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The 5 Paradoxes of Teaching Group Tennis to Children
Our battle to upgrade the industry standards for teaching has been going on for years, but many would argue we still have room for improvement. We all know that for most of the last century, tennis teachers and coaches would simply teach the way they were taught, typically with command or military style teaching, students standing in lines waiting to hit one ball at a time, learning skills one by one, and only when they gained control over their skills, would they be encouraged to play the actual game of tennis. Plus, historically speaking, students have been taught almost exclusively through verbal instructions and with little use of visual or kinesthetic aids. Of course, this doesn’t apply to all teachers, but a quick trip around the areas in which we all live can reveal a lot about the general standards that the USPTA is trying to hard to raise.
These patterns of teaching have been, at the very least, one contributing factor to what USTA and industry analysts describe as a major retention problem in our sport. These analysts have concluded that only one in twelve children who start playing tennis continue past high school. Therefore, when we introduce one million new players to the sport (the statistical claim of the tennis industry effort to "grow the game" in the United States over the past five years), we are only making a gain of 85,000 players out of that original group. Imagine what excitement would be generated if the retention rates could jump from one out of twelve, to one out of three or four. You might ask, "Why can't we go for 100% retention?" The answer is that tennis is not the only sport with retention challenges. Soccer, for example, has a huge drop off of participation once children reach twelve or thirteen years old. Also, we must keep in mind that parents often their children try out many different sports, and only those in which they are fairly successful will have a chance of keeping their interest.
The good news is that times are changing. Especially in recent years, with the onset of the all-powerful information age we all live in, there is little place to hide and simply "teach the way we were taught." With one click of a mouse, players can now gain the knowledge they need to utilize their own discretion in evaluating whether or not they are being taught as effectively as possible, whether or not their tennis teacher is creating a learning environment that is current and effective or outdated and archaic. This factor will gradually push the teaching profession forwards and everyone will benefit. The players will receive improved instruction, more players will remain in the game, and the tennis industry will be more than merely stable and can steadily grow.
Here I'd like to address five of the great paradoxes in teaching tennis.
Paradox #1 Self Esteem Building versus Critical thinking
Click photo: Patrick McEnroe talks about how appropriate sized equipment insure children have more success and develop faster.
When you stop to think about it, tennis teachers are paid to view players critically and find shortcomings. In other words, we walk onto the teaching court with a view slanted towards finding what students are doing wrong, rather than looking first for what they are doing right. We can also defend this paradigm since, after all, students are often asking us to look at their strokes and find problems to fix so they can improve. The dilemma lies within the concept of self-esteem. We would all agree that if a student walks on the court at 4:00 pm and leaves an hour later, they need to walk off the court with more self-esteem at the end of the hour than when they arrived. How do we ensure that their self-esteem increases? We need to give them a tangible sense that they improved. One way to accomplish that is by establishing clear yet simple goals for each session. Then, once goals are established, we need to be certain that they are achieved.
Does all this mean that critical thinking has no place in a tennis lesson? Of course not. But it does mean that we have to avoid letting that process of critical analysis become the predominant environment in which we teach. Build a student's self-esteem and they will keep coming back for more. This is one of the true talents of great teachers.
The litmus test for self-esteem building is fairly simple. Experts in the field of teaching and learning tell us that children (or adults for that matter) must have a success to failure ratio of about seven to three. This means that for every skill attempted we should strive to create an environment where each student can succeed seven times for every three failures.
Paradox #2 Creating a Fun versus a Learning Environment
Another paradox of teaching is how much to emphasize fun versus making sure we are teaching something. It may sound ridiculous, but I have seen lessons on both ends of the spectrum. Some teachers are so concerned that they are "teaching" that they get completely absorbed in conveying information. They forget that the students have to want to hear what they have to say; otherwise every tidbit of wisdom falls on deaf ears.
On the other hand, I've seen teachers who make things fun, and then more fun. The kids are running, jumping, laughing, and having a great time. They keep coming back for more. But, after months of lessons, they still cannot play. Gradually they will move on to something else. And, if they don't, their parents certainly will. What parent will keep paying for lessons if they don't see their child improving?
The answer is a balance. Fun is absolutely essential, but combining fun with bite-sized bits of learning opportunities must be part of the equation.
Paradox #3 Teaching Game Based versus Skill Based Lessons
Game-based teaching simply means instructing based on game-like situations, close to the realities of match conditions. However, for decades, tennis has been taught as skill-based, in what some would observe as a more orderly and methodical manner. In a student's first lesson, we started off with forehand groundstrokes, and then backhands. Later we moved on to teach volleys. Down the road, we taught the student how to serve. All this time, they never played a single game and probably didn't even know how to keep score.
