Waiting for a Court? Play Dink!

Dink is a game you can play while waiting for a court to become available.  It is a replacement for boringly,  uselessly staring, longingly from the wrong side of the fence, wishing that you were the lucky bastard actually playing tennis instead of waiting for tennis.  Waiting stinks.  You should play dink instead.  There are a variety of ways in which this game can work, and it’s up to you to get creative with it.  Waiting at the courts is the same as waiting in line at the store or DMV; it’s aggravating, and as a tennis player you do a lot of it.  I propose filling the time with no-net-no-court-tennis — Dink!  Besides, it’s fun and there’s no pressure.  “Tell us more!” they plead.  Okay, I will.

How to Play Dink:

It’s pretty much exactly how it sounds.  Step one: Find a sidewalk.  Step Two: each player gets one concrete slab to function as his/her/your court.  The dividing crack between the slabs is the “net”, and the object is to keep “dinking” the ball back and forth until one of you misses or hits it out (Out is defined as anything not inside your concrete square).  If you lose a point you move back a slab (now there is one full concrete slab separating the two courts).  If your opponent loses the next point then you get to move back to the slab on which you started and your opponent has to move back a slab.  Each consecutive miss results in more distance between players.  He who gets three misses in a row loses (because he is pushed out – like a sumo wrestler out of the circle).  Picture 6 slabs and players facing each other on the center two slabs to start.  The object is to win enough points to be sole possessor of all 6 slabs.

You may play the game however you want.  There are really no rules except the ones that you make up.  For instance, you can play first to 3 points without moving squares at all.  You can play with multiple players (doubles maybe?) on adjacent squares.  You can even play so that the ball never hits the ground, volleys instead of dink.  The purpose is to do something with your down time that is fun and that makes you into a better player.  Most people think tennis is defined as rallying baseline to baseline.  When they get onto a court they automatically position themselves 78 feet apart and stay there. I say that creativity is the key to self improvement.  Get creative. Play Dink.

Tennis is the Gentleman’s Sport – Except When it Isn’t

There are few sports who’s participants are themselves entirely responsible for keeping track of scores and deciding, on their own, the quality of play (are the shots in or out?). Soccer, football, baseball, basketball, hockey, rugby, cricket, racing sports, and even boxing have umpires and judges to ensure fair play.  But tennis, at every level other than the very top, demands that the athlete police himself.  This policy of honesty works pretty well most of the time. It’s a testament to the sport that players honor it enough to not cheat.  Think about the chaos that would ensue if players were not generally honest with each other.  We’d be dealing with constant bickering and players trying harder to deceive than simply playing good tennis.  I’ve seen adults call balls out that I saw as in, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen it done intentionally (I actually probably have seen it, but it’s so rare that I can’t remember the last time I witnessed it).  The errors, in other words, have been almost all cases of mistaken eye to brain processing, not deceit.  However, and you know what I’m going to say next – juniors are a different story.

There are Cheaters Among Us

Let me begin by stating clearly that 90% (a completely fabricated number but one I feel is true based on my experience) of junior players are honest.  In fact, if I were to point to one trait in juniors that drives me crazy more than cheating it would be not calling balls out that are obviously out (sometimes by as much as a foot!).  You can tell a kid loves tennis when he goes out there to just hit balls and doesn’t care if they’re in or out – just keep running around like crazy and hitting the ever loving snot out of it, right!

But there are always the cheaters.  The kids who, when under stress and finding themselves losing control of a match, will start making intentionally bad calls.  Tennis is mentally draining.  When a kid starts to feel it all getting away from him it is not unusual to see him trying to regain some control by cheating.  It can be infuriating as a coach or a parent to watch it happen.  I sometimes want to walk right out onto the court to straighten it all out myself, but I can’t.  All I can do is let the kids try to sort it out themselves.  If things get bad enough either player can summon an official to oversee the match, and I’ve seen it happen many times.  But, while it is occasionally necessary to get help, I don’t like it.

