Tuesday, March 16, 2004

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.

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