What does playing well in tennis mean to you? To me, I’ve realized, it means long, hard-hitting baseline rallies, feeling like I cant’t miss, that the ball appears as big as a watermelon that I can place exactly where I want with just the right speed and spin.
Does this sound familiar? As recreational tennis players (or probably even competitive players), I think it’s probably pretty common to have more fun when we’re playing well (however we define that) regardless of whether we’re practicing or competing. Many of us are playing tennis as a hobby, and aren’t our hobbies supposed to be fun, not frustrating?
But what if this attitude – that we always want tennis to be fun, and for this to happen we need to effortlessly make our shots – is hindering our progress? And what if there’s a way that we can make tennis fun, not frustrating, even when we’re not “playing well?”
I recently read a book called The Talent Code, in which author Daniel Coyle investigates what he calls “talent hotbeds.” These are places and times throughout history that produce disproportionate numbers of high achievers. By studying these talent hotbeds Coyle has identified the factors he believes contribute to their high output of successful people.
One of these factors is what Coyle calls deep practice, and after reading the book I see that most of my tennis practice is very, very shallow. I think that there are changes I can make to both my practice routine, and my attitude about my performance, that will significantly improve my game and my enjoyment of it.
This post will explain Coyle’s take on deep practice and explore how we can use it to accelerate our learning of the game, no matter what level we’re at or want to get to.
What is Deep Practice?
These quotes from The Talent Code sum it up nicely:
Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways – operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes – makes you smarter. Or to put it a slightly different way, experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them…end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it.
…The deepest truth about deep practice: to get good, it’s helpful to be willing, or even enthusiastic, about being bad.
[Deep practice is] that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where our reach exceeds our grasp.
Deep practice is not simply about struggling, it’s about seeking out a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions: 1) Pick a target. 2) Reach for it. 3) Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach. 4) Return to step one.
The Biology of Deep Practice: Myelin
Coyle believes that the basis for deep practice is a substance in our bodies called myelin.
According to experts, Coyle says, a “revolution” is underway in how neurologists understand skill acquisition, and this revolution is the white matter in our brains called myelin. Here’s how Coyle describes myelin and how it helps develop skill:
- Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electrical signal traveling through a chain of neutrons – a circuit of nerve fibres.
- Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibres and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy.
- The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.
When we first start working on a new skill, we have to consciously try to develop it. But our brains are always looking for ways to free up resources so when we repeat a certain movement eventually we’ll be able to do this unconsciously (so that our brains can focus on other things). As Coyle puts it,
A skill, once gained, feels utterly natural, as if it’s something we’ve always possessed.
This is the effect of myelin wrapping around circuits.
In tennis, automaticity is important in two ways. First, we want our movement, footwork and strokes to be automatic. We don’t want to have to think about these things during matches. But second, we need to be conscious of our movement, footwork and strokes until we’re happy with them, or else we risk making poor technique automatic. Or in other words, we risk insulating the wrong circuits with myelin and locking in bad habits.
So really, deep practice might be even more important for beginner and intermediate tennis players, who haven’t yet developed solid fundamentals, than for advanced players who already use good technique. Not that advanced players can’t continue improving their speed, timing and accuracy by deep practicing and building myelin, which they undoubtedly need to do to stay competitive at the top of the game, but their relative improvement will be less noticeable compared to that of a beginner just learning the forehand.
Ok, we know so far that we need to be building layers of myelin in order to make our motions automatic, and the fastest way to do this is through deep practice.
So How do we Deep Practice?
First, let’s look again at the cycle of deep practice:
- Pick a target
- Reach for it
- Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach
- Return to step one
The essence of deep practice is to always have a target and evaluate the difference between the target and the outcome. This is how deep practice makes a mistake a good thing rather than a bad thing. If we can shift our mindsets to one where mistakes are things to to learn from rather than things to get mad at then we can stop being so frustrated about them (hopefully!).
