How to Tell a Good Tennis Lesson from a Bad One
How to Tell a Good Tennis Lesson from a Bad One

Are you getting what you’re paying for in your tennis lesson? For a beginner, or even an intermediate player, it is often difficult to know if you’re getting a ‘good’ tennis lesson or a ‘bad’ tennis lesson, and by the time you do know, it may be too late. There are so many different opinions and teaching styles that is difficult to tell up from down sometimes.

This article is an attempt at an objective measure of the value of your tennis lesson.

First some disclaimers. Obviously this article is written from a certain viewpoint and will contain at least some personal bias. This is unavoidable but I have made every attempt to minimize personal bias.

Now let’s setup some metrics. We have to know what we mean by good tennis so we can determine if your tennis lesson is helping you play good-er tennis or not. So the fundamental question is, “What is good tennis?”

The best objective measure of this is probably the top tennis players in the world, Federer, Nadal, Del Potro, Davydenko, Murray, Djokovic, etc. What makes them the best tennis players in the world? Quite simply, they get the ball back in play one more time than the opposition on most points. Exactly how they do this differs between players, but essentially they have the 5 critical components of a good tennis shot:

1. Consistency getting the ball back into the court

2. Depth putting the ball deep gives them more time to recover and puts pressure on the opponent

3. Direction control of where the ball lands on the court allows them to strategically setup a winning shot

4. Spin more spin makes the ball harder to return and allows them to hit the ball harder and still have it dip into the court

5. Power equals speed, which means less time for your opponent to get to the ball.

If you notice your use of the above improving at least slightly every lesson, you’re doing well. If not then your lesson might need some adjustments.

How to teach the 5 critical factors
Now we come to the more subjective measure of ‘good’ tennis instruction. How do you teach someone to achieve the 5 critical factors above?

Clearly if you want consistency, you must strike the ball at a similar position every time. Biomechanically, this means contacting the ball about a foot in front of your body for a forehand and one handed backhand, or in line with your front foot for a two handed backhand. Your racket head reaches it’s maximum speed at these points in your stroke.

In order to get consistency and depth and direction you need to have the ball contact the racket away from your body in front of you so you have maximum power transfer and can see and control where the ball goes. What happens when you hit a ball when you get jammed up with your elbow stuck into your side? The ball doesn’t go where you want it to.

To summarize: if you want the 5 critical factors to work for you, you must contact the ball in front of you away from your body. The trick is setting yourself up to do that every stroke. And this is where the real controversy starts with in tennis with the dreaded “F” word. Yep, Footwork.

If you take your eye off the ball and simply watch a top 10 ATP player’s feet during a match, you will be shocked at how restless their feet are. Their feet are constantly moving.

Watch this video I put together of a point at normal speed and then at half speed zoomed in on Federer’s feet (I’m no video editor, but you get the idea). Don’t worry that you can’t see the ball, it doesn’t matter. To watch the video in full screen, click on the black little box to the left of the speaker at the bottom right of the player.

Notice how Federer’s feet GLIDE and are CONSTANTLY MOVING. Next time you’re on the court pay attention to your feet and compare them with the Fed. Notice the difference? Feeling clunky? What effect do you think your feet have on how well you can consistently stroke the ball from your power zone?

In my opinion no-one has better footwork than Roger Federer. How often have you seen him get jammed on a stroke? Hardly ever. He glides across the court like an ice skater. The problem with watching Federer’s footwork is that to the untrained eye it doesn’t look like anything special. He is so good at it that he makes it look effortless.

But his footwork is what sets up his consistency, depth, direction, power and spin. Look at the two pictures below of a high backhand and a low backhand and notice how his lower body (feet and legs) set him up to strike the ball in his power zone regardless of where the ball is.

Tennis Positioning
Tennis Positioning

And that’s just the footwork at the shot. Don’t forget the 10 or so little steps and hops and slides he took to get there and get in position to make the shot. This is why I don’t believe you can be a good tennis player without good footwork. If your lower body doesn’t position your upper body to hit in your power zone, you’re never going to be consistent, powerful, etc.

