Momma Poppa Tennis – 28 Tips for Teaching Your Kids – Part 2

Coaching tips for pros and parents for teaching kids how to play tennis and on the court advice on teaching strokes to get started with your junior players.

John White

John is a USPTA Elite Professional with a master's degree in counseling. He has a coaching practice in Baltimore, MD and publishes podcasts and eBooks on positive thinking in sports.

This is Part 2 of a 2 part post. You can view Part 1 by clicking here.

“Tickle Two Pepper Toss, Catches Feeding Rally!”


Popsicle Sticks For Teaching Grips

15-1bPopsicle sticks make great little gadgets for teaching tennis grips. I always carry some in my bag. You can get them for next to nothing. I got mine at Michael’s Art Supply Store. A box of a million cost me a nickel, and here’s how you do “the popsicle tickle.” Give each munchkin a popsicle stick. They come in multi-colors. Let them pick the color.

Tell them to hold it as if they were going to write with it like a pencil, and then press it up against the right vertical panel of the racket handle so that it’s standing straight up and down. This is known as the “eastern forehand shake-hands trigger-finger grip.” It’s the first one they should learn. 15-3bA handle has eight edges. Ask them what you call an eight-sided figure (octagon). Then ask them which of the street signs is an octagon (stop sign). Ask them if they know of any cephalopods with that word in it (octopus). Ask them what you call an 80 year old (octagenarian).

Now, put the popsicle stick over the upper right bevel, so it’s on a slant. This is the Continental Grip. Then put it flat on the top. This is your Eastern Backhand One-Hand Drive Grip. Then put it on the under right bevel for a Semi-Western Forehand. 15-2bIf you are not sure about the grips yourself, go to youtube and watch a few video clips on tennis grips.

I used to use the “prehensile pencil stencil utensil” to teach grips, but you couldn’t hit balls with a pencil between your hand and the handle_it hurt. The popsicle tickle just tickles.


The Two-Hand Backhand Grip

16-1bAfter you’ve shown them the shake-hands trigger-finger forehand grip, you need to show them the two-hand backhand grip. I can teach somebody the two-handed backhand in two minutes, and the one-hand backhand in two months. Save the one-hand for later. Teach your kids the two-handed backhand before you even think about teaching them the one-hand. One man’s opinion.

If it’s a small child with a big racket, and they want to hit it with two hands on both sides, either hand on top, who cares? We can fix that later. 16-2bPoint is: get them started. Assuming you’ve shown them the ready-position (where the spare hand loosely cradles the throat of the racket in the pads of the fingertips or plane of the palm), all they have to do now to get a two-hand backhand grip is slide the left hand down to where it touches the right. It’s like a baseball grip. No gaps, no overlaps. Sometimes little guys like to leave a gap between the hands. Not good. Sometimes they’ll try to overlap the hands, as in golf. Good for golf, not for tennis.

Tell them to hold the racket up like a bat, then just before they hit the ball, dip it down like a golf club. 16-3bOne is angled up, the other’s down. When a racket goes from a bat to a club, it’s a blub. Tell them there will be a quiz later. The reason you want the tip dipped is to make sure you are brushing up on the ball from a foot below it. Hitting a topspin backhand is more like going up a sliding board than across a table.


Bunting Drills

17-1bBaseball coaches have a little pre-game warmup drill they do with infielders, known as “pepper.” The players stand around in a semi-circle and toss the ball to the coach who bunts it back randomly to the players. It keeps them on their toes, because nobody knows where it’s going.

That little control game is perfect for your next step. You are going to toss the ball underhand to your child or students, and they are going to bunt it back to you so you can catch it. A semi-circle works best. Since the last thing you just taught them was the two-hand backhand, might as well begin with that. 17-2bThen do the one-hand forehand. (The two-hand backhand is nothing but two forehand grips.)

Now, tell them to take the right hand off (assuming you have a right-handed player) and leave the left hand where it is. You’re going to toss them some balls underhand and they’re going to bunt them back to you with a left-handed forehand.

17-3bAfter they’ve hit a few left-handed forehands, tell them to put the right hand back on, but it’s just along for the ride. The left hand is doing all the work. A left-handed forehand is a push. A one-hand right-hand backhand is a pull. Pushing and pulling are two different things. Two-hand backhanders are doing more pushing than pulling. Start them with the two-hand, and later add the one-hand slice. If they want the Federer-Express, they’ll ask for it.


How To Toss A Tennis Ball

18-1bThis tip works for anybody: teaching pros, coaches, mommas and poppas…

When you teach a family or a group of students, spend a little time teaching them how to toss the ball underhand. It’s the cheapest ball-machine going. A great skill for parents to learn. Do not feed a ball with an overhand toss or a throw.

