Finding the Best Way for YOU to Learn Tennis (Part I)

Are Clinics Right for YOU?

learning serve at clinic
Ask about the ratio of pros and assistants to students in a clinic. If it’s more than 12:1 for every pro or more than 8:1 for every assistant, you probably won’t be getting much instruction.

Whether youʼre an experienced league competitor, an energetic novice, or a parent wanting to promote an active, healthy lifestyle for the kids, finding the best mode of tennis instruction for your particular circumstances can be a challenge. This is perhaps particularly true in a region blessed with many superb tennis facilities, well-established programs, and talented teaching professionals to help you take advantage of a mild climate that allows for almost year-round play. In this series of posts, I’ll help you to sort through the options for tennis instruction and focus on the approach thatʼs best for your particular learning situation and goals for competitive or recreational tennis. Letʼs start by reviewing the pros and cons of clinics. In Part II, we’ll look at camps, and Part III will cover private lessons.

A tennis clinic is a group session, usually with between six and twelve participants. Some pros do take more than twelve people in a clinic, but I caution against taking clinics with more than twelve people for reasons I’ll discuss shortly. Clinics often focus on one particular element of the game—the serve, groundstrokes, or match play strategies, for instance – but some just offer supervised practice time.

Clinics are a popular choice for those just getting started in tennis because they appear to offer the opportunity to get acquainted with the game without the expense of private lessons. Generally, clinics cost about $20 for a one-hour session, and most programs offer packages with discounts of 10-20 percent when you pay up front for several clinics. Clinics also have the advantage of schedule flexibility in that many pros or programs offer “drop-in” clinics on a regular basis so you donʼt have to commit to a regular time. Finally, clinics are a great way to connect with other tennis players at your level of play. Tennis is a highly social game, and, especially for new players outside of league or other team structures, a clinic can give you access to this important aspect of the game. Indeed, if the social aspect of the game is a high priority for you or your kids, a clinic is absolutely a great place to start.

There are a couple things to consider, however, before you sign up for a series of clinics. First, although you will pay less for an hour of time on the court, in a clinic, you will also be getting significantly less direct instruction from the teaching pro. In a 60-minute clinic with ten people, you might spend ten minutes going over the instructions for the drills and queuing up for your turn at the ball machine, the net or the service line. Depending on how you do on the drill, you might get a quick tip from the pro on your performance in particular. But the focus of a pro teaching a clinic is, first of all, on the safety of everyone in the group and then on their common learning. So, you often wonʼt hear anything specific from the pro about your game. In essence, then, youʼre paying $15 or $20 for what amounts to less than five minutes of direct instruction. That works out to about $180 to $240 for an hour of instruction. So, if your priority is learning the game with a particular focus on your strengths and weaknesses, a clinic might not be the most effective or economical way to go achieve your goals.

Kelly giving forehand instruction
In a juniors’ clinic or camp, pay attention to how much time a teaching pro actually spends with kids on the court.

Another concern with clinics has to do specifically with junior players. First, juniorsʼ clinics often have a much higher participant-to-pro ratio than do adult clinics. I’ve seen prestigious juniorsʼ clinics with more than 20 kids. What that means is that kids are waiting around a lot for court, drill, or ball machine time, and theyʼre not getting lots of attention from the pro. Why does this happen more in juniorsʼ clinics than in adult clinics? Maybe I’m too cynical, but I suspect itʼs because kids arenʼt as likely to complain to the head pro if theyʼre not learning anything so long as there are lots of kids around to hang out with while they wait for their turn.

And that brings up another issue: juniorsʼ clinics are often coordinated by an experienced tennis teaching professional, but they are often directly supervised by college or even high school tennis players. While these young adults may be phenomenal players, it is unlikely that theyʼve had any training (beyond what theyʼve picked up from their own experience) on how to teach tennis or work with kids in particular. What youʼre paying for, then, is basically tennis-oriented babysitting rather than actual instruction. Now, that may be exactly what you want: a social environment with a sports focus that connects athletics to fun for your daughter or son. But if what you want is to provide your child with the opportunity to learn tennis as a lifestyle sport that theyʼll carry into adulthood, itʼs a good idea to stop by the clinic a couple times to see whoʼs on the court with your kids and how much time theyʼre spending in actual instruction. Before you sign your daughter or son up, talk to the head pro about her or his approach to tennis instruction, about the number of students in each clinic group, and about who assists at the clinics and how they are trained. Once youʼve selected a clinic, regularly ask your child, “Did the pro talk to you today about your game?” Or, “Did you get in a lot of play today?”

In summary, clinics have lots of advantages. For adults who are testing the waters with tennis, clinics offer a low cost, low commitment opportunity to try out the game. For both adults and children more interested in the social than the athletic aspects of tennis, clinics are a great option. However, as is often the case in life, you really do get what you pay for: for $20 an hour, you canʼt expect much by way of in depth instruction on your particular learning needs. The result may be that you spend more time and money on clinics without learning as much as you would with a short series of half-hour or hour private lessons supplemented by clinic practice. If youʼre serious about learning and playing tennis for recreation, fitness, or competition, we recommend that you sign up for clinics from time to time to meet practice partners you can play with outside of the clinic. Or, take a class at a local community college to get in regular practice with a range of players. (Note: In the Bay Area, the saturation of teaching pros means that many of the best also teach in local community college programs.)

In my next post, I’ll cover the ins and outs of tennis camps.

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