Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Team Colorado 10 and Under 2011-12

Below is a letter I sent to the Colorado Tennis Association regarding my participation in the 2011-12 season of Team Colorado for 10 and under players. Other coaches participating in or forming such a group may find my experience instructive.

Now that we've wrapped up the season with Team Colorado I thought I'd give you an after action report.

The feedback from the kids and the parents was universally positive. Human nature being what it is, if there were any gripes, the people either kept them to themselves or shot one of you two an email. What I heard most was "this is the best tennis experience we've had." Of course many of these kids and parents are new to the scene, but it's nice to hear nevertheless.

I really enjoyed playing with the kids, too. They were all nice, happy, enthusiastic, energetic players. I wasn't the point man for parental input throughout the season, but the parents were all well-behaved during the sessions. They minded their own business. They let the kids play and have a blast. They are to be commended.

I think the reason we all had so much fun is that we minimized (eliminated would have been my preference) coaching. Since we only saw the kids for two hours per month, any technical instruction would have been silly. Since these were young kids, for the most part Miikka and I ditched any notion that they would listen to, hear and learn from things we said. Instead we (especially I) tried to play in with them in the games we played. My feeling was that we could help the kids more by showing them that adults can play and enjoy tennis just like they can. I also thought it would be good for them to see the game played well. We don't know if we're good coaches, but we know we're good players. So we played as much as possible.

When I say played, I mean we played lots of singles and doubles points, real tennis, preceded by some games that emphasized particular skills. We played the same few games every week. Rather than trying to play a variety of games, which would have entailed wasted minutes of explanation, we just did the same, fun games each week. I've described the three games we played every week below. We did play a few other games on occasion, and each week we played full-on singles and doubles points for thirty to forty-five minutes minimum. Nothing teaches tennis like tennis.

This format is basically what we do in our "elite" program at The Ranch, too. We have fun, play lots of points, and minimize the time spent corralling and organizing and picking up balls. No b.s. instruction that has little, no, or negative value in most cases. Not saying technical and other instruction doesn't have it's time and place, but that time and place is not in groups of similarly skilled players brought together to compete with and against each other.

I think a program like this would be fantastic if implemented in inner cities or any other areas with a high density of poor people. This program was fun, but of low marginal value to the already wealthy participants.

Oh, I should add that we used the orange ball and orange court (60 ft) exclusively. I have no idea if this helps develop champions, but it did produce far better points than yellow balls and 78 ft courts produce with kids this small. I heard no complaints from kids or parents that we were using these balls and courts. I enjoyed playing with those balls on those courts, too. Racquet, ball, court, net, opponent. What more do you need to have fun? I know: to be left free from meddling, kill-joy adults.

The Big Three
1. The Finnish Game
    This is a team singles game, two player team (A,B) vs two player team (C,D). The game starts with one member of each team playing a singles, groundstroke point started with a courtesy feed (A vs C). The winning player (A) stays in to play the second point against the partner of the losing player. The partner of the losing player (D) starts this point with as difficult a feed as possible, provided that they feed the ball from behind the baseline. If the feeder misses the feed, his partner feeds another ball to start third point. If player A wins three consecutive points, he wins a Master Point for his team. We play until one team wins three Master Points, then rotate teams.
    Because only the first feed is a courtesy feed, this game teaches players to see and exploit openings with tough feeds, and teaches players to defend against tough shots to get back to neutral in rallies. The need to be ready to feed a ball quickly if your partner loses a point keeps all four players engaged.

2. Attack/Defend

    This is a singles game where each player is on her own. The champion side is the defending side and has one player (though you can use two defenders in a 1 vs 2 format -- BUT if you do this use the SINGLES COURT ONLY, it's a singles exercise). The attacking side has two or three players who rotate playing one point at a time. The point starts with the defender feeding a short ball (the coach can do this, but it's better if the player does it). The attacking player decides if the fed ball is attackable. If not, the attacker can reject the feed by saying "Reject". Then the feeder tries again. If the fed ball is attackable, the attacker hits the transition shot and moves to the net. The player must follow the ball to the net to finish the point up there. The defender's job is to thwart the attack any way possible. The attackers are racing each other to three points. The first attacker to win three points replaces the defender. If the defender wins five points before any attacker wins three, she can bump up a court, or if on the top court, reset all the attackers to zero.
    This game teaches decision making, transition and finishing shots for the attackers, and defending (and short hitting if feeding) skills for the defender. Irregular feeds are a feature, not a bug, of this game. A variety of different attackable balls and not-attackable balls teaches judgment and decision making. Uniform feeds deprive the players of vital perceptual training.

3. Steamboat Skyball - dramatic improvement over standard skyball

    This is a doubles game that starts with two champions behind the baseline and a coach feeder behind them. One challenging team is at the net, with the rest of the challenging teams waiting behind the baseline. Depending upon numbers, this is played best 2 out of 3 or 3 out of 5 points. The net team is encouraged to finish the point with the first hit of the ball (DO NOT mandate a first volley past the service line or other nonsense). It is up to the coach to vary the difficulty of the feeds. If the baseline team wins the contest (2 out of 3 points), the challenging team exits and the next team comes up from the baseline for a feed from the coach. If the challenging team wins, the net team comes around to replace the champions at the baseline. While the new champions are rounding the net posts, the coach feeds a lob (short is fun) to the new attackers who are coming in from the baseline. The attacking team is encouraged to take that ball out of the air and hit a winning smash. If this smash, but only this smash, is a clean winner, the challenging team automatically comes over to replace the champions. If the smash is not a clean winner, the point stands as played, win or lose.
    This game teaches doubles volleying and defending skills. It also teaches smashing under pressure. The coach can determine how much running takes place through choice of feeds and lobs.

We ended every session with about 15 minutes of Steamboat Skyball because it was extremely fun and exhausting for the kids. They always looked forward to the game and left happy and tired when it was over.

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