“Get set”...“use your legs”...“keep your wrist locked”...“step in!”...“move forward”...“hit higher”...“follow-through”...
If you walk by a tennis court during a lesson, these are only some of the phrases you’ll hear being shouted from across the net. The problem (beyond their vagueness) - as we alluded to in last week’s post - is the constant bombardment of these phrases. At times, players don’t just hear one cue or piece of feedback, but 5 or more. And further to that, it’s on every ball! Is this feedback facilitating learning? Or hindering it?
Like many coaches, I work with a variety of players. This includes older teens looking to make the transition to pro, juniors that are still honing their skills, seniors that want an edge and pros climbing their way into the top 100. On top of that, it’s a mix of females and males.
This get me thinking (and contemplating) - is my on-court and off-court feedback impactful? Is it driving change? Or impeding it?
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’.
Coordination training is an often misunderstood and at times haphazardly delivered element of physical preparation. As with everything in coaching, context is king. A simple search of coordination training can lead you to a whole host of elaborate and dynamic drills. A well-meaning coach sees these drills and looks to implement them in their next practice – again I’m not suggesting that this is malpractice, but, more often than not, the context for including that exercise is missing.
While there was a lot of positive feedback from last week’s post on blocked vs. random practice, there was also a bit of confusion. I suppose the term ‘random’ can be a bit misleading. To clear the air, this week’s post will attempt to clarify the supposed dichotomy between blocked and random practice and offer a slightly different perspective to the argument. Furthermore, there are 2 other forms of practice - called ‘variable practice’ and ‘constant practice’, which can be influenced by both block and random approaches. Lastly, several examples of each practice type will be offered and described, along with the 'why' behind their use.
Many experts in the field of motor learning believe that the way a coach interacts with an athlete, bears a tremendous impact on the improvements that athlete makes. These same experts, however, would argue that the organization of a practice is perhaps even more important than what a coach says to his/her athlete. Let’s assume that to be true for a moment. As a coach, would that change the way you look at your practices? As a player, would it affect your perspective when attempting to improve serve accuracy, for example?
Are you familiar with the ‘10,000 hour rule’? Many of you probably are. If you’re read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, ‘Outliers’, then you definitely are. The premise goes like this; practice something a lot - 10,000 hours, or about 10 years - and you’ll develop expertise in that particular domain. It sounds simple doesn’t it. But is it truly so? Many of us, or our students, have played tennis for well over 10 years, but I wouldn’t necessarily start calling ourselves ‘experts’. Now we might be pretty good, but expertise, as defined by researchers in this field, means far more than just ‘pretty good’ or even ‘really good’.
Bend your knees. Use your legs. Turn your shoulders. Extend your elbow at impact. Flick your wrists. These are just some of the verbal cues that we’ve all heard countless of times. Notice any similarities? Let me give you a hint...the focus of these instructions are directed exclusively towards a body segment or part. Is this type of feedback relevant? Does it help improve technique and ultimately, performance? Let’s take one of these examples and break it down. 'Bend your knees'. How does a player interpret this cue? I mean how low should I bend my knees? Is a 90 degree bend more or less effective than a 100 degree bend? On which type of shot? Should one knee be bent more than the other? As you can see, this cue can be interpreted in a number of different ways depending on the athlete and the context.
This is a follow-up to last week’s article. This post will attempt to clarify the misconception that dynamical systems theory (DST) and nonlinear pedagogy (NLP), which for the sake of simplicity I will use interchangeably, are solely game-based approaches to coaching. To highlight this fallacy, we’ll define both open and closed skills - which is often a poorly understood topic in and of itself. Finally, we’ll take a look at the complexity of learning through the lens of fixed versus variable movement patterns - what they are, how they’re developed and why both are necessary qualities for skilled movement execution.
When I was a teenager, I left home to train at a tennis academy - about 2 hours away from my family. I grew up in a small city where there was 1 outdoor tennis club and no indoor tennis - which is why I made the move. Growing up and playing at a small club, with no junior program, you tend to get friendly with older adult members. Most of my practice partners were over 35 with many above the age of 50. When I told them I was leaving, they said one thing that stuck with me until this very day - “hopefully they build on the game you have, rather than changing all of your strokes at once”.