Stand your tossers with their backs at the net. 18-2bEach tosser is aiming for a T. One “T” is where the center serve line meets the serve line. The other two T’s are where the singles alley lines meet the serve line. So, each tosser has a T to aim for. They have a line for direction and one for distance. They toss the ball underhand to their partner so that it bounces on the T. The partner catches it on one bounce and tosses it back.

The art of tossing is the same as bowling, and the same as walking. It’s called normal opposition. When the left foot comes forward, the right hand comes forward.

18-3bNow you have to work on the speed of the toss, the height of the toss, and where it lands. If this takes 10 minutes to get across, trust me it’s worth it. If you think they can handle it, back them up a little and have them play throw and catch with overhand throws.

At first, with little guys, have them catch it on one bounce. Then maybe catch it in the air. Now, let’s get into how you catch a ball…


How To Catch A Tennis Ball

19-1bTake your cap off and let them catch the ball in your baseball cap. Keep old caps around for this drill. Bounce the ball easy, if it’s a little guy. Put your cap back on and have them do some alligator catches. Touch the heels of both hands together and turn them vertical to make “alligator jaws.” Little kids who haven’t played baseball do well with alligator jaws. Ask them what’s the difference between an alligator a crocodile. None of them will know. Tell them to look it up tonite; it’ll be on the test tomorrow.

Give them each an empty tennis can. Put it in their left hand (the tossing hand for right-handed server). 19-2bHit the ball high as you can in the air (rainmakers). Tell them to catch the ball in the can before it stops bouncing (raindrops). They always have a blast with this one. As they get better, have them catch it on two bounces, then one bounce.

For the advanced kids, give them each a can with three balls in it. Tell them to get in line. When it’s their turn, they hand you their three balls and keep the empty can. You hit all three balls, one right after another, up in the air as high as you can. Their job is to catch all three balls in the can before they stop bouncing.19-4b

Show them how to catch a ball on a tennis racket (if you know how). Show them how to field a ground ball like a shortstop and throw a runner out at first base. Teach them how to juggle…

Now, what about feeding…


Three Ways To Feed A Tennis Ball

20-1bFollowing underhand tossing, or dropping the ball, the next way most parents learn to feed a ball off a racket is standing across the net from their munchkin (which assures they will pass their genes on to more munchkins), and drop-hitting the ball.

A drop-hit feed is where you drop the ball, let it hit the ground, rise to its peak, and then hit it gently to your student. As you get better, you feed them out of your hand without letting them hit the ground first.

20-3bIf you are a new teaching pro, make sure you don’t feed topspin balls to your hitter. They take off and run and are hard to hit. It’s easy to spot a new tennis teacher: they feed with topspin. When you feed balls, either on a bounce or out of your hand, put a little backspin on it. This makes the ball bite the ground and sit up so it’s easier for the student to hit.  Choke up on your handle for better control when feeding.

Feeding gets to be an art. Has nothing to do with learning. Just fun to do and keeps a lot of people busy. Some teaching pros who love to feed remind me of traffic cops who dig their job. They’re like bullfighters with a cape.20-4b

So, start beginners off with shadow swings, imitating you but not hitting balls. Then, stand next to them and drop the ball. Correct their backswing, stroke and follow-thru. Then, toss the ball underhand on one bounce. Then, feed it from the other side of the net with a little backspin. Shadow, drop, toss, hit, up the ladder you will git.


The Bounce-Hit Rally

21-1bShort-court bounce-hit is the first way you get a rally going. The short-court (or the mini-court) refers to the four service boxes right up there by the net. Power is not the issue here. Control is. What you’re looking for are bunts. Short, controlled pushes that get the ball over the net and land in one of the boxes without going past the service line, or wide of the singles alley line. The entire length of the swing is about a ruler. Hardly a swing at all. That’s where you start it.

Here’s how you do it: Every time a ball hits the ground everybody in your group (or your one student) says “bounce.” 21-2bEvery time a racket hits a ball, everybody says “hit.” Pretty soon, you’ve got a bunch of bounce-hits going, and the tick-tock cadence becomes a metronome. The rhythm of the rally sweeps you along. “Bounce-hit.  Bounce-hit.” You can’t concentrate on two things at the same time. By occupying your mind with the bounces and the hits, you have no time to be worried about the swing.

The bounce-hit rally is one of the best things you can ever teach a beginner. It’s also a great tool to fall back on when you’re nervous or hurried. 21-3bWhen you and your student are successful at the short-court distance, back it up to “No Man’s Land” (that rectangular area between the baseline and serve line). If you can keep a ten ball rally going from that distance (60 feet), back it up to the baseline. You say “bounce-one.” Your student says “bounce-two.” You say “bounce-three.” Until you get to ten. If the ball bounces twice before it gets to you, it’s “bounce, bounce.”

“Rainbow Rally Sin of Wipers Teases Jungle Bobbles!”


