February 25, 2024

Lessons from Tennis Lessons

AI-Generated “Art”

I’ve taken perhaps 200 tennis lessons since COVID-19 stopped the earth from spinning. This is the first time in which I’ve ever committed to any sort of physical activity (and working towards getting better at it). Participating in any sport seems miraculous to me as I had “Special Gym” while in elementary school and am acutely aware of my limitations.

As a veteran teacher educator and amateur epistemologist, I spend a great deal of time thinking about my own thinking. All though it’s crazy-making, I feel like I have a pretty good handle on my own thought processes. My friend Seymour Papert taught us that “you can’t think about thinking without thinking about thinking about something.” Tennis has been a chance for me to think about my thinking and how that translates into physical action.

Working with a variety of tennis pros in private lessons and group workouts has also provided a laboratory for observing good and bad teaching. A modicum of newfound maturity has lent me the grace to tolerate substandard pedagogy for three primary reasons:

  1. I may find a valuable nugget of useful information amidst inept teaching.
  2. I set my own internal curriculum objectives. Since second grade, I stopped caring about satisfying a teacher’s agenda.
  3. I play tennis for exercise and that requires other humans. Therefore, I get to hit tennis balls, run around, and burn calories even during inferior instruction.

I would be remiss if I failed to lay my cards out on the table to state that instruction is highly overvalued. I adhere to the Piagetian belief that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.” Learning is not the direct result of having been taught. We learn by doing, often in a social setting in proximity to expertise, like on the tennis court. 

One of the most popular books ever written about learning, Gallwey’s “The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance,” shares the view that being taught tennis isn’t nearly as effective as playing tennis if you wish to play better.

Neither Gallwey nor I are suggesting that there is any merit to Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice bullshit, although playing tennis is certainly important to tennis playing. What Malcolm Gladwell gets comically wrong in his theory of success is an underappreciation of the cognitive component of personal growth. Humans progress and learn when they can make sense of something new in terms of situating their new experience within something they already understand or have previously experienced. The 10,000 hours nonsense defies common sense as soon as you think of examples in which little kids learn something complex in seemingly no-time or observed a “growth spurt” in athletic, intellectual, or musical “talent.”

Recent tennis workouts made me think about my years of instrumental music lessons. Sport and playing an instrument have similarities due to their physicality and infinite range of proficiency. Some people are exponentially “better” than others.

People who are great at what they do, like elite musicians and athletes may or may not be good teachers. There are a multitude of variables that combine in complex ways to create great teachers. More often than not, people who are great at what they do make fine educators because their cognitive understanding of internal processes is so sophisticated and refined that it is easy to communicate that wisdom to others.

However, I have observed one trap some experts fall into. Too many instructors perceive the way they achieved excellence as the correct way everyone else must learn to hit an overhead smash or play a Charlie Parker solo. Such lack of empathy is antithetical to good teaching. It creates unnecessary and counter-productive conflict between teacher and student. Most importantly, forcing students to learn something the wayyou did, ignores the epistemological pluralism of humans and the role of cognition in development. 

Simply stated, not everyone learns the same way or will realize the same skill level. Different people have divergent goals as well. The great scientist, Marvin Minsky, used to remind us that, “‘You don’t really understand something if you only understand it one way.’”

I tried (unsuccessfully) tonight to persuade the tennis pro to feed lobs to a classmate with his feet perpendicular to the net so he could understand what hitting an overhead smash felt like. The rapid sequence of turn 90 degrees, sidestep to get underneath the ball, hit it before it drops, and follow-thru across your body was proving too difficult for my peer. Remembering to turn bordered on the impossible. So, why not create a scenario in which the turn made sense before expecting the entire sequence to be mastered? In my “classroom,” I would eagerly engage in such experiments.

Expecting everyone to learn your way creates a scenario in which the perfect becomes the enemy of the good, and is often, unattainable. The best teachers support multiple ways of knowing and celebrate learning as growth. Your ideal of perfection may cloud a student’s path to continuous progress. Putting yourself in a students’ tennis shoes, making modifications to the activity, or letting some “bad habits” slide until another day may be the best way to lead to the sort of student epiphany you seek. If at first you don’t succeed, perhaps you should attempt a different strategy.

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2 thoughts on “Lessons from Tennis Lessons

  1. This a great reminder that master teachers have coaching qualities that enable them to meet students where they are and work towards getting the best out of each player.

    Indeed, “instruction is highly overvalued.” If “knowledge is a consequence of experience” and learning leads to behavioral changes, then many teachers would ditch many of their pedagogical practices.

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