I have been working with students and interacting with parents at many different levels in tennis for more than 20 years. I currently teach group and private lessons, run a program for 25 autistic students and run USTA tournaments. My experience has been with students ranging from the beginner through the advanced levels. The group I will discuss below range from approximately nine to 18-years-old.
This is what I have experienced as a teaching pro with students and parents in regards to lessons. It’s good to start a beginner student in a class to see if they like tennis. Most junior players start out signing up for group lessons where a beginner player has the opportunity to have fun and socialize all while learning the basics of the sport. If the student is happy and having fun learning the basics, the parents will be pleased and supportive, and the student will want to continue playing.
I then suggest a class and a private lesson to continue. If the parents see some ability in their child, their expectations are raised a little. Parents may want the student to take additional classes and private lessons. I advise the parents that if their child wants to get better, he or she should continue with a class and then add private lessons to reinforce the fundamentals so they can move to a higher level. If the student and parents are happy with a class and private lesson that is the best scenario, especially at the beginner level. Please note that many parents make the mistake of putting kids in two or three classes with no private lessons as a beginner. They will not get enough attention in classes to completely reinforce their basic fundamentals.
The beginning is the best time for a player to learn sound technique. When students start the game they are the most impressionable. At this juncture they are solidifying technique, whether it is good or bad. Private lessons get them out of any bad habits they may or may not be developing. If they wait too long to take private lessons, it’s possible they may have a tough time unlearning bad habits. My formula for the parents is to continue with class and maybe one private lesson per week. Classes are a more social experience and needed for the student to grow as individuals and learn tennis. Sometimes privates are not as exciting as a class for some students.
Recently, I taught a class where there were only three students signed up. One got hurt and the other got promoted after the second class of the session. The class became a “private” and the one student said he liked the private lessons and learning, but missed the dynamic interaction and fun you get by playing with five or six other students. I then had this student in a larger class the following session and he loved it. In that class I noticed that his skill level improved faster with the private lesson than being in a large class.
I believe that private lessons reinforce the basics in the best way possible. When the fundamentals are sound and progressing more towards the intermediate level or higher, let them move into more classes per week. Keep the one-private-lesson-a-week strategy. When the student moves up after that beginner experience, he or she will continue with lessons (class and private), and progress through the beginner level to the intermediate level, all while having fun and enjoying the game. The end result is everyone is happy, especially the parents. They can see that their child is progressing and liking the game.
What I see sometimes is that the student may have talent but not the desire to go to the next level, which requires a greater time commitment, but the parents want them to continue. This is where the typical parent-child conflict starts. If the student is forced into classes and private lessons, there is no intrinsic motivation. The student must want to do it or it will not work. I remember when a teenage intermediate student was taking a private lesson with me. I will never forget, we were almost at the end of a private lesson and we were in a good rally. As she was about to strike a forehand, the buzzer that indicates the lesson is over went off and she stopped her forehand mid-stroke and the ball rolled to the backstop. She didn’t even finish the stroke as the time expired! I had a discussion with her and she admitted to me that she does not like tennis and was being forced to play by her parent. My suggestion to parents is to make sure your child enjoys the game of tennis, or move on to another sport. If the student is happy and enjoying the lessons, whether it be classes, privates or both, it is a win-win-win situation for student, teacher and parent
I have one more story to share about a boy that started playing in our autism program at the club. I received a call from a father of a seven-year-old boy who had autism. The boy was withdrawn, uncomfortable and quiet with others. He had never played tennis before. The father said he wanted to try out a class for his son but felt it probably would not work out. But he came down, and while the boy was withdrawn for the first class, we agreed to a second class. The boy seemed a little more comfortable for the second class, and thus the father kept bringing him. By the fourth class, he broke out of his shell and became animated and friendly with us. The father was beside himself with happiness and could not believe what was happening; it was a transformation right before our eyes! The father was joyful and on the verge of tears at that fourth class, and the boy continued this behavior and everybody was happy. Tennis and creating a good atmosphere on court can do wonders for anybody!
Tom Tvedt is a tennis professional at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center with more than 20 years of tennis experience. He played collegiate tennis at Wagner College and went on to work at the Department of Homeland Security for five years. He is the program director for the National Tennis Center's Aceing Autism Junior Program, and has been the Director of the City Parks' Summer Series for the last eight summers.