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A Tennis Learning Curve
by Tony Severino
PTR Certified Instructor

Tony Serverino Photo
Tony Severino

Tennis, as dear ole Dad used to say, "is just a matter of knowing the principles and applying them" - on a learning curve, of course.

The Learning Curve is a simple way of evaluating your development with a given stroke. If you're a tennis instructor it's a good way to measure how your class or an individual within the class is progressing.

The first time I heard about the learning curve was in a magazine article by Dr. Jack Groppel. Dr. Jack is an internationally recognized authority on the application of sport science to human performance and is well worth studying.

The learning curve theory has been reprised recently in TennisPro magazine by Bob Hayden and the phases go like this:

Unconscious Error
Conscious error
Conscious Compliance
Unconscious Compliance.

Let's look at each of the phases of the tennis learning curve in further detail:

  1. Unconscious Error

    In the raw beginner it's really a mistake more than an error. The raw beginner student hasn't a clue about the stroke, the game, or the racquet. An error is when you know what to do, but do it wrong. Some initial instruction leads to the unconscious error where the technique is new and not totally grasped. Further instruction exercises the technique and leads to the next step.

  2. Conscious Error

    The student or player now executes the stroke, but still erroneously. Only now they know what they are doing wrong, but need more personal tuning. Repetition of the mechanics hones the technique into an acceptable stroke.

  3. Conscious Compliance

    Additional instruction having corrected the problems, the student or player now studiously executes the stroke properly, over and over, thinking all the time about the mechanics of the stroke. Practice, practice, practice, leads to the top level.

  4. Unconscious Compliance

    That's when you have arrived. You just do it, unconsciously. Now you can work on variations (spin, pace, angles) and recognizing opportunities to use them. One danger is that now that everything has come together as a habit, sometimes bad things can creep into the habit pattern and unlearning is required. This can be the most difficult part, regrouping back to Step Two, Conscious Error, for some self-evaluation or instructional help. Then follows the cautious relearning road back up to Step Four, Unconscious Compliance.

The Learning Curve, of course, is a theoretical model. It is a convenient way to gauge where your students or where you are in the learning process. But it is theoretical.

The road through these steps is a practical matter. How do you get through these levels, practically? That is in the realm of training.

The British use a model for training in martial arts, which adapts very nicely to tennis. You can see the relationship in the progressions. This training model is also a useful tool in lesson planning for groups and for individual students. It goes like this:

A Training Model


  1. Technique / Mechanics

    This first stage is the initial introduction to the technique and includes learning the basic movement, mechanics and purpose, similar to the Unconscious Error phase of the learning curve. Adapted to tennis it starts with progressions through the stroke mechanics. It includes Dead Ball feeds to get acquainted. This is performed with a cooperative partner/instructor, and transitions into the Conscious Error phase of the learning curve.

  2. Repetition

    Once the technique has been learned, repetition of the mechanics brings about familiarization and confidence in the movement. Repetition builds the muscle memory and gets the "feel" of the technique. Dead Ball feeds build to rallying with a partner/instructor. This also is performed with a cooperative partner.

  3. Drilling

    Now the technique must be exercised in drills to practice the technique in a more realistic manner. This allows you to isolate the technique and develop the attributes needed to apply it on a resisting opponent. These include Live Ball drills, practice with a partner and solo equipment drills on a backboard or with a ball machine. Often score keeping introduces the competitive aspect of the game. There is still an element of Conscious Compliance here, but moving rapidly toward a conditioned response. The drills are performed with varying degrees of resistance from a partner depending on the format and purpose of drill.

  4. Sparring

    Of course we don't spar as such in tennis, but we do play recreational matches where strokes and techniques are tried out in a game situation without a high degree of pressure, as in a tournament. The British call this "free practice." It is the whole point of your training. This is where you fine-tune the application of the technique against varying opponents. Also included here is Experimentation: playing around with the technique and making it your own, trying out different variations, applications and combinations (angled cross-courts, drop shots, topspin, underspin, lobs, approaches) in match play.

    "Sparring" is performed with varying degrees of resistance from an opponent. It's a matter of taking the principles learned thus far and applying them in a realistic environment. The Unconscious Compliance stage has fairly well set in and now a repertoire is being constructed.

    When you think about it, "sparring" is a good term for this.

  5. Maintenance

    You must maintain the skill to prevent its degradation. Regular drilling and application during "sparring" will achieve this. In addition, reevaluation of your skill and your performance along with any appropriate relearning is also important. When you realize a particular stroke isn't working as well as you like, it's time to review the basic stroke progressions, or revert to some remedial instruction.

Tennis in not the easiest game to learn, but it is not as complicated as some others, like golf for instance. The Learning Curve helps measure where you are and the Training Model is useful in planning your advancement to the next level.

As to the mechanics of tennis, or any sport, as dear ole Dad used to say, "It's just a matter of knowing the principles and applying them" - on a learning curve, of course.

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