New Directions in Professional Tennis Instruction

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New Directions in Professional Tennis Instruction

Our research has demonstrated that tennis is one of the most complex activities ever devised by humans. Developing new methods of instruction that will greatly accelerate the process of learning tennis will provide a significant benefit to the tennis industry in several ways: (1) It will attract many more adult players to the sport by closing the skill gap between the recreational adult and the professional player; (2) It will raise the level of professional play; (3) and it will provide valuable data to the scientific community studying the nature of the human learning process and the nature of diseases of the brain.

This is the first in a series of articles on new directions in tennis instruction that is intended to bring the tennis teaching community and the scientific community into closer contact, to the mutual benefit of each. The benefit to the tennis teaching community is to significantly improve tennis instruction and thus increase its business base.

The benefit to the scientific community is to capture previously overlooked scientific data in a form that will be directly applicable to the study of neurology and neuroscience. The first article discusses the challenges of teaching from the point of view of 8 features of the human learning process that must be considered when formulating any teaching regime.

In subsequent articles, we will present specific ways to develop an instruction program that addresses these challenges. Part I: Challenges of Teaching Tennis
Ray and Becky Brown
The human learning process is extremely complex.

However, there have been considerable advances in understanding learning within the past ten years. In the following paragraphs, we have summarized some of the most critical factors that affect learning. Understanding these factors and developing teaching techniques that surmount the barriers they pose will dramatically accelerate the process of learning to play tennis.

Limitations of Human Visual Processing: We don’t always see the world as well as we think Some readers may have heard that eyewitnesses to crimes are notoriously unreliable. This is a fact and there are at least two sources of this unreliability: One is related to the ‘speed’ with which we see, which is about 30 frames per second.

The second is that we as move around in our environment, we primarily depend on peripheral vision to see where we are going and to avoid obstacles. As to the speed of vision, 30 frames per second is too slow to observe what is happening in any tennis stroke (about 200 frames per second would be much better).

Further, there is no stop action in our visual processing, so even at 30 frames per second, we are unable to recall any specific frame. Peripheral vision is another matter of importance to tennis. Our brains do not process this form of vision very accurately since we require only rough information about our environment to move about successfully.

To perform precise tasks we use an entirely different form of vision, called focal vision, which is processed very accurately.

The relevance of these two limitations is two- fold. First, teaching pros, while instructing a student, are not able to see the most important part of a stroke due to its speed.

Unfortunately, it is during this high-speed "unobservable" portion of the stroke that most of the student’s problems can be found. We call this the problem of observability. The consequence of this problem is that the corrections suggested by pros may not be related to the actual errors a student is making.

For this reason, high-speed video, such as is found at the TennisONE web site, will play an increasingly important role in tennis instruction in the future. The second relevant point is that to hit a tennis ball accurately, one must use focal vision rather than peripheral vision.

But most of the time we are playing we are using peripheral vision. It is the natural thing to do. Because of this, it is possible to be looking right at the ball with peripheral vision and hit the ball on the frame of the racquet.

It is not uncommon for a student to be looking at the ball with peripheral vision, shank the ball, and have their teaching pro say “watch the ball”. This can be confusing to the student, and may even be demoralizing, because they are watching the ball, but in a manner that does not provide sufficient information to make optimal contact with the ball.

The Ambiguity of Human Language: If it has two meanings, half of your students may miss the point Another challenge to tennis instruction is the ambiguity of human language. The role of language in teaching a skill is that it makes it possible convey to the student the insights of those who have mastered the skill, thus reducing the student’s learning time.

However, if in the course of teaching, the instructor uses ambiguous language, the learning time may actually increased rather than reduced. To teach high precision skills in the shortest possible time, one must use a high precision language.

Today, there is no formal language being used to teach tennis. What we do have is a set of ambiguous metaphors, templates, and rules that are used in place of a formal language. The ambiguities of the language used to teach tennis is one of the greatest problems with tennis instruction today.

For example, the phrase “hit through the ball” has numerous interpretations, and hence is insufficient to convey the intended meaning.

The problem of associative learning: If it has no meaning, it is easily forgotten Humans learn most quickly through relevance.

If an action has a result that can be associated to a value, it is learned more quickly than a meaningless action. However, as noted previously, current teaching practice relies on metaphors, templates and rules as the basis of instruction.

In particular, it can be very difficult to associate a rule to a meaning or value. For example, when a pro insists on a student developing a “follow through” they are imposing a (well-intentioned) rule for which there is no associated value or meaning.

This is because you can have a great follow through without having good ball control, or good ball contact. For a deeper discussion, we refer the reader to Professor Ellen Langer at Harvard who has described the relationship of meaning to learning in her important book, The Power of Mindful Learning.

