HOW WE LEARN THE GAME OF TENNIS by
Feel. Although there are many intellectual parts to learning the game, much of tennis competence is learned through body knowledge – that is, through FEEL. When a student is first instructed with a specific technique on how to hit the ball, the majority of students can’t do it. This early learning difficulty continues through many descriptions and demonstrations of proper technique. This is normal.
It takes hundreds of repetitions before stroke movements are absorbed into your body / muscle memory. The phrase “muscle memory” is a construct, where more or less identical movements become automatic through repetition. Repetition of correct movement is your objective. Ironically, repetition of incorrect movement results in continued poor form, which we know as bad habits. We all have heard the saying “Practice makes perfect;” however in tennis, “Only Correct Practice Makes Perfect.”
Tennis success. How fast you learn is dependent on a cornucopia of things, but the keys to getting on the right track are how well you can focus and how self-aware you are. It is necessary for you to be explicitly conscious of your body’s movements. If you are not self aware of how your body is moving then you cannot effect timely change and achieve control. So if you are an early learner, or a returning learner with poor habits, you must accept the probability that it’s going to take a lot of time before good strokes become automatic. You simply “cannot push the river.” An inconvenient truth, as they say.
The Basics. Style, when couched in a positive light, implies strokes of a certain beautiful proportion, timing, and grace. A player with smooth looking strokes is admired by many, including myself. Having said that, I will readily state that one doesn’t get any points for style. Only hitting the ornery yellow-green ball in the court, one more time than your opponent, gets you a point. Nevertheless, when you swing your racket and connect with the ball in certain correct ways, your odds of your getting the ball In are significantly increased. Those prescribed ways put together are referred to as “the basics.” Hence the phrase is often used when one’s game goes astray, “Go back to the basics.”
The body learns slower than the mind. If you have taken lessons for some time, you surely can verify by experience that the previous statement is true. Example: I teach all of my students to rotate their body (footwork) before they hit an overhead. When students miss an overhead and haven’t turned their body correctly, they usually remember that they forgot to rotate. Their mind knows the proper form but their body didn’t get the message in that particular instance.
Everyone has their own learning rate, so if you learn quicker or slower than someone else, that reality is irrelevant. You are only concerned with you. Since a good coach can only present you with a positive learning situation, you and no one else can actually learn it for you. The ball is in your court, as I like to say.
Mindset: You must have great patience with yourself. Tennis is an complex sport, and your body will only learn one thing at a time. I’ve had many students who I have told a certain thing countless times, and then, from out of nowhere, they suddenly are able to do it. Their reaction is always similar, “OH, NOW I GET IT!”
Theory of learning tennis. Several phases in the learning experience are the same for everyone: Unawareness, Awareness of Inability, Awareness of Ability, and Intuitive Ability.
Unawareness. This is the beginning phase of tennis. In this phase since you don’t know exactly what you are lacking due to inexperience, so the most you can do is to try to focus on mindfully gathering intellectual knowledge by intently listening to your instructor and asking questions. At this stage you haven’t developed “feel,” so you should pay acute visual attention to how your instructor moves his body. I provide each student with a written instructional of key elements, as well as detailed demonstrations with verbal cues.
Awareness of Inability. This second phase of learning happens as you become aware of what is missing but you are aware that you are unable to fix it. As your mind becomes informed, the best you can do is to repeat each shot over and over in supervised drills. A good coach will know exactly what you are doing incorrectly and will tell you precisely. He can do this because he has a “good-form” video running in his mind. It seems to me that a really good coach is not only a competent tactician but a psychologist and will care about you as a person. In a sense, if you fail, he fails. It’s a partnership.
Awareness of Ability. As I mentioned anecdotally above, this third phase is about “getting it.” Something will tell you when a certain thing works, that it is what you have been searching for. It may be a eureka moment. Hello, motivation. It’s a good feeling. Once you reach this conscious awareness phase, your task is not done because I guarantee that you will revert at times to your previous way of hitting the ball. The good news is that you will have more success as time goes by IF you pay attention to your body movements when you are “getting it.” This is a phase of optimism because you feel that you are on the right track. And so you are. The best thing you can do at this time is to store the feeling of hitting the ball right. Practice with continuous repetition during this phase. The more balls you hit correctly the more your body is learning. Remember to pay especial attention to the “feel.”
Intuitive Ability. Once a skill has become intuitive or automatic, you do not have to consciously think about the process of hitting the ball. You are then especially free to focus (or refocus) your attention on other aspects of your game – one thing at a time.
Body Movement Awareness: Being Your Own Coach.
Here is an example: From your baseline you miss a forehand groundstroke by hitting the ball into the net or outside the boundary lines. As soon as you miss the shot you need to recall how your body moved just before, during, and after hitting the ball. If you have been taking lessons for some time, you should know the key elements of whatever stroke you missed. History shows that the most common difficulties in tennis are controlling your wrist which in turn controls your racket face, and the path of your racket swing. The remedies are to be acutely aware of your wrist, being aware of your racket’s path through the air, and making adjustments based on your results.
A final observation. From years of teaching tennis I have found that the students who ask the most questions and listen to the answers are those who learn the fastest.
Whatever phase you are at in your process of learning, here’s hoping that you can enjoy and appreciate the moment.
[2C-How We Learn Tennis] [Rev 5-30-11]