This is why I stress footwork in my lessons. This may be a personal bias, but I see too many juniors and even experienced adults spraying the ball all over the court because they aren’t setup to hit the shot to start with.

If you’re contacting the ball six inches from your belly button one shot, behind your front foot the next shot and then two feet away from you reaching down to the ground the next shot, it’s no wonder you’re not consistent and powerful. I have to hold my tongue when I see this going on in a match and then the player looks at their racket in amazement and then takes a practice swing duplicating the bad feet and contact point. As if that will fix it. Sorry, not going to happen.

In terms of your tennis lesson, consider whether you are being taught correct contact point and how to make it happen consistently by using your lower body (footwork) to set you up for the shot. Good movement on the tennis court rarely happens by itself, it has to be taught.

Footwork is all but a forgotten art in the lower levels of tennis, but I have a strong suspicion there is a lot of attention paid to it in the upper echelons of the professional tennis world. If that wasn’t the case, then why are the world’s top tennis players all excellent movers and masters of footwork? You will find players in the top 20 who have strokes as good as the top 10, but they don’t move as well.

Stages of Development
In addition to using effective teaching techniques to transfer knowledge to a student, a teacher must also know what to teach and when to teach it. This can be one of the most challenging parts of a lesson for a coach.

According to Cote and Hay (2002) there are three stages an athlete goes through in the their development within a specific sport. These stages are sampling, specialization and development.

In the sampling stage the emphasis is on fun and enjoyment in a structured playing environment, e.g. simple point play exercises.

In the specializing phase, there is more focus on deliberate practice while maintaining the fun and excitement, e.g. forehand down the line drill.

In the investment stage the athlete embeds and invests themselves in the ethos of their chosen sport and dedicates themselves to specific skill development e.g. wide and heavy ad court spin serve, or defensive deep looping cross court return and short ball put away.

A tennis coach must recognize which level a student is at and tailor the lesson to both encourage and challenge the student. Research has shown that high achievers prefer moderately difficult tasks, so the coach must provide both the opportunity for the athlete to be challenged and experience success.

For example, you don’t teach a beginner how to hit a forehand slice approach shot when they can’t do a regular defensive backhand slice. However, you might let them have a go at it just for fun if they’re at the sampling stage and the student is someone who the coach feels will benefit from the challenge. One student might benefit from it, another might not. The coach has to judge each student and each situation independently.

A Note and Warning for Juniors
The drop out rate among teenagers in sport is extremely high, something like 90% for teenage girls by the age of 15 in the USA. One of the major reasons is said to be lack of enjoyment and too high expectations, usually from external sources, e.g. parents and coaches. Inflexible, high expectations should not be foisted on young athletes who have not yet reached the stage of investment in their chosen sport.

Kids enjoy doing things they can be successful at. And they don’t need to be patted on the back for it or forced to participate. The research shows that children who enjoy an activity and are successful at it will do it more often if they are not given extrinsic rewards (praise, prizes). Surprisingly, their participation drops when they are given the extrinsic rewards such as praise and prizes.

The conclusion seems to be that intrinsic motivators (self-esteem, achievement) are stronger than extrinsic motivation (external motivation). Using this in a tennis lesson means you must find what someone can do and help them do it better. Their experience of success will motivate them to continue improving at it.

As well as intrinsic motivation, a coach should strive to keep the lesson fun and exciting with just enough familiarity and newness to keep them interested. My feeling is that the more balls the kids hit, the quicker they’re going to get over the steep learning curve of tennis and into the reward of being able to rally the ball across the net multiple times. I don’t like to see any of my kids standing around, so I keep the balls flying and the rackets swinging.

Directives
Just how should a coach instruct or direct a student to improve their game? While I believe that mostly kinesthetic methods (physical demonstration) should be used, it is impractical to completely dispense with verbal instruction. However, when verbal instruction is given it must be of a specific type. Allow me to demonstrate.

