When beginners first start playing tennis, their movements are rather mechanical. While many coaches appear frustrated, this process is totally normal. Why so? Early on, a beginner uses a lot of conscious effort in order to complete a task. But with exposure (and hopefully proper instruction), their movements begin to stabilize...and eventually, after considerable time, they don’t even have to think about their actions, they simply ‘do it’.
This process, while simplistic, is linked to various stages of learning. Many theories of learning have been proposed, but there are 2 that are quite common - one proposed by Fitts and the other by Bernstein. While Bernstein’s stages - which emphasize learning from both a motor control and biomechanics perspective - have gathered popularity of late, this post will take a look at Fitts’ learning theory as it’s premise is based on perceptual factors...which are quite relevant when it comes to tennis.
We’ll highlight the various stages in detail, providing examples as they relate to tennis. And in a follow-up post, we’ll take a closer at these stages from a practical perspective and offer suggestions for coaches and players.
Fitts Stages of Learning Defined
There are 3 stages of learning in Fitts’ model - cognitive, associative and autonomous. It’s important to note that the various stages identify the different levels of skill development - in other words, a player’s proficiency for a given skill or task, will dictate their stage of learning.
Let’s take a closer look at each stage and provide relevant tennis examples.
Stage 1 - The Cognitive Stage
According to Schmidt and Lee (2014) during the cognitive stage,
“As the (name) implies, the learner’s first problem is cognitive, largely verbal (or verbalizable); the dominant questions concern goal identification, performance evaluation, what to do, how to do it.”
In tennis, essentially, a player is trying to identify various cues from the environment - through sight, sound, feel etc., in order to achieve a task. The beginner is consciously thinking about how to hold the racquet, where to make contact with the ball to get it over the net and in what area of the court to position themselves. This is why movements in this stage appear to be very robotic and uncoordinated. You’ll often see beginners holding the racquet with a very tight grip, primarily using their arm to swing, and doing so in a very straight back to front manner.
An important feature of this stage is that many movements are worked on separately. For instance, when learning to hit a forehand, a coach may ask the beginner to turn their shoulders/trunk (often called a ‘unit turn’). Going deeper, they may ask the player to prepare the racquet in a specific position when they begin their unit turn. The beginner may actually engage in self-talk at this point in order to help accelerate the learning process….”ok the ball is coming to my forehand side so turn your upper body, good, and get the racquet back…”
This process may continue by adding other elements - i.e. ‘keep the elbow away from your body’ etc. While a simplified example, consider that we’ve only begun talking about the set-up! What about the actual action of striking the ball? That’s why Schmidt and Lee (2014) state that at this stage, “it’s not much of a concern that performance is halting, jerky, uncertain and poorly timed to the external environment” - this is why coaches should definitely NOT be concerned with ‘perfecting’ a given stroke in early stages. With so many skills to learn in tennis, placing too much emphasis on a small number of skills may stall the learning process - especially considering that ‘discovery learning’ is critical during this stage.
All in all, beginners have yet to develop a ‘mental model’ of the required technique. According to experts, this stage is quite variable in terms of performance outcomes but is also short in duration - for certain skills and circumstances, so-called ‘natural’ athletes may only stay in this period for minutes while less adept athletes may be here for hours or longer.
Stage 2 - The Associative Stage
The associative stage (sometimes called the ‘Fixation’ or ‘Motor’ stage) is where, according to Schmidt and Lee (2014):
“Most of the cognitive problems dealing with the environmental cues that need to be attended to and the actions that need to be made have been solved. So, now the learner’s focus shifts to organizing more effective movement patterns to produce the action.”
Given that definition, a player in this stage begins to build a ‘motor program’ to execute a task - or in our case, a tennis stroke. Recall from our example above - in the initial stage of learning, the performer has to think about every single movement that makes up the entire skill (the turn, racquet back, elbow away from the body etc.). In the associative stage, the learner now ‘chunks’ these various pieces of information together - so 3 movements, for instance, could very well be seen as one movement (at least in terms of the athlete’s mental representation of the task/skill).
Think about trying to remember a series of numbers. To better remember the digits, instead of saying 7-6-8-4 (seven, six, eight, four) we could say 76-84 (seventy six, eighty four) - the latter making it seem like there are only 2 numbers instead of 4. As you can see, memory begins to play a pivotal role in this stage.
As the pace of play increases for players in this stage, they will likely require many ‘motor programs’, as the ball is coming fast and movements require a more rapid response. It’s in this stage that movements become smoother and performance begins to increase rather steadily. Some internal cueing/self-talk is still seen (and often times necessary) but still in the context of a motor program. For instance, instead of thinking of 3 tasks during the set-up, a player may simply say the word ‘prep’ (in order to remind themselves) to perform all 3 movements (turn, racquet back, elbow out) in a coordinated manner.
Some other features of this stage include the following (Schmidt and Lee):
Movements are more refined, accurate and flowing
Less conscious thought
More adaptable to varying environments & situations
Error-detection from the learner is common
Movements are more energy efficient
Learners are generally in this stage for 3 to 5 months
That said, there are still many inconsistencies in this stage (especially early on) but this subsides as the learner gets closer to the 3rd and final stage of learning - the autonomous stage.
Stage 3 - The Autonomous Stage
According to Pfaff (2018), at this stage, an athlete’s movement:
“Becomes fully automatic, with minimal conscious attention needed to successfully execute a skill. Motor programs are embedded, and athletes have a clear mental model of the desired outcome.”
Essentially, perceptual anticipation at this stage is quite high - so players can pick up on cues in the environment very rapidly - and motor programs are very well developed (the entire sequence of a shot, from the initial movement, to the entire stroke, along with the recovery, occur as one whole in the expert performer’s mind).
Because of this, players can now focus on what Schmidt and Lee (2014) call ‘higher-order cognitive activities’; including strategies, tactics and dealing with the mental and emotional side of competition. Self-analysis is counterproductive at this stage and is often associated with decrements in performance (along with choking under pressure).
Other features of this stage include the following:
Skills are performed with little attentional focus
Performance is faster, effortless and more precise
The details of skill execution are not known as the performer is in a ‘flow’ state
The motor program fails only in highly chaotic, stressful, pressure filled environments
One key to understand here is that this stage of learning lasts for many years and never actually stops. But more on that later.
From Theory to Practice
As we’ve seen with other training items before, separating learning into nicely compartmentalized stages doesn’t provide us with an accurate picture of the learning process. Learning is both individual and task dependant. For instance, even a professional player may require conscious thought when working on a technical tweak. We would thus place them - in that task and moment in time - into the cognitive stage.
Furthermore, these stages, on the surface, may seem as though a player progresses from one stage to the next in a linear fashion. That’s not at all the case. Regressions - where a player might perform a skill or task in a manner that resembles previous stages - are highly possible (and actually occur quite frequently). Just think about taking a significant time off from playing or playing competitors whose levels are a notch or two higher than yours.
All in all, these stages are very helpful in order to provide general descriptions of where a player currently lies or where a particular stroke/aspect of their game resides at any given time. In a follow-up post, we’ll use these stages to provide in-depth examples and recommendations. For now, it’s my belief that coaches get familiar with these stages to better understand their students.