institutional tennis instruction

In Peter Bodo’s book, The Courts of Babylon, he describes Australia’s effort to create world class athletes by creating the Australian Institute of Sports. This was after the wave of tennis champions such as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Margaret Smith-Court. Dennis Colette, a key figure in the Institute, had analyzed Ivan Lendl’s forehand and developed what he called the multi-segmented forehand, whatever that is. He decided that all of the junior tennis players would be taught this stroke. It didn’t work. As Bodo says, you can’t institutionalize tennis instruction. Why not?

I’ve been feeling elbow pain for the past few months. It comes from the way I hit my forehand. Most instructors would look at my stroke and tell me to hit the ball earlier or hold the racket more level at impact. They would try to correct my stroke to eliminate the pain I am experiencing.

I’ve been working with two different instructors who use thinking and awareness to make changes in habits. Neither one of them subscribes to the “bits and pieces” way of learning. A bits and pieces tennis instructor tries to correct your stroke or teach you a new stroke by breaking it down into smaller pieces and working on the pieces until they all come together.

Sean Brawley works with awareness to change habits. In the case of my forehand, I noticed that I often flip the racket from low to high when I want to hit a topspin forehand. I hit a number of forehands and kept my awareness on my wrist as I hit them. Over time, I noticed that I gripped the racket with a slightly tighter grip, just enough to hold the racket more steady when I make contact with the ball. Using my awareness, I was able to change the way I hit the ball without giving myself something new to think about.

My elbow also hurts because I over-rotate my hips and end up hitting the ball late. Sean asked me to hit a forehand without moving my hips at all. I just stood there and swung my arm. Then he asked me to rotate my hips but keep my feet in place. Then I hit the ball by over-rotating my hips. Somewhere in there, I hit the ball comfortably and solidly. Instead of telling me to swing more and rotate less, Sean asked me to try a few different positions and see which one feels most comfortable.

Using my awareness, I was able to change the way I hit the ball without giving myself something new to think about.

David Gorman doesn’t teach tennis exactly, he teaches learning. He works with a technique he calls Learning Methods. When someone brings him a complaint such as pain during an activity, he doesn’t look at the movement that leads to the pain, he looks at the thought that leads to the movement.

What thought led to me over-rotate my hips? I watched videos of Roger Federer and James Blake hit forehands and I saw them generate a lot of racket speed with body rotation. Since they hit with an open stance – instead of turned sideways to the net, they’re turned more towards the net – their front foot ends up further to the left than a player who hits with a closed stance. This led me to think that their hips rotated more than they do.

Apart from the fact that it’s silly for me to try to play like Roger Federer, or James Blake for that matter, I was also trying to add a piece to my stroke instead of seeing how I could get more power with the stroke I already have. Not only that, Sean would suggest that consistency and placement come before power. So I’d be much better off if I thought about where I want to ball to go on the court for the time being.

David would add that when a player is in a zone and the ball goes effortlessly where they want it to go, they’re not thinking about bringing the racket back then stepping into the ball then rotating the hips then following through. If playing in a zone means that our strokes feel integrated, then we should learn that way too.

One way to do this is to use our awareness to learn new habits instead of trying to stuff yet another new instruction into our head. If we end up with pain, then we might want to look at what we’re thinking during the activity and see if that is causing the problem.

If you want a player to develop a feel for the game, they have to learn by feel. If you try to teach everyone the same stroke, you end up with mechanical robots instead of smooth, flowing athletes. That’s why you can’t institutionalize tennis instruction.