The day my middle daughter arrived at the barn for her very first horseback riding lesson, she (and I) thought she’d find her instructor, get on a pony, and start riding. Imagine our surprise when the instructor spent the majority of that first lesson-hour teaching my daughter about the various parts of a saddle, the names of all the pieces of tack required, how to care for the equipment, how to clean and care for the animal itself, and how to choose the proper bit and gently put it into the horse’s mouth. The instructor showed her one time then stood patiently by while my daughter struggled to ready the horse for riding.
My daughter was ten years old at the time, her head barely reaching the pony’s chest. It would’ve been so much simpler for the instructor to have the horse tacked up and ready to ride, but she knew that this first day was the right time to teach my daughter respect and care for the animal AND the equipment before she was allowed the reward of climbing into the saddle. These were the prerequisite basics of riding a horse, and the instructor was going to ensure my daughter was well-versed in them before taking the next step. At the end of the lesson, the instructor walked my daughter through untacking the pony, cleaning its hooves, brushing its coat, oiling the saddle and other equipment, and putting the pony in the pasture to graze.
It took several lessons for my daughter to master all these tasks, but once she did, she was able to perform them instinctively and without assistance from that point forward. To this day, when I see her ready a horse for riding, it’s like watching a well-choreographed dance – she knows each step like the back of her hand and executes it with extraordinary gracefulness.
What if it were de rigeur for tennis coaches to approach our game in a similar manner when they are presented with a new student? What if the very first lesson were about teaching a first-time player the dimensions of the court, the different parts of a racquet and how to choose an appropriate racquet/grip size/strings combination? Next, the instructor would move onto the different grips used in playing the game, the subtleties of a forehand and a backhand, and fun games to teach the intricate footwork used on the court. Of course, discussing the rules of tennis and requiring the student to read Friend At Court should be part of the learning process, too. Eventually, learning how to put on an overgrip and string a racquet should be included as well. And what about teaching the history of the game? Talking about some of the personalities that made tennis what it is today?
These are all facets of the game that will serve the player well through the juniors and into adulthood. They will give young players ownership in their sport, an inside knowledge of the workings of the game. I’m not saying these are all keys to creating better players – I certainly did okay never learning most of this stuff as a kid. But maybe they ARE keys to creating life-long players who love the game? What do y’all think?
Yes, it’s way more fun to show up for that first lesson and start hitting balls, technique be damned. When we’re talking about a group of 5 and 6 year olds, maybe that is the best approach. But at some point kids need to learn these other aspects of playing tennis, right? I’d love to hear from some developmental coaches about how they integrate these lessons into their overall gameplan.