The Trouble with Private Lessons
OK, now that I’ve got your attention with a controversial lead I want to assure that I value private lessons; and the importance of individual and expert attention in the development of a great little player. I just want to tell you the story of Jack, a “talented” 9 year old.
Jack and his Mum were into tennis. He took group lessons and was competing regularly; and had just started taking a private lesson as well. He was the sort of young player who could hit a shot that took your breath away; and then follow it up with 3 tame errors into the net in a row (15 – 40).
At squad training this week he was being particularly erratic. Specifically, he kept moving into position very late and letting the ball fall well below ideal impact zone. All the time using a very “technically correct” preparation – only problem his position at contact was horribly off balance.
I zoned in on Jack and it was quickly obvious he wasn’t reacting to the ball from his opponents racquet, and often he wasn’t reacting until the ball had bounced down his end. Consequently his good racquet preparation but poor contact position.
“I don’t understand, I wasn’t making any errors in my private lesson,” lamented poor Jack, his body language giving away how confused and dispirited he was becoming.
And this is the “Trouble with Private Lessons.” The coach’s perfect shots reached Jack at exactly the right speed, depth and height. Jack had been able to “groove” his stroke, feeling great as he crunched every ball that was perfectly placed in his hitting zone – just like a ball machine.
Now with another skilled young player to compete with, the ball was coming to him erratically, lower and higher; heavy spin then no spin at all. Conditioned by his private lesson experience Jack wasn’t coping with all this variation, variation, which is at the heart of becoming a skilled player.
Slowly over the course of the lesson Jack adapted to the challenges of working with players who were trying to make him uncomfortable. We had given him the task of calling “hit” every time the ball hit his opponent’s racquet. This increased his awareness and ultimately he began to move quickly and better position himself.
Every player taking a private lesson should also be working with a squad and competing. I would argue that players should be taking a squad and competing before even contemplating taking a private lesson.
A fantastic High Performance coach I spoke with believes that a 2:1 private lesson is the best format for developing young players. The coach can concentrate on coaching (rather than hitting) and the players get a realistic training session. If the coach wants to pick up the intensity of the lesson they can easily step in and still ensure a good work : rest ratio.
Tennis is a game of variation and of coping with the unpredictable. Make improving these skills a critical learning objective in all your lessons.