Monday, March 31, 2008

Learning How to Play Tennis: Strategy and Tactics

If you're a frequent visitor to Operation Doubles Tennis, you know that I advise against the current popular obsession with form, as if excellence in tennis is in discovering and copying the minute "secrets" of Roger Federer's technique.

This advice is nothing new, however. Tim Gallwey was the first to give it in his bestseller The Inner Game of Tennis back in the 1970s. In fact, the leading experts in how to teach the game are in agreement. All I offer is the unique perspective of someone with a background in biology who can explain why our brains are unsuited to learning the way most people try to learn to play tennis.

And tennis isn't the only thing I have taught. I am also a certified and licensed classroom teacher. I have taught swimming, biology, physics, general science, chemistry, English, track and field, and guitar. To all ages, from children to adults. So, I've noticed a thing or two about how people learn.

QUESTION: Why doesn't this knowledge of how best to teach tennis filter down to all the people teaching it? There are many answers. One is that conflicts with certain business models.

There's a similar problem in teaching strategy and tactics. Publishers of how-to and self-help books contribute to it. They, and many who teach subjects like this, mistakenly believe that the average person is intellectually lazy and wants everything boiled down to no-brainer rules of rote, as if to say, "Don't bore me with why: just tell me what to do."

That isn't true. By nature, human beings like to tax a brain cell or two. Only boring people are easily bored. What learners do want is the clarity, conciseness, and concrete visualization that make understanding solid and easy-to-grasp.

What's more, rote isn't easy. It isn't "simplifying things."

Yes, rote rules are no-brainers, but they must be memorized and recalled under fire, which is hard to do. For example, if you try to do physics problems by rote, you must memorize every form of every equation and remember them all under the pressure of a test. It's much easier to just understand, so that you need recall only one form of each equation. It's the same with tennis. To play by rote you must memorize dozens of rote rules and recall the right one under the pressure of each approaching shot. It's much easier to just understand the game so that you simply see what to do and do it intuitively.

Playing intuitively also allows you to get out of your head and into the zone, where your physical performance peaks.

This is why the best instruction on playing the game (strategy and tactics) opens your eyes to this dimension of the tennis game. A vision that not only helps you get the most out of your play so that you win more, but one that also enriches your playing experience and makes it much more interesting. One that enables you to enjoy tennis on a whole new level.

At this new, deeper level, you're no longer just going through the motions of hitting forehands and backhands. Now you're into the game itself.

What does that mean? It means that you're no longer just hitting shots. You are actually really playing the game. Half the fun is figuring out how to win it.

I'll never forget the day my eyes were opened to this hidden dimension of tennis, the dimension of the game itself. It had been there all along; I just never saw it before. The effect was like a revelation, like having a black-and-white movie suddenly take on Technicolor, or like having a two-dimensional painting suddenly become a three-dimensional statue in space. Before that, I had been like a sailor gazing overboard, unable to penetrate the surface of the sea to see the fascinating world beneath the surface.

Until then, like most tennis players, what I knew of tennis strategy and tactics could have been written on the back of a postcard. It was all just words; no mental pictures. My idea of strategy and tactics was to try a little of this and a little of that, with no idea what should work or why. I tried to play by rote — following dos and don'ts I had read in books. I stood where I stood just because everyone stood in that position.

In short, my understanding of the game was as shallow as a puddle. I couldn't see what was going on for myself. Therefore, I couldn't adapt to whatever a cagey opponent's game was doing to mine.

So, stretch a brain cell or two to visualize and understand this hidden dimension of tennis. I guarantee that opening your eyes to it will help you play better, help you win more, and increase your fun and enjoyment of the game.

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At 10:01 PM, Blogger Joseph Bayot said...

This is such a great site! I've been a fan since I started playing doubles and was looking for strategy about three years ago, and I haven't left since. Thank you!

At 10:24 PM, Blogger Kathy said...

Jeez, thanks :)


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