| By Edward Wolfarth

Multi-tasking (MT) is now the mantra of our generation. It is indiscriminately accepted not only in colloquial conversation, but among astute teachers and scholars. It is empowering. According to this widely-held axiom, our students can and do learn efficiently doing several things at once. Our younger (and perhaps hipper) students brag about their prowess at juggling many tasks at once, while us older folk bemoan our inability to master this mind-muddling aptitude … MT. After all, who can't walk and chew gum at the same time?

The term “multi-tasking” was coined in the computer industry. It refers to the ability of a microprocessor (the brain of a computer) to simultaneously perform several tasks. Ironically, even in its current use, this is demonstrably false. Microprocessors are inherently linear. They can only perform one task at a time. Check out your current computer to substantiate this fact. What we do have, in fact, in computer terms, is many microprocessors running concurrently to increase operational speed. But I digress.
As it pertains to learning motor skills, MT can be counterproductive. While it is the rare klutz who cannot ride an exercise bicycle and listen to music, many types of learning, are in fact, inhibited by trying to do perform more than one task at once. Without getting too complicated, let’s say there are two types of learning … conceptual (also called declarative) and habitual. The latter being a more ‘inferior’ type in that it is less easily manipulated or applied to new situations. Learning a new motor skill is considered this type of learning. Golfers who have more than one swing thought or tennis players with multiple keys to hitting a backhand, tend to get ‘stuck’ in their learning progression.
The real problem is that, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary, our students cling to this illusory dream of getting something for nothing; the hope of accomplishing more than merely one thing at a time. Perhaps we’ve created this culture or perhaps we are unable to set priorities of learning for fear that there’s no time. Whatever the rationale, MT is not only dangerous, but it can produce an inferior and even muddled learning process.

So, what do teachers or as I like to consider ourselves, “tennis learning facilitators,” do? For one thing, we need to stress one task, one swing pattern and one thought at a time … and do it until our students are unconsciously competent. Introducing the volley, ground strokes and some serve practice in one lesson is counterproductive, even if done separately. Each skill, tactic or pattern needs to be done repeatedly. Focus on one aspect of a skill at a time. Allow the learner to self-discover and be aware of what works and what doesn’t. Once we understand the learning process, and more specifically, how each individual learns (most learn visually and kinesthetically), only then will we become the best teachers we can be … and remember, MT is unhealthy, it tends to create an inferior type of learning and, in fact, takes more time, not less, to truly learn the task at hand.

Edward Wolfarth

<p><span class="Apple-style-span" style="line-height: normal; ">Edward Wolfarth is the tennis director at the Tam O' Shanter Club in Brookville, N.Y. He is also a professor of physical education and sports sciences at Hofstra University. In addition to his class load, Edward finds time to coach high school tennis at Jericho High School. He&rsquo;s an active member of the United States Professional Tennis Association and currently serves on the executive board of the United States Tennis Association-Long Island Region. He still plays competitively and is a highly ranked senior player. He may be reached at (516) 626-9005 or e-mail wolfarthe@msn.com.</span></p>