Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Proximal Distal Emphasis and the UnAcademy

My friend Ken Hammond and I have been discussing the work of Egon Brunswik for years.  Egon Brunswik was a professor of psychology at Berkeley in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.  Ken knew him back then and has applied Brunswik's ideas to the field of human judgment and decision making.

I bring this up on a "mostly tennis related" blog because a significant failure of tennis coaching is an emphasis on the proximal at the expense of the distal.  So what the heck does that mean?  It means that we teach the means independent of the ends too often.  We teach players what they can see and feel, like the grip, the swing, the flight of the ball, etc, rather than what they cannot see and feel, the ultimate (distal) goal -- winning points and winning matches.

I hope that the Quick Start emphasis on rallying and especially on playing the game of tennis as early as possible will remedy this.  Kids who "take lessons" on how to grip a racquet, how to position their bodies, and how to swing a racquet are focused on the proximal.  Oddly enough, we coaches have a habit of distracting students' attention and get them to focus on the instructor instead of on their own senses of sight, sound, and feel.  We do that by talking way too much ("racquet back",  "watch the ball", "swing", "finish high", etc).  Luckily some kids ignore the coach and just try to hit the ball, but way more kids really try to listen to the coach.  Their attention is therefore not on the feedback their hands and eyes and bodies are providing them.  They are focused too much on the coach.

So that sort of interference from coaches is bad, but what's worse is that I now am really seeing what other people have been saying for many years.  American kids can hit the ball, but they cannot play the game.  What does that mean?  It means they are mastering the proximal skills OK (they hit the ball well enough), but they don't know how to play points and win matches.  The playing points and winning matches are the distal goals that are so often ignored or given short shrift in lessons.

I am tempted to start the UnAcademy.  At the UnAcademy the kids get no proximal instruction and very little distal instruction beyond what the game gives them.  To the extent that the UnAcademy coaches provide feedback, it would be to override the confusing feedback the game itself can provide.  Frequently in tennis, players can play a good point, but lose it.  A coach can intervene and say, "That was a great point.  You just got beat by a good shot."  Or "You did everything right up until you dumped that volley in the net.  Keep it up.  You'll make that shot in the future."

Our UnAcademy coaches will also praise effort.  When we see kids hustling for a ball, sliding on hard courts, etc, we'll be enthusiastic in our praise.  It's tough to give maximum effort all the time.  It's much easier to coast.  So as coaches, we at the UnAcademy will do our best to praise and reward effort.  Players cannot control outcomes, but they can control their effort.

If while giving their all and playing lots of matches, players ask coaches what they can do to improve their games, including improving certain shots, we'll be more than happy to nudge them in the direction of better strategy, tactics, and mechanics.

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