How To Take a Tennis Lesson

I'll get a phone call or an email.  The person on the other end usually says that she's got my name from a current or past student, has heard great things about me, and would like to take a lesson.  I'm always flattered, and I'm always grateful that this introduction is being made long-distance, as I don't want the person to see how instantly nervous I become.

It's a curious thing, because I'm not nervous about my teaching.  I love doing it, and I think my passion shows.  My students stay with me a long while.  Yet, as a teacher, I want that first hour on the court to be scintillating.  I want to kindle a love of learning, and I want to inspire; I want that lesson to be great.  Immediately, my expectations go through the ceiling.  My heart starts to pound; my breath gets shallow--every time I get that call.

But as a professional, I've learned how to control myself.  I ask the person about his or her game, how long they've been playing, at what level they play, what the long term plans are.  I ask that we set an agenda before we meet, stating that I don't want to waste minutes on the court going over things.  And that's true.  But I'm also trying to shape my focus by coming up with a plan for that first hour, getting a sense of what we'll work on, whether it will be more directed to stroke production or tactics.  By the time we actually meet on the court and start hitting the ball, I'm still overly-excited, but I've got a plan.

I'm not sure students approach their lessons with the same imperative to set an agenda.  Each week when I meet ongoing students, I get nervous, too.  I want the week's lesson to be inspiring and great.  I think about the next day's lessons before I fall asleep the night before, going over what I think we should cover, whether to repeat some of the previous week's work or forge on.  I form a plan, but it's a provisional one.  I want to leave room for the student to work on issues that may have come up during the week's play.  Before each lesson begins, I ask whether anything has come up that we need to work on.  And I'm often amazed that my students sometime have to take a moment to think about an answer to this question, because if the roles were switched, if I were the student, believe me, I'd know exactly what I wanted out of that hour's lesson.

In this tip, I want to talk about how to take a tennis lesson, what I see as a teacher that makes for the best student/teacher relationship, and how that hour on the court can be really productive.

Who's Right For You?

Finding the right pro isn't easy.  Word of mouth certainly helps, but it doesn't guarantee that a teacher who has pleased a friend will please you.  And often there are political considerations.

The Political Choice  If you're in a club or playing on a team through public courts and your team has a pro, I'd look to him or her first for lessons.  If that pro is running clinics for your team and teaching some of the team members privately, as well, the team is naturally going to adopt the teacher's vocabulary and tactical biases.  It would be helpful if you got on the same page if only to be familiar with what your team mates are being taught.  But more importantly, you may need to be noticed by the pro, and if you're not participating in team clinics, you may not appear in the pro's radar, and that may affect how often you're chosen to play in matches and with whom you're partnered, if you're a doubles player.  This is unfortunate but true.  It means that you're going to spend money and choose a teacher for reasons that have nothing to do with an appreciation of the kind of lessons you feel you need.  But, on the positive side, it probably can't hurt.  You'll get noticed by your team's pro, and I encourage my students to take lessons from as many teachers as they can.  No one has the market cornered on wisdom, and who knows, you might take away something really valuable.  However, if you feel like you need private lessons, you have to decide whether the team's pro is the one for you.  If not, it may not be politic to take lessons from another pro at your club.  Tread carefully here.  You shouldn't have to, but you do.  See if anyone else on the team is taking private lessons from a pro at your club different than your team's pro.  If they are, you probably won't step on any toes, but even so, I'd ask some team mates about the situation, whether the team's pro might be upset.  All of this is awkward and it shouldn't be, but pros sometimes have lapses in professionalism.  They can get jealous and upset like other folks, and this situation can get very sticky.

