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Entries in Steal This Drill (56)


Backboard Decathlon: Supplement to ROG initiative 

As a lot of you may already know, the USTA has instituted new rules for 10 and Under tennis competition. The R(ed) O(range) G(green) ("ROG") initiative is intended to make tennis more kid-friendly and assist with the long-term development process. You can read more about the new rules here. In the alternative, we recommend that you access the relevant information on the USTA's own website or check out websites such as Parentingaces.com which routinely discuss the changes in rules and their effects. 

Although CAtennis.com takes no position regarding the ROG initiative, we believe that the underlying philosophy is sound: kids + repetition = more, better players -> more Grand Slam contenders. In this regard, we believe that it would be appropriate for U10 tournament organizer to consider expanding their horizons a bit and going beyond the four corners of the tennis court to not only get kids hooked on the sport but also hooked on the process of mastering the game.

Here is what we have in mind: supplementing every U10 tennis event with a backboard "decathlon". A lot of tennis clubs have backboards within their facilities. Some of these backboards are purely for tennis players while others are in the form of racquetball or handball courts. Many of these backboards are underused - particularly by tennis players - for months at a time. Yet, they are one of the best and cheapest training tools available. Many great champions - from Bjorn Borg to Pete Sampras - honed their strokes by practicing against backboards, walls or garage doors. Why is backboard training so effective? In one word: myelination. Briefly, myelin assists humans in our learning process. When people learn a new skill, myelin levels increase between the relevant neuron connection. This, in turn, allows signals to travel faster between the areas of the brain involved in the activity. So, for example, when you're first starting out with tennis you can find yourself a bit overwhelmed by all the concepts: 1. footwork; 2. grip; 3. preparation; 4. swing; 5. follow-through; etc. However, with practice, these movements become more and more ingrained (or "grooved"). The gross and fine motor skills associated with the stroke (as well as related muscles) become sharpened. Accordingly, some of the concepts may be internalized or become wholly unconscious. Your brain simply understands the various adjustments that have to be made with respect to each particular shot. 

This unconcious (or partially conscious) understanding allows the player to think about other things besides the the stroke itself such as where to hit the ball (and, perhaps, the following shot). In other words, a player who has achieved this level seems to have "more time" to hit the ball than a beginner. Of course, an expert and a beginner may have the same amount of time at their disposal although the beginner's brain is muddled with more basic concepts than an expert's brain ("paralysis by analysis"). Thus,  the beginner's brain has to fit more computations - speed, trajectory, spin, etc. - in the same finite amount of time - which often results in a mistake. An expert doesn't need to think about the basic concepts as much because, for him, these concepts have been automated. Accordingly, the expert can marshall her brain's assets towards other tasks (e.g., strategy).

Now, the foregoing is a round-about way of saying that repetition is good. The more kids repeat strokes, the more automatic the strokes become. The sooner kids master technique the earlier they can move on to the next level. The benefit of using the backboard in the development process is that the player has the opportunity to hit thousands of balls within 1 or 2 hours v. hundreds (lessons, clinic or match). It's not uncommon to see kids participating in clinics where they are simply standing around and not hitting any balls at all.

The wall doesn't miss, doesn't mishit and doesn't generate pace. Kids learn very early which strokes are good for getting the ball to go forward and which strokes send the balls all over the place. In addition, kids can push themselves to focus on keeping the rally going for longer and longer thereby improving their attention span (which is beneficial in tennis as well as in life). Furthermore, backboard practice is great for developing one's imagination; players can pretend that they are playing against their heros on TV. Isn't that what "playing" is all about?! So wouldn't it be productive if every U10 tournament included a backboard component?! Kids could not only play against each other in a tennis format but could also compete against each other in a more "artificial" setting (although one that's likely to pay more long-term dividends). For example, each tournament could have a main draw, a back draw and a backboard draw. Prizes could be awarded for each category and, knowing this, kids would be more inclned to practice against the backboard (making them better players and more mentally tough competitors). Several back-board games could be incorporated in a "Backboard Decathlon" where boys and girls could compete against each other. Here are some suggestions:

1. Most consecutive groundstrokes without a mistake. To count, the ball must bounce behind a 12' line (for younger kids) or 18' line (older kids). The depth rule ensures that the kids hit proper, penetrating shots. 

