commendable goal to hope their kids simply enjoy the sport, the reality is, as such kids get older they tend to want to get better. And kids that truly have the potential to play the game at high levels will find that if they are taught poorly, they simply won’t have the foundation (or what I call an “Advanced Foundation”), to use their God-given attributes…even if they WANTED to become highly skilled.
Skilled tennis is seldom something that comes “naturally.” Yes, there are those who can quickly figure out how hard and how high to aim shots, and even be able to rudimentarily direct shots. But, in tennis—as in all sports—as one progresses, one faces opponents who can do more. Thus, a tennis player will need to not only use better techniques to hit more effective shots themselves, they will have to use better techniques that allow them to defend more effective shots by better opponents.
Pros need to understand this as much as parents. If a pro is simply teaching a “hit and giggle” class, they are only going to sustain interest for a very short period of time and they won’t come close to providing the needed foundation to give kids a chance at reaching their potential.
Consider a piano teacher teaching students only how to peck out notes with their two index fingers. Would many parents keep their kids in this teacher’s class? I seriously doubt it. Sure, the kid could ‘play a song’ quickly, with the false belief that the kid can continue to progress by only using this rudimentary method of playing with their two fingers. We all know that this will not only fail to produce a student who can continue to improve, but that student will never reach their potential as it applies to playing the piano.
A tennis pro who teaches rudimentary methods that MUST change for the kid to progress to higher levels of tennis is no different than a piano teacher teaching kids to play with their two fingers. (We have millions of people who type with only their two index fingers…and certainly, they seldom type much more than 25 or 30 words a minute…compared to those who type with all their fingers reaching upwards of 60 to 70 words a minute.) But, unlike a musical instrument, tennis is a form of competition. And so, if a player starts to compete using inferior methods, they will find it very, very hard to abandon that which they feel comfortable doing in favor of using a new, unfamiliar method.
Ironically, across the country and around the world, pros and coaches who instill advanced training methods, who stress the importance of dedication and desire, and who tell their students, “Its okay to work hard and strive to reach your potential,” usually have not only larger classes, but their students stay in the program longer.
Anyone who is teaching a kid a method of tennis that MUST change for potential to be met, will in all likelihood stagnate that student at levels far below his ability.
While some students might be able to go through the frustration of change in tennis, it is rare for them to do it quickly and without significant frustration.
Thus, as I’ll discuss more in future articles, a person looking to take lessons, or parents who wants their child to learn tennis, will want to educate themselves as they seek the person or persons who will either inspire and prepare the student to reach potential, or risk having that person perpetually limit the student in reaching such goals.
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The Straight Arm Forehand
Back in the day, when players like McEnroe and Connors ruled the courts, and forehand grips were mainly Eastern or Continental, takebacks were rarely looped, swings were short and compact, and the dominant stroke was the straight arm forehand. Somewhere along the way, the double bend forehand was becoming the most talked about and used forehand and the older school straight arm was becoming outdated. Yet after taking a closer look at how top players hit powerful forehands, Tom Downs was surprised to discover that for many, the straight arm forehand is still the stroke of choice.
Sources of Power — Primary and Secondary
Much has been written about the kinetic chain and how it's proper use can exert effortless force on a tennis ball. Here, Joe Dinoffer divides tennis strokes into two groups: primary and secondary axes of rotation. Which one of these has the most impact on each stroke is often based on whether a player is hitting on balance (primary and secondary axes can be employed) or completely on the run (secondary axis can be employed).
ProStrokes 2.0 — Kei Nishikori, Backhand
Japan’s top-ranked male player, Kei Nishikori, had a breakout season in 2012 and. moved up to a top-twenty world ranking. Attacking with a nearly full western forehand and two-handed backhand, Nishikori relies on speed and a counter-punching style of play similar to David Ferrer or Lleyton Hewitt to wear down opponents. Nishikori lacks a powerful weapon but he doesn’t really have any attackable weaknesses either. His serve is reliable yet lacks real power. However, with steady nerves and a game that forces opponents to play at a high level to beat him, Kei is showing his peers—and the world—that he is a player to watch. New this issue, Nishikori's Backhand.
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