Most of us have heard of tennis prodigy Cori ‘Coco’ Gauff starting to hit tennis balls at two years old. But what about our own children, who may not possess the natural gifts of an Gauff? When should we first encourage them to give platform tennis a shot?
Is two or three years old too young?
This article is the first of a series that will take you through the various age groups up to pre-teens. We will cover what to expect at each age, how to encourage each child, and what games and Fun Platform Tennis Drills are most appropriate.
The Pleasure Principle
Why will a two or three-year-old turn the crank on a jack-in-the-box over and over again and keep smiling each time? Just to see it pop up over and over again? Is the motivation pure fun or mastering a skill? Experts say it’s a combination of both, namely the pleasure of mastering a skill.
Starting at very young ages, children want to enjoy the newly learned ways their bodies work. Picture the thrill on your child’s face that accompanied his or her first steps. Remember this “pleasure principle” when helping your child develop skills that will lay the groundwork for platform tennis, and your chances of success increase tremendously.
Along this same line of thought, remember that children in this age group love singing and dancing. Make up songs and rhymes to help them along.
For example, to the tune of London Bridge, try singing:
Hit your forehand low to high, low to high, low to high…Hit your forehand low to high…You’re a tennis player!
How much to teach?
Over-teaching is a great stumbling block for most parents trying to help very young children master or even start to develop any skill.
Here’s the typical scenario: The parent instructs the young child and gets frustrated because she does not seem capable of following instructions. Since the goal is to help the child, avoiding parental frustration is a must. Here are some tips:
- For two-year-olds definitely keep instructions to “start” and “stop” at first. I.e. Start running, stop running. Start hopping, stop hopping. Start swinging, stop swinging. Instructions on how to run, jump, or swing will be too complex for most toddlers. But, by the time a child reaches three years old, he is usually ready to handle one simple instruction, like swing from low to high or where to start and finish the paddle.
- Don’t assume anything. This is a great guideline to remember if you want to avoid getting frustrated. I have seen too many parents tell a very young child that she has to hit the ball further in front. The problem is that many two or three-year-olds don’t have a clue what “in front” really means.
- If you need to guide your child to contact the ball, in case it doesn’t happen naturally (which will generally be the case), use instructions they are familiar with. For example, if they watch the PBS show, “Clifford, The Big Red Dog,” have him pretend to be Clifford running and playing with a ball. Another example to try if you want him to run with a quicker touch on the ground is to ask him to “run like a cat”.
- If she cannot easily track a normal ball, which will most often be the case, use age-adaptive equipment, such as large foam balls, beach balls, or even juggling scarves (they float through the air very slowly).
- Use a 70-30 success to failure ratio as a guideline. This means that whatever the activity or skill you are working on, arrange the exercise so your child is succeeding more often than failing.
- Call any sessions where you work on skills “play” instead of calling it a “lesson” or “drill” or “exercise.”
- Keep all “play” sessions where there is focus on skill development to less than 20 minutes in length.
And, remember, it can’t be play if it’s not fun!
Is it a boy or a girl?
Yes, it matters. Boys and girls are wired differently, and understanding certain differences between them can be extremely helpful. Here are some gender-specific tips when teaching children in this toddler group:
Boys will be less vocal than girls, and have more muscle mass evident even by age three. They will also hear better in their right ears, will be less distracted by other voices, and have better auditory memory than girls at that age. Also consider that boys will be less able to multitask than girls.
Girls will have a stronger vocabulary than boys, have a better ability to multitask, will hear well in both ears, and have a better visual memory. However, they will be more easily distracted by voices around them.
From personal experience, I can add that in this age group most girls will gravitate towards playing with dolls, whereas most boys move towards balls. Beware, however, that if you wait too long to get your little girl throwing a ball, it becomes harder and harder.
Basic neurological pathways for running, jumping, hitting, throwing, and catching develop at very young ages. Learning to naturally throw a ball, for example, at a young age such as this two to three-year-old bracket is advised over waiting until the child is eight, nine, or ten.
Right-left balance skills
Another important issue to consider is the fact that by the time children reach five years of age, they have already established their hand, foot, and eye dominance. Therefore, while they are still in the two to three-year-old bracket, it can be very helpful to get the children to, as far as possible, develop balanced skills.
This means that you should have them toss, catch, and even hit with both their right and left hands. In the long run, they will become better athletes because of it.
Well-versed parents or tennis teachers can help guide their toddlers and young preschoolers to be more well rounded and therefore prepared to try more physical activities than they otherwise may have attempted.