Most children who aspire to learn—or master—a sport have the advantage of learning gradually, playing at a level that makes it easier to attain early success. Beginner-level swimmers start out in the shallow end, not the deep end of an Olympic-sized pool. Most youth basketball leagues lower the height of the hoop significantly below the regulation 10 feet.
At the Julian Krinsky School of Tennis at the Gulph Mills Tennis Club, instructors are now enjoying teaching the sport to young children on a smaller, modified court that allows the youngsters to have some success while learning the game.
The school offers classes to players ages 10 and under in which a modified court and tennis ball are utilized. The smaller court and softer ball give children a better opportunity to play longer rallies than they would have trying to negotiate a regulation tennis court.
The beginner-level 10 and under court is 36 feet long (as opposed to the regulation 78 feet.) Players of a more advanced level can graduate to a 60-foot court. Some parks and playgrounds have specific courts dedicated to this level of play; however, at the Julian Krinsky School players and instructors use the "blended" line approach, setting up the boundaries within the structure of a regulation size court.
On this particular morning, about a half-dozen youngsters start out practicing simple return shots with Suzanne Barr, a tennis professional who works with players of all ages, but seems to have a particular rapport with the beginners. It's apparent from the start that at least a couple of these kids have played for some time, while others are clearly just starting out. The important thing is that this structure allows the players to focus on striking the ball properly and getting into position, rather than worrying about covering the entirety of the court.
"Not long ago, these kids would have been playing on the same size of court as a Rafael Nadal or Serena Williams," says Arvind Aravindhan, Director of Tennis at the Julian Krinsky Group.
One new student, 7-year-old Katrina, starts out hitting each ball with a full, two-handed swing (picture a baseball player swinging at a Cole Hamels fastball.) Over the course of the one-hour class, Barr works with the girl to deliver a shorter, more replicable stroke and focus on striking the ball so that it clears the net and stays in play.
"I like the class," Katrina says, "because we get to learn tennis and play games against each other."
Aside from the smaller size of the court, the class also uses tennis balls of a different compression and size. Aravindhan demonstrates the difference in bounce of tennis balls at 50, 60, and 80 percent of typical compression—kids graduate to higher compressions as they gain experience. "But for us, they're just red, orange and green balls," says Aravindhan.
The difference is apparent. As he demonstrates, the regulation ball bounces almost to his head, while the 50-percent compression ball barely reaches his waist.
"So when you think about where you're comfortable holding your tennis racket," he explains, holding the racket just above waist level, "you see how difficult it would be for a child to have a rally with the regulation ball."
Seems simple, but in reality for many years tennis was a frustrating sport for young children because of their inability to cover the court. "We must be crazy," laughs Aravindhan. "We made smaller rackets, but we kept the same court. We were the only sport who didn't adapt in that way, so kids would become frustrated and go try [another sport.]"
Of course, the sport suffered. "I read a study saying that 75 percent of kids who enter a tennis tournament never play again after losing their first match," he laments. "Think about how many potential players we were losing after one match, one lesson, or even one outing with Dad. This approach allows for more immediate—but also, more gradual—success at an early age.
The Julian Krinsky School of Tennis has locations in both Gulph Mills and Narberth. Over the holiday break, the school is offering tennis classes for children—one session for kids between the ages of 4-8, and another for players up to 16 years old. Classes will be held daily from December 21-31 (with the exception of Christmas Day) from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The 8-and-under sessions will be divided into two 90-minute time periods (9:30-11 a.m.; 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.)
For more information, visit www.jkcp.com or call 610 265-9401.
Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.