Tennis: The Sport for All Sports!
written by Ben Hestley, PTR Master of Tennis – Performance, Youth Baseball Development Certified, PTR Pickleball Certified Coach, C Level Certified Coach: USA Baseball, PTR 11 to 17 Professional, USPTA Accredited Professional Coach, PTR 10 & Under Professional, PTR Performance Professional, USPTA Elite Professional, PTR Adult Development Professional (bullsharksports.net)
I’m an advocate for any sport; kids moving, staying active, and being engaged in something physical is a good thing! But this article is about promoting tennis. Moreover, promoting the sport of Tennis as the most transferable sport; meaning that skills learned through playing tennis will transfer to one’s ability to play other sports. The sport that helps athletes with all other sports! Pretty bold statement. But in looking at what is required to play tennis, and the skills athletes need for other ball sports, I believe this statement holds true.
While I have worked with some very good players during my career, the longer I coach tennis the more I land on this idea to use tennis as a vehicle to help kids become better overall athletes. As they get older, if they choose to focus intently on tennis, great! If they choose something else, great! As long as it’s constructive and makes them happy. Because, as a coach, I have learned to find success in knowing that I helped an athlete have those options.
To start this discussion on tennis as the sport for all sports, I guess we should take a broad look at what Tennis is. According to the Oxford Dictionary, tennis is “a game in which two or four players strike a ball with racquets over a net stretched across a court. The usual form (originally called lawn tennis) is played with a felt-covered hollow rubber ball on a grass, clay, or artificial surface.”
For my own personal definition, I would replace the word “strike” with “exchange” to say that tennis is a sport where one or more players exchange a ball over a net using racquets. The word “exchange” is important as it describes the sending and receiving skills that tennis requires. Similar to playing catch where players are throwing a ball to a partner (sending) and then catching that ball thrown from their partner (receiving), tennis uses strung racquets to accomplish this same task. The difference being that adding racquets and a felt-covered rubber ball that touches the ground before sending it back elevates the complexity of the simple action of playing catch.
Some may say tennis is more “keep away” than “catch,” and that can be true if thinking of it in terms of a competitive tennis match, but the great thing about tennis is that it can be played cooperatively (catch) or competitively (keep away). And, as far as competition, tennis has two main strategies – 1) keep the ball going longer than your opponent and 2) hit the ball to where your opponent cannot get it back.
Since all sports played with a ball require its players to have tracking skills, let’s look at the tracking skills involved in tennis. This is the essence of playing the game; players using a racquet to exchange a ball over a net between them and tracking that ball as it travels to their side of the net. We could compare other skills found in tennis, but a good basis for the promotion of tennis as the most transferable sport is the core of what tennis is all about. The Rally.
When players rally, whether it is in singles (1 v1) or doubles (2 v 2), there’s an excitement that builds with each ball that crosses the net. Moving to hit one shot, then recovering in anticipation for the next shot or getting into a position in preparation to put the next shot passed your opponent. Sometimes, it can be a challenge to even get the rally started. That’s why you get two chances to put the serve in the court! When developing kids, I don’t focus much on trying to rally 25 or 50 in a row, but how many rallies can you make 4 or 5 in a row. There will always be outlier rallies that people remember because they lasted a long time, were super exciting and intense. But players that can consistently get rallies to 4 or 5 shots, do better over the long haul.
In football, I remember coaches talking about receivers needing to have “triple vision.” This is probably also true for sports like Ultimate and Lacrosse. You had to track the ball thrown from the quarterback, have a sense of the location of the guy guarding you, and know where you were in relation to the sidelines to make sure the ball was caught in bounds. In tennis, you have to track the ball hit from your opponent then get in position to hit it back, have a sense of your opponent’s position but also where you are in the court to quickly decide how to hit the ball hard enough so it goes over the net but soft enough so it doesn’t go out, and if the ball lands close to the line make a split decision if it was in or out because, unless you’re on the Pro Tour, you have to call your own lines! And you do that over and over and over. There’s no going to the sideline to catch your breath. Seconds later, you’ve got to track that ball again!
Baseball and softball players use tracking skills when defending against a hitter’s batted ball. They must read the ball off the bat of their opponent then move effectively to field it. For example, if a groundball is hit, the fielder tracks the movement of the ball as it rolls or bounces along the ground while moving their body towards the path of that ball. They must field it, then funnel it to their center, and throw the ball to where it needs to go, such as first base to try to throw out the batter now runner. It’s sending and receiving! Better yet, let’s call it “receiving and sending” as that is the order in which this happens, unless you are the pitcher (baseball) or server (tennis). Those positions put the ball into play, so those actions are sending then receiving.
I knew it wouldn’t take me too long to connect a tennis server to a baseball pitcher. My college coach used to tell us “Think like a pitcher” when serving; mix up your speeds, spins, and locations to keep the returner off-balance. This was a valuable yet difficult lesson for me, as someone who like to just hit the serve 100+ mph and have my opponent float one back over the net for me to finish the point a la Pete Sampras, running forward before leaping into the air for an overhead smash that pounded the ball into the earth! The Greg Maddux approach to serving became an evolving process that lasted throughout my college career and beyond.
We’ve mentioned tracking groundballs, what about fly balls? Well, in tennis, we have volleys and overheads which are shots used to play balls before they touch the ground. There you go, fly ball tracking skills covered! Tennis even has “half-volleys” where you play the ball just as it touches the ground using a short, compact stroke like a volley. Half-volley is a very beneficial skill when moving around a tennis court. It can be done on purpose or be used if not arriving to an intended volley soon enough or not able to back up in time to hit full-swing groundstroke.
