Dear TennisDr: I love the sport and want to introduce my 6 year old daughter Taylor to it soon. Before I enroll in private or group lessons I’d like to peak her interest. Preferably, I’d like to try some exercises to prepare her, share the experience, and help me learn at the same time. What are your thoughts on this topic? ~Pat T., Playa del Rey, CA
Thanks so much for writing about this. When and how to start instruction is such an important topic.
The biggest mistake made by parents is trying to use a racket when helping a child learn tennis skills which are based on good general motor skills. Being precise and gentle with a racket in your hand takes years of practice, hence the need for tennis instructors at some point. When it comes time, see my post about choosing a top notch coach: Choosing A Tennis Coach: For Competitive Students.
Until then, much can be done without any rackets to lay the foundation for eye/hand/foot/balance skills for children of ALL ages. Should this note be too easy for them, my next will include a racket, matched to their height and age such as those in this link: https://www.head.com/en_US/tennis/racquets/juniors.html
First, tennis skills are based on basic running, catching, kicking, and throwing skills, all dependent on good binocular vision similar to reading. So, try their catching/throwing/kicking of a tennis ball over a short distance at low speed. If needed, bounce the ball toward each other and simplify until the skill becomes easy. Always repeat with the non-dominant side.
Often, small hands struggle with the tennis ball size but two hand catch and one hand throw may be required or a larger, softer ball. Promote both sides of the body in every skill. With a parent who’s back is to a wall/fence, rolling the ball a few steps from them and having them kick it back is a great building block skill for general mobility/balance/coordination which prepares for tennis.
The Mature Ball Throwing Motion for Children & Adults
Serena Williams is likely the greatest server in the history of tennis from a pure numbers perspective. Why was she often seen throwing a football or swinging her racket in a looping pattern before and during matches?
Because she wanted to practice a mature throwing motion with greater weight (in the pic above) like a baseball hitter with a lead doughnut on the bat. The tennis serve is one of the most beautiful motions in all of sports. The TennisDr was lucky to capture this inspiring “Trophy Position” during the throwing motion of Maria Sharapova below.
But this throwing motion is likely the most complex and delicate in sports too! Even for the top pros, the magical rhythm of a serve motion can come and go. For those who never learned to throw a ball it can be completely elusive. So, here are the basics for your child to start them on the right path early.
A mature throw is: 1) Feet apart, extend both arms in a “T”, facing sideways to the target but eyes/head looking with both eyes over the forward shoulder. 2) Bend the throwing elbow to bring the ball near the chin. 3). Throw so that the throwing arm crosses over the aiming/balancing arm as it tucks across the torso. 4). During release the back foot heal rises, turning toward the target, so that the hips/shoulders can face it during the follow through. 5). Then do it smoothly without stopping so that the thrower feels their body whip the ball out of their hand.
A mature throw becomes a product of a “Kinetic Chain” (KC) of body parts which is not a function of strength. Slow motion reveals this KC skill of “whipping” the body is part of almost all professional sports movement, typically from the ground up. Practice from slow to fast successfully until all components are achieved with accurate results.
Repeat with non-dominant side so that you promote both sides of the body, and brain, in all skills. Can they throw accurately to you without loosing balance? Now make them take a few steps to catch, gather balance, then throw accurately to you finishing with arms crossed. Try it after a couple bounces, one bounce, then on the fly which needs a high arc.
Yes, a few months practice now is a long term investment in coordination, health, and sports skills but it also has monetary implications too. Athletic scholarship money for girls is even easier to get than boys! Having fun together is the key. ~TennisDr