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Stay Off The Chocolate

Developing Practices with Purpose in Mini Tennis!
By: Mike Barrell

Stay off the Chocolate
Developing Practices with Purpose in Mini Tennis!

Teaching tennis to young children can be a difficult and frustrating business. Not least because they very often come only once or twice a week. This means that the quality of delivery and coaching needs to be of the highest order. As I have been delivering the Advanced Mini Tennis Course for the LTA I have found myself using a stock phrase that seems to be used over and over again, “Quality or just Chocolate?”

What’s Chocolate?

A Chocolate Game is one that “the Kids love” but actually isn’t very good for them. Just as chocolate has no nutritional value so these games really serve no specific purpose and although they are ok to use little and often they actually don’t make the player improve or develop! Usually when this subject is broached coaches say, “but they have to have fun!”. And yes I totally agree but activities can be fun and productive. This is part of the skill of being a really effective coach at Mini Tennis level. So what are the qualities of practices that are not chocolate? Here are the 10 commandments of Quality Games. You’ll find it challenging always to do them all and some are easier than others but as long as you try to do as many as possible you’ll be moving forward.

Observation, Teaching or Learning

Every game should offer at least one of the these opportunities. Observation games allow the coach to see the abilities of the child and assess what might need to be taught next. Some games are structured in such a way that they allow the coach to teach something within the game, whether this be through a directed style or using a guided discovery approach. Equally there are some games, where the equipment or rules of the game make the child perform the task in a certain way. For example a child catching using an up turned cone will learn that they can only perform the task when the ball is falling!

Game Based

The game can be played at a very young age but often the concept of the game gets lost when coaches try to apply so called “proper strokes”. The strokes just like the game are learned over a period of time, they develop, refine and improve. The game of tennis can be played by rolling, throwing and catching, using a big ball, tapping upwards, on a small court, over a line or barrier, with short strokes and a whole multitude of other ways. It is key to retaining players that they get to play a game rather than just do drills or practice strokes.

Court or Boundaries

The best games all have a court or area to play in. It helps children to understand
concepts like in and out and also more tactical ideas like using spaces and recovering to the middle of the court.


Although some games have limited rules the games have a simple set that children need to learn and understand. Knowing the rules helps to create an understanding, and also belonging and ownership of the game. Spending time on the rules helps players to start to think tactically and competitively.

Challenge & Progression

Games that are too easy are no fun, at least for any length of time. For them to be exciting games need to find a level where players feel that they have accomplished something. Playing and learning are not mutually exclusive in the best games.

There are so many games out there in tennis that it is easy to jump from one game to another from lesson to lesson. The problem with using too many games is that young players and their parents do not see if they have progressed. With a very outcome based game like tennis it is not so easy to see how a players skill level is developing, its just not like swimming or golf where the outcome always reflects the performance. So instead of changing to a different game why not progress the one that players are using. Simple progressions involve distance, targets, nets, court areas, stroke combinations, the list is endless so try progressing rather than changing!

Opposition and Cooperation – 2 is the magic number

Opposition is key to tennis. Someone once described it as a “fight at a distance”.
The best games reflect this and the activities are performed in pairs. Players can be asked to react, respond or cooperate with their partner. Sometimes doing the same and sometimes doing the opposite. With young children being quite self obsessed it is a good way of making them understand that there is another player on the other side of the net and the aim of the game is to do better than them.

Scoring or Outcome

Keeping score and dealing with the outcome is part of the game. Despite what some people think winning and losing is not a big issue for children if they have the chance to play again and they are not judged by the outcome. The environment that the coach creates can highlight the result or make it of little consequence; the child gets their view from the coach and parents. Equally if the child competes often through little games in lessons then they quickly learn that winning and losing is part of the game. Just try to ensure that games give everyone the chance to compete at an appropriate level.

Developing Understanding

The best games help players to understand the game tactically as well as developing skills. Ultimately players need to make their own decisions on the court and they will only be able to do this if they have some understanding of what to do and when and have the ability to choose for themselves. Using too directed a coaching style can result in players who don’t develop independence on the court.

Fun Wrapper

You’ll notice that we left fun almost to the end and this is on purpose. Fun is an essential ingredient to children’s games but it should not be the driving force behind the creation of the activity. The other factors should be considered first then once you know what you want to teach and deliver then you need to add some imagination. If you’ve lost yours then try sitting watching children’s TV for a few hours, it’ll soon come back! It’s good to think of Fun as a wrapper for the quality that you want to deliver! And don’t forget that Fun doesn’t exist on its own. Something is fun, but fun isn’t something in itself.


Of course nothing happens without knowledgeable, motivated and enthusiastic coaches with this age group. A big part of players coming to lessons is that they like the coach! They are motivated from the outside; you, parents and friends. So there are no short cuts! So the only question that now remains is, “do you want to help your players grow or just feed them chocolate”!!

Visit Mike Barrell's site for more great mini tennis tips!Evolve9

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