Do I use hand or bucket feeding for my junior players? Absolutely. Is it the basis of the training I do with them? Absolutely not. I use it to work on specific things, but the true test to know if they become proficient in what we are working on is to work in a live ball situation in practice. Afterwards we then work on point play situations in practice and then ultimately it comes out in a tournament match, which is the true test of whether they truly understand and trust what they have been working on.
There are many coaches that only do hand or bucket feeding and it is definitely not wrong. A developing junior player requires all different aspects of training. Each child is different so a coach needs to make sure they know what to work on and how to fix the areas that need fixing. Do you ever wonder why your child hits the ball so well during these lessons, yet it does not translate over to match wins in tournaments? Bucket drilling and hand feeding are unrealistic in terms of if your child can win more matches in tournaments. Some may use the logic that more lessons should equal more match wins, but this is not always the case. The pace of ball coming at your child in these lessons are usually very slow, so they can have many technical deficiencies and look pretty good to you as the parent. I can feed a ball with either my hand or my racquet and put it so perfectly in your child’s strike zone that they will look like a superstar, but why don’t they have the desired results in tournaments?
So here is what I am seeing and what should be taught. When you are hitting with someone else, every single ball being hit to you is different. The spin, the height, the pace, the trajectory, etc. I will put down a cone three feet by three feet from the sideline and baseline and tell two students to play the rally with the same intensity trying to hit the cone as they would in a match. The result many times is they are spraying the ball all over the place, in the middle of the court, short on the service line, long over the baseline, or even in the alley. How can this be? You have probably spent significant dollars with tennis lessons and groups and your child cannot hit more than one or two balls close to the cone without missing. What I am seeing is that the kids that have been hand fed too many balls without having enough live ball practice, and cannot adjust to what is required. They have trouble anticipating and reading what is being hit to them. Without that skill, your child is just a good lesson taker and you are a money donor. You do not need this skill nor do you obtain this skill in a hand fed or bucket fed situation. Your child will have trouble moving and using their body effectively to get in position. Since they do not understand what is being hit to them, they have trouble adapting their swing. If the ball is coming to them slowly, then they are used to that pace because of all the hand fed and bucket fed drills. If the ball comes fast or deep, the junior does not have an understanding on how to adapt their swing to be able to hit a clean ball on their target. They are usually late and their racquet preparation is late because they did not see the ball coming faster or deeper at them. They are so used to taking the same swing that they are incapable to improvise to hit a quality shot. Seeing the ball out of your opponents racquet is so very important because you need to be able to see if the ball is coming short, in the middle, or deep in the court, so now the movement is late also and the preparation of the racquet is late and the shot will be hit in the middle of the court. At a high level of tennis, you are going to be in big trouble.
In my opinion, the developing juniors need all different types of training; however, I am seeing too many juniors practicing and being taught in too much of a controlled environment to make the lessons worthwhile. Tennis training at a high level needs to be as realistic as possible to a tournament match so that the junior can achieve their goals. The only way for this to happen is for the training to be in a live ball situation and for there to be specific goals that must be attained. Many times the goals are how many balls in a row can be hit on the cone for both players before one is hit away from the cone. That is good for starters and then you build it up to more shots as the players become more advanced. Best of luck and remember, make the training as realistic as possible if you want tournament results.