Updated: Sep 3
If you’ve ever wanted to take your tennis players to the next level, you’re reading the right article.
You’ll discover my easy method for coaching practical squad-based tennis lessons.
And the good news is that this method works even if you are working with beginners, improvers or a group of Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal-level players.
In a recent article, we discussed setting a motivational climate when coaching. This article looked at getting the right positive environment to motivate and inspire your players.
Private lessons, players and parents are considered a priority in the UK. A one-to-tone ratio allows bespoke coaching to the individual. However, we have seen in the past that this is unnecessary and asked whether you even need private lessons.
So what makes a world-class squad lesson?
Playing the game of tennis
In private tennis lessons, players rarely play the game of tennis.
They practice in isolation, generally being fed the perfect ball by the coach and given lots of instructions.
The game of tennis is open; no one tells you how to play, and you must make decisions and adapt to various situations.
A good squad session will involve players experiencing all three phases of play (Attack, Defence and neutral), playing against various skill levels of players of all ages in and around the now players' age.
The game of singles tennis is often played with two players on a court; however, in squads, we play half a court.
How can players transfer their skills from practice to match court if the situation and environment are completely different?
So what can the head coach do to make the squad session more realistic?
Serve, return and ball 3/4 - Learn from the professional players.
In the article The Ultimate Tennis Statistics You Need To Know, the shots between 1-4 are huge in the pro game. Yet we rarely see the serve or, even worse, the return practised in squad lessons. I have seldom seen it at my club over the past few Saturday mornings, where most of our players train.
Well, it's static and complex, and rallies are short.
A bit like the game of tennis!
Tennis coaches are paid and paid well, and this puts pressure to ensure players and parents get value for money. Coaches give players high volume and intensity; group tennis lessons often resemble cardio tennis sessions.
But this looks and feels nothing like the game the players will experience in a competitive match.
In a recent Instagram post, I shared some stats from one of my lessons.
My player hit 48% serves in a session.
It's simple if they wish to play matches at their club, on the ATP world tour or at the Miami open. They need to be able to serve.
Every rally, drill or game starts with a serve or an overarm throw; it's quite an obvious way of creating a tennis rally.
Players are exposed to extreme movement, pressure and opportunities to show physical effort / hard work.
In my 20+ years of experience, I have seen thousands of qualified coaches deliver squad lessons.
Rarely on my tennis journey have I seen squad sessions delivered in a 'real' situation that tennis professionals experience.
A tennis match at the Australian Open will see two players on a court battle it out on the hard courts to see who is the better player.
Yet in most squad sessions, I have seen lines of players waiting patiently for a coach-fed ball or, in the better squads, players rallying but restricted in a half court.
In a competitive environment, players must learn how to position themselves to cover the court, move to and from the ball and adapt their technique from multiple angles.
Then why do tennis clubs, centres and coaches fill the tennis courts with players for squad sessions?
Squad sessions offer an excellent opportunity for coaches to generate considerable income, as we looked at again in a recent article.
Squad sessions are very cost-effective. The club can charge £8-10 per player, get four to five players per court and pay the coach a flat rate.
Now I don't have an issue with this as such, as long as coaches understand they must still train the players in tennis.
Coaches must be creative in designing, setting up and delivering games and activities to maximise court space and player development.
I keep my half-court hitting to a minimum and try and get as much full-court tennis into sessions as possible.
The drills and activities I design are simple, and they expose players to movement, decision making and pressure. My recent book showcased nearly 50 of my go-to exercises when working in squads and has helped me develop national-level players.
Minor dead time in a group lesson
I can already feel the comment section or my email getting 'hot' with coaches proclaiming that we need to get the players to hit in half a court as we don't want lines of players etc.
I can also preempt the other end of the spectrum with coaches declaring that their players are beginners and that basket feed is an excellent idea to build their confidence.
False, but I do get the logic.
We established in the last chapter we need to expose the players to the 'real' environment of tennis.
That is one on one on a full court.
But as coaches, we need to generate income, keep costs down and grow participation.
We can achieve all three things by keeping our court-to-player ratio to 4:1. That's four players to every court.
With four players, two can play, and two can rest. If set a 'real' tennis-specific activity, the two players should play for around 20-45 seconds. The two resting players will then play, and they can rotate.
The dead time is, on average, 20 seconds, which is the same as a professional match.
But what about the beginners or a mixed group with players of all levels?
The same set-up, rotate all four players so everyone hits with everyone. Again, we looked at the importance of this in our motivational climate setting article.
Four per court is an excellent way of maximising the income without impacting player development. The beauty of players playing or drilling with each other compared to private lessons is the hitting and 'ball' they are receiving is age appropriate too!
The coach's role during squad sessions - Maximise your player's full potential.
The coach's role in a squad session is unique, from the one-to-one environment of a private tennis lesson to maybe eight to twelve players. Coaches often get the delivery of the session wrong.
Let's break down some common errors in this next chapter.
A giant private lesson - 12 players, 12 personalities, 12 game styles and 12 techniques! Tennis coaches often treat the squad like one huge private lesson: a particular technical teaching point, explicit communication and a size-fit approach. Again think of this logically. All 12 players will play, hit, feel and respond differently. The coach should set a 'theme' to highlight essential work areas and allow the players to find a way in fun games.
Feedback - In my 20+ years of experience, I often see squad coaching like high school physical education. The coach sets up the drills, provides the tennis balls and leaves the players to it. The often-used excuse is twelve of them and only one of me. True; however, a world-class coach would ensure each player has some time with the coach to give feedback on the best way to solve the challenge or activity the player or coach has set. This is still an ideal opportunity to teach, coach and develop players, don't take a back seat and think your work is done after the demo.
The right tennis coach - Squad or group tennis coaching is tough. You need a high level of communication skills. You need to be a facilitator, be able to present to a group and several things that you don't need in a one-to-one situation. As a coach, you also need the expertise to match the level of players from adult players, high performance or competition players. You need the confidence, skills and knowledge to deliver effective tennis instruction. Check out my coach workshop and online mentoring programs if you want to level up your current coaching.
And there you have it, how to effectively run tennis squad lessons as a coach.
Squads are a good idea to help maximise income, playing time and court space. It's a great way of getting players on the court more but don't forget they are still a player development tool, and if you are looking to help find the next Novak Djokovic or Venus Williams, deliver the sessions with the game of tennis in mind.
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Written by Steve Whelan
Steve has developed thousands of tennis players and tennis coaches over the past twenty years as a coach and educator.
Steve had over 20 million social media views in 2022 alone.
Read About Steve's fantastic career here.