Part two: What is technique?
This is the second article of a three part series on technique. In the first article we discussed the recent trend of the over-emphasis on technique and its consequences and a third article will follow on how best to facilitate the learning of technique using the game-based approach. This article is focused on developing a deeper understanding of what technique is.
Technique, as we mentioned in the first article is increasingly becoming viewed, by players and coaches alike, as the magical panacea for all ‘problems’. This obsession with technique and its promise of instant and simple solutions is in itself a major obstacle to developing a mentally balanced competitive perspective.
So what is good technique? What are the essential skills necessary to make clean contact with a ball? Of course, timing is of paramount importance. Just to make contact with the ball, perhaps there is no other skill necessary.
However, to make the ball go over the net and within the white lines of a tennis court we need some modicum of technique, not much for simply those purposes, but some. If we wish to hit the ball harder or with spin and still wish it to go over the net and within the court our technique needs to be more specific. In other words, technique is determined by intention and the more specific our intention, the more specific our technique needs to be.
We also need to differentiate between different types of poor technique. A good club player or even a professional tennis player can have poor technique on a particular stroke and yet that stroke can be fairly effective in terms of consistency, accuracy and power. In any club around the world there are players with awkward-looking strokes consistently beating technically prettier players. Similarly, many world-class players have historically had strokes that cannot be deemed technically sound and yet these technical limitations have not prevented them from scaling great heights.
On another level technique can be so poor that hitting the ball consistently over the net is impossible. This would involve basic fundamental breakdowns. For the purposes of this article, I am not really referring to this level of poor technique. I concede that beginners need to develop a basic feel for good technique.
TECHNIQUE AND TACTICS
Most coaches and players consider technique solely a physical phenomenon, but let us examine the learning process a little more closely when it comes to teaching and learning technique.
Technique is based on intention and cannot be seen in a vacuum; it has to be viewed in the context of function. What am I trying to do? Form is technique and function is tactics, and yes, it is true, form does follow function.
At the very beginning, we are often solely focused on the player’s ability to make contact with the ball. However, even at this stage, we are usually on a tennis court and there is the immediate, built-in intention of hitting the ball over the net and down into the service box. So, even at this stage we have introduced tactics into the teaching of technique
Unfortunately, from the outset players can become overly concerned about the result of contact, in which case the desire to hit the ball over the net and into the court creates fear. This fear invariably results in tense and awkward movements. So it can be seen very early on how even simple technique (bumping the ball with the racket) can break down through a negative mind-set.
Bjorn Borg’s understanding of tactics was to hit the ball over the net one more time than his opponent. This ‘simplistic’ concept won him 6 French open titles and 5 consecutive Wimbledon crowns. Borg’s long, loopy, spin-producing ground strokes, which were quite unique at that time, allowed him to keep many balls in play. In other words, his intention (the desire to keep balls in play) helped him develop the technical skills that he needed to achieve his objective. In other words, his form followed his function.
Similarly, is it a coincidence that Connors’ aggressive personality and intentions produced flatter ground strokes that allowed him to attack almost every ball?
It is important for players to choose a game style that is consistent with who they are at their root. This may sometimes be different from their personalities, which exist on a more superficial level.
If players are not fixated on grips and swinging patterns because someone implied that this was the ‘right’ and ‘only’ way to hit a ball, they will adapt and develop ‘correct’ swing patterns for who they are and what they are trying to do. A perfect example of this is Federer’s forehand, which has been closely scrutinized to reveal numerous varied swing patterns. The only way to explain this is by understanding that each different swing pattern is reflective of a specific intention in a specific situation.
Nadals’ forehand that finishes on the same side of his body is another example of form following function. While coaches still struggle to explain why this happens, Nadal is oblivious to the intellectual banter and simply allows his body to just do it, without really knowing why it happens. He is focused not on what his arm does after contact, but on the subtle intention he has regarding what he wishes to do with the ball. Eventually, sport scientists may come up with an intellectual explanation, but this will not detract from the fact that Nadal created this movement instinctively. It was born out of the spontaneous integration of situation and intention that is the mother of much that happens on a tennis court.
FORM IS DRIVEN BY FUNCTION
The really interesting point to keep in mind is that it is the players who are responsible for all the major technical changes of the ‘modern’ game in the past 20 years, not coaches. Open stance ground strokes developed not as the brainchild of the mainstream coaching fraternity, but in spite of their open opposition. Similarly the modern extreme grips and swinging patterns developed spontaneously as a response to the changing situations (different court surfaces and higher bounces; younger and shorter beginning players and fitter and stronger athletes) and intentions (more power and spin).
If we accept that technique is guided by function then it becomes clear that function is constantly changing during the course of a match depending on numerous factors. In other words, a forehand is not simply a forehand. A forehand could be knee-high, waist height or shoulder-high. It could be hit on the run or standing still. It could be hit from way behind the baseline or inside the service line or somewhere in-between. A forehand could be hit as a response to a very hard delivery leaving very little time and maybe even a late contact point or from a very slow delivery that gives us plenty of time. It could be hit from the center of the court or from an out wide position. And then of course, a variable factor for all the above situations is our intention of where and how much spin, arc or power we wish to hit the ball with, which in turn may depend on a number of factors such as the position of our opponent, our own position on the court and the strengths and weaknesses’ of our own game as well as that of our opponent’s.
We can now apply all of these numerous variables to each and every shot that that a player may execute during the course of a match. All these variables provide us with a slightly different function and in order to be successful, we will need to make some adjustment, regardless how slight, in form.
