Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Instruction Delusion

We cripple our young, possibly for life, when we tell them "You need an instructor to learn" or "You need a teacher to learn."

Learning takes place all the time in nature. Humans live in nature, even a nature that includes television, computers, iPads, iPhones, video games, etc. So humans learn all the time. A tiny portion of that learning includes explicit instruction. A tiny portion of that explicit instruction involves professional instruction. Yet, our young people today believe with all their hearts that learning takes place only with instruction, that instructors make us better at things. That's a delusion.

Three recent anecdotes from my tennis coaching life illustrate this delusion.

I still consider myself a tennis coach to some degree. That is I organize and participate in tennis practices. I encourage kids to play and to play better. I occasionally offer suggestions and offer my opinion as to how I think players should hit certain shots, position themselves, attack various opponents, and so forth. I also drive players to matches. Of all my coaching duties, only the van driving has measurable value.

However, I do not call myself a tennis teacher and I try to offer as little formal instruction as possible.

I want the kids to play the game on their own terms. I want them to take ownership of their own games. It's their hobby after all. They should play the game in a way that gives them pleasure. I want them to learn to play using the ample feedback that the game and their own bodies provide. For me to override or replace those sources of feedback with the sound of my voice seems profoundly wrong.

So I'm not your typical professional instructor.

I pointed this out recently to a kid I used to teach and he was dumbfounded. We were hitting together and he asked me for some advice about a particular shot. I told him I didn't have any advice to offer.

"Don't you teach tennis?" he asked.
"I try not to," I replied.
"But don't you teach in the groups you run?"
"I try not to," I replied again.
"Then how do kids get better?" he asked.

Then how do kids get better?

Now this kid isn't really a kid any more. He's in his early twenties. He's been fooled into thinking kids only get better at something through instruction. A lifetime of schooling and lessons and teachers has blinded him to the way people learn, the way people get better at doing things. He no longer even considers the possibility of improvement absent teaching.

He's not alone.

The word on the street is that a certain college tennis program "has so many players that nobody improves because players don't get individual attention." This statement is wrong on so many levels. The only part that's true is that the program does have a large number of players – a sign that it's good and popular, obviously. But nothing else in the statement is true. Players do improve. Players do get individual attention due to an extremely dedicated coach.

But I'm not writing about this statement to clear up a misconception about a particular college tennis program. I'm writing about it here because of what it says about the kid making the statement and about the kids perpetuating the message. They have all been fooled into thinking that in order to improve tennis players must receive individual attention. What a hideous, needless handicap.

Finally we have the case of a fifteen year old boy I know. Alex has improved tremendously in tennis over the last couple of years. He only plays a few times a week and has other interests, especially school, but he his very athletic, has good eye-hand coordination, and seems to enjoy playing.  How has he improved? Mostly by watching others and copying what they do to see if it works for him (I overheard him explain this to some kids a few weeks ago). If it works, he adopts it in his game. If not, he skips it. This is called rational trial and error and it has served humanity well for thousands of years. It serves him well, too. Unfortunately, he's continually bombarded by instructions from his parents and from the instructors they pay to instruct him. He comes from a culture that highly values rote instruction and formal schooling. Recently he's been conned into making a change by a professional instructor. "Bill changed my backhand," he told me the other day. Bill is a professional instructor. Note the phrasing, "Bill changed my backhand."

Bill changed a light bulb. Bill replaced my alternator. Bill fixed my water heater.

 Is Alex's backhand like a machine to be fixed? Inanimate? Inorganic? No. Only Alex can change his backhand. Alex has been experimenting with and changing (or not) every aspect of his game for the last couple of years. On his terms. Trial and error. Listening to the feedback from the game and from his own body. He's improved tremendously. Now he's abandoning this process and surrendering to Bill, the professional instructor. Now Bill will change one of his strokes to a form that Bill deems better. The new form may or may not be better. Time will tell. But Alex has become clay for Bill to mold. Alex is now inert, an object to be changed. He has bought into the belief that instructors cause positive change.

We know only one sure winner, or maybe two, in Bill's change of Alex's backhand. Bill. And Bill's banker.