Don’t think of a polar bear.

When you read the above sentence, what did you think of? What picture popped into your mind?

Yep, you saw a polar bear didn’t you? (Don’t feel bad, I’ve yet to meet someone who didn’t see the polar bear.)

And when your coach says “Don’t hit it in the net” or “Don’t hit it out” or “Don’t do that” or “You shouldn’t…” what picture pops into your mind? A picture of what you shouldn’t do. If you’re told “Don’t hit it into the net” you picture the ball going into the net. Interesting isn’t it?

The reason for this is your mind can’t picture “Don’t”, so anytime it hears “Don’t” it ignores it.

Your mind’s job is to create pictures to send to your body for it to act out. This is why visualization in sports is so powerful, but that is a topic for another article. The point here is that your mind creates pictures and it can’t create a picture of a negative such as “Don’t”.

Commands with negative words like “Don’t” and “Shouldn’t” generally have the opposite effect to what they intended. Remember that time you thought “Don’t screw up!” Now you know why it usually makes you screw up or at least play below your best.

All you really need to know is that if your coach is telling you “Don’t”, “Shouldn’t” or other such negative commands with the concept of “not” in them, it’s probably hurting you more than it is helping you.

Your Goals
A good tennis lesson is designed around what you want. A good tennis lesson gives you what you want. Not everyone has tennis lessons because they want to be a pro player or win the local club tournament. Maybe you go to tennis to get your mind off stuff, or to get exercise, hang out with friend or get a tan. It’s your time and money, and it’s your choice. Everyone is different.

This is why I ask my students what their goals are for their lesson. It is their lesson, not mine. If I follow my idea of what their tennis goals should be, I’m doing them a disservice. And if I don’t know what their tennis goals are I don’t have much chance of helping them achieve them.

The One Most Important Thing
Any good tennis teaching pro will be able to see many different problems with a students strokes. The trick to being a good pro is choosing which problem is the most important problem to work on at the moment.

If a beginner is using an extreme western grip, that is a problem. But if the student is also clunking around the court with straight legs, that is the bigger problem. It is also before the grip problem in terms of the stages leading to hitting the ball. So the good coach should focus on the the clunky legs first because they are the biggest problem at that time.

Progressions “Walk before you crawl”
In order for a student to experience success and be encouraged to continue with tennis, they should be taught in progressions, or stages.

For example, in learning to volley I first demonstrate and teach the volley ready position. In itself this is a progression from the ground stroke ready position which is wide legs, bent knees, balanced on the balls of the feet, racket up in front of you. The only difference with the volley ready position is you want your racket held even further out in front of you.

Once the student has learned that step, the next step is introduced – step to the ball and meet it with the racket. Once that is learned, the student can now take a bounce/split-step as the ball is struck by the coach feeding the ball.

The next step might be learning to volley with a consistent continental or eastern forehand grip for both backhand and forehand volleys. The next step would be to ‘cup’ the ball to produce backspin.

The steps might vary slightly depending on what the student naturally starts to do on their own. The important teaching concept here is to teach one step at a time. In a clinic this is not always possible but with some creative thinking you can help students learn without even knowing they’re learning.

One of my favorite games based on the learn without knowing it is something I invented by accident. I call it ‘catch’. To play catch one student stands on one side of the court in the volley ready position while I feed ground strokes to all the other students on the other side of the net. The volley students job is to bounce any ball coming across the net on their racket three times. If they do this, then they have ‘caught’ the player who hit the ball and that player has to go help the catcher catch the rest of the students.

The main reason I like this exercise is it teaches so many fundamentals of a good volley without the students realising it. The ‘catcher’ learns good footwork, open racket face, quick feet, and perhaps most importantly – just meet the ball at a volley.

