Part three: Learning technique using the game-based approach
This is the third article of a three part series on technique. The first article focused on the emerging trend of seeing technique as the panacea to all on-court problems, while the second article focused on developing a deeper understanding of what technique is. This third article is focused on how best to facilitate the learning of technique using the game-based approach.
We have heard a great deal recently about the game-based approach to teaching and learning tennis, but what does this really mean? What are the principles behind this methodology of teaching and how can they be implemented?
The game-based approach to learning is built on the principle that the body is an incredibly intelligent mechanism. Usually, we consider the mind as intelligent, but not the body. Is this true?
Think of all the bodily functions that happen without any direction from our conscious mind. For example, the breathing process, one of the most fundamental and essential bodily functions happens all by itself. The conscious mind is thankfully not given the task to remember to breathe; otherwise the consequences would be disastrous. How about the complex task of regulating blood throughout our body or the equally complex job of digesting food and retaining nutrients and discarding waste products? The list could go on and on.
If we stop for a moment to consider the situation, we will realize that there is tremendous intelligence in the body on a cellular level; even when it comes to learning motor skills. For example, the extremely difficult biomechanical movements undertaken in the process of learning to walk, which we take for granted, are learned by the body with no help from the conscious mind. No books are studied on how to walk, neither are tutors engaged to give us lessons on how to walk; and yet we all learn to walk with great technical proficiency and the process is relatively pain free, which is not something we can say about the process of learning to play tennis.
It is also quite amazing to consider that despite none of us being taught to walk, we all walk amazingly similarly. In other words we have all developed the same efficient technique naturally without any direction. How does that happen?
What drives the learning of biomechanical movements in the body is intention. We have a certain intention and the body, if left unhindered by the conscious mind, will usually find the most efficient way to achieve the desired result. A key proviso to this ‘rule’ is that the individual must be relaxed and the body must be tension-free.
For many people this makes the learning of the game way too easy. The mind does not like easy, it prefers complex because the ego wants a challenge and it is through conquering challenges that the ego grows. Easy does not validate the ego; it gains nothing from doing things that are easy and therefore there is no interest in easy.
IS THE COACH UNNECESSARY?
So how does this understanding impact the role of a tennis coach; is he or she really necessary? I have heard coaches express concern over how their role is perceived, especially by parents and even by players, when they coach in this way. From the outside and to the unaware, creating situations and intentions to help players teach themselves, seems like the coach is doing nothing. There is also much less ego-gratification for the coach himself when he facilitates instead of teaches.
One of the biggest obstacles preventing the teaching industry from accepting the innate intelligence of the body to learn how to play this game is the fear that it makes them redundant. It is the collective ego of the industry that makes the teaching of this game so complicated in order to justify its own existence, albeit largely unconsciously.
This fear is unfounded because the tennis coach will always have a place; it is just that his or her role will simply shift from a teacher to more of a facilitator.
How does this change manifest?
The teacher has a preconceived idea of what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ and in this scenario his role is to ‘force’ this preconceived model onto the student. However, history has shown us that what the experts considered ‘right’ at one time can over a short period of time change rapidly and unrecognizably.
There are obvious limitations with this approach. There are far too many variables, as modern technology is making abundantly clear to us, to determine how a player should hit a particular ball. We are understanding more and more that tennis, at the highest levels, is about making adjustments to the ever changing conditions that arise during a competitive situation. Consequently, what is the ‘right’ way to hit a ball cannot be seen in a vacuum, it has to be seen within the context of the situation the player is in.
Traditional methodology works through commands; the coach repeats instructions over and over again while the student struggles to grasp the details, often with little success. This is especially true the lower down the food chain of competitive tennis you venture. Often, I see many coaches who adopt this approach become very frustrated. They cannot understand why the player cannot perform the way in which he is being instructed, despite numerous verbal reminders. This type of coach has failed to distinguish, not just the difference between the mind and body, but also the different languages that each understands.
The methodology of the facilitator is completely different. The facilitator has little need to communicate excessively; he simply creates a situation and intention and allows the player’s body to develop the feel necessary for execution. This is the easiest and most efficient way for students to learn and the long-term ramifications bode well for the player from a mental perspective also, since the player learns through feel, there is no possibility of falling victim to the ago-old competitive tennis players’ nemesis, ‘paralysis by analysis’.
However, there may be times when this is not quite enough, at which time the facilitator can contribute to the player’s exploration with a few mild suggestions. A player may need help for a few reasons: it can be because he has grooved a biomechanically unsound stroke (this is also rooted in tension) from years of unconscious hitting or because he or she is tense or unsettled. Tension can exist for a number of reasons and it is not always necessary to pursue the root of each individual cause, but simply to come to a place of centeredness and calmness by dropping all inner dialogue and thus becoming connected to one’s own body and surroundings.
HOW DO WE DEVELOP FEEL?
Regardless of why a player needs help, let us explore the tools at the facilitator’s disposal to facilitate change.