As I said above, we are handicapping children for life by indoctrinating them with the view that all learning must come from teachers, that instruction causes learning. This is a relatively new experiment. Until the late 19th Century, schooling was not compulsory in most of the United States. Formal schooling was uncommon. Children played together and learned from each other (see Free to Learn for more). Formal instruction in hobbies was unheard of. Apprenticeships, watching and learning, were common when it came time to learn a trade, often at fairly early ages. Schooling and formal education were luxury items consumed by the rich. Now we think that schooling and education cause people to become rich. We have the causal arrow backwards. (See the book Antifragile, by Nassim Taleb for discussion of this point).

I find it ironic that this era of hyper-instruction coincides with the internet age. At no time in human history has it been so easy to learn any topic on your own. So while I'm pessimistic about the prospects of generations of people brainwashed to believe they must pay for instruction in order to learn, I am optimistic that instruction and teachers will be essentially free in the future via the internet.

Perhaps this century-long experiment with instruction, teaching, and especially schooling will end thanks to the internet and the worldwide spread of information outside of formal channels.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Every Game Went to Deuce

"I lost 6-0, 6-1, but every game went to deuce."

You got crushed.

Just because every game went to deuce doesn't mean the match was close. It's conceivable it was close, but very, very unlikely. Let's have a look.

If literally every game went to deuce, the minimum number of points per game would be eight, five for the winner and three for the loser. The winner won twelve games (sixty points) and lost one (three points) for a total of sixty-three points. The loser lost twelve games (thirty-six points) and won one (five points) for a total of forty-one points.

So the match consisted of a minimum of sixty-three plus forty-one points. One hundred four points total. The difference between the two players was twenty-two points (sixty-three minus forty-one). Is a twenty-two point margin over one hundred four points significant? You bet it is.

Ask Enrico Fermi, Nobel Prize winning physicist and tennis player. Fermi would not accept that he was the lesser player unless the difference between his games won and his opponent's games won was greater than the square root of the total games played. So a 6-3 set loss was not conclusive evidence that he was the lesser player since the square root of nine is exactly three.

In the above scenario, the Fermi criterion is amply satisfied. The two players played thirteen games. The square root of thirteen is about 3.6. The difference in games was eleven. A crushing. The winner is the better player according to Fermi.

Using points rather than games the result is the same. Total points played was one hundred four. The square root of one hundred four is just over ten. The twenty-two point margin more than doubles the square root of the total games played.

A beating.

My guess is when you hear someone say "every game went to deuce" it's more likely that not every game went to deuce than that any single game lasted more than ten or twelve points.

If every game went to twelve points (three deuces), the total margin of victory remains twenty-two points, but the total points climbs to one hundred fifty-six. The square root of one hundred fifty-six is only about 12.5. The twenty-two point margin still far, far exceeds the square root of the total.

Now if every game consisted of forty-four points or more, the 6-0, 6-1 match could have actually been competitive by the Fermi standard. Have you every played a forty-four point game? I haven't. And I'm fifty years old.

So if you get beat 6-0, 6-1 and every game went to deuce you got crushed. Enrico Fermi and everyone else says so.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Roger Federer and His Wall

Roger learned to play hitting "for hours and hours" against this wall. Maybe kids should try that before "lessons" and "classes" and other BS ways to learn tennis.

Tommy Haas, Quintessential American

I'm watching Tommy Haas playing the "last American", John Isner, at the French Open.

Tommy Haas was born in Germany. Born abroad like so many Americans over the years. He first came to the Florida to train at Nick Bollettieri's academy at age 11. He permanently relocated to the Land of Opportunity at age 13 to train in Florida full time.

Tommy Haas became a US citizen in 2010. He now lives in Los Angeles, California.

Tommy Haas was born in Germany and came to the US to pursue his dream of becoming a world class tennis player.

He fulfilled his dream.

What could be more American than that?

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Friday, May 03, 2013

10 & Under Tennis and Burnout

I just got off the phone with a friend whose son played in a 10 & under tournament last weekend. The club had a ping pong table, but his son couldn't find anyone to play ping pong with him. The parents didn't want their children to waste their energy.

