A great challenge for many coaches is organizing an effective practice plan that satisfies the needs of the strongest players without discouraging the weakest players. A great workout that promotes teamwork—which is inclusive of all levels accommodating of numerous participants, productive, beneficial and fun—is achieved by conducting carefully constructed drills. Productivity comes in the form of time efficiency and drill organization, while the benefit of the drill can be assessed by understanding its objective. That is, does the drill encourage and teach skills that are essential to success in tennis? Last but not least, the drill must be exciting. This is achievable by first providing participation uncertainty, so that students become focused and stay engaged. Next, to be inclusive to different levels, the drill should be adaptive and challenging to encourage competitive positive team synergy.
Great drills build great club and team culture.
The following are examples of high quality drills that are easy to manage and can accommodate a large group fluidly.
1. Line Target Drill
A Line Target Drill is a terrific dead ball drill which develops athletic reactiveness, a quick first step, shot accuracy and focused aim.
Students are divided into two teams and are asked to line up behind the baseline, just to the outside of the service line. One at a time, they are challenged to hit a target on the court. Each miss adds a point to the value of the hit, so if player one misses on the first attempt, player two next attempts to hit the target for two points. Players compete for their team and the score is reset with each successful hit.
Even with eight participants, the line can move very fast and a total score landmark of 100 can be reached in just 10 minutes. As the misses accumulate, players don't become frustrated by failure. Instead, because the point total of a successful hit accumulates, they become excited at the large score value of each target hit.
An added aspect of this drill is the random inclusion of a false "fake out" feed in which the coach starts to feed as normal, but pulls back at the last moment. An alert student in a perfect, low ready position will, at worst, self-arrest after taking one step. The player who is faked out by taking two or more steps loses their turn and must run a penalty lap.
2. Rotating Overhead Game
The Rotating Overhead Game is a valuable tool addressing serve and return skills which are likely the two most important aspects of a winning game and are under practiced in many workout sessions. This void is understandable when you recognize that, in a group setting, practicing the serve and return can be an inefficient time suck that requires a high and compatible skill level between participants in order to be productive. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen a serving session turn into a group chat.
The Rotating Overhead Live Ball Game practices many of the same skills that are necessary for serve and return skills in a very high intensity game that is challenging and fun for a variety of skill levels. Players are divided into two teams of two, with as many as six players on a team and the teams do not even need to have an equal number of players. Team one is up at the net, with one player standing near the net on the deuce side and their partner defending the net on the ad side. The rest of the team is lined up by on the add side waiting their turn. The coach stands on the side of the net opposing the deuce player and feeds an overhead of varying difficulty (as the coach, you set the challenge appropriate to the level of the player). The point is then played as a conventional doubles point with the net players rotating one position each time the net team loses the point. The return team has two players who stand at the baseline and who rotate with those waiting one position each time they win a point. The goal of the return team is to win as many points as they can before the overhead team reaches a score of 21. Each team seeks to score more points each round than their opponent’s team. Three rounds will take no more than 15 or 20 minutes, and will leave even the fittest players gassed.
3. True Life
True Life is a live ball game that stresses teamwork, alertness, efficiency and most significantly, high heart rate training.
It's so difficult to duplicate the high heart rate that comes with the emotional stress of playing a tense match, but True Life provokes that same high heart rate from external physical stress. Players learn to perform under the same physical and neuromuscular challenges that they may face at six-all in the third set and they adapt.
This game is so accommodating to different levels, that I have conducted it with a long time student while he was the number one-ranked Division I men's singles player in the country who teamed with a 10-year-old against teams of 13-year-olds and he got an intense and valuable workout and wanted to play even more! Three teams of two can play, and the game can be played with as many as five, two-person teams.
The game starts by seeding the teams with the highest seeds playing last to hedge the game. Each two-person team stands at the baseline and the coach feeds. The point is played and if the team on side "A" wins, they maintain their position. If they lose, they switch positions with the opposing team. After the first position point only, the team on side "A" can score and to stay on side "A" you must win the previous point. The game is played to two points and the first team to seven games wins. The coach can, of course, create an almost infinite level of challenge of adjusting the difficulty of the feeds. Furthermore, since the length of each game is highly unpredictable the on deck team must be fully engaged and ready to start when the losing team comes off the court and moves to the end of the line.
Even with five teams and 10 players, this game takes about 15 minutes and will leave everyone gasping for air as well as match tough.
4. The Approach Game
The Approach Game tests positioning limits, reveals risk/reward strategies and gets many players out of their comfort zone.
Players are divided up with half (give or take a person as you don't need an even number of participants to play). Players line up on opposite sides to play out a singles point. The player receiving the feed from the coach must hit an approach and come to net. The relative level of the participants can dictate how the approach is hit so that the four best players on the court might be limited to just backhand slice approaches, while the four weakest players may have the option to hit the approach as they wish. The game is played to 21 points. The approach player continues to receive feeds as long as they win the point and sprints to the receiver side to the end of the line when they lose the point. The receiver on the other hand sprints to the approach side to the back of the line upon winning the point, but moves to the end of the receiver line after losing the point.
5. Down the Line
Down the Line games are a simple yet powerful way to practice cooperation, control, steadiness, concentration and tenacity.
With eight players for example, two courts can be used and four pairing of players can spend 10 minutes to try to be the team which achieves the longest rally, hitting down the line with the court divided in half. In the "everyone plays everyone" game, teamwork, camaraderie and the realization that every point counts is at the forefront, as each member of the first team of four players rotates to play 10 total points against each member of the opposing team with the highest team score winning.
These are just some of the drills which develop and reinforce a competitively supportive team culture. If you pace students pushing them to feel success is just within their grasp, they will be motivated to work together to encourage each other to the highest levels of success.
Steve Kaplan is the owner of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as the director of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation. Over the last 34 years, Steve has been the longtime coach of more than 600 nationally-ranked junior players, 15 state high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous touring professionals and prominent coaches. Steve's students have been awarded in excess of $8 million in college scholarship money. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.