Coaching Sportsmanship:

It doesn’t matter if you’re a parent or a coach; your job is to ensure that your student/child learns that it is possible to learn more in defeat than in victory. To get a victory by cheating, before it is time to win (to everything there is a season), is not a victory.  You might be surprised if I told you that sports are 90% mental (Not a fabricated number – there is research to back it up which you can read in books like Peak Performance and Finding Your Zone).  Thus, winning falsely creates mental barriers that do much more harm than good.  Cheating actually makes it more difficult to win in the future, not less.  Failure, on the other hand, strengthens our resolve to win.  It is the stone that sharpens our blade so to speak.  Mental coaching is vital in any sport but especially tennis.  There are a lot of players out there who can beat you, your student or your child on a good day; as players we have to be mentally strong enough to believe we’ll win but also strong enough to learn from defeat when it happens after our best efforts to win.

To win requires the absolute confidence that victory is yours.  Imagine how hard it is for a kid to reconcile his emotions when defeat is near.  It is natural for him to have an immature reaction.  That’s what growing up is all about after all.  But, our job is to foster confidence in players without creating win-at-all-costs attitudes.  Coaches and parents exist to provide an atmosphere where the player knows he can win without cheating.  Cheating is a player’s worst undermining agent.  The pressure to cheat is nowhere as strong as it is on the tennis court.  If a growing player can learn how to pull victory from the jaws of defeat the right way then he/she has become a real player.  They say cheaters never prosper.  It’s true not because of cosmic retribution, it’s true because cheating stanches progress — Stops it right in it’s tracks, and that’s not good.

Tennis on Vacation

I write “Tennis on Vacation” but I might as well be talking about any activity you like to do and which you don’t want to give up when you travel.  The most popular vacation exercise that people do is obviously running.  That’s easy.  You pack some shoes and, after you are wearing the shoes, move your feet somewhat faster than a walk.  Other sports, however, are not quite so easy.  Golf, for instance, can be a pain if you’re the sort of person who insists on using his/her own clubs (because checking those things as luggage for air travel is a nightmare).  Playing tennis is, fortunately, not difficult.  A 27” racquet fits quite nicely in most checked luggage and can be easily protected by surrounding clothes.  I think, though, that we shouldn’t fool ourselves about the difficulties of athletic activities while on vacation.  The real stumbling block, if we want to be honest, is motivation, not equipment.

Just Go Do It

I’m on Thanksgiving vacation as I write this article, and believe me when I say that being lazy is just as attractive to me as it might be to you.  I enjoy running, but I don’t enjoy it so much that I regularly “find” time to run while on vacation.  I’d much rather sit around eating pumpkin pie and cookies.  Tennis is different.  I go out of my way to find a public court.  “But, but… ” you say.  Yes, I know.  Standing on a court staring over the net at nobody can be a bit boring and depressing (But wouldn’t it be funny to see someone doing that!). It’s definitely nice to have someone readily available with whom to play, but it isn’t necessary. Have you ever shown up at a court and asked someone already there if they’d like to rally a bit?  Give it a try because I think you’ll be surprised; tennis people are usually just as desirous for fresh competition as you are for someone to help you get better.

I was without a partner once a few months ago.  Thus, I set up a basket to practice serves. It wasn’t but 15 minutes before I had a guy wandering over asking me to play.  He wasn’t very good, but that’s not the point.  We had fun rallying together, simply playing at the same level so we could both have fun.  Sometimes the mission is competition, and sometimes it’s just to run around having fun.  So, it’s simple; get out on that court and start playing.  Either you will find someone to play with or someone will find you.  If not – well, just hit some serves or find a wall to bang around on.  If you want to get really creative find any solid surface (garage door, bus, chimney, horse, wagon or driver) and practice volleys!  Thinking outside the box is what we need to do when our normal routine is thrown awry.  Heck, if you’re inside and it’s raining outside there are numerous ways in which to bounce a ball on your racquet or against any random indoor surface (not babies though — babies don’t like that).

Find a Court!

The USTA has a tool on their website that will find the closest court to wherever you may be.  Give it a try here.  There are also a couple of tennis court finder iPhone apps, but I haven’t tried any so I can’t vouch for them (and thus, will not advertise any of them – but you can do a search. If they’re good, let me know.)

