When it comes to sports, young athletes should be approached and trained differently than those in high school, college, or the professionals. Whether they are a novice or a gifted young athlete, conditioning has many purposes. Knowledgeable coaches, trainers, and parents should focus on drills that are not only skill-specific, but fun and focused on building coordination in younger athletes.
Drills should be short, focused, and simple. The young athlete is building a foundation to grow in the sport, and should not focus on too many drills and exercises. Nowadays, more so than in the past, children do not play as they once did. The play was a natural way for boys and girls to develop balance, coordination, and confidence. In today’s society, many kids sit behind screens versus playing in the yard or neighborhood park. It may take some time fine tune sport specific motor skills.
For young athletes starting in tennis, there are five basic, foundational drills that can help solidify skill and prepare the athlete for more advanced work and avoid injury.
Running The Lines
This is an excellent warm-up for tennis players of any age or skill level. Have the young tennis athlete move about the lines of the court. The coach can have them run forward, backward, or shuffling along sideways. Running the lines gets the blood flowing, builds cardiovascular endurance, footwork, and serves as a learning tool for beginners to learn the names of the tennis court lines.
Have the tennis athlete hold the racquet in their dominant hand string side facing up – as if they are holding a frying pan. Place a tennis ball onto the strings and have the athlete begin to bounce the ball on the surface of the racquet. Once the athlete can bounce the ball in place, walk a line on the court while maintaining the bounce and return to the starting position. If there are several players on hand, have them compete to see who can successfully bounce the ball on their racquet from starting to stopping position the quickest without losing the ball. Want to make it even more challenging? Perform all of the above with the non-dominant hand.
Similar to frying pan drill, but dribbling the ball between the surface of the racquet and court, like dribbling a basketball. As mentioned above, begin in a stationary position. As their skill and confidence improve, have them walk along the court lines, compete with teammates, or use the non-dominant hand.
The young athlete in this drill will hold a cone, not a racquet in their hand. On the other side of the net, the coach or a teammate can throw, serve, or volley a ball over the net. Let the ball bounce once, then have the athlete run to catch the ball inside the cone (think catching a ball with a mitt in baseball). This will help the athlete improve eye coordination and concentration and reaction speed on the court.
Going back to basics is always beneficial. And working on simple serving can improve accuracy. The coach will draw a circle, or place a small hoop, on the other side of the net. The goal is for the athlete to hit the circle from the serving line. At first, have the tennis athlete use their hand to throw the ball. As they improve their accuracy, have them use a racquet to serve and target the circle.
It is important to stick with simple drills to improve endurance, coordination, focus, and sport-specific skills when working with young athletes. There are dozens and dozens of drills – all beneficial – but working on a few simple ones can help keep the young athlete focused and not overwhelmed. Remember, they will have many years to progress.