In summary, Professor Langer sets for a new theory of learning based on her extensive scientific experiments. This theory overthrows traditional views of rote rule-based, practice-makes-perfect learning and replaces it with learning by relevance, exploration, adaptation, and individual initiative.

The Problem of "On-demand" Recall of Reflexive Memory: We seldom know how we did it We have all had the experience of hitting a perfect shot only to realize we have no clue as to how we did it. This is because the human brain has very little ability to recall the details of a reflexive action on demand.

This fact makes it almost impossible for Pete Sampras (or any expert) to tell a student what she or he does to hit a tennis ball. One well-known result of this fact is that great players are not necessarily great teachers This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that most people firmly believe that they can recall, on demand, the details of a reflexive action.

However, modern technology has provided a means of examining how the strokes of the best players in the world are executed: high-speed photography. Using high-speed photography, it is now possible to develop a detailed factual record of the strokes of a large body of the best practitioners as is being done by the Advanced Tennis Research Project.

However, this project is in its embryonic stages and needs to be taken much further before a complete scientific analysis of tennis strokes is available in a library. Optimally, this library would have to have high resolution film shot at 200 – 1200 frames per second (depending on the problem being analyzed) and from numerous angles, including overhead perspectives.

As the records of this library are established, they would be made available to every teaching pro and scientist for a fee, much as is presently being done by the Project. The Problem of Intentional Action: We have less control than we think.

How often have you heard “hit the ball out front”? This (ambiguous) rule is repeated every day and still many students have trouble with the execution, even if they interpret it correctly. Accurately carrying out an intended action, requiring precision, is inherently difficult.

Even if one had prefect recall, and the teacher conveyed their actions perfectly, a human's ability to carryout an action intentionally as prescribed is initially quite limited. One source of the difficulty of intentional action is the absence of good visual feedback loop in our brains that can be used to correct an action while it is being carried out.

Hence we must rely on developing an internal somatosensory memory (a feeling) to tell when an action is proceeding correctly. Teaching the development of somatosensory feedback (feeling) control is in its infancy and there is much more research needed before it can be successfully taught.

However, even if the feeling for a movement were to be developed perfectly, the speed of action on a tennis court so far exceeds the speed of the fastest somatosensory feedback loop in the human brain that the information would likely arrive too late to be useful for most situations.

Hence it is an after the fact sensation that tells the player that what they did was correct without providing the opportunity to correct any errors. It would appear from the presently known facts that developing the ability to carry out a complex action on demand will require more than just developing a feeling.

Alternatively, high precision skills can be recalled on demand by learning the action as a verbal procedure first, such as done in ballet with great precision. As no high precision action can be completely conveyed in words, a series of good verbal approximations must be developed to provide a starting point for learning.

For tennis, what is needed is to decompose the unobservable, high-speed portion of each tennis stroke into reproducible and meaningful components that can be communicated verbally. The challenge here is to get the right components, and the right number of components.

Components such as the follow through are easily conveyed in words, but lack any direct, before the fact relevance because the follow through takes place after the ball has been struck, and thus any correction of the follow through cannot effect the current stroke.

Nor can it be tied directly to the efficiency with which the racquet strikes the ball. Each stroke component must serve one of three purposes. It must provide stability (controllability without feedback) so that the stroke is carried out with minimal variation, it must produce racquet head speed to be imparted to the ball, or it must provide a means of accurately directing the racquet to the ball.

Professional tennis strokes provide all three of these features to varying degrees. From an examination of high-speed film from the Advanced Tennis Research Project it can be seen that among top players that Agassi and Sampras stand out as individuals who have mastered these three stroke features to the highest degree.

The Problem of Neuronal Disassembly and Neuronal Encroachment: Learning is a battle ground Have you ever gotten you serve down pat on a Saturday and then find it impossible to hit a decent serve two days later. This is likely a result of the curious feature of the human brain has of partially disassembling, over night, the knowledge of an action learned the previous day.

Since brains learn the basic components of a procedure and a method of assembling these components to execute the procedure, it has no need to store (remember) the procedure as a complete unit. If you learn your serve as a complete unit or template, you are going to easily forget it.

However, if you learn your serve or any other stroke as a set of elementary relevant components, it will be easily reassembled each day you go out to play. But it will require time to be reassembled, and you must allow for this, without getting frustrated.

In fact, frustration can significantly delay reassembly of a stroke just as would be the case when reassembling a rifle. The natural disassembly process is a nuisance that must be respected if we are to learn a procedure as quickly as possible.

But there is another dynamic of the human brain that is just as annoying. Every action or thought requires an assembly of neurons to carry it out. However, neurons assembled and devoted to one task may be co-opted by neurons developed for an entirely different task, depending on your priorities in life.