Tennis in the Gym: A Golden Opportunity

Tennis in Boulder Colorado is a year round activity. That fact notwithstanding a lot of people will say, rightfully, “What about the snow and cold?” That’s true, it does snow around here, and that presents some down days for tennis on the rare occasion that the snow accumulates and doesn’t melt in a day or two. But, as far as the cold goes, it’s not usually too bad. Did you know, during our coldest months (December and January), the average daily high is 42 degrees F? That’s plenty warm enough for sweatpants and hat tennis. A great fact about Boulder Tennis is that we get far less precipitation and far more sunshine than most places in the U.S. (Boulder get’s more sunny days than Los Angeles or Miami). Boulder has more playable days without the use of indoor surfaces, despite the snow and cold, than most cities that are more popularly described as being tennis friendly.

I’m not pretending that it wouldn’t be nice to have a bubble to play in during the winter. However, I am saying that anybody who is remotely serious about getting better at tennis definitely does not need an indoor court in Boulder – especially since there are plenty of playable outdoor days and additional ways to become a great player with the use of a simple gymnasium, basement, garage (car removed) etc… . Our special winter program, Tennis in the Gym, was born as a way to take advantage of these wintery days so that learning becomes a daily activity no matter the outside conditions. When a player says to himself “Yes, I want to play tennis.” there is no reason he can’t, no matter the rain, wind, snow or cold. Whether you are an adult or you’re interested in getting your kids involved in a tennis class, Tennis in the Gym is just as productive as Tennis on a full sized court.  Here’s why:

Volley Clinics: We have whole classes dedicated to making you into a stellar net player.  Think of the dimension of the service court.  The addition of a portable net makes for all the space we need, and more.

Footwork: Who needs a court to become lightning fast? The fastest and most agile player is usually the player who wins, and the right coach is what makes the difference, not the surface and amenities.

Conditioning: How many times have you told yourself you’re going to do conditioning just to, instead, end up standing at the baseline mindlessly rallying back and forth for 2 hours like you always do when you lack a clear plan for your lesson? When there is bad weather, we use it as a chance to develop you into a more complete player by giving you awesome drills that you might not consider otherwise.

Kids Classes: Tennis in the Gym, for a kid, is the same as tennis on a big court. Tennis development between ages 4-10 relies much more on coordination than point construction and geometric awareness.  Truth be told, Tennis in the Gym gives us more opportunity to focus on what matters with kids, footwork, footwork, footwork.

Juniors Classes: If juniors lack anything it’s usually control. You do not have to swing at every ball like you’re trying to smash a zombie in the brain. But tell that to a teenage boy and the next shot you’ll see will be 98mph instead of 99. Tennis involves elements of grace and finesse that many juniors (but definitely not all) need desperately to develop. Tennis in the Gym, again, gives us a golden opportunity to work more closely on these skills. Getting a teenager off the court and into a different environment reminds him/her (but usually him) that tennis, like soccer, is an interplay between the tool (foot or racquet) and the player which requires every kind of shot, even the drop volleys.

Tennis in the Gym is a quality indoor tennis program designed for the occasions that playing outside is not possible. It is a program, designed specially by Gonzo himself; that makes cold or snowy days into highly productive learning days. We may not have an indoor court, but we have an abundance of tennis knowledge, and we know how to make you into the player you want to be. Tennis in the Gym is everything a tennis class ought to be.  Take a class, you’ll see what we mean, and you won’t be disappointed.

To register for Tennis in the Gym:   

Tennis Footwork: It’s more Important than you Think

I‘ve seen it thousands of times. A parent wants to teach his kid to play tennis and all he talks about is how his kid can’t hit the ball. He’ll talk about how the child’s swing isn’t quite right, or he’ll ask for tips about how best to teach topspin, or he wonders just how long it will take for his kid to start hitting like (insert pro’s name here). We love the enthusiasm. In fact it would be nice to see more parents taking an interest in what their kids are doing, and hitting the ball is, of course, important. But, I am always perplexed at how so much time gets invested in beautiful swings while moving to the ball, so that hitting the ball at all becomes possible, is a distant afterthought. So, now for the free piece of advice.

