Making the Basics Interesting: The challenge for all tennis coaches

Joao Pinho, USPTA Elite Professional

In simple terms, what differentiates a highly competitive player from a less accomplished one? In most cases it comes down to their basics. While technique alone does not guarantee success, someone who has better split steps, smoother swing paths and better movement is likely to be more successful. That said, one of the biggest challenges I see in our industry is how a professional navigates the fine line between making their sessions rich in fun but poor in content, or the other way around.

It’s fair to say that we have all seen lessons in which the professional(s) did a tremendous job of getting players excited, but underachieved in providing material that will help the player develop in the medium to long term. On the other hand, we also see lessons that are full of lectures and good content, but that do not connect with the player and motivate them. While I have been guilty of both scenarios, and each has value, it is crucial to fine-tune your plans in order to find a balance that best fits the player or group that you have in front of you. This skill is more art than science. A professional should consider several factors when deciding where to draw the line. 

The program’s objectives and audience. 

Is your program focused on 10U? Recreational junior development? High-performance? Adults? Clear-ly, each of these groups requires a unique balance between fun and content. However, the process of thinking through your lessons can be similar; more to come on that. 

The characteristics of the professional staff.

Does your staff have experience working with that particular segment? Or do you need another coach on staff to fill a gap on your team? It’s also possible that your current personnel could be devel-oped to fill the roles you seek. In my experience, having a system to create your lesson plans and progressions can significantly simplify executing the lesson for the coach and enhance the learning curve for the player. The list below will hopefully help you think about creating a “Fun-to-Learning” ratio that suits your classes and programs.

Develop the lesson; Content is king! 

Regardless of the level and age group, be sure that your “meat and potatoes” are there, meaning there’s a clear and meaningful message.

Your staff and players, should be very clear on what the focus is for that given day or drill.

Err on the side of simplicity.

Tennis is a simple game. The people make it complicated!

Focus on basic and specific skills, such as split steps or simple unit turns. Focus the drill on one or two such skills. 
As players develop, go deeper into those aspects and add variations to the concepts.

Create realistic drills and games.

While researching new drills can be helpful, ask yourself: What are the scenarios or skills that are important and relatable to this particular player or group?  Your players are your best source of drill ideas! They tell you every day what they need to work on. It’s our job to interpret and deliver in the best way possible. 
Once you have an area of focus, work backwards to create drills that will isolate that skill and build from there. For example, start with dead-ball drills and progress to live-ball controls and points. 
Be sure to avoid the common mistake of the “standard class,” where the coach gives virtually the same lesson regardless of who the student is. This can make a coach’s life easier in the short term, but there will inevitably be a decline in quality and student retention. 

Be a master of tweaking  simple drills. 

In a sport where repetition is key, it’s nearly impossible to avoid repetitive activities. However, making small adjustments to drills can significantly change the player’s experience and make the lesson more productive. 

For example, how many ways can you do a simple cross-court rally drill? You can have your students:
        1. Play their inverted strokes 
        2. Count consecutive shots 
        3.  Count shots into a particular zone
        4.  Start the rally with a serve, and so many more.

Turn your drills into individual and team competitions when appropriate.

Knowing that most players prefer playing points over drills, look to create the same excitement and accountability that we naturally get when competing. You shouldn’t always use this technique; it’s important for players to learn to focus on the process. But turning dead- or live-ball drills into competitions can significantly increase player engagement.

Present your activities with enthusiasm!

Your students’ energy is often a result of your own! Be aware of your tone, facial expressions and other communication cues that affect how your message is received. The first person that needs to get excited about the next drill/activity is you!

As we know, our industry’s growth rate is concerning. As USPTA-certified teaching professionals, we have a huge influence on the future of our sport; our connections with players can be the difference between a tennis trier and a tennis player. Balancing fun and learning is essential to keep players interested.

If you found this article helpful, share it with your colleagues. Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most powerful. If you have any questions or comments, please  don’t hesitate to contact me at

Pinho gave a presentation on teaching methodology at the 2019 World Conference in Las Vegas.