A good question from a reader — “Coach Brian, I enjoy your articles… With all of the new changes in smaller courts, rackets and the new foam tennis balls for kids, can you write more about parental involvement in getting more youth to try tennis?” -Barney, of Plymouth.
Thank you so much for your question and suggestion, Barney. There certainly has been a lot of innovation in tennis learning, along with training for many other sports. I have noticed over the years, as I’m sure you have too, that very often children will take an interest in what their parents are interested in — especially when they see the joy and enthusiasm that their parents bring to the activity.
I got into stamp and coin collecting at a very young age because my grandparents were avid collectors. On almost every visit to their home, I was given a small bag of coins to sort through and envelopes with canceled stamps from all over the world. To me, and my grandparents, it seemed fascinating. My interest waned some years later after I took my collections to a coin and stamp dealer in downtown Minneapolis, who basically told me that “They weren’t worth much, if anything” because nothing was in “mint” condition.
The famous, former professional baseball player Keith Hernandez, recently gave an NPR radio interview about his book “I’m Keith Hernandez,” and talked at length about how he got into baseball. Keith stated that his dad was an avid baseball player, and how he built a batting cage (of sorts) in their garage. Keith said that he and his brother would spend hours a day hitting a tennis ball with a baseball bat that was placed inside of a sock, which was tied to a rope that hung down from the rafters in their garage.
Keith said he loved it and the hours would fly by as he and his brother banged away at this tennis ball (with a baseball bat) that was tied to a rope in their garage everyday. (There have been similar gadgets invented for practicing tennis strokes indoors too). Keith said that it was a great training aid and his father would often coach him as he developed his “home run” swing. You can certainly say that parental involvement was the key that made the difference for Keith in becoming a high-level athlete.
I’ve written about them before, but the Williams sisters’ tennis story (Venus and Serena), is basically the same.
So, whatever the activity, if your children see you (parents or grandparents) having fun, then they will be much more likely to enjoy it and make it their own, as long as you do not push (or force) them too much.
If you love tennis, maybe start with just having some (new) foam (beginner) tennis balls around the house for your kids to play with. Every child (and toddler) loves rolling or throwing balls. No matter how many we already had in our home, my three boys would always ask for another one whenever they saw them in stores.
As they get a little older, you can set up targets that they can throw at and try to hit or knock over. Then, get some small, kid-size tennis rackets and do the same. Put your lamps and glass nick-knacks on the floor, away from the play area, so mom doesn’t get mad if something breaks. Get creative, just make it fun.
I’ve seen hockey and soccer families set up goals in their basements and do the same kinds of things. You just never know where the next Bobby Orr, Serena Williams or Keith Hernandez is going to come from, so just give your children the opportunity.
Tennis families can setup backboards in (or on) the garage, basement or driveway. I have plans available for making correctly angled/tilted backboards that will make the tennis ball return with a very hit-able bounce to help students build repetition, which is what really makes a tennis shot “perfect.” Send me an email for more information on the correct angle to make your own backboard.
Years ago, there was a saying within tennis circles that “If you can just hit 1,000 balls a day, you can turn pro.” Of course, there is a little more to it than that, but having a backboard accessible certainly helps their chances. Nearly every pro that I have ever researched or interviewed has mentioned that a backboard, garage door or side of a building, had played a large part in developing their tennis strokes and their love of the game. Even the great Nick Bollettieri, who coached former world No. 1, Andre Agassi at his tennis academy in Bradenton, Florida, still has backboards for individual practice for his students.
As far as competition goes, I also recommend that it is better to keep it fun and not too competitive until the teen years so as to avoid early burnout.
Team tennis, with group wins, are a good way to have the competition, but still keep it fun. World Team Tennis (WTT) is one of the things that most pro players love to be a part of. The format is more relaxed, the fans can get crazy, there is team camaraderie and it takes them away from the grind of the tournament schedule for at least part of the year.
Please feel free to email your comments and questions anytime!