It is generally accepted that there are three basic ways in which humans learn: visually, through words and explanations, and kinetically ("feeling" our way through the learning endeavor by actually "doing" the motions). There may be more ways in which we learn, but for me, these three are the most commonly applied methods for tennis instruction.
The basis of this column has always been to allow for a means where the tennisphile can actually improve her/his game without spending lots of money on lessons. Let's face it. There are huge numbers of players who love this wonderful game of ours who want to improve and be more competitive. Whether its stroke production, strategies or mental toughness; tennis players seek to get better! In truth, great progress can be made through self-instruction. Let's face it... if you don't spend the time actually practicing, you are not likely to improve very much.
It is in this spirit that I have tried to write this column, and wrote my e-book, Perfect Tennis (which I am in the process of expanding and revising).
In that person's primary sense is the sense of sight or vision, it is not illogical to suggest that this is a significant way in which all of us learn. It is not the only way, and for some, it is not the primary or best way. However, I would put forth the belief that most tennis players are "visual learners" to a greater or lesser degree. Indeed, there is probably a time when a reader has been watching a match on TV. He/she has noticed something about a player's stroke. Almost immediately, the viewer is out on the court replicating the stroke insight. Frequently, these epiphanies greatly enhance the quality of the viewer's tennis game.
I am a strong believer in the power of visualization in learning the game of tennis. These visualizations can occur externally (while you actually see a tennis stroke or action) and they can occur internally (where you visualize the stroke or action in your mind's imagination).
Well this month, I want to dedicate the column to the process of learning through visual means. I think it comes in a timely manner. Many players north of the equator are still playing outside and have had a summer in which to improve their strokes, etc. For those players south of the equator, the warmer months are right around the corner. I suspect that many of you are eager to improve your skills and enjoy a more productive "summer" season. Either way, understanding how visual means can play a role in improving your game is an important ingredient in raising the level of your play.
With this in mind, I want to speak to several different aspects of visual learning in the game of tennis.
VIEWING YOURSELF PLAYING TENNIS
Let's be honest. Most of us are never pleased with family pictures in which we appear. To see oneself playing tennis is, at least at first, an excruciatingly painful experience. Still, if you could see how you really hit strokes, move to ball, serve, etc., I assure you that there would be a wealth of information that would prove to be useful.
On occasion, each of us has been asked our opinion about another person's strokes, strategies or movement. If we provide any suggestions for improvement, it is based upon our observation of the player in question. We see what she/he does not.
As a coach, looking at a person's overall game and locking in on what needs improvement is the first step. Knowing how to change what needs to be changed, recognizing what is likely to be possible with respect to change, and what needs to be added to a person's game are the things that separate the teaching pro from the true coach. Oscar Wegner is such a coach. Dick Gould is such a coach. Bob Brett is such a coach. Darren Cahill is such a coach. Not all good players make for good coaches. Meaning no offense to one of my favorite players of all time, I doubt that John McEnroe will ever be anywhere near becoming a coach that truly can fulfill the functions of a good coach. But, he clearly understands the game well and is without doubt one of the best to have ever played this wonderful game.
Really, the best coach for a player can be himself or herself. After all, who knows better than a player what are the challenges she/he faces?
Today, we are technologically blessed. Camcorders, DSLR digital still cameras that have video capability (High Definition!) and even the modern smart phones can record video for us in convenient and affordable ways. The modern still and video gear that is targeted at the consumer is very user friendly! My guess is that many of you already possess a still, digital camera that will allow for high resolution video recording... even if it is a so called "point and shoot" camera.
What is needed is one of two things: either a person who is willing to video record your practice sessions and matches, or a tripod upon which you can mount your camcorder or digital still/video camera. I have not seen smart phones that are designed for use with a tripod, but the innovative person who uses a little duct tape can easily and securely attach such a phone to a tripod.
If you are video recording a practice session, you need either a hitting partner or a ball machine. Failing these, the old, reliable backboard or wall will do. But, you don't want to limit your videography to just practice sessions. You never really play the same in practice as you do in a match. Therefore, video recording match play is the most useful way of self analyzing your game. When coaching collegiate teams or when hired to be a personal coach to a junior player, I would always video record matches. Sometimes, I would hand hold the camera device. Other times, I would simply look for a desirable location (where the player can be seen both close up and in a full court perspective... through the use of a zoom lens) and place the camera on a tripod. I would make certain that I had enough tape or a large enough "card" to record at least an hour's worth of video.
In my own quest to improve my game, I have always used video for self analysis. I have old VHS tapes of my strokes and match play that go back farther than I care to admit in this column.
