Come on kids – let’s play.

Tennis is a difficult sport; it’s awkward to learn, tough to get better at and impossible to perfect. You have to play tennis frequently to keep even a semblance of your current standard and you have to play a lot to get better. So how on earth do we get kids interested? Children have short attention spans, they get frustrated easily and they are constantly having to adapt to their new and more powerful bodies. Fine motor skills? They are still learning how to hold a pencil – how are they going to adjust their racket face by a few degrees while trying to swing, make contact and move all at the same time? Let’s not even mention that they can’t see over the net or that the length of the racket is as long as they are and that the ball bounces high above their heads.

The answer? Start them simple and let them take the lead.

You don’t need to go to a tennis court or have any ‘real’ equipment to get going. I started my two year old son in the living room with a balloon. He loved trying to keep it up in the air and then have me alternate hits with him.  One day he picked up a model tennis racket I had lying around and started using that. It wasn’t always a racket though; he’s used spoons, sticks, trains, pillows all with varying results (he is a boy after all).

Finally I bought him a 17 inch racket (though he used the 10 inch model racket for quite some time!) and a few foam tennis balls. Still in our living room I would gently throw a ball so that it landed a few feet away from him and he would swing away gamely. Hit or miss he loved it.  The one thing I never did though was tell him we were going to play tennis, I might have suggested it as an activity but normally I waited until he asked to play. That way I knew we would get at least say 7 minutes of ‘playing’ time. If he ever cried or stomped his feet we were done because Conrad tired and/or frustrated was counter productive to whatever it is we were doing. We played for as long or as short as he wanted to. Some days it was a good 30 minutes and others it was 1 minute.

When we finally did go to a tennis court I brought a bucket of the 36 foot Quick Start balls (part of the USTA’s Quick Start initiative which makes everything proportional to the size of the child; so Conrad, who is now 3, gets to play on a badminton size court with a racket that suits his size, a ball that bounces at hip height and a net that he can see and reach over) with us. However, we rarely ever actually try and hit over the net. The simple joy of being on a tennis court is enough for Conrad. As soon as we walk through the gate he grabs a ball, throws it in the air and heaves an almighty swing.  He’s actually pretty good so connects about a quarter to a third of the time. I usually get about 10 minutes of his time when I can hit or throw him a ball that he will try and hit on the umpteenth bounce.  Even if it’s rolling by the time it reaches him I urge him to swing away and try to connect with it.  Any contact is a great contact.

Tennis rules and instruction are non-existant at this age. I don’t tell Conrad a thing except watch the ball. And I let him lead. If after a few minutes he chooses to hit leaves on the court or throw the ball against the fence then that is part of the fun too. It all goes toward him enjoying his time on a tennis court, which will count in later years.

As Conrad gets older we will talk about hitting the ball on one bounce only and we might even get to what a backhand is. We will start to use the net a bit more but the instruction – on technique, on the rules etc. – will come later.  I want Conrad to love tennis. The rest can wait.

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