Those of us who have made tennis an important part of our lives would love nothing more than to pass our love for the game down to our children.
Tennis is truly the sport for a lifetime and what better gift can a parent give to a child than an activity which they will be able to enjoy throughout their entire lives?
Unfortunately, tennis must compete with the "mainstream" sports such as baseball, basketball, football, soccer and hockey for a child's interest and these sports have a definite advantage.
Most schools do not offer tennis in gym classes and the media bombards children with images of Michael Jordan, Troy Aikman and Ken Griffey. These are the popular sports and the athletes kids want to emulate. Not Sampras, Agassi and Graf.
Thus, tennis can be a "tough sell" to kids in their pre-teen and teenage years who hesitate to be "different," so it is up to us as parents to offer the game to our children in a way that is both appealing and acceptable.
Over the next two columns I would like to offer my suggestions on introducing your children to tennis in a way which will present the game as an activity that they can enjoy with their family and friends for years to come.
WHEN TO START
Opinions differ regarding the best age to introduce children to tennis. I would suggest that somewhere between the ages of 6-9 would be a good time to start, though every child is different and their levels of concentration and coordination develop at varying times.
With this in mind, let me issue a word of caution. Do not begin formal instruction if you feel your child lacks the necessary coordination or attention span. Instruction when the child is not ready would not only be a waste financially but might also turn the child off to tennis forever.
Instead, take the child to the courts when you play and let him see how much you enjoy the game. After you've finished playing, allow them to come onto the court and play catch with you or even let them practice hitting a balloon up in the air with their hand. This will help to develop their hand-eye coordination and they'll get a thrill out of being on a tennis court "just like mom and dad."
Strokes and technique can wait, the main thing is to just let them have fun. If they associate stepping onto a tennis court with fun and games they'll eventually want to play. But don't push it.
As they mature both physically and psychologically you'll get a sense of when they're ready for a proper lesson. Every child's concentration and coordination develop at different rates so it's up to you to decide when they are ready. Hopefully, when you offer tennis to them they'll jump at the chance. If not, don't despair, step back and try again at a later date.
Once you feel that your child is physically and emotionally equipped to begin lessons there are several things to consider. First, I would suggest that you find a friend or two for them to start with.
Group lessons are generally less expensive than private instruction, plus the children will feel more comfortable trying something new if they are with a few of their friends. Also, if they take lessons with a friend or two they'll have someone to practice with.
Next, you must begin the search for an instructor and this is one of the most important decisions you will make regarding your child's tennis. A good instructor can inject an enthusiasm for the game which will last a lifetime while a bad instructor can turn a child off to tennis forever.
CHOOSING A PRO
Unfortunately, there are an endless number of people with a basket of balls who call themselves pros, give "lessons" and are more than eager to take your money.
These people, while sometimes good players, are no more qualified to teach the game properly than the local gym teacher. This, combined with the fact that tennis lessons are quite expensive (often up to $80 an hour) makes it important for you to be able to
tell the true professionals from the pretenders.
WHEN SELECTING A PRO LOOK FOR THE FOLLOWING:
The final and perhaps most important question you should ask is "Do the pro's students seem to be having FUN ?" After all, that is the
idea isn't it?
- Certification: Is the pro certified by either the United States Professional Tennis Association or the Professional Tennis
Registry? These two organizations certify professionals and serve as a type of Masters degree for a teaching pro.
In order to attain certification by either of these organizations
the pro must pass a stringent on-court and off-court examination which covers all aspects of playing and teaching the game as well
as the business side of the industry.
- Recommendations: As in any business, word of mouth is the best form of advertisement and in the tennis business this is especially true. Ask your friends who they or their children take lessons from. Did they enjoy their lesson and is the pro fun to work with? Do they feel that the Pro works best with beginners or advanced players. Is the Pro easy-going or is he (or she) a drill sergeant?
Since you are looking for a Pro for your child it is important that they be extremely patient and able to relate to kids in a manner that will ease their apprehension and make them want to come back.
- Watch the pro give a lesson: By watching a pro at work you will be able to get a good idea of whether that pro is right for your child. Look for the pace at which he teaches. Is he energetic and enthusiastic? Does he express himself clearly and does he seem to have a good rapport with his students? People learn in different manners and it is important that the Pro relates to his students in a way that is compatible with your child's style of learning.
Once you've scheduled your child's first lesson you need to make sure that they have the proper equipment. Fortunately, the initial financial investment for tennis is relatively small. Any athletic shorts or T-shirts will do as will virtually any type of athletic sneakers. The only equipment you'll need to purchase is a racket
and some balls to practice with.
BUYING A RACKET:
Rackets come in all shapes and sizes these days and it is important that your child has a racket which is the right size. If your son or daughter is between the ages of 6-10 you will probably want to consider a "junior" racket. Junior rackets are slightly smaller and lighter than standard "adult" frames and are designed for children who do not yet have the strength to handle a full-sized racket.
The good news is that junior rackets are relatively inexpensive and can be purchased anywhere between $15 and $50.
The important areas to think about when buying a racket are the size of the grip, the size of the racket face and the length of the racket.
It is best to take your child to a pro shop to have him properly fitted by a professional but here are a few general guidelines to consider when looking for your child's first racket.
If a racket is too big or small in the grip it will make it difficult to hold on to and thus make hitting the ball, which is already a difficult task, more cumbersome. When the child has gripped the racket the tip of the thumb should touch the first
joint of their middle finger.
Racket faces come in basically three sizes, oversized which is 110 square inches or larger, mid-size which is generally 90-95 square inches and standard sized which is everything less.
You might want to consider an oversized face for your child's first racket. This gives the child a larger hitting area and thus, increases their chance of making solid contact with the ball.
It is very important that your child experience some level of success almost immediately for if they continually swing and miss they will become frustrated and not be inclined to try again.
If the oversized racket appears too cumbersome for the child to handle try the mid-sized.
Once again rackets come in many different lengths including the new "Stretch" rackets which many of the touring pros are now experimenting with.
The length of the racket should be determined by how tall and strong your child is. A general rule of thumb says that your child's racket should be at least as long as his or her arm though once again, I suggest that you take the child with you so that they can be properly fitted.
Next column: I'll talk about "The Big Day" and offer my thoughts on the parents role and the role tennis should play in a child's life.
REMINDER: If you know someone who's life has been impacted by the game of tennis, drop me a line using this form and perhaps we can feature them in an upcoming installment of "THOSE WHO LOVE THE GAME".