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June 2016 Article

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Tennis Chunking

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Tom Veneziano

No, you will not gain weight by reading this article! The chunking I refer to here is actually something extraordinary that occurs in your brain as you are learning. There is a process that scientists call "perceptual chunking" in which the human brain groups small, scattered pieces of information into one whole unit, making the learning and recall of that information more efficient. This process happens automatically during perception, so you are not even aware you are doing it!
When information is reduced to one unit, this unit is called a chunk. Oftentimes, it is a familiar pattern that can be used as a chunk. Chess masters are known for their chunking of many different patterns. When they look at a chessboard they do not see each individual piece. Instead, the master's mind recognizes chunks of patterns involving individual pieces experienced as one unit. The information stored as chunks can be recognized instantly. A chess master can have 100,000 chunks of stored patterns at his or her mental fingertips!
When the situation calls for it, the chess master can quickly recall and select a specific chunk of information to be used. Strangely enough, as he or she does this, time effectively slows down for their match. Their mind can relax, even under pressure, not having to concentrate on remembering various and scattered pieces of information. On the other hand, in a high-powered, quick-moving chess match, a chess player who is trying to recall information as individual parts really feels the pressure. Their thinking is unorganized so they struggle to remember anything. As their inefficient mind frantically works though the problem, they sense that they are running out of time and feels as though each moment is flying by.
Do you have the ability to chunk information and recall it as if time has slowed down? Yes, you do! You have been chunking information all of your life when you drive, walk, speak and even hear your name!
In "Understanding the Secrets of Human Perception," Professor Peter M. Vishton of The College of William and Mary gives an excellent example of chunking. Suppose your name is Barbara, and you are in a room full of people. The crowd has broken up into a number of small groups, each having a conversation. Your group, engaged in an interesting conversation, has all of your attention. Suddenly, in the midst of their own conversation, another group nearby mentions your name. You instantly look around, "Who said Barbara?" You have just experienced chunking. Your name stood out and everything seemed to slow down as your name Barbara was broadcast loud and clear. But only for you! Why? Because you have had a lifetime of repetition to chunk your name in your brain. No longer is it in your mind as indiscriminate noise, as less familiar words would be. You now know and hear your name as one unique unit that stands out among all the other words and names that are mentioned in a crowd.
What does this have to do with tennis? Well, the same process occurs when learning the game of tennis. Players who use massive repetition will over time automatically chunk information together. Once it's chunked it stands out like a sore thumb! A player can chunk patterns of play, racket movements, positions of opponents, spins of the ball and even the ball itself. Repetition makes all this chunking possible through intense and consistent practice, and you do it without consciously knowing it. After all, you spent years writing, hearing and speaking your name, and you learned to chunk it without even knowing what was occurring!
Let's suppose you would like to see the ball better and read it coming off of your opponent's racket. Here is your problem. Without enough repetition you only see the ball, your opponent's racket and your opponent as separate parts. Your mind races in its frantic attempt to keep track of the individual parts and determine the direction of the ball. There is just not enough time. Everything is happening too fast! As far as you are concerned, reading the situation and reacting quickly to the ball is impossible. Your conclusion: you must not have the talent. Wrong!
With intense and consistent practice you will begin to chunk information together so you see the ball, the racket and opponent as one unit that stands out. Experiencing all of these parts as one unit has the result of slowing everything down so you clearly see your opponent, the racket-head position and the direction of the ball. If you have fifty marbles spread out on a table and you try to evaluate each individual marble quickly, it would take too much time. But if you put all the marbles in a glass container and look at the whole container, you will see the marbles as one unit. This, in effect, is what your brain does when it chunks information. Your brain automatically processes the information and places it in a container for you to quickly see as one unit.
When you chunk tennis information you will definitely move your game to a higher level. And, amazingly, your brain will be working less! Nothing is more taxing on the brain than trying to calculate individual parts that do not fit together as a whole unit. When your brain recognizes whole units chunked together, you will process all the information on the court much more efficiently. Neat!
At this point you should be furious with some of the teaching pros. When a pro is telling you, "Watch the position of your opponent's racket face to determine the direction of the ball," he is giving you information that HE or SHE has already chunked in their brain but you have not. Therefore, reading the racket face and the direction of the ball is quick and easy for them, but impossible for you. You first need many hours of practice, just like the pro needed a lot of practice before they could read the racket face properly.
How do you know when you begin the process of chunking? Easy! You will get the impression that the ball, the situations, your opponents, court position and everything in tennis is slowing down. But in reality nothing has slowed down! You are just experiencing the magic of chunking. Chunking changes everything!

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This column is copyrighted by Tom Veneziano, all rights reserved.

Tom is a tennis pro teaching at the Piney Point Racquet Club in Houston, Texas. Tom has taught thousands of players to think like a pro with his Tennis Warrior System.


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