With modern video, slow motion analysis is extremely easy to produce. There are a host of very inexpensive, and some open source, video editing programs that are easy to use and permit slowing down the speed to half speed or even slower. Some camcorders allow you to record in "slow motion." I recommend that you do not use the camera's slow motion feature. Why? Well, you want to be able to see your strokes and movement in real time as well as in slow motion. Many of the editing programs available will allow for freeze framing as well.
The average cost of a decent, consumer friendly, easy to use editing program ranges from 50 dollars to 100 dollars. If you are a Mac user, you probably can use your version of iMovie to produce the results you seek.
Ultimately, I like to edit sections of my match or practice session into DVD's that I can view on my computer or TV.
You don't need to be a Steven Spielberg to produce usable videos!!!
I priced out an inexpensive HD camcorder, tripod, recording card and editing program and came up with a total price tag that was under 350 dollars. But if you own a more modern digicam, it probably will allow for HD video to be recorded.
My point? For the the price of a couple tennis frames, you can set yourself up with the gear you need to record, edit and produce very effective "instructionally insightful videos." (I am assuming you own a computer or you wouldn't be reading this column.
Look at these videos in real time and in slow motion. Watch them multiple times. Spread out the viewings over a period of a few days. Once you get past the immediate, "Oh my gosh, everything I do on the court looks horrible" phenomenon; you will be able to start using these to really know what you need to do to change and improve your game.
Whether you are a visual learner or not, this form of self analysis is essential. If you visit any of the tennis academies they all are equipped with courts that have multiple video cameras that permit recording players in great detail. You can get by with much less and still learn much about your strengths and weaknesses!
VIEWING PROS PLAYING TENNIS
Watching the pros is perhaps one of the best ways to improve your tennis game. The key to really learning from what you see televised? Turn down the sound!!!
TV commentators frequently will lead you to focus upon something that is not really relevant to your game or needs. If you simply watch the pros on TV without the sound, I assure you that soon you will be discovering your own insights. Indeed, I recommend that at times you chart a match that you are watching. I assure you that in the process of charting a match, you will become much more aware with respect to the strategy aspects of the game. Although you are recording winners, errors, etc., your mind will begin to see the patterns of play. You will discover what is an effective technique or tactic and what is not. If you are like most people, you will discover the answer to why the strategy or tactic is failing by looking at the data you have recorded on your charts.
There are commercially available programs for computers, apps for phones, etc. that allow for convenient charting of tennis matches. However if you don't want to spend the money on such software, you can use the chart that I created some years back for a past column. It is the "old school" way of charting, but it works. Here is where you can find the chart: http://www.tennisserver.com/turbo/turbo_00_02.html. Just copy and paste the actual chart into a Word file, print out copies, and you're good to go.
Many of you will actually attend pro matches, collegiate matches or USTA tournaments. In each of these, you will find some superior players. Almost without fail, you will see something that will improve your game. It may be the finish that a player executes with respect to a groundstroke. It could be the toss associated with a particular kind of serve. It may be the body position when hitting a crisp volley.
Here is where still photography can be of great help in improving your game!
I am fortunate. As many of you may know from my biography, my full-time job is that of a professor. I teach at a small, private college. So, I often say (not so jokingly) that I have to work to support my teaching habit. Many years back, I took my photo skills and started a small photo business called Photosportacular. It has grown over the years to have allowed me to shoot MLB, NBA, WNBA, WTA, ATP and a host of collegiate and minor league sports and teams.
For over 20 years, I have photographed professional tennis. Most fortunate for me, there is a pro tournament each August in New Haven, CT which is where I reside.
In photographing the pros (women and men), I would notice things that I thought would be helpful to my own tennis game. I always photographed whatever the "insight" was! I would make prints of these still images and do two things with them.
First, I would literally paste them around my home and office. Each time I saw whatever was the image de jour, I would be reminded of what I wanted to replicate in my own game! As new images were taken, they would replace the older images. But, I always saved any image that I used as a "visual reminder" of what tennis insight I learned from the picture.
Literally, I have quite a few volumes of image books where I have compiled these "instructional reminders." From time to time, I go through these. Each time I do, I recall what lesson, change or insight I sought to gain from each image.
As a coach of a collegiate team, I would give my players images from time to time. Each image was designed to "show" the player what I believed he/she should attempt to replicate. I would give multiple copies of the same image, and have the player put the pictures up in his/her room, on the inside of his/her locker door, etc. Some of my players on their own initiative would place these images in their tennis bags. When on the court in a match, they would "refresh" their memories on what the image's insight was. Several players started this practice and it seemed to spread among teams. I truly believe these constant visual reminders in the form of still images can be a great way to improve one's strokes, etc.
