Here's how, in three simple steps.
Step 1: Just Play!1 of 4
Think about some of the most popular sports among kids, such as baseball and soccer. In many cases, kids learn the basics in their backyards, whether by playing catch with dad or kicking the ball back and forth with mom. This fun family experience gets them excited about the sport and helps get them interested in playing on a team.
"There's nothing more fun for a kid than going outside and playing with mom and dad," says Kirk Anderson, Director of Recreational Coaches and Programs for the USTA. "I remember playing catch with my dad for hours. It was addictive and I just wanted to keep playing. We want to bring that same spirit and same positive experience to tennis."
But can you play tennis in the backyard? Yes, you can, thanks to modified equipment that's tailored specifically to children. These items allow parents and their kids to start rallying in the backyard (or driveway or local park) in a matter of minutes. Kids' rackets, for instance, are smaller so they can grip and swing them easily. A ball made of soft foam bounces lower and moves more slowly, allowing kids to strike it with greater accuracy. All of this helps to promote rallying, which builds confidence while pumping up the fun factor.
"Let's be honest. Young kids aren't interested in learning stroke technique and how to keep score," says Kurt Kamperman, USTA Chief Executive of Community Tennis. "They just want to hit the ball and start playing."
Step 2: Seek Out Organized Programs2 of 4
Organized junior tennis programs aren't win-at-all-cost affairs featuring drill sergeant-like coaches and blood-thirsty opponents. Rather, these fun-focused programs teach kids the basics of tennis while promoting sportsmanship, camaraderie and friendly competition.
Many programs are set up as teams, so kids can learn the game with their friends. Tennis is a great individual lifetime sport, but it's also a team sport. Look at Davis Cup, Fed Cup and high school tennis--these are classic examples of tennis as a team sport. Plus, kids love being part of a team, wearing a uniform and rooting for each other.
That's where QuickStart Tennis and USTA Jr. Team Tennis come in. For kids ages six to 18, USTA Jr. Team Tennis offers the chance to develop basic tennis skills in a fun team atmosphere. More than 80,000 young players are currently involved in Jr. Team Tennis programs throughout the country. Players are grouped together based on age as well as ability, and programs generally last for six to eight weeks of both weekly team practices and match play.
The youngest USTA Jr. Team Tennis participants–eight and under, and 10 and under--learn the game using an exciting new play format known as QuickStart Tennis. With QuickStart, the game has been scaled down to match the age and ability of kids. The eight and under group uses age-appropriate equipment (shorter rackets and lower-bouncing foam balls) and plays on courts measuring 36 feet by 18 feet (a standard court's doubles lanes are used as baselines). Nets are set at a height of two feet, nine inches to allow for easy rallying.
With the 10 and under division, the courts and rackets are slightly larger to account for the kids' developing skills and physical abilities. Both age groups use a simplified scoring system. Once kids are older (11 and up), they start using standard equipment, playing on regulation courts and using the traditional tennis scoring system.
"With Jr. Team Tennis, kids aren't standing around waiting for their turn to hit. They're playing right away with their friends," Kamperman says. "Plus, with the QuickStart format, as they play, they're getting better, which builds confidence. The more confident kids feel on the court, the more they'll want to keep playing."
Step 3: Get Involved3 of 4
Importantly, all of these activities provide great opportunities for parents to get involved and enrich their child's tennis-playing experience. Just ask Carla O'Connor.
A mother of two boys in Charlotte, N.C., O'Connor learned that a local club running a USTA Jr. Team Tennis program needed parent coaches. While she'd never coached before, she thought it'd be fun. O'Connor attended a local USTA recreational coach workshop, where she learned about the structure of USTA Jr. Team Tennis, how to conduct meaningful practices and how to manage match days. Soon, she was coaching a team of middle schoolers and, in her words, "having a ball." She's since gone on to coach several other teams and encourages fellow parents to join the fun.
"When people are hesitant [about coaching a team], I tell them that my boys played baseball," O'Connor says. "I never played baseball, yet I was in the backyard with them throwing for batting practice and playing catch," O'Connor says. "A parent who doesn't play tennis can do the same thing, whether it's rallying in the driveway or coaching a team. Honestly, you can do it."
Regardless of your skill level, you can be a part of your child's tennis experience. This might mean setting up a carpool to drive kids to practice or matches, arranging an end-of-the-season pizza party or even coaching a squad. Thanks to various resources from the USTA, learning how to coach kids has never been easier--or more fun.
The USTA offers hundreds of recreational coaching workshops throughout the country, many of which are designed for parents with limited or no coaching experience. To find one in your area, contact your local USTA Section office. On the USTA website you'll also find lots of valuable resource materials, including the book QuickStart Tennis Practice and Play Plans (available for purchase or download).
If you're more of a visual learner, check out PlaySportsTV and click on the "Tennis" tab. You'll find dozens of videos featuring everything from how to grip a racket to fun games and activities you can do with kids.
If you're still unsure about getting involved in a Jr. Team Tennis program, listen to Kim Hall. A mother of two from eastern Pennsylvania, Hall was new to tennis (a 2.5 USTA League player) when she agreed to captain a USTA Jr. Team Tennis squad. The arrangement was that the teaching pros at the club would run the weekly practices, but parent captains were responsible for everything else, including registering kids, setting up matches and organizing post-match parties.
"It's a lot of responsibility, but it's also a lot of fun," Hall says. "I've seen firsthand that parents make great coaches and team captains. It's because they have a real vested interest. They're committed to creating a wonderful tennis experience for their kids and the kids on the team."
Hall should know. The team she captains, which includes her 14-year-old daughter Caroline, recently went to Districts (a tournament where teams from neighboring states play each other). Hall's squad received numerous compliments from opposing coaches who admired the team's enthusiastic spirit, which included matching baseball caps printed with players' names, team cheers and even clever chants for each player. The team didn't win, but you would've never known from the smiles on the players' faces.
"Watching the girls cheer each other on and support one another, win or lose, was really inspiring," Hall says. "It was a wonderful experience, and something my daughter and I will never forget."