Sunday, April 17, 2011

QuickStart Tennis

"Have you been to a skate park lately? They're packed. Why? Why are skate parks so crowded and, for the most part, baseball and soccer fields are empty, except for organized activities? The difference is adults. There aren't too many adults hanging out at skate parks, while they line the sidelines of other venues for games and practices. The United States Olympic Committee Athlete Development Department believes the best athletes in the country are at skate parks. Why? There are no coaches. Skate parks are filled with self-motivated athletes. There is no one telling the kids how to do certain tricks. Just kids teaching kids. They will work on something for hours, or even days. They'll figure it out by trial and error. And then they'll get it. They flip the board over once in the air. They celebrate their achievement briefly, and then some other kid will show them how to flip it twice. Then they'll work on that. All without an adult guiding them, telling them what to do, showing them who they are doing it wrong, or getting in their face about not trying hard enough. The kids will even say it's fun. It's fun because they are learning at their own pace,moving, risking, hanging out with friends, challenging one another, laughing and, at the deepest level, playing."

Learn to Rally and Play: Practice Plans and Tips for Coaching Kids Ages 5-17, Third Edition, USTA, p. 14.

I never thought the USTA would have anything useful to say, but that paragraph above is awesome.

Yet I'm tempted to toss the book in the trash. Kids need adult coaches like they need infections. I'm happy to play with kids and share my love of the games with them, but "teaching" them? Ha. They don't need me. They're better off left to themselves like I was. Well, left to myself and left with my friends to play hockey, basketball, baseball, football, tennis, golf, ping pong, badminton, bowling, or whatever the hell else we could think of. I never had any technical instruction in any of those games, with the exception of maybe two or three hockey schools in the summer and some group tennis lessons in the winter. Those were facilities driven as much as anything. And I don't recall any significant technical instruction, certainly nothing very personalized.

I was on some teams that were "coached" if you can call it that. My dad did have some expertise in baseball and probably instructed me a little bit the two years he coached my Little League team (when he wasn't off working, playing golf and living his own life), but mostly I learned how to play every one of those sports with my friends. I'm not an elite performer in any of them, but if you accept slower ball and puck speeds, you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between my technique and professional technique in any of them. There are minor differences to be sure, but on first approximation I look like a professional in all the games I play. How? Little or no instruction in any of them. So how?

Copying and imitating. I fell in love with sports as a very young child. Through the miracle of television I was able to watch the very best in the world execute those skills. I copied them. Monkey see monkey do. Just like little kids learn pretty much every other motor skill. No coaching. No instruction. Just observing and copying the best. To the best of my knowledge, I never saw people perform sports poorly. Sure my buddies weren't perfect. But they modeled themselves on the best just like I did. We weren't awesome. But we looked like little professionals tossing the baseball and football around, or shooting baskets (on a 7-foot hoop -- I'm sure we looked like idiots on the RARE occasions we shot at 10-foot hoops). We learned from TV, from each other, from older, better siblings, etc. We were not taking lessons, I can assure you.

Frankly I did not enjoy the organized practices with "coaches" (mostly incompetent parents) nearly as much as I enjoyed just playing the damn games with my friends. Those experiences must still exist outside video games, skate parks and half pipes. But finding kids just getting together and enjoying sports is becoming tougher and tougher.

Will QuickStart tennis programs change this? I wish I thought it would. It's better than the stale, technique-oriented lessons we've been doing. But it's still structured. Still adult-centric. I'm skeptical. I'm hopeful, but skeptical. It's better than the status quo, but it's a far cry from kids just getting together to play and learn the game without us old folks looking over their shoulders.

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