Best Distance For An Endless Rally

22-1bA rainbow is shaped like the top half of a circle. A rainbow rally looks like two McDonald’s arches. This is the shape of the rally we want. Line-drives and net-skimmers are the bets of beginners. Tennis is a game of errors. Most errors go into the net. Lesson number one: hit it twice as high as the net.

Lesson number two: The funnest part of tennis is the endless rally. Find a distance that enables a rally to go on forever. The five distances I use for rallying purposes are: 20′, 40′, 60′, 80′, 100′.

22-2bA 20′ rally is where you are 10 feet from the net and so is your student. Short grip, soft hands, no swing, happy feet. You are both in the middle of the service boxes. Either bunt a real ball or use the sponge balls. A 40′ rally is from serve-line to serve-line. The sponge balls are good for this distance. But, the easiest distance, I have found, for an endless rally, with any age or any ball, is the 60′ rally.

This is where you are standing in the middle of that big rectangle known as “No-Man’s-Land” and so is your student. The term “No Man’s Land” is from World War I. That’s where the bombs and mines all blew up. 22-3bIn a real tennis rally that’s where all the balls land. But for a great warmup distance, that’s where you stand. You aim for their “T” and they aim for yours. If it’s just you and one munchkin, use the center T’s. If there are 6 of you, use the alley T’s too. The magic distance is the endless rally distance. Experiment until you find it.


Other Rally Distances

23-1bA tennis court is 78′ feet long. If you are standing 1 foot behind your baseline, and so is your munchkin, you’ve got yourself an 80′ rally. Most munchkins can’t do an 80′ rally, at least not on one bounce. Pretty soon they can. But, until they can get it on one bounce, try the two-bounce rally. Hit the ball gently to them, so that it bounces twice. Tell them to stay behind the baseline and hit the ball on the second bounce.

I sometimes do this drill with my adults who have clodhoppers (big feet). What you want in tennis are baby-feet, little steps, many ministeps. 23-2bYour eyes see the ball coming. Your brain tells your feet to get you to a good spot where your hand can hit it. The two-bounce drill is great for foot-eye hand-eye coordination. You’ll hear the squeak of sneakers as your munchkin does that little cha-cha skip-step to adjust their distance to the ball. Show them how to cha-cha.

Then back them up to the back fence and feed balls that bounce 3x before they get to them. Back fences are usually 120′ apart. 100′ rallies are great for footwork. I sometimes have people serve from this distance to get a better view of the swerve of the curve.23-3b

If your munchkin has turned into a monster (teenager), you can have some fun integrating, math, physics and geometry (with the Pythagorean Theorem, Magnus Effect, and the shape of the shots). Experiment with distances. They’re all good for something.


The #1 Mistake In Tennis

24-1bTennis is a game of errors not winners. For every point decided by somebody hitting a winner, far more are decided by somebody making an error. How many ways can you make a mistake in tennis? Seven. The seven deadly sins of tennis are: short, wide, deep, double-fault, double-bounce, and the two touches.

Short: the ball goes into the net. Wide: it went wide of the alley lines. Deep: it cleared the baseline. Double-fault: you didn’t get your serve in in two tries. Double-bounce: it bounced twice before you got to it. The two touches:24-2b the first thing you can’t touch is the ball with anything but the racket, and the second is the net with anything, including your body, shoes, shorts, and shirt.

Which one gets the most? Tell them to spell tennis backwards and they’ll see. Tennis spelled backwards is Sin-Net. The number one sin in tennis is hitting the net. When do mistakes occur? Before soembody has hit it 3 times normally. The average rally is 5 hits. The shortest is 2. Agassi and Sampras had a 50 baller once.

24-3bFor awhile the record in a professional match for the longest rally went to Vicky Nelson and Jean Hepner for their 643 ball rally in 1984 (one point lasted a half-hour). The match itself lasted over 6 hours. That was before John Isner and Nicolas Mahut set the record with their 2010 Wimbledon marathon that lasted 11 hours, over 3 days. No tie-breakers to decide majors. The last set went 70-68. What do fans want? Shorter matches with longer rallies. Duh.


The 6 Benefits Of Tennis

25-1bThere are 8,000 sports around the world. Less than 50 make it to the Olympics. And probably fewer than 10 are available to you. Each sport has something to offer. Some have more than one thing. Tennis has six. With tennis you get the opportunity to Win, Improve, Play, Exercise, Rally, and Socialize (WIPERS). Many can offer you 4 out of 6 (football, baseball, basketball, soccer, etc). Golf can offer you 5 out of 6, but only tennis can offer you all 6. Win, Improve, Play, Exercise, Rally, and Socialize.

