Part 1: Is technique over-rated?
This is the first article of a three part series on technique, which will focus on the emerging trend towards an emphasis on technique and the resulting consequences. The second article will focus on developing a deeper understanding of what technique is, while the third article will discuss how best to facilitate the learning of technique using the game-based approach.
With the advent of sports science in general and the high tech video camera equipment in particular, we are discovering more and more precisely how the top players hit the ball. And while this has brought about many benefits in terms of dispelling old myths that have persisted within the coaching fraternity for many years, we now seem to be moving too far in the opposite direction.
The high tech coaches are finding numerous disciples as good technique seems to be considered by many to be the panacea for all that ails players of all levels from beginners to world-class.
However, there is a danger here of simplifying, or in effect, complicating the game too much. There is more to playing tennis successfully then technique and while almost everyone would agree on some level, the vast literature and emphasis on technique from both players and coaches belies that understanding.
In this article, I would like to examine this emphasis on technique on a practical level with a view to evaluating its relevance and to determine if this emphasis is merited. Is correct technique the most important key to success? If not, what is?
Presently, both players and coaches seek technical solutions to every unforced error that occurs. There are subtle psychological reasons why this occurs. Sometimes the player is initiating the technical dialogue and at other times it is the coach, but when this does happen, they both usually get on the same page quite quickly.
The player wants to feel in control and that happens if he has a tangible reason why he missed a particular ball. Even if he cannot physically perform a certain task, on some level, there seems to be some solace in intellectually knowing what should have happened. This puts the coach in a difficult situation. When he is directly asked why a certain shot was missed, he needs to provide a viable answer or appear ignorant. Technique is the easiest and best sounding solution in this situation.
When the coach is initiating the technique dialogue, a technical explanation is provided after each error. The coach has acquired technical information, which in one sense is the easiest to acquire and he feels good about himself dispelling all these absolutes about how a ball should be hit. It is almost as if the coach can explain the error in some sense he is absolved from the responsibility of making it happen in the student. The problem is that the student is not always able to do what is required of him simply by intellectually knowing what has to be done.
Since it is inevitably errors that set off dialogue, let us examine unforced errors and their relationship to poor technique.
UNFORCED ERRORS AND POOR TECHNIQUE
What is the relationship between unforced errors and technique? Is poor technique the cause of unforced errors?
Do not the best players in the world make an abundance of unforced errors in almost every match they play? And if errors are symptomatic of faulty technique does this mean that Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Murray, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Ivanovic and Jankovic do not have good technique?
Does technique come and go? Is it a momentary thing, which the top players have to memorize in order to reproduce it each time they hit a ball? Or does technique become grooved and therefore ‘memorized’ by the muscles? Is it possible to have good technique one moment and not the next?
Walking is a learned technique? Once learnt, do we need to remind ourselves constantly which foot should come first or where our hands should be while we walk? How often do we make a technical ‘mistake’ while walking and fall over or stumble? Why and how is the learned behavior of walking different from the learned behavior of hitting a ball?
Can someone with poor technique make good contact with the ball? Obviously, the answer to that is yes. Can someone with poor technique consistently hit the ball over the net and in the court? The answer to that question also seems to be yes.
My contention is that thousands of hours on the practice courts will make almost any good athlete a very competent tennis player even without any professional coaching. Do not forget, the most successful coach of all time, Harry Hopman, worked very little on technique and yet produced numerous world champions by simply emphasizing fitness and endless hours of hitting balls and playing matches and allowing technique to develop naturally. Amazingly, most of those players had sound technique, but no one taught them how to hit a ball. They learned by watching and playing. Many would argue that today is a different time, but is it really?
There is no doubt that technique has some relevance. There are laws of physics involved in hitting a ball and if these laws are broken, we will hit the ball less effectively. For example, we know that power is achieved through acceleration multiplied by mass. Consequently, if we wish to generate more power, we will need to either increase mass or increase acceleration. In order to maximize acceleration of the racket, we would need to efficiently synchronize the kinetic chain which is our body and if we don’t, some measure of power will be lost.
The question is can players develop bio-mechanically sound strokes by efficiently using their bodily kinetic chain without knowing all this? Is this not what happens when young boys go out and play baseball or cricket and throw balls with sound technique without ever being taught how? In other words, how natural is good technique? Is it something that comes easily to the individual when the body is relaxed?
Sports science in the field of technique or bio-mechanics has done an excellent job of breaking down the components necessary to produce a shot that maximizes power and consistency and this knowledge and information is certainly true. However, sports scientists themselves will agree that there is still no one way to hit the ball and that many players who do not completely adhere to the laboratory-designed stroke can and do still reach world-class levels and are able to hit consistently and powerfully.
Of course, one of the greatest benefits of good technique, which I like to define as the maximum efficiency with the minimum of effort, is to avoid injury. Not all technique, which is not ‘perfect’ will cause injury, but certainly sometimes not using the bigger body parts fully will put a strain on the weaker joints and injury will result. This is quite common on the club level. On the higher levels some specific breakdown of technique can cause injuries, but many of the injuries are caused by over-use and the wear and tear of trying to generate so much power over an extended period of time. Certainly, tension is also a major factor in the cause of injuries among tennis players of all levels.
How to convey this information to an individual is another issue altogether and we will save that for the third article, but suffice to say at this juncture that training the body to perform requires more than just information and knowledge. If that was all it took, then any individual could just read a book and become great, but we know it is not that simple. The body has its own way of learning and the relationship between the mind and the body and between knowledge and feel is still being explored.
