It’s always fun to see juniors spread out and active on a number of tennis courts. But it becomes magical when practically all of them are so young they measure their growth by seeing if they are as tall as the net. One week the net is taller than them and the next week they grow a little and the net has some competition. “Yes!” Exclaims one of the youngsters, “Finally, I’m as tall as the net!”
Demographics have a big impact on the sign-ups for tennis programs. At the 100-year-old Lakewood Country Club in Dallas, Texas, there’s been a baby boom in recent years. Out of nowhere, parents of 40 or more children from three to six years old fill the parking lot several times a week. And, since parents of children this age tend to watch their youngsters learn and laugh through their first sporting experiences, the viewing deck is packed with proud and smiling parents. After all, nearly the entire six-court facility is packed with the smiling faces of their very own children. The only challenge is to figure out who’s having more fun, the children or the parents. It really is magical. This is the type of program that sets the stage for years of success to come. Here are some tips to capture the moment in your own backyard.
Demographics and marketing
You might not have a program for children in that young age range. However, it might be a “sleeper” program that’s just waiting for you to ring the alarm clock. Check out other sports and activities for children in that three- to six-year-old target age and you’ll probably wonder why you never noticed them before. Another place to check is the local pre-school and kindergartens. Then, it’s just a question of getting the word out with some flyers, newsletter bulletins, and introductory free programs.
At the Lakewood Country Club, Tennis Director Adrian Chabria promotes his “Future Stars” program with the message “Give your kids the tools to be an athlete for life.” He also says to the parents to “Have the kids come as they are. And, no racquet required.” meaning that the parents do not have to invest in special clothing, and he supplies junior tennis racquets and foam Hand Racquets.
Bells and whistles
People are always attracted to bells and whistles, but young children are drawn to fun and excitement almost as much as they are to ice cream. In your free “get the word out” programs consider hiring a clown or dress up your pros with wigs and big red noses. This is one of the tricks that Chabria at Lakewood Country Club has used right from the start. Other standards he incorporates in his program are regular give-away prizes. And, he has also laminated and posted a height chart provided by Head/Penn. When checking in for each session, the kids just stand next to the height chart to determine what length junior racquet they will use for that hour.
Hire the right staff
Chabria also hired a young woman who teaches motor skills and gymnastics to very young children. Although she has little to no tennis background, she has a strong background in group games and activities that keep young children engaged and having fun. She has quickly endeared herself to the children and the parents. For the first 15 minutes of each 60-minute session, this young lady directs the warm-up for all the children. It’s fun, fast-paced, and the laughter at the start of each and every session is contagious. For student to teacher ratio, Chabria feels strongly that each child should get a lot of attention. When he has 40 children in the program, he schedules 9 total staff members to work with the children.
Using the right equipment
The tennis staff at Lakewood Country Club use foam balls, foam racquets, short racquets, colorful spots, donuts, hoops and even blow-up targets to keep these youngsters interested and as focused as possible. Since their little attention spans are about as short as they are, it’s no wonder that Chabria and his team change drills and games every couple of minutes.
Serve the kids, serve the parents
It’s almost guaranteed. If you capture the interest of the children, the parents will be next in line. After all, parents are going to do something with their children. It might be swimming, going to the playground, ice-skating, or to the soccer field. Grab the interest of the children early on and it’s likely you can get the entire family involved in tennis for years to come. Remember, one activity or another will be the first to capture each child’s attention and interest. Why not make tennis that first activity? If it can happen in Dallas, Texas, it can happen in your backyard as well.
Joe Dinoffer is a Master Professional in both the USPTA and PTR, has been recognized with numerous national awards including the 2019 City of Dallas Humanitarian Award for contributions to inner city tennis, and has conducted clinics and exhibitions in over 50 countries. Joe is the author and editor of 9 books and more than 20 DVDs, has more than 300 published articles in various tennis and pickleball magazines, and has aired many instructional tips on the Tennis Channel. Plus, Joe’s YouTube channel has more than 2 million views and growing! His latest book “Words, Wisdom, and Whimsy” is the second volume of an illustrated series called “Poems from the Heart.” In 1994, Joe founded OnCourt OffCourt, Ltd., a company dedicated to serving the tennis, pickleball, fitness, yoga, and physical education industries with innovative training aids and educational tools. Today, he has designed and manufactured more than 150 creative products being distributed and used in 100 countries worldwide.