You can’t rally in golf. You don’t play mixed doubles in football. 25-3bYou don’t play on a treadmill or track, you work. If the purpose of education is to learn to love to think, the purpose of sports is to learn to love to exercise. You live longer, you live better, you have more fun. Tennis let’s you do that, and for more years than any other sport. If you don’t have an individual sport by the time you get out of high school or college, you might not have a sport.

If lacrosse was your sport, you’re going to find it tough to round up 20 guys with pads and a field with two goals and white lines. Soccer is pretty easy but it’s not co-ed and it doesn’t have a rally. Softball isn’t easy to organize.25-2b Try booking a field some day. Running and swimming are great, but they’re not games and they are solitary. You need a game that’s fun that doesn’t require a lot of people or equipment. All you need for a tennis workout is a ball and wall. All you need for a tennis match is another person with two sneakers and a stick.


Tell Em A Story Explaining Success

26-1bPeople like stories. And nobody likes stories like 11 year old girls. If you’ve got some 11 year old girls, you are a pig in the mud. Once they hit puberty, however, you are the mud. Get out of there as quick as you can if you are a Martian and get a Venutian in there.

I don’t remember when I discovered storytelling, maybe 1981, but let me tell you something_it’s magic. But, you can’t read them; you have to tell them. The first story I ever tried on kids was a takeoff on the old trope of the two frogs who fell into a bucket of cream. I put it to rhyme.26-2b

“Two frogs fell into a bucket of cream, the first frog said, “We’re dead it seems!” He gave up the ghost and drowned. Second frog said, “I’ll use my head, I may be down, but I aint dead!” He thrashed about in the cream. The sides were slippery, the rim was high, he bounced from the bottom, but could not fly, and nobody dropped him a rope. All of a sudden, from out of nowhere, just when hope had turned to despair, a miracle started to happen. That bucket of cream began to harden, from all his thrashin & dashin & dartin, clearing the top he was heard to mutter, well I’ll be darn, it turned to…” (and they all yell BUTTER!)26-3b

Then I told them about “Cruisin Susan Who Didn’t Like Losin” and “The Little Black Sheep Who Liked To Throw Pigs And Finally Turned Into a Horse,” “Foolish Julie Who Liked To Ride Thousand Pound Beasts Heading East at 40 Miles An Hour”, “Tarzan The Ape Man,” “Skeeter Scooter,” etc.


The 6 Ways To Pick Up A Tennis Ball

27-1bMost people pick up a tennis ball like a giraffe or a woodpecker. I personally prefer the woodpecker. Here are the 6 jungle pickups:

Elephant: “If you were an elephant, how would you pick up a tennis ball?” An elephant would waddle over to the ball and with a loud slurping noise suck the ball up with his trunk.

Alligator: “If you were an alligator, how would you pick up a tennis ball?” Alligators lay their lower jaw on the ball and quickly back up to rake it in.27-2b

Giraffe: “How about a giraffe?” Giraffes nudge the ball up against the outstep of one foot, and then quickly lift the foot and ball at the same time.

Monkey: “What about a Monkey?” The monkeys are always goofing around, so they like to put the ball between both feet and jump up in the air and catch it. (However old they are, make your kids give you that many monkey jumps).27-3b

Woodpecker: The woodpecker likes to ratta-tat-tat the ball off the ground. Show them how to choke up on the handle of the racket, and knock the ball on the head one time with the strings to make it pop up off the ground. Once everybody can do the one-pop, show them the quick three-pops.

Eagle: When an eagle sees a fish (scoot a ball along the ground), it swoops down close to the lake along side it, and scoops it up with it’s claw.


Racket-Ball Skill Drills

28-1bThe oldest racket-ball skill-drill in the book is Dribbles & Bobbles. Some people call them Downers & Uppers, same thing.

When you dribble a tennis ball with a tennis racket (same as dribbling a basketball), you push it down to the ground with the forehand face and make it pop back up to about waist height. Beginners always flip the tip and the ball bounces too high and gets away. Get around behind your beginner, put your hand over theirs and do it for them. Keep the racket face parallel to the ground. When the ball comes up, racket goes down.28-2b

For Bobbles (or Uppers), hold the racket parallel to the ground and bounce the ball off the forehand face up in the air about two feet high. Then off the backhand face. Then Flip-Flops. One on the backhand face, one on the forehand face. This is a good introduction to the “Continental grip” without ever mentioning the name.

For advanced munchkins and monsters (teenagers), have them do Cutters. Cutters are Flip-Flops where you cut the ball for spin. 28-3bYou need some room for this one.

My advice when doing any drill that involves popping a ball up in the air is to maintain double helicopter distance. Have them stick their arms out to the side and spin around like a helicopter. Tell them: “Don’t get any closer to the nearest set of ivory than two helicopters. Otherwise, you’re going to wind up with Summer Teeth where some are here and some are there.

August 2, 2015