WHAT CAUSES UNFORCED ERRORS?
Now that we know that faulty technique is not the primary cause for unforced errors, what is? First of all we need to acknowledge that beginning players who are making lots of errors may certainly be lacking in technical fundamentals, but is that the cause of their errors. Closer examination will reveal that errors happen because of poor contact or no contact with the ball, which is not a technical issue. The issue here is probably one of timing, which in turn is primarily a mental issue.
New students are often unsure and insecure of their abilities to varying degrees depending on their prior athletic experience and as a result of this tension they do not see the ball clearly and awkward movements usually result. If we try and help these players by giving them too much technical instruction, they will invariably get worse. They are tense because their mind is active and verbal instructions will activate their minds further and because of all this mental noise, they will have trouble seeing the ball or remaining calm and centered. In such circumstances, it will obviously be difficult to contact the ball cleanly.
Certainly some technical instruction is necessary for total beginners to help them develop some basic fundamental swings. However, showing a beginner how to keep his wrist firm so that the racket does not twist at contact or the basic swinging pattern of a forehand and backhand is far different in degree to a detailed explanation of the open-stance forehand and the role of the left hand while using the body to rotate into a particular swinging pattern. Too much information is unnecessary and often becomes a hindrance.
Beyond beginners, players rarely make errors because of poor technique. If players have grooved their poor technique through hours of hitting balls, you will be amazed at how consistently they can hit the ball and keep it in court. No, poor technique in these circumstances will not cause you to miss the ball.
Poor technique may limit the way you play the game; it may not allow you to maximize power and it may cause you injuries, but it will not cause you to hit the ball into the net or out. Not if your timing is good and your strokes are grooved .
In my understanding, most unforced errors for established players arise from mental lapses, not technical miscues. Faulty execution is invariably a timing issue. Players take their eyes off the ball, or more accurately, the mind becomes active and at that moment when the mind becomes active, we are not present and if we are not present to hit the ball, the chances of us being too early or too late are extremely high.
Of course, the mind and its workings are very subtle and extremely difficult to understand. Actually, we do not know much about the mind or how to control it. Consequently, it becomes infinitely easier to focus on technique, something outside of ourselves and thus avoid responsibility and accountability, albeit unconsciously.
But the emphasis on technique ultimately leads to frustration and anger in most players because they wrongly believe that errors ‘should’ not happen when the truth is that errors can happen to anyone at any time because the root cause of errors is mental not technical.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF BELIEVING IN THE MAGICAL CURE OF TECHNIQUE
Every time an error occurs, the student wants to know what he did wrong and the coach feels the need to explain why the error occurred. Both need an elaborate and technical explanation, the student to avoid responsibility and the coach to display his expertise.
For the student, knowledge is easier to grasp than the more subtle concept of feel. Feel will take time to develop, while knowledge is instantaneous and personally soothing to the ego (mind). Unfortunately, knowledge will not change the way we hit a ball, but developing feel will. Knowledge gives us a false sense that we are in control, but to develop feel we will need to give up control (mind).
Instead of confronting errors with the question, why, which triggers the mind? Players and facilitators need to instead provide an environment for the body to develop more feel for this shot and that is done by recreating that situation and hitting lots of balls. Errors inevitably happen because of rhythm and timing issues and the best way to improve rhythm and timing is by hitting lots of balls.
We have earlier surmised that poor technique is not usually the primary cause of unforced errors; now let us look at the consequences of having such a belief on the long-term mental development of players?
Connecting errors to poor technique implies that every error is avoidable; in other words there should never be an unforced error. It simplifies to an extent that reveals a complete lack of awareness of what it takes to play this game well. This attitude implies that the player has control over committing errors. Is this true? If we had control over making errors who would ever choose to make an error? Does not the fact that we make errors in the first place suggest that we have no control over this phenomenon?
The fact that the player feels that he has control over whether he makes errors or not is at the very root of the negativity and the inability of players to accept errors in a calm and centered way. Of course, after the match or a few minutes after the initial reaction, we may rationalize our response and therefore recover emotionally, but nonetheless, our initial reaction is reflective of a faulty belief system which may be hiding deep within our unconscious mind and adversely affecting both our experience and performance.
Secondly, because we have a misconception about why the error was made in the first place, there is little chance that we can correct the situation and move forward to play our best tennis. Ultimately, players are not taking personal responsibility for errors. It is easier to blame a lack of knowledge than be held personally accountable for the error.
FEEL, NOT KNOWLEDGE IS THE GOAL
Technique has value, of that there is little question, but at the present moment we have given it powers it simply does not possess. This has to change because we are creating very unhealthy mind-sets with this over-emphasis on knowledge. Tennis is primarily a game of feel and while sports scientists can watch players and make comments, those players hit the ball the way they do, not because someone told them how, but because they developed feel.
Good technique arises out of feel, not from gaining information; sometimes, a little information can help, but ultimately it is feel developed from a relaxed and centered inner space that creates good technique.
If you wish to be a good tennis player, avoid too much information. At the beginning it is necessary to develop fundamentally sound swings, but beyond that progress will happen by jumping onto the court and hitting lots of balls, not mindlessly or impatiently, waiting to become a great player, but with a spirit of exploration and awareness. Watch good players play. Experiment with different intentions of what you wish to do with the ball and allow the body to do it. Be alert to the process. The more relaxed you are, the more gracefully you will move and the more bio-mechanically sound your strokes will be.
Most of all make this process playful and fun.
Enjoy the journey because that is all there is!