Swinging or chopping at the ball has to be the most recalcitrant problem with inexperienced tennis players. By trying to catch the ball instead of hit it into the court, there is no swinging and chopping at the ball. Amazing, I love this game! I love the look on the students face when a ball comes zinging over the net and they try to catch it with an open racket face but instead of it bouncing on their racket it returns over the net for a perfect volley!

If you had asked them if they could volley before the game they would have said no. But they just did it. The fact that it was not what they intended to do doesn’t matter because now that they’ve done it they not only know they can do it, they also know what they did to make it happen. This brings me nicely to my next point…

Judgments on the court – ‘good’ and ‘bad’ shots
This may sound a little controversial and perhaps a little abstract, but I believe there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ shots on a tennis court. Good and bad are judgments and they have no place on a tennis court, especially in a training situation.

It has been shown that judgment obscures observation. When you place a value on something, you are less able to see it for what it is. Once you have pigeon holed something, you don’t see what it is, you see your idea of it. A real world example – racially biased people are more likely to blame a person of a certain race for a crime. They will even go so far as to convince themselves they saw the person do something when video evidence shows otherwise. This is a fact.

In tennis, if you judge your shot as ‘bad’ you are less likely to be able to observe what you did and correct it. Try asking someone who thinks they just hit a ‘bad’ shot how far out it was and the chances are you’ll be amazed at how far off they are. They thought it was 5 feet out when in fact it was only 1 foot out. Or the opposite.

There are some deep, abstract psychological reasons for this which I wrote down and my computer threw a wingding and deleted (deep breaths…). The best advice I can offer is that you consider the different effects these two comments from your coach might have on you when you hit a ‘bad’ shot.

First “Bad shot. Don’t do that. Hit it in.” How does that comment affect you? It leaves me confused. I try and forget about the shot. But what mustn’t I do? What did I do? Oops too late, I already forgot about the shot.

Second “What happened?” If your coach asks this in a non-judgmental tone and gets you to inspect your actions and the results they produced, you have a chance to learn. “I lifted my head and the ball went 4 feet deep” gives you feedback on how to get the ball to go in. If you are allowed to compare what you did to the results you produced you can learn how to produce the results you want. You need to know what makes a ball go out just as much as you need to learn what makes a ball go in.

After all, in and out aren’t really that different – they’re just some lines drawn on the ground. If you just observe what you did and what happened, you can learn from the experience and make the necessary changes. If you judge and forget, you learn nothing.

The Mental Side of Tennis
Without turning this article into a book on tennis coaching, allow me a quick word on mental training. Tennis is my favorite game because it is largely a mental game and I have been fascinated by the human mind and how it works since I was a teenager.

This fascination with the workings of the human mind has lead my life through a few unexpected twists and turns and landed me with a Mental Trainer certification and about 10 years experience as a life coach using cognitive behavioral and accelerated learning techniques.

The reason tennis is my game of choice is that it is by far the best physically active format I have found for self-discovery and personal development.

This is also why I love tennis as a game for children – they can learn so much about themselves and how to handle goals and adversity both on and off the court. As a coach it is up to you to create and allow that context in the lesson, and only introduce it when the student is ready for it in a format the student can digest.

In brief, any tennis instruction that doesn’t at least acknowledge the importance of mental training, and offer a glimpse at the fundamentals of goal setting, motivation, emotion control and visualization might be missing out on a fertile ground for rapid improvement.

Conclusion
For your tennis lesson to be ‘good’, it should be moving your shots towards more consistency, depth, direction, power and spin. It should also be helping you develop sound footwork that makes good shots easy. Your lesson should also not leave you feeling overwhelmed with technical details you can’t incorporate, or leave you feeling defeated or hopeless. Your lesson should provide you with a challenge but also bring good feelings of success and improvement.

A coach that can inspire his or her love of the game in you and help you to enjoy yourself, get in shape, learn more about yourself and develop as a person is doing a great job.

Paul Drayton is in the US Professional Tennis Registry (Ranking: Professional) and a Certified Mental Trainer. For more information please visit his website at www.ZenTennisLessons.com.

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