2. Most groundstrokes in a 5 minute period (same depth dimensions as above). Maximum of 3 mistakes allowed. This game is great for having the kids' shots are not only strong but also fast. 

3. Most volleys without a mistake. Kids can stay 4' (younger kids) or 6' (older kids) from backboard to ensure that they are "sticking" / punching the shot with power and precision. 

4. Point construction. Tournamen director dictates a point (e.g, serve, forehand, backhand topsin, backhand slice, forehand approach, forehand volley, backhand volley, overhead, etc.) that the competitors have to follow. The ones who do not follow it, are knocked out; the ones who follow the point move on to the next round (where a different, more complex point is constructed). 

5. Target practice. Targets are put on the wall and the players are given 5 minutes to hit the maximum number of targets with their groundstrokes. Maximum of 3 mistakes allowed. 

6. Knock-out. Groups of 4-5 kids are playing a point (hit and get out of the way). The player who misses or doesn't get to the ball is knocked out and the other kids continue on until only one player is remaining. We can attest that this game is a lot of fun. 

7. Most overheads in a 5 minute interval. 

8. Singles. Players compete against each other in a racquet ball-type format in a game up to 11. 

9. Doubles. Same as #8 above except that 2 teams consisting of 2 players each compete against each other. Players on each team must aternate shots. 

10. Most side-to-side volleys in a 3 minute period (i.e., "The Cara Black" drill)

We urge all junior tournament directors to inject some additional fun in their events and let us know how it works. If you are truly interested in growing the game, thinking outside the box is imperative. By incorporating a backboard component in your tournament you will be on the front lines of development. Your players will develop better strokes, better focus, better hand to eye coordination, more stamina, a better work ethic, greater imagination by competing against their imaginary heros ("All men who have achieved great things have been great dreamers" - O. S. Marden) as well as a better understanding of court geometry. Furthermore, they will associate not only tournaments but also practices (specifically on their own) with a fun experience. 


Steal This Drill: Does Anybody Know Any Good Net Chord Drills?

Here, at CAtennis.com, we believe that in order to become a great tennis player one must practice every shot and every scenario. Tennis is more than just about serves, forehands, backhands and a handfull of volleys. As you progress through the levels of the game you will be faced with many scenarios and strokes that you will have to, pretty much, make up "on the fly". If you know that you have done your homework, you will be better prepared to handle these situations with confidence and without losing your head. 

One situation that arises once in a while is when the opponent's shot hits the net chord and the ball barely bounces or dribbles over. How do you handle these shots? Do you freak out and either hit too strong or too soft? Do you under-run or over-run the shot? Or do you stay calm and composed and do exactly what's necessary to win the point? You see, running down net chords is tricky because handling the shot involves touch. And it's not just touch while you're static. It's usually touch while you're on a full sprint towards the net. Can one practice the touch that's necessary? Perhaps...Here are some suggestions.

1. Drill 1: Player is at baseline hitting side-to-side forehands and backhands. The coach is about 2-3 feet from the net feeding the balls with the racket. Every 10-12 shots or so, the coach, rather than feeding the ball, throws the ball directly at the net chord. The player has to race to get to the ball and either "counter-drop shot" the ball or lob the ball over the coach's head. 

2. Drill 2: Player and coach are both stationed about 2-3 feet from the net. The coach rolls the ball side-to-side right on top of the net chord. The player has to move fast, lunge towards the ball and use touch to drop the ball over the other side of the net. As in the above drill, the key is for the player to do no more nor less than is necessary. 