This traditional paradigm of teaching tennis is why coaches hear players complain: "I played horrible and just can't understand it. In the lesson I was hitting my forehand just great."
Game-based learning reverses the traditional learning sequence. Let the players play since, after all, tennis is a game. Through playing, they realize exactly which parts of their games need attention. Then they will see the purpose behind practicing.
The conclusion? Play the game and have fun. Integrate realistic game situations into all lessons. And, in group or team practice sessions, this should include pausing between points to refocus and prepare for the next point, as well as changing sides with a small rest every five to ten minutes to simulate changeovers. Create a real match environment in practice and your students' real match performance will improve automatically. Any weakness needing extra attention will become crystal clear, and they will be more motivated than ever to work on it.
Paradox #4 Guided Discovery versus Command Style
Here's a simple analogy that will drive the point home about the issue of whether to instruct command style or through guided discovery.
Consider a child in school who is given an assignment of doing some research in the library. Typically, the child begrudgingly goes to the library and clearly does not enjoy the process. It's too much like work. The opposite would be the student who selects their own topic and, out of natural interest and curiosity, goes to the library under their own motivational steam, without being forced to go by the teacher. Which visit to the library will result in greater learning and retention? Answer this one for yourself and relate it to learning tennis. Studies show that players who discover their own needs are much more motivated to improve and work on their short-comings than others who are simply told what they need to improve.
Guided discovery simply means that the teacher raises questions and provides options or choices for the student, guiding the student to answer the questions for themselves because they become curious about the answers. Here's a practical example of a question I asked my own daughter, Kalindi, a typical beginning eight-year-old. In helping teach her, I had the option of guiding her towards a continental grip on her serve and her volleys. So I explained that she had two choices. One, the "frying pan" option would be easier to begin with. But later, if she wanted to improve, she would have to change her grip to be able to keep up with her friends.
She is a child who doesn't like change and she recognizes this quality in herself. So, she actually became motivated to try and keep the continental grip. In fact, although she has only been playing for a few months, I hardly have to mention grips on the serve or volley at all, since she is the one who made the decision.
Paradox #5 Student Teaching and High Retention versus Verbal Instructions and Low Retention
Plato is quoted as having said, "Learning is remembering." In this regard here are the results of a study on "Learning and Retention Statistics" from the U.S. National Training Laboratory Institute for Applied Behavioral Science. The study concluded that people retain:
5% of what they hear in a lecture
10% of what they read
20% of what they experience audio-visually
30% of what they see demonstrated
50% when involved in a discussion group
75% of what they personally practice
90% of what they teach others and immediately use in real situations
The conclusion is clear. If we arrange our classes so that the students become our assistants and actually give some basic instructions to each other, their retention of the information covered will soar. This process will make them better players faster. An example is teaching a group of beginning players on basic ball contact skills and you want them to get in the habit of moving their feet. In this scenario you can pair the students and have them feed balls to one another, with the feeder calling out "happy feet" to get the hitter on their toes. Of course, according to information contained in Paradox #3 and Paradox #4 of this article, you would have already tried to get them rallying and, through using guided discovery, they would have realized that movement is essential to get a player into position to play the game.
Remember that "Big shots are just little shots who keep on shooting." Our first and foremost goal must be to keep them coming back for more.
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The Approach Shot and Targets
In this video, Former ATP pro, Jeff Salzenstein, turns his focus on the approach shot in the modern game, and more specifically what target to aim for. Most traditional coaches will tell you over and over to aim deep on the approach shot, however, this often causes errors in execution. While you want to hit the approach deep,see why aiming just past the service line may lead to better results.
How to Prevent Failure after Success
We see it all the time, and most of us have experienced it. Yet all we can do is shake our heads: You know what I mean — you hit an ace and immediately follow it up with a double fault. Or you crack the perfect return of serve only to badly miss the next three. So why do we execute a great shot one moment only to fail on the very next attempt? How do we go from near perfect execution to cosmic failure seemingly in the blink of an eye? Dave Smith has some explanations.
ProStrokes 2.0 — Robby Ginepri, Backhand
Robby Ginepri has been on tour for over eleven years, winning his first ATP match in Los Angeles in 2001. Ranked as high as 15 in the world in 2005, Ginepri has slid considerably in the last two years, mainly due to injuries. The six-foot American does have a very solid game centered around a fluid two-handed backhand and excellent mobility. While playing in the shadow of Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish through most of his career, Robby is a player who works hard and continues to fight to rise up in the rankings and establish himself as a threat to the top tier players. New This issue, Robby Ginepri's backhand.
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