Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Don’t Become a Delegator When It Comes to Learning

"We give [the players] a lot of responsibility. We never call plays. The first pass dictates things and sort of teaches them how to play. Our defense is the same way. I don't tell them who they're guarding. They've got to figure things out on their own."

That’s Joe Scott, Head Men’s Basketball Coach at the U. S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO describing his Princeton System of basketball. Scott’s players know their success rides on their ability to learn the system and execute under pressure. They accept that responsibility. Possibly because of that mindset, they are having the best year in the history of the Academy as I write this.

Independent thinking is a hallmark of success, especially in open skill competitions like basketball or tennis. If you find yourself looking to a coach all the time to explain why something went wrong, or to tell you where to be or where to hit a shot, perhaps you need to take responsibility for learning these things on your own. A coach, no matter how good, cannot learn these things for you. Learning is not a team sport. Even in sports like basketball where the coach is on the sidelines barking out instructions, the players must know what to do, recognize changing conditions, and adapt their actions accordingly. No coach can do that for a player.

For this reason, among others, I disagree with people who say coaching should be allowed during tennis matches. In fact I’d ban it in Davis Cup, college and high school competition just like it’s banned everywhere else. I’m highly skeptical of the value of coaching during game situations, and am aware of the danger of players becoming dependent on coaches, to the detriment of the players.

A coach can help prepare players for competition, but ultimately players play. Players who understand and accept that get the most out of athletic competition.

Acquisition of Technique in Tennis and Golf

In the new “What is EASI Tennis?” introduction, Ray and Becky wrote the following:

“What we observed was, that although tennis was making great advances in teaching nutrition, conditioning, footwork, tactics and strategy, advancements in teaching technique were proceeding at a snail's pace. This was puzzling because other technique intensive sports such as gymnastics, ice skating, football, golf, and track and field, were advancing rapidly. We wanted to know ‘WHY?’.”

I’m in a pretty good position to comment on this as it relates to particularly tennis and golf. I played Division I college tennis twenty years ago and before that twice defeated a future grand slam doubles champion, once in Kalamazoo at the U. S. National Junior Championships. After college I turned to golf as my main hobby and in a few years managed to very briefly get my handicap just below zero. I worked in the golf industry for several years and helped out with junior instruction along the way. After a ten year hiatus from tennis, I returned to teaching tennis part time, which I’ve now done for ten years. Even though I’m now a tennis pro, I still have friends in the golf instruction business, and one acquaintance who plays on the PGA Tour. I don’t have the answer to Ray and Becky’s question, but I think I have enough background to offer some insight into what it takes to succeed in tennis and golf, and the role that instruction plays.

My own experience shows that instruction is not necessary to get pretty darn good at both games. I never once had a private tennis or golf lesson. I did benefit from the help of some wonderful coaches in tennis, but I don’t recall a single instruction on technique from any of them.

The experience of my friend on the PGA Tour shows that a person can rise to the PGA Tour without instruction. He is now in the top 20 in the world and may have had a little instruction lately, but I know that he rose to the level of the tour without any formal instruction. He was and is a self-taught player.

This doesn’t mean that technical instruction is never helpful. It does mean that technical instruction isn’t a necessary ingredient for athletic success at very high levels.

To take this a bit further, the examples from golf of Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Moe Norman, and Lee Trevino reinforce my assertion that technical instruction isn’t necessary. The four gentleman I’ve listed have two things in common. The are acknowledged as the four best ball strikers in the history of the game. None had technical instruction.

What about the recreational player? I know that golf instruction has become more technologically advanced than tennis instruction over the last twenty years. Videos and computers are a common element of golf instruction now. I have not seen any evidence that the technique of the recreational golfer is any better now than it was thirty years ago. The equipment is better, but the scores and the swings seem to stay about the same.

Tennis has not kept pace with golf in the use of video and computers to aid instruction. That is changing, thanks to people like Ray and Becky, and soon with the help of Brian Gordon and his 3D data analysis software. The typical recreationally player’s technique seems to be no different to me now than it was when I started playing in the early 1970s.

That cannot be said of the tour pros in tennis or in golf. The tour professionals’ technique has evolved in both sports. It’s not clear that this evolution is instructionally driven, though. I think that the use of video and computers may have reduced the variance in playing styles on the PGA Tour (the swings do look more similar to me than the swings of pros thirty years ago). But the same can be said of players on the ATP Tour. The variation in technique has gone down there, too. So while videos and computers can be thought to have contributed to the changes in pro golfers’ technique, the absence of such technological aides has resulted in similar changes in tennis pros’ technique. I think looking elsewhere for the reason is warranted.

"I took my eye off the ball."

Have you ever framed a shot and said to yourself, “I took my eye off the ball?” Who hasn’t? But did you ever ask yourself, “When did I take my eye off the ball?” Perhaps you’ve read or heard that you are supposed to watch the ball into contact, or watch the ball hit your strings. Maybe you’ve heard that it’s important to have the ball in focus at contact.

I’ve heard all of those things and even said some of them. Just because people say things and believe things doesn’t mean they’re true. Fortunately we have a method at our disposal for distinguishing assertion from fact -- the scientific method. Carl Sagan called it a candle in the dark. It’s really quite simple to use. The other day I used it to check the validity of the above statements.

I began with the following hypothesis: It is important to focus on the ball at contact.

To test the hypothesis, I designed the following experiment that you might want to try yourself.