It dawned on me that we may be making a huge mistake in pumping up 10 & under tennis in the US. The goal of starting kids earlier is twofold, I think. First is the idea that if you get a kid to start playing tennis early that kid will stick with the game for life. The second goal is that we will have way more kids playing tennis so we will have a much greater pool from which future world champions will emerge.

The second goal seems reasonable (to the extent that anyone knows anything about producing world champions it seems logical that more players will give you a better chance), but I'm afraid that getting kids started earlier in tennis may REDUCE the number of tennis players at a later date. Why? Burnout.

Why would kids burn out on tennis? Parents, mainly. But tennis itself is a pretty rough sport mentally and emotionally. Add to that the effect of hyper parenting in the US and you have a recipe for a bad tennis experience for little Johnny and Suzie.

I didn't start playing tennis seriously until I was twelve years old. By the time I was twenty I was thoroughly sick of the game. And my parents were not problem tennis parents. They let me do my thing and I loved the time I spent hanging with my friends, traveling, messing around and playing junior tennis. Yet the game still beat the crap out of me mentally.

Combine the difficult nature of the game with the helicopter parents always at the sides of Johnny and Suzie, telling them to stretch, to stay out of the sun, to avoid playing ping pong or basketball or soccer or mini tennis with friends between matches, to eat the right foods (whatever the heck those are) and on and on. Then put yourself in that car ride on the way home from the tournament, a car ride where mom and or dad pound on the kid over and over about the kids failures. Good grief.

No, I think that starting later may be the better formula for increasing the numbers of lifelong tennis players. There's only so much abuse a young person can take. And tennis and especially tennis parents dish out a lot of abuse. Probably more than little kids can handle.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Percentage Tennis

Let's put some numbers to some categories of shots that players hit in tennis points. I'll divide shots into five categories:

1. Defense
2. Neutral / Rally
3. Forcing
4. Attacking
5. Finishing

I'm going to skip the first category, defense, for now. A defensive shot in this context is a ball that you hit when you're in deep trouble. These include defensive lobs, sliced forehands and backhands from off the court, returns of very good, well-directed first serves, etc. I don't think I can put a realistic percentage of these balls since so much depends upon the incoming shot.

So focusing on neutral, forcing, attacking and finishing shots, what percentage of these shots should a player make?

The most probable shots to make should be the neutral/rally shots and the finishing shots. Neutral balls are those that players hit when both players are in good court position, striking shots with the intent of keeping the opponent from hurting them. Missing more than one out of a hundred of these balls is unacceptable for good tennis players. So the neutral ball success rate must exceed 99%. Finishing shots are shots struck from a position in the court where it is very unlikely that the opponent will be able to get the ball back, almost exclusively high volleys and overhead smashes from the service line and in. I'm going to put a minimum success rate of 95% on these shots.  You can't win if you let your opponent escape certain death more than a few times out of one hundred.

In order to succeed in tennis, you simply must be able to make these neutral and finishing shots almost all the time.

Moving on to a forcing ball, the success probability necessarily drops. These are shots that are struck with the intent of gaining an advantage in a point. Players strike these balls with higher speed, lower trajectory and closer to the lines. Because of all these factors, players will miss these shots more often than neutral/rally balls which are not struck so hard, so low, nor so close to the lines. However, no player will be successful with a high error rate on these shots. Forcing shots must be consistently hit in the court or obviously no advantage will be gained. I think a 90-95% success rate is the goal on these shots.

Finally we have attacking shots. These are really the kill shots of modern tennis. They are usually struck from inside the baseline with the player's stronger side. These shots must hurt the opponent severely, if they are not outright winners. Often these shots are struck after strong first serves or after a series of forcing shots that leave the opponent off court after a weak reply. These shots will be missed more often than forcing shots, but not so often that a player throws away the advantage gained. The lowest I would accept for these shots would be 85%, but I think 90% is more like it. So, the range on these is 85-90%.

So, here are my summaries for percentage tennis:

Neutral/ Rally balls: 99%+
Forcing balls: 90-95%
Attacking balls: 85-90%
Finishing balls: 95%