Tennis footwork is more than just moving from A to B quickly. Let’s think about it for a second. If I teach you to sprint to the ball but neglect to show you how to stop and set up for the ball, there is no way you’re going to hit the ball. Likewise, and kids do this all the time, once you do hit the ball you can’t just stand there in utter shock and awe watching your beautiful shot. No, you can’t, because that ball is most likely going to make a return visit. That means you not only need speed but also anticipation, concentration, and coordination. This, folks, is what takes years to master. A swing? That’s the easy part. Moving well and anticipating is the harder bit.

The First Step: How to Think about A Tennis Court

You may wonder how you can learn anticipation. The easy answer is just ‘experience’. But, you can help yourself immensely by thinking of the court as a very tipsy, big rectangular boat floating in calm water; if it is even slightly out of balance it will capsize and sink. Say, for instance, that you have to run to get a ball, and it pushes you towards, or even beyond, the doubles court. Considering that you’re on a tipsy boat, the last thing you want to do is run past your mark. What you do want to do is stop a few feet from the ball, reach, and pluck it out of the air, then, quickly get back to the center before your boat goes bottoms up. The key concept here is recovery. The only thing balancing your boat is you and your opponent; wherever you are on the court, your opponent is going to have to counterbalance – and vice versa.  The boat analogy isn’t perfect though because when two players are in perfect balance what they get is a neutral rally; what each player really wants is to be in command of the point.  Here’s what it looks like to be in a neutral rally.

To use another analogy, with both of you constantly in motion, tennis becomes a dance. It’s a dance wherein the object is to get your partner out of rhythm. The one who is more frequently out of balance/rhythm is the one who loses.

In the end, the point that should be taken away is this: No matter how pretty you swing a racquet, it doesn’t do you much good if the ball is somewhere else. If you’re a parent who’s interested in getting your kid involved in tennis, do not be shocked if, when you watch a class, your child’s racquet is lying somewhere off the court and your kid is jumping around with the instructor doing what, on first glance, looks nothing like tennis. Footwork is tennis. It’s just the sad, lonely cousin of topspin and follow through.

A Tennis Thinking Drill: Hit the Gates

Playing tennis effectively means hitting the ball where you want to hit the ball, not simply getting it over the net and just generally, somewhere, on the court.  No, the ball has to go to a place where it is both likely to arrive safely and which presents your opponent with an appropriate level of inconvenience.  Achieving accuracy is a combination of risk aversion and strategic manipulation (moving your opponent).  Naturally, though, there is a lot to learn when it comes to footwork and knowing what the appropriate shot is for each circumstance. We aren’t talking about those skills today. We’re talking about the simple ability to direct a shot, the most basic tennis skill (apart from getting the ball over the net in the first place). The following drill can be played with a friend or against a ball machine.  All you need are two cones set up a couple of feet inside the baseline.

First thing: Set up your cones. This creates three “gates” through which you will hit you shots. Assign them 1, 2, and 3 in your head.

Your Mission: Your mission is to call (out loud) each of your shots before contacting the ball. Beginners can have a coach or friend feed balls to them in a consistent pattern (as a ball machine would do). As you progresses, though, this should be done with you and another player rallying naturally with each other, moving each other around the court in a more natural rhythm.

The Purpose: Too many players are more concerned about form than putting an accurate ball in play. Pretty swings do not win matches. Good instincts and quick reactions win matches; and they are traits that can be drilled and improved. Calling your shots forces your mind to concentrate on court geometry rather than technique. It compels your mind to stay in the game, so to speak.  Also, if you call 3 but hit a really pretty shot to 1 instead, you can’t claim that you meant to do it all along.

Level Up: Once you’ve mastered two cones, add a third to make 4 gates.

Important Note:  You should go for whichever gate comes to your mind; it’s better to vary shots rather than hitting, say, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4… .  The more random the better.

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