A particularly good example is when a person looses their hands and they learn to use their feet to perform many of the tasks once provided by their hands. To make a long story short, if the original learning event was based on insufficient information, ambiguities, or purely reflexive conditioning, it can be easily forgotten and any attempt to reproduce it by referring to the imprecise information is usually futile.

Stress breaks down reflexive recall: If you learn something by “conditioning” you nay easily forget it under the pressure of a match. Have you ever come off the court after a particularly stressful match and said, “I forgot how to hit a forehand”? If so, you probably learned your forehand by rote repetition or conditioning.

It is a fact that procedures learned by rote and reflexive conditioning are easily forgotten under stress. Professor Walter Freeman in his book Societies of Brains relates a story of how Pavlov’s dogs were completely striped of all their conditioned learning by the stress caused when a flood consumed his lab.

The short story is that rote conditioning will not necessarily carry you through a tough match. About the only solution known today to quickly remedy the breakdown of a stroke is to have a verbal knowledge of the individual components of a stroke that can be used to restart your reflexive processing.

If you have time on your side, then some form of mental relaxation will eventually restore your stroke, however, this can take as long as 20 minutes. If your strokes are based on templates, then there is little chance of restoring them under the pressures of a match.

Instead, a clear understanding of relevant components will be your best hope.

The Problem of Layered Learning: The faster you try to go, the slower you may learn. No one can tell you exactly how to hit a tennis ball.

What they can do is convey some idea through words and examples of how it might be done. This is because language is imprecise at best, we have a limited ability to convey our actions in words, and humans learn in a series of successive approximations.

We have addressed two of these challenges above so we will address the third here. Learning is somewhat like climbing a series of hills where the next hill can only be seen after one reaches the top of the one before it. The first approximation of a stroke will usually be crude and inefficient.

But because you have a first approximation, you have a basis for an improvement that would not be possible without it. It is not possible to jump from never having hit a tennis ball to hitting a tennis ball efficiently. It must proceed in stages.

The challenge to tennis teaching community is to formulate the best possible set of stages of learning. This must start with the best (by present standards) set of components that can be approximated and conveyed in words and actions.

The components must be simple and relevant if the student is to learn quickly. It must be possible for the student to practice these components, like learning musical scales, on their own on a backboard for example. The most important point about layered learning is this: If the learning process is rushed, and if the student is not given ample time for exploration and experimentation, the layers will be easily broken down under pressure, or will be broken down by the natural disassembly process we spoke of earlier.

The Problem of Component based learning: We don’t learn entire templates efficiently. In early childhood development there are no templates, metaphors, or rules to guide the development of physical or mental skills.

A child learns by exploration and experimentation. In this experimental trial-and-error process, the child develops many “action components” which do not necessarily constitute a purposeful act, but which become useful later when their environment begins to enlarge and change.

This might be described as component based learning. It is the natural learning process and ensures the ability to adapt to new environments and circumstances before they are encountered. If, for example, walking templates and rules were imposed on a child during their early developmental years, the results would be disastrous.

The fact is that our brains do not operate effectively from templates and rules precisely because they restrict our ability to adapt. The same is true for tennis. If we make templates and rules the basis of teaching, the learning process will be retarded accordingly.

This fact does not only apply to tennis, but to education generally. The challenge to tennis professionals is to define the right components from which to start the teaching process. This requires us to systematically replace every template, metaphor, and rule with relevant and meaningful components, facts, and data.

Many professionals have been nudging the tennis profession in this direction for years. Notably in this regard are: Vic Braden, John Yandell, Dennis van der Meer, Jim Loehr, Jack Groppel, and others as well. However, what has not been done is to organize the experimental findings and insights of these researchers around the mechanics of human learning that have been discovered by such eminent researchers as Professor Walter Freeman at Berkeley, Professor Ellen Langer at Harvard, Professor Anders Ericsson at Florida State University, or many other scientist who have contributed to our understanding of the human brain.

What this means is that the scientific research must be translated into specific procedures that are clear supportable by science and thus not just a matter of personal opinion, as is the case with much of teaching today.

The procedures must be as simple as possible, unambiguous, reproducible, transferable, and must allow the student freedom to explore and experiment independently of the instructor. We must replace metaphors with facts, templates with components, and rules with reason.

The bottom line: Teaching anything is hard. The nature of human learning is a significant challenge to teaching even when scientific facts and precise language are available. The problem is not with the student; we are what we are due to years of evolution.

Our challenge is to reinvent professional teaching to fit the human learning process. If we do this, children and adults alike will develop the skills to play tennis in less than half the time now needed.