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Right Place, Right Time. Developing Reception Skills in Young Players

Mini tennis coaching
By: Mike Barrell

Right Place, Right Time

Developing Reception
Skills in Young Players

Teaching reception skills to young children can be challenging. Often, we take these skills for granted, but without them, kids will always struggle to rally and really play! The following things need to happen before a player can hit the ball.

1. Perception of the stroke shape, body and court position of the opponent, including anticipation
2. Reaction and first move
3. Tracking the ball through its flight (left/right, height, depth, speed and spin)
4. Movement to the ball (using the tracking information)
5. Balance and rotation into a good hitting position

Here are 10 simple keys that will help. Most are designed for children under 10, but you can modify them to use for any age, or combine them based upon your players’ needs.

1. The Ready Position

Make the ready position Rule #1. Don’t feed a ball or allow a child to start the rally or exercise, unless the player is in the ready position, with or without a racquet in their hand.

2. Use Balls in the Physical Warm Up

Very young players will find it easier to track and catch a larger ball. Conversely, players will find a smaller ball easier to throw. You may consider teaching players by throwing with one size ball and catching with another.
Practice: Throwing and catching a mini basketball over a short distance; use a tennis ball as skills improve. Get players used to the bounce of the ball, working on their own and in pairs. Include movement by playing a game of tennis without racquets.

3. Prepare Early

All reception skills take place between the moment when the opponent gets balanced for the shot and the player’s own hit. This means that the player needs to make the best use of the time, so getting him or her to prepare early is key. Practice: Get players to say, “Hit “ when the opponent hits the ball. Time the word and the hit together. As students improve, get them to say, “Bounce” when the ball lands in front of them.

4. Most Sports have Players Get Behind the Ball

Most young players will naturally get directly behind the ball and stroke the ball with a pushing action as a result. This is a normal phase in a child’s development. By using games that require a player to contact the ball to the side and in front, we can gradually move to a better contact point.
Practice: Get the players to catch to one side with one hand, hit two handed, or use combinations of forehands and backhands. All will help players to hit to the side and in front, rather than just directly in front.

5. Kids See Left and Right Before Depth

Because of the way a child’s vision develops, they can usually judge when a ball is to their left or right, or if it is high or low, before they can judge the depth. A ball moving to the left or right with a variation in depth will be difficult to judge. So, consider starting with rolling or feeding with very consistent depth.

Practice 1: Get your player to move to a rolled ball and stop it with their racquet or their foot, then play it back. Then, set up two goals using cones, and get players to roll the ball to try to score a goal past their partner.

Practice 2: For better players who can rally, get them to call out, “Forehand” or “Backhand” as soon as they see the ball coming to that side.

6. Depth - The Most Difficult One of All

Depth perception generally develops later. Players tend to wait for the ball to come to them, then understanding that they need to move to the ball, they rush at the bounce, putting them too close to the ball. Judging two flights of the ball also makes this more difficult for younger children.

Practice 1: Using a narrow track like tram lines, throw the ball short and deep, and get players to hit the ball level with their waist. If they struggle, ask them to catch it in an upturned cone. This will help to ensure that they are catching the ball when it is falling. The cone makes it impossible to catch a rising ball, so the players have to move.

Practice 2: Two Bounce Tennis. Play a short court rally, but the ball must bounce twice. This will encourage players to move backward and forward as they judge the different flights, and to make space between them and the bounce.

Practice 3: Slider. Player 1 must call out if the ball will land “Short” or “Deep.” Have a third player stand at the side of the court at the point the ball was when the player called out. Each time Player 1 calls, the player on the side moves their position. This gives Player 1 an idea of how early s/he is calling. S/he should try to call out before the ball crosses the net.

7. With Receiving Comes Movement (and Balance)

As part of improving reception skills, we need to work on the fundamental movements to help players learn to move well. There is no reason why this can’t be done with a racquet in hand, so that players can relate the movements they are doing with those they will use in a rally. Judging the ball while moving (dynamic visual acuity) is also more difficult than judging the ball while standing still, so use games that work both.

8. All Together

Players need to judge a ball that not only comes to their left and right, but that also has a varied depth, and eventually spin and speed. The combination of left, right, short, deep is the hardest for most young players to judge. That said, don’t forget to challenge players. They are highly adaptable and you may find that using more open practices that require more coordination also pays dividends.

9. Body Alignment Up and Down

At a more advanced level, not only do we need to help players get in the right position, we also need them to change their body position based upon a variety of different bounce characteristics. We have looked at reception, but probably, we should ask if we are helping players to get into the right position for the shot that they want to play.

Practice: High, Mid, Low. Hit a fairly slow, looped ball to the player and call out, “Chest”, “Waist” or “Knee.” The player must work to get into the position to hit the ball level with that body part. As they get better, this can be changed. Try feeding a variety of balls and ask the player to hit all the balls at the same height (body position). Then progress by asking the player to decide which is the best height for him or her to hit the oncoming ball.

10. Patience

Obviously, practice will make a player better, but you might want to consider that with under 10’s, vision limits the rate of progress. Up to the age of 9 or 10, a player may struggle to track the ball, simply because their visual development and reactions have not reached a mature level. Vision becomes more selective as a player gains experience. So, teach the player to focus more on those cues that are useful to him or her, like the opponent’s backswing, ball height over the net, etc. This will help to improve reactions.

Practice: Ask players to hit the opposite spin or shot back to their opponent to help them to practice reading what their opponent is doing. In the past, we may have taken the reception process for granted, assuming that it would develop through natural play. Welcome to the age of the monitor: computers, TV, electronic toys. You know the reasons why we have to teach not just tennis strokes, but athletic skills as well.

by Mike Barrell

Mike is the Director of evolve9, a specialist training company that
focuses on coach education and program development for the under
10 age group. He was a major contributor to the LTA Mini Tennis Program, authored the Junior Development Pathway for the Midtown
Group and continues to work as a consultant, delivering coach education and consultancy for tennis associations, clubs and major
organizations. He has been a teaching pro for 23 years, is an LTA
Level 3 Licensed Coach, and a member of the PTR and BTCA. Mike
wrote the PTR supplement, Growing Kids, Growing the Game, a
Developmental Guide for Teaching Under 10’s and has played an
integral role in the development of PTR Kids Tennis. Mike has been a
favorite speaker at the last few PTR International Tennis Symposia.
In 2007, Mike was named PTR Professional of the Year.

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