1. Repeatedly bounce the ball upwards off your strings (self volley) to roughly eye height.
2. Establish that you can do this self volley with your full field of vision.
3. Next use your non-racquet arm to block your racquet, hand, and arm from your field of vision (while still allowing yourself to see rest of the ball’s trajectory including its peak).
4. Repeat the self volley with your vision occluded as described in step 3.
5. Try varying the amount of the ball’s path you can see, but never allowing yourself to see contact.

I discovered that as long as I could see the ball as it peaked, I had no trouble maintaining the self volley. Conclusion: my hypothesis is wrong.

Then I tried the following experiment to test this hypothesis: If I focus on the ball at contact, I don’t have to see the rest of the ball’s flight path to maintain a self volley.

1. Self volley as in the first experiment using your full visual field.
2. Block your vision of the flight of the ball except for the ball and racquet contact and a foot or so of the ball’s travel above the racquet.

I found this to be extremely difficult. Conclusion: my hypothesis is wrong.

From this further experiments come to mind, but I’ll leave those to enterprising readers to design. I feel pretty comfortable concluding that seeing some portion of the ball’s flight other than the moment of contact is important.

I have to admit that the results of these experiments didn’t surprise me because I’ve played tennis for a long time. I’ve also seen lots of photos of players at contact, and I’ve read the research literature into visual tracking in sports. I have hit plenty of balls behind my back and I can assure you that I don’t have eyes in the back of my head. I’ve also seen countless photos of pros hitting shots in which the pro’s eyes are not focused on the ball and are even closed at contact (Hingis appeared to blink at contact quite frequently). Tough to watch the ball meet the strings if your eyes are closed. I’ve also read studies of tennis players, volleyball players, and baseball batters who have been observed in controlled conditions tracking incoming balls. The players have been fitted with goggles that monitor the focus of the players’ eyes. Except for on rare occasions, none of the players focused their eyes on the ball at contact. Is there a better way to track the ball than the way that these players track the ball? Maybe. The way to find out is to try some experiments like the ones I did. From my experiments we moved one step closer to understanding why people hit the ball poorly by potentially ruling out one reason. More specifically we falsified the age old hypothesis that it is important to watch the ball into your strings.

Now if you catch yourself saying you took your eye off the ball on a mishit, ask yourself “when?” you took your eye off the ball. It may be that you did take your eye off the ball at some critical moment in the ball’s path. But maybe something else caused the mishit, like a sudden movement or a simple misalignment of your racquet. Those things do happen without a vision mistake. By avoiding a fixation on something that isn’t likely to have caused your error, I think you’ll be more likely to figure out what did.

"I saw that one wide."

I’m playing doubles with Gary against Pete and Andre. I am ready to return serve just behind the baseline in the deuce court and Gary is standing on the service line in the ad court three feet to the left of the center line. After netting his first serve, Pete hits a second serve wide to my forehand. As I lunge to my right to play the ball Gary calls,“Out!” Gary saw the ball wide and made the call. I wasn’t sure it was wide and without Gary there would not have called the ball wide. Pete and Andre protest that Gary was in a poor position to make the call--he was a long way from the far sideline and he had to look across the line to make the call. Pete and Andre say it’s my call. Are they right?

The Code says the view down the line is better than the view across a line. Line judges are positioned to look down lines. It looks like Pete and Andre are right.

But wait. I’m not a stationary line judge. I was watching the ball, but I was also moving and reacting in an effort to play the ball. My angle was the same as the hypothetical line judges’, but I wasn’t just standing there waiting to make a call. Gary was. So in that respect, Gary’s perspective was more similar to the line judge’s perspective than mine was.

What about the claim that the ball was on the far sideline a long way from Gary? The closest I got to where the ball bounced (before lunging to my right to play the shot) was when I was at the baseline. The baseline is 19 feet from the service line. Gary was 3 feet from the center service line. The service box is 13.5 feet wide. That means Gary was about 16.5 feet from where the ball bounced. Gary was closer to the bounce of the ball than I was.

Hmmm. Now I think Pete and Andre don’t have a case. But what about the nagging question of the angle, the line of sight relative to the line? Let’s have a look at that.

Being of a scientific nature, I decided to check this out before accepting it as fact just because The Code says it’s true. A simple experiment easily cleared this up for me. I placed a ball as close as I could to the line, but wide. When viewed from Gary’s position the ball looked wide. Gary could see the space between the ball and the line. Viewed from my perspective, the middle of the spherical ball covered part of the white of the line. That meant the ball looked in. As I moved to my right outside the sideline, the ball looked even more like it was in. If the goal is to tell if a ball is out, Gary’s view across the line was better than my view looking down the line.

The Code is wrong. Gary’s view was superior. Our call stands.

On the very next point, Pete hits a first serve to Gary that Gary rips up the line past Andre for a winner. Andre never budges. He says Pete’s serve was long. The serve was moving awfully quickly, but it looked to me like it caught the back of the line so I didn’t call it out. Andre thinks Pete should hit a second serve? Should he?

Nope. The rule is clear. It’s our call. We played it and we won the point. This situation comes up a lot, especially in doubles when the server’s partner tries to call a serve first serve long. To see why this happens, just return to the discussion of the prior point. Since Andre is standing close enough to the net that he can see the service line over the top of the net he’s in the best position of all the players on the court to see the space between Pete’s serve and the outside edge of the line. Therefore, Andre will correctly see a ball that is barely long, whereas Gary and I won’t be able to call it long, since from our perspective’s we can’t see the space between the ball and the line.

Pete and Andre are wrong on both counts, and even The Code is wrong on the first one. At least that’s how I see it.


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