The Practical Choice  The first thing a student needs to figure out is what they want out of a lesson.  If the student is a beginner, this step may seem easy--you want to learn how to hit the ball into the court!  But singles or doubles?  For social or competitive play?  Even beginners need to do some self-assessment before taking the first lesson.  If the student is intermediate or advanced, the needs are as various as the individuals.  Some want to work on stroke production.  Some just want a work-out.  Some want a playing lesson.  Some want to work on tactics.  Some want it all.  No choice is right or wrong, but you need to point yourself in the right direction.  Surprisingly, this isn't as easy as it seems.  By the time intermediate or advanced students recognize the need for private lessons, likely they've taken some lumps in competition or feel stuck in a rut.  Either way, the natural thing to do is to look at players that they think are playing the way they want to play, and there's a good chance that glance up the ladder may not lead to a realistic goal.  It's one thing to want to play at the A level, but you're a few steps ahead of yourself if you're playing at the C or low B level and expect a series of tennis lessons to deliver you to the promised land.

Ask yourself this question:  if you played yourself, how would you win?  Would you pound on that weak backhand of yours, pounce on that puff ball of a second serve?  Would you use drop-shots because your movement is terrible and you need to drop some pounds?  Would you try and get under your skin because you get so angry at yourself when you play?  If you have stroke problems, look to some peers whose strokes you admire and ask who taught them.  If you need your tennis time to help you get in shape, find a cardio tennis program and let your strokes wait (i.e. don't expect a cardio teacher to correct your form).  If mental toughness is a problem, ask around to see if any tennis friends have had this problem and found a pro who helped.  Start by being specific about your needs.  After all, you're the consumer in this equation.  For any other purchase, you wouldn't risk wasting time and money by choosing blindly.  Ideally, once you've narrowed down your choices, see if you can observe a lesson.  You don't have to see the whole hour.  Ten minutes should tell you whether you want to be on the court with that pro.

The Internet may help if you can't come up with any leads.  Most pros are certified by professional organizations, and that's a good thing.  Though you would expect a teaching pro knows how to hit a ball, his or her experience in tournaments offer no evidence of an ability to teach, a whole different set of skills.  Most clubs and pros in your area will have a website.  Look them up; see what they offer, how long they've been teaching, and what their qualifications are.

Lastly, if you know this about yourself, try to be able to articulate what type of learner you are.  Some students respond well to language; others need an image or to physically see the proper movement of a stroke.  If you're the latter type of learner, having a chatterbox as a teacher isn't going to work.  On the other hand, if you respond well to verbal cues, having a pro who says little except, "Nice shot.  Again." probably won't turn you on.  Of course, you can always try and change the pro's style, but it might be easier if your search for a teacher included consideration of how you best learn.

Take Charge

Once you decided on a teacher, when you set up your first lesson, ask if you might talk to your pro in advance.  If you're clear about why you want lessons, you need to communicate this to the teacher.  Let him or her know what your problems are and what your goals are.  You can also say that you're open to hear whatever suggestions he or she may have once you're on the court together, but it's important that you give your teacher direction.  He may be the pro, but you're in charge.  This initial phone call is also a good time to let the pro know what type of learner you are.

Goal Setting  Before you start your lessons or even while you're in the midst of taking them, if you haven't sat down and written out some short- and long-terms goals, you need to.  There's no right or wrong here.  I've taught students that wanted to compete in tournaments and students that simply wanted an hour's work-out once a week, and, as a pro, it's not my place to make a judgment about this.  I do, however, need to know what the student wants, and unless the student has taken time to reflect, the student's time is potentially going to be wasted.  There's going to be something that moved you to want to take lessons:  moving up on your team's ladder, playing with better players, not losing to players you don't think you should lose to, a crappy backhand, choking on your serve, not poaching, not taking the net--something.  Write it all down.  Then prioritize it.  Order the list so that your most urgent needs are at the top.  The most urgent issues should become your short-term goals, things you need to fix right now.  Those issues that are lower on your list may still qualify as short-term goals; however, consider if some of them might be better addressed as long-term goals, say, the player that you'd like to be in six months or a year.  If I were the student, I'd read the entire list to my pro before the first lesson.  It will help the pro focus on your needs, and, as you accomplish your goals or not, it will also serve as a measure of how well both you and the pro are succeeding in your work.

