having a ball

A little girl, dressed head to toe in pink athletic gear, stands beside a tennis net and haphazardly swings her racket at the tennis ball, albeit a little too late. The ball, which is only 75 percent of the weight of a real tennis ball, bounces behind her as she pulls the racket with both hands, ready for another try. The heavy racket wobbles in her tiny fingers. This is the Recreation Center tennis class for 5- and 6-year-olds. Tennis Tikes is where parents get a first look into their child’s tennis-star potential. Two days a week, young kindergarteners show up to swing wildly (or not so wildly) at tennis balls, learn how to bounce balls against the pavement and periodically do a ball pickup, where little hands scavenge all the fallen tennis balls from the corners. And according to Tennis Pro Hank Hughes, it’s easy to see who’s got the knack for tennis and who, unfortunately, doesn’t.

“You can pretty much tell who’s going to be good right away. If a kid can make contact with the ball, then they have pretty good hand-eye coordination.” Unlike soccer, football and other more physical or team-oriented sports, hand-eye coordination is the most important factor on the clay court. This makes tennis unique; age and size are much less important than skill and racket control.

IMG_2128 580px 72dpi“The ball-tracking skills needed are just inherent in some kids,” says Hughes. In his experience, a first grader and a third grader could fairly play each other, provided they’re equally talented (or untalented; it works both ways.) “You’re defined by your racket,” he says.

But finding out which tikes have talent and which don’t isn’t the purpose of these lessons. “We want to make sure they have fun.” This isn’t only for the kids’ and parents’ benefits, though. Enjoyment during the lessons is the number one factor in determining if a budding athlete will come back for classes at all. Apparently being good isn’t enough. Even when kids are older, they won’t return if they aren’t having a good time, says Hughes.

IMG_2112 580px 72dpi“He’s an active individual. I think he likes it,” says one of the moms at the lessons. In fact, it seemed as though all of the kids like the lessons. They enthusiastically run from one line to the next, eager for their turn to try and hit the tennis ball. A little boy with a mess of curly hair swings and hits a ball, landing it near Hughes’ feet. It rolls behind him and into the fence.

A nice shot for a kindergartener.

Find out more about Tennis Tikes and how to register your kindergartener for classes: www.mtlebanon.org/index.aspx?NID=2034

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