| By Edward Wolfarth

I cannot figure out why some of my students just don’t get it. I’m telling them everything I know, I’m trying different images and drills and they still do not seem to improve. One day on the other court, I was observing a fellow teaching pro giving a lesson. In a half-hour time span, he said very little. As a matter of fact, he didn't say anything technical or noteworthy. “Good shot, way to go, that's not it,” seemed to be his repertoire, but the student was still improving at a rate not much different than my student … what’s up? Certainly, I give my students feedback as well. After many years of trying different teaching techniques, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is little that can be taught but much that can be learned through self-discovery. And that’s the gist of it! I’ve evolved in to a “learning facilitator.” This may seem nothing more than a connotation distinction, but definitively, an important one.

A good teacher of any motor skill, in my humble opinion, needs to be aware of how each student learns. He or she needs to dwell less on “how to” advice and more on the “what.” By this, I mean learners are commonly task-oriented. Take, for example, the simple (not always easy) task of directing a forehand. Many instructors might say, “Turn your shoulders, point the strings in the desired direction,” etc. This how-to advice may work, but it does not create permanent learning, and in fact, may impede complete progress. A better approach might be to set up targets and say, “Hit it there!” This simple task will, eventually, provoke the desired result. The learner will have to go through a process of trial and error and the learning will be more complete.
The other day, I was giving a backhand lesson to Helen (name changed to protect the innocent). Her one-handed backhand tended to fly long because of her incomplete switch to a full eastern backhand grip. During our half-hour lesson, I asked Helen to hit her backhand into the net with an exaggerated high follow through. Her first few attempts sailed well over the baseline, but after a while, she was able to perform this simple (but not simple) task. Without any instruction, she had changed her grip! Within 15 min., Helen complained that hitting balls into the net was pretty dumb. I countered, “Helen, we don’t have to practice hitting backhands out, you already know how to do that! Duh!” She had discovered, on her own, that her weak grip was the cause of her problem. She became aware (the operative word) of the cause and effect relationship through self-discovery. Her progress was swift.
Learning a motor skill is best accomplished when the learner goes thru the four steps of learning:
 
1. Unconscious incompetence: Not knowing the cause of the problem.
 
2. Conscious incompetence: Now, being aware of the cause and effect, but still not able to always perform properly
 
3. Conscious competence: Being able to perform at reasonably high skill level, but only with conscious thought.
 
4. Unconscious competence: Highly skilled with no thinking!
 
Skill or swing is habitual and can be performed in any environment. Many learners never progress from step one to step two. And that’s the key … failure to become aware dooms one to failure. You’ve probably heard the definition of ignorance … “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result!” Awareness is the key. All motor learning starts with the brain. The learner needs to understand the core concepts of hitting a tennis ball. What makes the ball go up or down. Then the process of trial and error kicks in. Then, and only then, does practicing that skill or swing have any true consequence. And, don’t forget that practice makes permanent, not perfect!

In conclusion, we need to train our brain. By that I mean, our brain controls the body and the body controls the racket. How-to instruction is less effective than allowing self-discovered learning. The brain learns through self-discovery. I've concluded that I can teach very little, but my students can learn a lot. I implore my teaching colleagues to get more in tune with the learner and the learning process and stop teaching so much!

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>