The Foundational Set Up
Early in the season with the most advanced players, I like to give them 30 full minutes of practicing serves and returns. At first we do it in the most defensive way. Players strive for over 65% of serves in play, and may use topspin serves almost exclusively to make that happen. Returners return back to the server, because when you don’t attempt to change the direction of the ball, you can make a higher percentage of returns in the court.
The challenge we use is to have 6 to 8 players per court, but 6 is ideal. Two players will hit returns, and each player will have two servers that alternate serving two balls at a time. This slows them down from the usual habit of hitting serve after serve, which never happens when we actually play. Players then have time to get more closely into a routine of having to wait a moment to serve.
Early in the season, players might be out of rhythm, and/or not used to the challenge, so I may do it for 30 full minutes, giving each player 10 full minutes of returning. As the season progresses, I cut this down to 21 minutes with each player getting 7 minutes of returning. Later in the season I will have players serve and return for 15 minutes, just enough to regain any lost rhythm from being off for the weekend.
Variation #1 Develop a Certain Serve and the Corresponding Return
Using the same set up, I will have a target on court for players to hit a specific serve. The most important serves I want my players to focus on are: Kick Serves to the Backhand, Balls to the Body, Flat Serves to the T. As we discussed in the Google Hangout, there are 18 possible varieties of serves, and eventually we may work on all of them, although some players will have to pull out and work separately on a serve that is valuable to their game, but not the group. When training the whole team, I focus mainly on the staples of serving, and work the specialities one on one or in a smaller group. Of course you can have different serving objectives on each court based on the level of play. Styrling was discussing the idea of having players in their journal talk about their three best or all of the serves they feel very competent hitting and which one is the next one they want to add to their arsenal.
If you have all your players hitting kick serves, then it stands to reason you can address how to return a strong kick serve. Generally speaking, the angle of the racket face needs to be closed a bit from the normal flat serve position, players often over due it, so help them dial that in with practice. Help players to see how kick serves naturally go upward off your strings, and that flatting out that return is a great skill.
Variation #2 Working The Serve/S1 Combination
Have your six players in a game situation playing ‘Rule the Court’, prescribe a type of serve, a serve location, and the location to attempt the next shot. This is a strong challenge, as players then have to learn to deal with contingencies based on how well the return comes back. The key is hitting the serve well enough to create more predictability from the returner, so that you can execute plan A, B, or C without a hitch.
You can have players play until a challenger wins three points, then become champion, or play a five point game. When going to five, its a good idea to give bonus points for hitting targets. I also give ‘style’ points for someone who executes extremely well, or who might need a little encouragement because the opponent did something magical. Also, you can give an automatic win to the player who executes flawlessly for the first time in the drill.
Working with Reptiles and Robots
Sometimes you get players who have a very difficult time going outside their comfort zone to try a new combination, or any different way of playing. If you are doing a good job, 95 to 99% of your players will trust and respect you enough to try something new. Consider however, that some players get tired of always having to do something new. Every once in a while an otherwise good kid will trying something once and say “See, it didn’t work”. That’s when I say “Drills don’t work. People do!”, keep working at it, until you can make it work. Sadly, you will have some players and I know at least 10 players I have coached who simply will not open their minds to doing something differently. Don’t fight it. Spend more time with players who do listen. I like to try to show a player the difference between what they are doing and what a more successful player does, and why the outcomes are better, when they just don’t see it, what can you do? Somewhere deep inside, they are maybe working out of their reptilian brain, and/or they are so deeply ingrained with a fixed mindset, that they operate like robots. All you can do is try to show them they way, and question them about what they want to do.
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