The objective is to help the player develop feel. The facilitator’s own feel will not help; consequently, it is irrelevant how well the facilitator herself plays. The question is how do we develop feel in another? As I have said, all things being equal, simply creating a situation and intention and hitting ball after ball will generally suffice, but when it does not and there are obstacles within the player, the best way to develop feel within a player is by asking questions while hitting lots of balls.
Let us take an example of facilitating the forehand volley. Perhaps, we could start by introducing the volley as a block or catching motion. First of all the situation and intention could simply be to toss the ball to the student and have them catch the ball with their hand or on the racket with both hands. Next perhaps the player could block the ball right back to the facilitator.
Once the body develops a simple feel for this, we could create the next progression. Depending on the skills of the particular individual, we could create as many progressions as are necessary. The determining factor is the success of the student. A high ‘failure’ rate in a particular drill would necessitate the creation of a simpler progression.
Patience and allowing the body to take its time in learning a skill is an essential component of this ‘wholisitic’ approach to teaching technique.
The next possible situation could involve the player standing at the net with the facilitator diagonally across the net at the service line and later the baseline. The intention of the player would be to hit the ball gently back to the facilitator. Both these drills could be placed within the context of a game.
The first could be played within the service box with the student getting a point for every 1, 2 or 3 balls hit within the box.
The second game would involve the student hitting the ball successfully to the deep quadrant beyond the service line. Again points could be awarded for some number of balls hit in the target successfully.
The purpose of the game is to allow the player’s body to learn the required skill through repetition and the purpose of the scoring is to direct intention and facilitate feel, while also making the experience fun and engaging. Consequently, one would have to gauge how many successful hits into the target area warrant a point. The goal is to make the games close and therefore interesting. In subsequent games, the number of successful hits could be increased or decreased depending on who won the previous game.
In this way, the student will develop feel on how firm to keep the wrist, how to hold his body and many other things that may be too subtle for us to even notice depending on how deep he wants the ball to go. Often, this happens instinctively, without any words having to be exchanged; if this does not work, the facilitator can ask questions to raise the student’s awareness and to help them focus on that which is relevant to hit the shot successfully.
These are cooperation drills and these drills are necessary in order to develop a solid foundation, once this is done, we can move on to competitive drills.
I think it was Rick Macci who I once heard recall a story told to him by a top USTA pro who invited Sampras, soon after his retirement, to come down to one of the National training centers in California to help him teach the finer points of the volley to top-ranked national juniors. The pro put Pete on the spot by asking him to explain the key points of hitting a volley. Sampras was totally lost and had no idea where to begin or what to say. As soon as the coach recognized the situation, he simply asked Pete to demonstrate the volley by hitting with him. In other words, Pete’s body knew how to hit volleys, but his mind did not. This is the reason that great players do not necessarily make great coaches.
THERE ARE TWO TYPES OF QUESTIONS
Asking questions can, however be a dangerous road to walk down because there are two different ways to ask questions and while one kind will help the player develop feel, the other will move the player in the opposite direction, namely into the mind.
The type of question to avoid is the type that I most often hear being asked by coaches on the court. For example, the coach will command a player to keep his wrist locked on the volley and when the player does something different, the coach will ask, ‘how should your wrist be on a forehand volley?’ Often a quick response of ‘locked’ will follow and yet there is no accompanying change in behavior. In other words, the mind has understood, but not the body. This question is incapable of helping the body because the body does not speak the language of symbolism, instead, it learns through developing sensitivity through doing, through trial and error.
The question required the player to delve into the past since the player, in order to answer this question, had to recall what he had been told in the past. All this is a function of the mind. To be in the past is, by definition, to be insensitive to this present moment and feel can only happen when the mind is silent and the player is present.
The other type of question is the type of question that increases sensitivity; one which encourages the student to be connected to the body. For example, in the above example, instead of commanding the wrist to be a certain way, we could ask questions like, how does your wrist feel at contact? From 1-10 how firm or loose is it? What is the effect when it is a 1? What is the effect when it is a 5? What is the effect when it is a 10? How does it feel (easy or forced) in each of those situations and what is the effect on the ball? To answer these types of questions we are forcing the student to be present at contact. He has no set answer; consequently, he will have to be present in order to find the answer. To be present connects you to your body and increases your sensitivity and this is the ‘only’ way to develop feel.
When the player has no sense of what is right or wrong she can be free to explore what is and what effect this has on the ball.
This is but one simple example of how to teach using the game-based approach. Obviously, this methodology can be used to facilitate the learning of every part of the tennis game.
It is a lot easier for the coach to just talk and often the student will also find that easier and may even demand that approach, but the facilitator must be resolute.
To not have answers provided can be very unsettling for the mind, but when the answers are not there, the mind will have to become silent in order to discover its own answers and this is how feel, sensitivity and efficient technique are developed.
Enjoy the journey!