Free Tennis in Schools program spreading like wildfire

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–By Ottawa Sportspage, For Tennis For Life Ottawa

With up to 11 nets setup across the gymnasium and sometimes even on the adjoining stage, and young students bouncing tennis balls all over, Nick Patterson describes his visits to local elementary schools as “chaos.”

“I’m joking, though it is a bit of an art how to control that many kids and make it safe, which is our priority,” signals Patterson, an Ottawa tennis instructor of 35+ years. “It’s a lot of fun. You see sometimes 44 kids playing mini tennis at the same time. And they love it. We just capture their imagination, and the end goal is to turn them into tennis players.”

Tennis is an inexpensive sport that can be practiced on public courts and at low-cost community clubs, and it’s a highly social activity that naturally produces lasting friendships, highlights Patterson, who has taught players from age 4-80.

For many, the start of a lifelong journey in tennis stems from the Ontario Tennis Association’s Tennis in Schools initiative.

Particularly popular for Grade 2-5, the program practices “progressive tennis,” featuring mini nets that can be setup in 2 minutes anywhere, and 3 types of balls – starting with the largest and softest.

“It’s easier for them to control the ball,” explains Patterson, noting young first-timers couldn’t be expected to have much success with adult-size courts and equipment. “This flattens the learning curve for them.”

Similarly, the first drill is often to move the ball back and forth on a racquet to get a comfortable feel for it, then bounce a ball against the wall, eventually tap the ball back and forth with a partner, then volley lightly, use their forehand, backhand and serve, and finally comes the chance to play on the mini nets.

The program is most often delivered in a gymnasium in place of phys ed classes throughout a day. It’s free, with all equipment provided – like a field trip without the transportation headaches or a special event without the cost and organization, says Patterson, who personally delivered the sessions to nearly 5,000 students last school year alone.

“We’ve got a huge footprint, and this program is getting more popular every year,” underlines Patterson, who smiles and acknowledges that keeping up his pace for the full day can be draining.

“But it’s a good kind of tired,” adds the former Dalhousie University varsity hockey player. “When I finish a full day on the court, I feel good because I’ve helped bring some fun to somebody’s day and helped them be physically active.”

Following the intro, young players can move on to the Little Aces program, which runs at a number of locations throughout the city, usually on Sunday afternoons.

With the emergence of Eugenie Bouchard, Milos Raonic, Denis Shapovalov and Gabriela Dabrowski on the international tennis scene, many kids are now dreaming of becoming the next Canadian star, notes Patterson, who teaches at around a dozen courts across Ottawa, including the new Rideau Sports Centre.

The Glebe Collegiate Institute grad also serves as volunteer coach at his alma mater. The local high school tennis scene is always growing as well, featuring multiple levels and formats of play during its fall season.

Last year, almost 50 players tried out for Glebe’s team, and all were granted spots to practice and train with the group throughout the year. It’s all about spreading the love of tennis for Patterson, and for him, there is nothing better than working with a big group of young, enthusiastic players.

“I’ve got to tell you, Nick has the energy of a high school kid,” laughs Glebe teacher/co-coach Phil Sim. “He’s very energetic, enthusiastic, and when he works with the kids, you can really see his passion for coaching. It doesn’t matter what level they are, he just wants to help everyone. You can see he has a love for the sport, and he wants to pass it on to the kids.”

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