It is absolutely true that players need to focus early on in their development getting down the base fundamentals of stroke production. That simply means players have to get to the point where they can serve, hit groundstrokes, and volley automatically. The skill has to be so ingrained that even when they are choking and under tremendous stress they still can perform the skills. That takes lots of repetition and repetition is the “mother of skill.”
Lessons and group clinics are a great way, especially under the guidance of a coach, to achieve those repetitions. Tennis should be fun ,especially for youth, and a group environment with the right culture certainly can provide that. However, lessons should not be the only means of practice.
Let me explain why…
I am going to assume that ultimately players are doing all this work so they can compete in matches, not just get exercise. If competitive goals are in the picture then players must also practice in the manner in which they are expected to perform. That means they have to get into the heat of the battle and play practice sets and compete so they are prepared for the big moments. This is often part of the reason why players choke in tournament competition, they either don’t know what to do in the big moments of the match or they know what to do but have never practiced it before and are not truly prepared.
So think about the benefits of playing practice sets, players get to hit a ton of balls, but in the manner as close to a real competition as possible. In other words they are practicing in the manner in which they are expected to perform. They get to practice shot-selection, game plans, problem solving skills, and so much more. This is where they apply what they learned in the lessons. It is just like doing the word problem at the end of the math lesson in school…remember those?!
The more practice sets a player competes in the better prepared they will be for their next high school season or tournament. Now don’t get me wrong the technical work and repetitions in lessons under the watchful eye of a coach are still very important but usually players spend an abundance of time focusing on technique and far too little if any time playing practice sets.
Practice sets prepare players for the heat of the battle and the more competitive the better. Some of my best practices as a teenager came in the form of playing sets against my best friend or adults I hated losing to because my pride was on the line. Which brings me to my final point about practice sets, the kids should care if they win or lose them. Playing a practice set and not caring if you win or lose is like doing the word problem at the end of a math lesson and not caring if you get the answer correct.