There is a starting point for every child who is introduced to tennis. This could be in any number of settings—at school during physical education class, during recess, or in a before or after school program. Many youth program providers also offer tennis, generally in after-school or summer program. The first experience might be on a playground with friends or it may be in the driveway with a parent or family member. Plus, introductory tennis classes are common in most communities and are typically offered by parks, camps or clubs. However it happens, once your child has that first experience and develops a perceived competence, the thought that, “Hey, I can do this,” it is important to identify opportunities for your child to participate. Listed below are several possibilities that are all great for children.
An opportunity often overlooked in our highly scheduled society is spontaneous play. This is where children can learn and play either by themselves or with other children. It could be hitting balls against a wall or garage door, or by setting up modified courts that fit into smaller or more restricted spaces.
Children in other youth sports shoot baskets, kick or throw balls in the backyard or skateboard down the sidewalk and off the curb. Playing tennis with foam balls on a modified court can provide endless hours of activity and fun. It is interesting to note that champions in many other sports spent most of their developmental years learning from others and playing spontaneously.
Previously this was difficult because children only had options of playing on the same-sized court and with the same ball that the pros use. The Hot Shots Tennis Play format uses equipment that is scaled to the size of the child. Racquets are shorter, lighter and have smaller handles. Balls are softer, lighter, bounce lower and move slower through the air. Courts are smaller and the net is lower. This makes it possible for kids to learn by playing rather than having to learn all the strokes before they even play the game.
Smaller courts can be set up on driveways, parking lots, playgrounds, activity rooms, gymnasiums and even on tennis courts using sidewalk chalk for lines and a rope or ‘caution tape’ as a net. Several manufacturers make pop-up nets that are portable and can easily be set up and disassembled. The court will be much smaller than a regulation-sized court, so make the net lower and use a foam ball that has a restricted flight distance even when taking a full swing. This is an excellent way to get children started, and players of all ages and abilities can have fun playing a scaled-down version of tennis by using a soft and slow ball. Children can play with their friends and parents will enjoy hitting balls with their children in this realistic yet modified tennis experience.
Hitting balls against a wall or garage door has a rich tradition in our sport. Many champions have grooved their strokes by hitting balls against a wall. With the balls modified so they are lighter, slower and lower bouncing (red and orange balls), hitting against a wall is easier, safer and allows a child to take a full swing at the ball and still have time to recover and prepare for the next shot.
Almost any wall will work. To make things more challenging and realistic, make a net line 3 feet from the ground so your child learns to hit above the net. A second line can be drawn on the ground a certain distance from the wall so that your child will have to hit with some degree of power to make the ball rebound off the wall and back to the line.
Children can play a variety of games either with a partner or individually. For example, try for the longest forehand rally or alternating between forehands and backhands. Try moving closer to the wall and hit volleys before the ball bounces. Count how many shots hit in a row that go over the net line without moving inside the line on the ground.
You will be pleasantly surprised by how your child will learn to love tennis and at the skills your children will develop through spontaneous play. In fact, developing skills through repetition and spontaneous play is one of the best ways to get lots of hitting, movement and activity.
Parents can also encourage their kids to participate in a supervised play. Supervised play can be offered anywhere in which courts are made available for kids to use under the direction of an adult. The role of the adult is to serve as the ‘gatekeeper’ and provide a safe area in which everyone has an opportunity to play. Similar to an ‘open gym’ for basketball or an ‘open pool’ for swimming, these opportunities are ideal for schools, youth centres and neighbourhoods where kids can meet up and enjoy the camaraderie of playing with one another.
As your child develops an interest in tennis, finding an organised program is a great way to improve her skills and provide further development through lessons, clinics and additional play opportunities. Look for a program that uses the Hot Shots Tennis play format in its instruction. Check to see if the program is using courts and equipment that is scaled down to the size and ability of the child. Ask if the instructors have received special training in working with young children. Finally, make sure the programme includes more than just lessons. Children have fun when they actually play, so the program should have competitive opportunities that are non-elimination and allow a child plenty of opportunities to play with and against a large number of players.
Many children will enjoy the camaraderie of a team atmosphere. Matches and practices are team-based and are fun because children have the support of teammates and coaches. Parents can play a valuable role and be involved at many levels. Like other sports, parents can carpool to get children to practices and matches, provide drinks and refreshments, serve as scorekeepers during matches, take children to professional, college or even high school matches and organise an end-of-the-season pizza party. These are great ways to spend time with your children while also providing them with valuable experiences and lifelong memories.