Give The Pro a Chance To Make Suggestions  One of the great things about taking lessons of any kind is that you buy a professional pair of eyes to take an objective look at you.  That can be really valuable because, as objective as a tennis ladder or a USTA rating may seem, the process of comparing ourselves to other players can be confusing, to say the least.  Self-esteem gets involved, and lord knows how tricky that can be.  So, after the pro has seen your strokes and has a sense of your game, ask what he or she thinks needs to be changed or added to your game to make you better.  Whatever the answer is, remember that you're still the consumer and you're still in charge.  Listen carefully, but pick and choose what you think is realistic and what you're comfortable with.

Here are some examples.  I've got lots of A level students who change their volley grips at net.  I tell them that at the pace they're playing, grip changes take way too much time.  But I also say that grip changes are difficult and upsetting, often nothing less than traumatic.  It's my job to offer a professional opinion; it's the student's job to decide whether a grip change is the right thing to do.  Or, say you've wondered about hitting an open-stance forehand or why the pros use exaggerated Western grips.  Ask your pro about this and whether those changes might benefit your game.  If she says yes, give it a try.  But if after some effort it isn't going well, don't be shy about saying that you've changed your mind.

One of the best ways to help point you and your teacher in the right direction is to hire her to observe one of your matches.  The player we are on the lesson court is often a far cry from the one we are in actual competition.  Have your pro chart the match, keeping a tally of put aways and unforced errors, taking notes about what you do well and where your game breaks down.  Such a lesson can be a great starting point for teacher and student, and can be used on an ongoing basis to chart progress. 

Coaching Versus Teaching

Tennis teachers and tennis coaches are two different things.  A tennis teacher or teaching pro's responsibility is to help students meet their goals, to use his knowledge of the game and his skills as a teacher to help the student progress, whatever the expectations of the student may be.  If a student comes to me and states that he wants to play mixed doubles with his wife and not wind up in divorce court, my job is not to say that he ought to consider men's doubles or singles.  I teach him how to play mixed doubles.  If a student says she wants to drop ten pounds and hopes tennis will help, I structure the lesson to be more of a work-out and won't correct stroke mistakes unless I think there's a danger of injury.  On occasion, as a teacher, I have to help adjust goals.  I've had C players say they want to get to the A level.  I don't dismiss this objective as wrong, but simply point out such a goal is too far away to be realistic and helpful to either of us.  I try to help the student narrow the goal down to something more directly achievable.  The point is, a good teacher draws out from the student; a poor teacher tries to pour in to the student.

However, sometimes I'm asked to be a coach, and then I put on a different hat.  If, for example, I'm hired by a team to coach practices for league play, the goal is set by the collective choice to play league matches.  My job is to help the team win, and to do that, I need to assess the level of play of other teams, the level of play of my team, and figure out how my players can stack up some wins.  That may mean teaching players to return and volley who don't like the net, at all.  Tough.  They've got to make the change.  Or, say a junior comes to me and wants to do better in tournament play.  I look at the level of play immediately above him, assess his capabilities, and map out a program to achieve better results.  That might mean learning to hit an open-stance forehand even if the junior hasn't even heard of that, let alone asked me to teach it.

What does all  this mean for the average tennis student?  First, know what you want to achieve.  Second, make sure your teacher understands her role in the process.  If you're looking for a teacher and wind up with a coach, there's going to be dissatisfaction on both sides of the net.

Time Frame

How many lessons should you take?  I wish there were an answer to this, but there isn't.  Many of my students take a lesson once a week, and many of them have done so for years.  They consider it part of their tennis schedule, and for some, it's the only practice they get.  But is it the right pedagogical model?  I really don't know.  I've looked for but have never seen studies that measured whether learning is best on a weekly, on-going basis or whether a short-term intensive program might be better.  I'm not even sure that this comparison is even to the point, whether it might vary according to the individual, or even that a combination of short-term intensive and long-term ongoing lessons might be optimal.  However, if you've set your goals properly, your answer might be right in your list.  If, for example, your first serve has gone off the rails, it may be that you need only a couple of half-hour lessons to get back on track.  If you've come down with a serious case of tennis elbow and want to switch from a one-handed to a two-handed backhand, that's going to take more time.  If you're a singles player switching over to doubles, that will take more time still.

