Serial Drillers…

How group lesson programs are killing American Junior tennis.

By Jorge Capestany, USPTA Master Professional & PTR International Master Professional.

I have been teaching for over 40 years and have logged over 65,000 hours teaching on the court and another 15,000 hours watching my players compete in either tournaments and/or league play.

Something has changed... Today’s junior players are not playing enough sets.

I am fortunate enough to travel the world as a speaker and coach and everywhere I go American coaches tell me they have the same problem.

Kids that take drills (group lessons), private lessons, special events, but avoid match play like it was the plague.

In my own program I have seen the shift as well. When I taught players in the 1980’s, they could not wait to get out on the court and PLAY sets.

Drilling was only one part of their overall training regimen and it comprised 2-4 hours per week at the most.

Back then, the good players additionally took private lessons and played tournaments on the weekend, or if there was no tournament, they played practice sets.

Recently I was sitting with several fellow teaching professionals discussing this very topic. Many of them were expressing frustration in their inability to get their own players to play more sets.

I asked this group of teaching pros a question… “How many of you took a bunch of lessons when you first started in tennis and how many of you just played a bunch of sets? I knew what the likely answer would be because most of this group played as competitive juniors in the 70s and 80s.

But I was surprised by the overwhelming lopsidedness of their response. Not a single pro from this group had taken any group lessons. They all played sets and a few of them took an occasional private lesson. After all, the only options for training back then were to play with a friend on some public courts or join a club and play matches there.

I got wondering about this whole paradigm regarding the way that tennis is taught and learned here in our country, including by myself.

Could it be that group lessons have become the enemy of match play?

I know I have a ton of kids in my own program that take group lessons, private lessons, and just about any clinic or special event that is offered, but they stay away from match play. Playing in tournaments or just calling a buddy to play a few sets seems to be a thing of another era.

Perhaps we need to repurpose the job of the tennis pro in our country from one who teaches tennis to one who sets up play opportunities and from those opportunities, players can learn (from actual experience) what they really need to work on and then take lessons on that later.

Do we have the order right?

I was discussing ideas with my own pro staff and we realized that one of the problems is that group lessons are ultra-convenient. At our club, we feel like we do an excellent job with our group lessons. If fact, I own a website with more than 2,000 drills so you would expect that we run great drills.

But in analyzing our own players, we really feel that since they know the group lessons (drills) are going to be well run, organized, and have a purpose, that players feel like drilling is all they need.

They get to hit a ton of balls, get great instruction, and hear some awesome advice on strategy. Besides, playing sets would require them to book other times in the week that may be different each week and also secure an appropriate opponent to play. These two realities are having a negative effect on our club and I suspect other clubs as well.

The end result is the development of an army of American kids that can strike the ball beautifully but cannot seem to win a match… If the game is the best teacher, then match play is the best game.

“Each time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have discovered himself, that child is kept from inventing it and consequently from understanding it completely.” -- Jean Piaget….

Match Play can help players achieve this...

So what is the proper role of group lessons? Like I said earlier, we have a great junior group lesson program. And these classes in and of themselves are not the problem. They are only a problem when they are the only thing that players do to train.

Group lessons should be a part of a player's overall training regimen, but I feel that for every hour of drilling that happens an equal number of hours of match play should happen.

So what is the solution for getting out of this mess?

I feel it is in helping players develop an effective overall training regimen. I have started doing private lessons for families at my club where we simply meet for an hour and they can hear my thoughts on the importance of match play and what exactly their kids should be doing each week to get better.

Families are eager to get this right, but many do not know they are doing anything wrong in the first place so I started emailing our families making them aware of these new family private lessons which, by the way, do not take place on the court. I am serving as the family’s tennis consultant and helping them get their kids on a proper training regimen.

Often they are surprised that I a recommending fewer drills and more use of their walk-on pass, which actually allows them to spend less at the club.
Below are some ideas to help you help your families understand what they should be doing.

I believe it all starts with the big question… What do you want to do with your tennis?

That is the opening question I ask the player in our family meeting and from there we discuss the options as I have laid them out below.

LEVEL 1. USTA Non-Ranked Player  |  HS = JV or Low Varsity Player
How Much They Practice:

1. Group lessons: once per week, but not year round.2. Private lessons: they typically do not take private lessons on a regular basis.3. Tournaments: they play less than 5 USTA tournaments a year.4. Practices sets: they rarely play practice sets on their own.5. Off-court training program: they do not have any off-court training program.6. Practice on their own: they do not practice on their own.7. Frequency: they normally practice one day a week on a seasonal basis.

8. Specialization: these players do not specialize in tennis & often play other H.S. sports.

LEVEL 2: USTA District Ranked Player   |   HS = Low to High Varsity Player
How Much They Practice:

1. Group lessons: 1-2 times per week, usually year round.

2. Private lessons: about 50% of these take private lessons on a regular basis.

3. Tournaments: they play about 5-10 USTA tournaments a year.

4. Practices sets: most still do not play practice sets on their own.

5. Off-court training program: most do not have any off-court training program

6. Practice on their own: about 50% practice on their own.

7. Frequency: they normally practice 1-2 days a week on a year round basis.

8. Specialization: about 50 % specialize in tennis only, no other H.S. sports.

LEVEL 3: USTA Sectional Ranked Player     |     HS = High singles on Varsity
How Much They Practice:

1. Group lessons: 2-3 times per week, on a year round basis.

2. Private lessons: typically take 1 private lessons on a regular basis.

3. Tournaments: they play less than 10-12 USTA tournaments a year.

4. Practices sets: they play 2-4 practice sets a week on their own.

5. Off-court training program: they usually do have an off-court training program.

6. Practice on their own: they practice on their own 2-3 times per week.

7. Frequency: they normally practice 3-5 days a week on a year round basis.

8. Specialization: these players do specialize in tennis only, no other H.S. sports.

LEVEL 4: USTA National Ranked Player  | HS = High singles - State Champs
How Much They Practice:

1. Group lessons: 2-4 times per week, on a year round basis.2. Private lessons: they typically take 1-2 private lessons per week, year round.3. Tournaments: they play 15 or more USTA tournaments a year.4. Practices sets: they play 6-8 practice sets a week on their own.5. Off-court training program: they have an extensive off-court training program.6. Practice on their own: they practice on their own 2-4 times per week.7. Frequency: they normally practice 5-6 days a week on a year round basis.

8. Specialization: these players do specialize in tennis only, no other H.S. sports.

There are 2 important issues that can be learned from the guidelines above.
1. It is important that the parent and the player are on the same pages about what the child wants out of their tennis. Both should now which of the 4 levels above the child aspires to be. Many times frustration sets in when the parent’s expectation is higher than that of the player.

2. The player must avoid the trap of having a certain level as a goal while doing the “workload” of a lesser level.

It is not uncommon to see players that say they want to be nationally ranked while going through their entire junior career doing the workload of a sectionally ranked player.

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