So this begs the question: "How do you go about learning to take good still images of tennis matches, players, strokes, etc.?"
Well fortunately, a new book is being released by Chris Nicholson entitled (not unlikely enough) Photographing Tennis: A Guide for Photographers, Parents, Coaches and Fans. It is published by Sidelight Books.
I have known Chris for many years, and he is truly one of the best in the business! He makes photographing tennis simple and fun. His book is utterly easy to understand, and he addresses those who can afford serious gear and those who are on a more limited budget.
If there was one single book that I would recommend for anyone who wishes to take tennis images... for any purpose, Chris' would be it. The book is available at Amazon.com: Photographing Tennis: A Guide for Photographers, Parents, Coaches & Fans or from the publisher at www.PhotographingTennis.com.
If all else fails, simply cut out images from your favorite tennis magazines. But, nothing beats taking your own images... whether they are of the pros, accomplished local players, or having someone photograph you when you are executing correctly.
ANALYZING YOUR OPPONENTS THROUGH OBSERVATION
Serious tennis players leave as little to chance as is possible. When they face any opponent, they want to know what they are likely to see in their match.
Well, most of us don't take the time to really observe and analyze our opponents. In some cases, players will say, "But, I have played this person many times already." This may be so, but every time a player walks onto a court for a match, you may be seeing a totally different player.
In all the WTA and ATP tournaments I have photographed, I have seen coaches and players in the stands watching other players. Often times, the coaches are taking notes. Now on the pro tours, you usually have already played most of the likely opponents unless you're new to the tour or the opponent is new.
When Bob Brett was coaching Goran Ivanisevic, he would always watch the match of Goran's next opponent. On a few occasions after shooting my images, I took the liberty of sitting next to Mr. Brett. He was always an affable person, and would share his insights as we watched the match.
My point? You cannot over observe your potential opponents. If you can't or won't take videos of them competing, at least make notes of what you see.
Videos are extremely useful because you normally begin to pick up "patterns of play" when watching the match on a screen. You can rewind and watch a particular point where the opponent dominates or is dominated. There is so much you can learn from watching your opponents on video. If you are in a tournament, have a spouse or friend take the video should you not wish to be "discovered."
Save these videos. It is highly likely that you will face this person again... especially if you are playing league, collegiate, high school or club tennis.
If you discover a weakness, take a still image of the stroke, movement or other cause of the breakdown. Here again, posting these up as reminders prior to a match can be very useful when it comes time to actually face the opponent.
USING YOUR IMAGINATION TO SOLIDIFY RESULTS
I am a firm believer in "guided imagery." By putting yourself into a relaxed state, closing your eyes and "imaging" your strokes, etc., you can actually help them become a reality on the court.
In your mind's eye, see yourself playing your very best tennis. Play a set in your imagination. Vary the perspective of your vantage point. Start by seeing yourself playing from your own point of view. Shift to watching some points being played from a spectator's point of view. Shift again to your opponent's perspective and see yourself playing points from her/his point of view. Imagine some points played in slow motion. I even will shift my "screen" to allow the point being played to be seen in black and white... not in color.
In my book Perfect Tennis, I dedicate a chapter to this kind of off-court, imaginary play. It may sound strange, but for me and many others, it works! Under the promise of confidentiality, I have three current players on the pro tours that are presently using my techniques and find them to be significantly helpful. Imaginary matches are a key part of my mental program for success.
However, don't be afraid to use your imagination while playing a match. While setting up to hit a shot, imagine in your mind exactly where you want the ball to go. In doing this, you will probably quiet your head and body movement during the shot (always desirable), and more often than not you begin to find that you are "targeting" more accurately.
In between points and during changeovers, don't be hesitant to imagine the way in which you want a point or series of points to be played. If you find yourself behind and believe that a change in game strategy is needed, reprogramming your mind with imagined points played according to the "new approach" will help the transition.
Nothing improves your confidence more than playing well. Whether you win or lose, playing well is the real confidence booster. Let's be honest. Each of us has won some matches that have not been challenging given the fact that the opponent is not as skilled. Also, we have each won some matches against superior players not through anything we have done. Rather, the superior player simply had a bad day and/or self-destructed.
For me, internal imagery and guided visualization are clear ways to improve "how well we play."
The goal is always to play the best possible tennis that we can. If we continue to improve and play better each time we are on the court, it is inevitable that we will become