If you're in for the long haul, the real question is whether your ongoing lessons continue to inspire you, whether you feel you're continuing to grow.  Keep a dialogue going with your pro.  Tell him or her how you think you're doing, where you need more work, what direction you want the lessons to take.  And if things have grown repetitive or predictable on the lesson court, don't be shy about saying that you want to try something different.  The point is that your lessons are a collaboration with your pro.  It's a unique and potentially incredible educational format.  I have many academic friends that teach at the university level; all are jealous of the one-to-one relationship I have with my students and the fact that the student chooses to be at the lesson and participates in the agenda.  Find a pro that thrives in this relationship and you'll love your lessons for however long they go on.

What about those occasional lessons at a resort or while you're away on vacation?  No problem.  In fact, they can be really fun, giving you a fresh perspective that might be different than your regular teacher's.  Still, tell the pro what you want to work on, and be firm.  Listen to what he or she has to say, but practice what you want to practice in a way that you know works for you.  A good pro will be relieved to have you set an agenda. 

Check Your Attitude

The teaching court is a practice court, and my sense of the students who get the most out of lessons are those who commit to experiment and to try new things.  This may seem obvious, but it's not as easy as it seems.  We all want to perform well, to be successful, and trying new things can find us embarrassed and flustered if we don't immediately succeed.  However, if your pro has earned your trust, try to be open to new stroke techniques, new tactical strategies, new ways of playing points.  A good pro can see where your game is and what level of play is just above it and achievable; her job, in part, is to push you higher. 

The result of such experimentation can be a "bad lesson," meaning, the student doesn't play well.  However, if even the slightest door has opened for improvement, the frustration is worth it.  And, though it's painful for me to see my students frustrated, I seize those lessons as a great learning opportunity.  After all, when we're playing actual matches, we hit bumps and fall into crevasses.  Sometimes we don't play well or even to our ability.  Yet, good players seem to win even when they're not playing well.  Having a "bad lesson" can afford the student a real possibility of learning how to heal their games, on the spot, when they've hit trouble.  Stay open.  Stay cool.  Every minute on the practice court can be a true learning opportunity.

Come to your lesson ready.  Be rested.  Be alert.  Turn off your cell phone.  Focus.  The same intensity that you bring to the match court should be brought to the lesson court.  The point is to lay it on the line and leave it all out there.  Don't just show up and go through the motions.  Be ready to laugh and to cry, to hit some great shots and feel like you're king of the world, and to hit some real clunkers and feel like you're a fool.  You're not a fool.  You're learning.  You're trying to get better.  Education should always be, in some way, disruptive.  A good pro will guide you and has nothing but your interests at heart.  That means that if you put yourself out there and try something new and it really feels horrible, the trust works both ways.  Tell your pro it isn't working and you want to stop or table the issue and go on to something else.  If your pro trusts you, he'll listen.

Tennis is hard, one of the most difficult sports there is, demanding great hand-to-eye coordination, great strength and foot-speed, and flexibility, physically and mentally.  Good stroke production and ball control is so complex it sometimes feels like it can only be imagined but not actually done.  Tactics are tricky and endlessly changing.  The game changes.  The gear changes.  Everything changes but the dimensions of the court.  The complexity and difficulty of the game are part of what makes it so compelling and interesting.  Mastery?  Not for us folks from Planet Earth.  But ahead of us is a long and endlessly interesting road.  Progress always lies ahead.  And when you're competing between those lines, it's great to have a pro in your corner, a teacher who has your back, who knows when to lift you and when to challenge you, when to rein you in and when to let you fly.  A tennis lesson can be a very good thing.  If I ever stop teaching and find more time for my own tennis, the first thing I'm going to do is find a pro.  I want to get better!

c Keith Shein