It would seem impossible for any player, in the heat of competition, to calculate the exact situation by assessing all of the necessary variables I have mentioned above and then provide an appropriate response, all in a matter of a few seconds; and yet this is precisely what happens during the course of a match. However, this calculation is not performed by the conscious mind. After years of experience (hitting millions of balls), players are able to instinctively develop a feel for the situation and make sound decisions without necessarily verbalizing why they made the decision they made. The more successful a player is, the more developed will be her ability to do this.
COACHES TRANSITIONING TO FACILITATORS
So how do we teach this as coaches? Or how do players learn this? How do coaches and players lay the foundation at an early age that will allow players to adjust to the constantly changing circumstances? If it is not the conscious mind that makes the decisions at the highest levels, how can it be correct to train the body through the conscious mind, which is what is happening at present? Not only can it not be correct, but we know for sure that too much activation of the conscious mind makes peak athletic performance impossible.
Please keep in mind that this raw athletic ability is lying dormant within the athlete; the role of both the player and the facilitator is just to avoid creating obstacles. That’s all! But the truth is we are constantly creating obstacles.
Facilitators are creating obstacles by giving players too much direction; by giving too many commands and instructions. How can a trust of the intrinsic athletic ability of the player be developed if we constantly tell them to hit the ball this way or that way? We need to help them develop feel. Helping players develop feel will become the building blocks by which they will realize their peak athletic potential. Coaches have to learn to become facilitators and not dictators or control freaks.
Facilitators need to nurture a spirit of independence in the student, even if it means their own authority becomes diminished in the process. Students should not be looking to the coach for solutions, but looking within and finding and playing from a centered state of being.
I am not suggesting that coaches have no role to play in the development of players. If they can confine themselves to the role of a facilitator, they can really help individuals to fulfill their athletic potential in a variety of ways. The key to facilitating is to give fewer answers and ask more questions by creating situations and intentions for players to find their own answers. They need to put aside their egos and accept the realization that coaches cannot create successful players; all they can do is to facilitate the conditions where the seed can flourish and blossom to its full potential; whatever that potential may be. Ultimately, it is the determination of the seed to come to fruition that will be the greatest determining factor in the process.
NURTURING THE CORRECT MIND-SET
If facilitators can create an environment where mistakes are not seen as failures and success is not determined by simply winning the point, then there will be less of the neurosis we now see in the competitive arena.
At present, there exists an aggressive, result-oriented atmosphere amongst most high performance programs all over the world. It is not uncommon for these players to be punished by having to do push-ups or run laps for missing a volley or losing a point. The coaches who employ these tactics justify this process by saying that there are physical benefits to these practices.
While this is undoubtedly true, there are also mental consequences that are not so beneficial.
This is not an effective method for teaching technique. On the short-term, this result-oriented approach will, for sure, get the player’s attention, but the long-term ramifications of such behavior will not bode well for the overall healthy mental development of young people. This aggressive approach shapes their attitudes towards success and failure and gives them the false impression that if I try hard enough I can accomplish any outcome I want. This is untrue. We have no control over outcome or result, no one does. If we did, who would ever choose to miss a ball or make a mistake, much less lose a match?
As I have said earlier, the mental component is the glue that holds an individual’s game together and facilitators can play a huge role in laying a foundation of mental stability in a player by creating a supportive and loving environment where both winning and losing can be dealt with in equanimity and used to help players improve.
The key to mental frailty is rooted in the environment we create; in our tone of voice; in our ability to accept adversity; in our own emphasis on process over result, and finally, but also crucially, in the methodology that we use. In short, if we want to help players develop mental control, we need to start right at the beginning; the very first time they step onto a tennis court.
ROLE OF PLAYERS
The key for players is adaptability. They must feel free to make instinctual adjustments without being bogged down by complex mental calculations. They must become sensitive enough to their bodies so that subtle changes can happen ‘automatically’. They must feel unrestrained; they must feel that there are no boundaries. Players must develop a trust in the natural intelligence of their bodies. The body has immense intelligence and if they can access this, they will tap into the full potential of their tremendous athletic ability.
Players are creating obstacles by being obsessively one-dimensional in their hunger for immediate success. They are impatient; if they miss a few balls they want to be told how to ‘fix’ it now. And if one coach cannot ‘fix’ it immediately, they will go to another coach. This type of behavior does not lend itself to developing feel or trust in oneself and therefore mental fortitude.
Players need to be more playful during the learning process. They need to be less focused on achieving success and more focused on enjoying themselves on the court and exploring their athletic ability. By focusing less on the result, they will be able to experiment more and it is through experimentation and playfulness while hitting balls that a trust will develop that will allow them to become more sensitive; it is through greater sensitivity that feel happens.
Players need to become more independent and learn to deal with adversity without seeking or expecting easy solutions; it is not knowledge that makes a player successful, but feel and sensitivity. They need to develop the resolve and patience to work on their game, the old-fashioned way, by hitting lots of balls. Not in the spirit of fixing a ‘problem’, but with a view to trying different things and seeing the outcome; much like a scientist in a laboratory. The tennis players’ laboratory is the tennis court and this is where they must explore and experiment by themselves in a playful and yet completely focused atmosphere.
PLAYERS DEVELOPING THE MENTAL COMPONENT
Mentally, if players can focus more on the process of learning and competing and less on the ‘how’ of hitting, their minds will become less judgmental and active and more absorbed and silent. This ability to become absorbed in the process without focusing on outcome is the key to mental stability in both the learning and competing experiences.
It is also developing the key to good technique because when a player is centered and relaxed his intention will drive his body to accomplish the task at hand gracefully and effortlessly which is what good technique ultimately is.
What does it mean to be absorbed? To be present and fully aware of all that is happening on a tennis court that is relevant to competing well. That awareness of all that is happening will allow us to make instinctive decisions on how and where to hit the ball, without conscious calculations. Trust is necessary to reach this inner space; a let-go.