But don’t just take my word for it. Nate Trosky, considered to be one of the world’s best infield coaches, mentioned in a recent podcast how playing tennis translates to fielding groundballs in baseball. As a guest on the ABCA (American Baseball Coaches Association) Podcast, Trosky was talking about cross-training and stated that tennis players can be really good infielders because tennis players “can read hops.” Because of the nature of tennis, playing the ball after it bounces, tennis players can anticipate how to move towards or away from a baseball that is “hopping” off the ground in order to effectively field it. Anytime a baseball guy mentions tennis, especially one that has coached national teams in numerous countries, I get a bit excited hearing them note the parallels that I also see.
Watching my daughter’s soccer match this past weekend, there was one key difference between the better players on the field and everyone else. They were proficient in as Wayne Gretzky said, “skating to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” I could see these players clearly taking attack angles to successfully intercept the path of the player with the ball, whereas other players would just run a direct line to the player with the ball only to end up chasing them from behind.
In tennis, we coach anticipation, a form of tracking skill, all the time. Similarly, to these soccer players, when a tennis ball is coming to your side of the court, you must quickly and decisively choose an appropriately angle to that ball so that it doesn’t go bouncing passed you! Kids make mistakes in learning this skill all the time. But, if that ball does get passed you in a tennis rally, just go pick it up, as a new rally starts within seconds.
“Play behind the bounce” is a cue I often use with tennis players and is exactly what Gretzky was talking about. When hitting groundstrokes in tennis, players must move not to where the ball is going to bounce but to where the ball is going to go after is bounces. You’ll see this as a trial-and-error exercise with young inexperienced players, and even with some that have played for years and just misread the ball; that’s how challenging it is! They will run right up to where the ball hits the court only to have it bounce up into their face with virtually no chance to send it back over the net. Having intuition of where the ball is going is an important tracking skill for any ball sport and tennis teaches that.
As an individual sport, tennis gives athletes lots of opportunities to develop tracking skills. Now, in a team sport practice environment with multiple coaches, you could (and often should) divide the kids into small groups to maximize repetitions for each player. But that is in practice. During the game itself, very few players are involved in each play, especially as the number of players required to have a game become larger. In tennis, players are involved in every play! Especially in singles (1 v 1). The ball is always coming to YOU! That was the #1 thing that originally attracted me to play tennis. As long as kids are playing on court space appropriate for their size and skill, engaged in some form of rallying, they will get tons of touches on the ball, developing the ability to track that ball, which will transfer to whatever ball sport they want to play.
A side note to consider. Tennis is a non-collision sport that also takes tremendous mental focus. One of my all-time favorite quotes explaining the sport came in an issue of Tennis Magazine back in the late ‘90’s that read “I will never be tackled, battered, or bruised, but there is no ice pack for the brain.” For kids that play sports such as soccer, football, basketball, lacrosse, and hockey where contact is likely if not inevitable, tennis would be a great option as an additional sport knowing that chances of injury are minimal.
In the last 10-15 years, tennis had made great strides in the availability of balls, racquets, and nets that are appropriate for children. Modified tennis equipment has made it much easier to introduce the game to new players, not just from a physical capabilities standpoint, but from a socialization one as well. Experiencing tennis in a way that is “right sized” for them, gives kids a sense of belonging, and simply put, is more fun!
But it’s nothing new. In fact, the dawn of ideas on scaling tennis equipment dates back to the 1970s when tennis had its “boom” in popularity. This soar of new players was followed by a concern that the full-court game placed physical constraints on kids, and they could not enjoy the game the same way as adults. This could explain why junior tennis has failed on so many fronts, trying to make it a carbon-copy of adult tennis, when the two couldn’t be more different. I wasn’t around back then, but I remember old coaches talking about how they used to take wooden racquets and saw off the handle to make the racquet the right length for their junior players.
We have come a long way since then. Shorter racquets and low-compression balls can be found in almost every sporting goods store, Target, or online tennis shop. And, with a quick search on Amazon, parents can find a portable tennis net perfect to set up a small court in the driveway.
With all this excitement around the accessibility of tennis equipment for kids, a word of caution. Even with the use of scaled balls, racquets, and court space, tennis is still a challenging game to play. But if we keep it simple, show the kids that tennis is a touch game by having them control the ball in a small space and as they improve graduate to a larger space, kids will be well on their way to learning this super fun sport while developing general tracking skills for all sports.
The “tennis bug” is a real thing. People find a little success with the feel of this game and just get hooked on it! But I always tell parents you don’t have to put all your eggs in the tennis basket. Tennis, like any other sport, offers high levels of competition so you can be as serious as you want with it. But, for kids that want to play multiple sports, tennis is a great supplemental sport. It can be played in conjunction with the schedule for other sports. You only need one other player of similar ability for a match, and a lot of programs offer six-to-eight-week sessions, so the commitment is not long-term. And unlike team sports, tennis is not typically tied to a game schedule that changes weekly. Kids will come to their group tennis class once or twice per week and then make their own decisions on additional play. Some use tennis strictly to learn skills or cross-train for other sports and never “compete” outside of practices. Others play tournaments or what is called “flex-leagues” where you are assigned an opponent and set up your match at a time convenient for both of you. And with tournaments, you sign up as an individual so the player (and parent) can decide how many and how often they play.
While there are tennis teams for kids, tennis is still an individual sport so it can be played at a time convenient for that individual. And with the tracking skills learned through playing the game, tennis is the perfect sport to add to any athlete’s play catalog to help them become a well-rounded athlete.