3. Drill 3: Sometimes, net chords come at strangest moments. Take, as an example, Boris Becker's net chord against Derrick Rostagno on match point in the R32 at the 1989 US Open (Note: Becker went on to win the tournament). Here, Rostagno was at the net ready to put away the volley (and the match). However, Becker's passing shot struck the net chord, changed direction and caught Rostagno completely by surprise. See video. How does one practice these types of situations? One way is to put the player 8-12 feet from the net and using a ball machine to rapid-fire (high frequency) feeds towards him/her (player hitting reflex volleys). The ball machine should be set at high speed and grazing the ball right over the net. Invariably, one of the balls will clip the top of the tape and the player will have to react and volley the ball back. 


Steal This Drill: Wipe the Mark

If you're the type of player who needs to be more aggressive or play closer to the baseline, try the "wipe the mark" drill. In this drill, one player (practice partner or coach) moves his opponent around the court with medium-paced balls. The object is not to kill the opposing player but to move the ball around with controlled shots. The practicing player (principal) must wipe ten (or more) marks during the rally with his foot. So, wherever the ball bounces on his side, the principal hits the ball and then immediately wipes the mark that was left on his side by the previous ball; and so son until the principal has wiped ten marks. After the players improve at this game, the principal can try to wipe ten consecutive marks. 

This game teaches players to not only anticipate where the ball will land (so that the principal doesn't have to much court to cover between the contact point and the mark) but also builds confidence in standing closer to the bounce (so that the player is only a couple of steps from the ball bounce). Since the ball bounces inside of the baseline, the principal learns to become efficient with his strokes, footwork and balance. Lastly, the since the contact point is usually behind the mark and the principal must step forward in order to wipe it, the principal also learns how to move forward after every shot (thereby, perhaps, transitioning body-weight into the ball) before recovering back to the center. Therefore, this is not only a good drill for hand-to-eye coordination but also for developing aggressive footwork., 




Steal This Drill: Ping Pong Doubles 

Here's a fun way to practice your singles game with four (or more) people on the court: ping-pong doubles. In ping-pong, doubles players must alternate shots; so, after the first player on the team hits a ball, the other ball must be struck by her partner or the team loses a point. 

Players can follow the same rules on a tennis court. This game is not only fun but also hard-work (because players must hit and get out of the way - i.e., be constantly in motion). In addition, if the opposing team consists of players with unique qualities (e.g., lefty, touch player, good mover, etc.) one can practice playing points against various types of players without getting accustomed to any particular style. So, if one point is played against a right-handed player with a double-handed backhand, the next point can be played against his partner who may be a lefty with a one-handed backhand (and so on). This stresses the brain a lot more in that you will have to constantly adjust for the situation at hand. 

Another variation of this game allows a team to win 2 points (or more) for every point that the team wins inside of the service line. This is a great way to practice for doubles because the team learns how the two players think and construct points. That is, the team works on building doubles chemistry through singles play. This game also works with more than 4 players on the court and the rallies can be quite elaborate and lengthy. 



Steal This Drill: Cross-Court Intercept

Tired of the same-old cross-court routine?! If so, here is a variation on the drill to keep things fresh and exciting. Two players are in opposite corners rallying cross-court. One or two coaches (one on each side of the net in the middle of the service box) is positioned in front of the baseline player(s) at the net. Two coaches would be available when players are drilling against each other during a tournament. Without moving too close to the middle of the court (i.e. center line), the coach(es) attempt(s) to intercept the cross-court ball that is struck by the opposing baseline player. When intercepting the ball, the net player/coach makes the baseline player chase the the ball (either drop shot or to the opposite corner; the rally must continue). The key is not to intercept too many balls; just the easy ones...the ones floating too close to the middle of the court. 

Why is this variation important? First of all, most players do not have the discipline to group their shots in a designated cross-court area. Often times, their shots wander into the middle of the court, sail wide or float deep. Having a person at the net who's trying to steal your shots reminds you to "keep the ball out of the middle of the court" and to channel into deep into the opposing corner. Second, this drill is also (and obviously) important for doubles. In doubles you are faced with a net player who is trying to intercept your shot. This keeps you sharp. Float the ball a little too close to the center and you (and your partner) are toast/tagged. So, in other words, this is a great way to use a "doubles practice" to sharpen your singles game.