The Talent Code defines three rules for deep practice:
- Chunk it up
- Repeat it
- Learn to feel it
Before we get into these, I’m going to add something that I think is crucial for deep practice in tennis – defining outcome goals.
Defining Outcome Goals
In deep practice, one of the key components is to use feedback to correct errors. But in order to do this I think we need to first define what an error is.
Let’s split tennis into two distinct outcome categories: technique (or mechanics) and ball control (path, placement, strategy or patterns of play).
- Technique Outcome: How the parts of your body work together to produce a stroke/swing/serve etc. or how you move to or recover from the ball.
- Ball Control Outcome: The result of your contact with the ball, including spin, pace, and placement (i.e. did it go where you wanted it to in the manner you wanted it to).
So there are actually 2 outcomes of every swing. One outcome is where the ball goes. We’d call this successful if it goes to our target at the right speed etc. and unsuccessful if it doesn’t. But a second outcome is the technique itself. A good technique outcome (i.e. we swung with desired technique) could lead to an unsuccessful ball control outcome for a variety of reasons like misreading the path of the incoming ball. This frequently occurs when we’re first learning or changing our technique since our timing and contact points need to be adjusted to compensate for the change in our racquet path. The opposite can also happen – we might erroneously label a poor swing (technique-wise) as successful if the ball control outcome is good, thus not telling our brains we need to correct our technique.
I think that we need to define the skill that we’re working on to determine how to work on it. If we’re working on hitting the ball to a target without worrying about the subtleties of our technique then we use the ball outcome as our feedback. But if we’re working on our technique, I think we might actually have to ignore the ball outcome to avoid it clouding our judgement of our technique.
As Tomaz Mencinger of Tennis Mind Game says, we need to learn to not think about our technique when we’re playing points. He believes that we should only really be thinking about our technique when we’re first learning a stroke and then returning to it if a coach tells us that we need to adjust our technique. I agree with this, although I think everyone has different goals when it comes to tennis. I personally want to hit my forehand exactly like Djokovic and my backhand exactly like Wawrinka, and actually care less about winning and losing right now, so I’m willing to spend more time working on technique. As my technique improves I gradually shift more of my focus to ball placement. However there are many players who want to learn how to effectively place the ball and construct winning points and don’t care as much about the strokes they use to do this. Everyone needs to find a balance between technique and ball placement that satisfies their current tennis goals.
Back to the book. Let’s examine the three rules of deep practice more closely and see how we can incorporate them in tennis. Remember that in all actions we want to have a target that we can measure against an outcome.
Rule 1: Chunk it up
a) Absorb the Whole Thing
According to Coyle,
This means spending time staring at or listening to the desired skill – the song, the move, the swing – as a single coherent entity.
Coyle also quotes Anders Ericsson (a prominent skill development researcher), who says
We’re pre-wired to imitate. When you put yourself in the same situation as an outstanding person and attack a task they took on, it has a big effect on your skill.
Apply it to your game
Watch good tennis on tv or live
The obvious one here would be watching high-level tennis. If we’re working on stroke mechanics, however we have to be careful. The tennis swing is so fast that we can’t really see what’s going on in real time. We need to be able to clearly see the action we want to imitate. But tennis isn’t all about strokes, so watching tennis on tv or live can help us absorb things we can see, like movement and footwork patterns, patterns of play, or certain aspects of strokes, like the trophy position in the serve. So when watching tennis on tv here are some tips:
- try not to just watch the ball going back and forth with your focus being on the score
- focus on one player for a period of time. Watch him or her react to the incoming ball, move to it, hit it, and recover. Take note of any patterns of play you can identify, like serve and volley, or going to the open court. Watch for patterns in the serve and return too, for instance whether the server uses a specific serve on critical points.
Watch high-speed video
To really see the intricacies of tennis technique, watch high-speed videos in super slow motion. While this might not be as interesting as watching pro tennis matches, according to Coyle’s theory of absorbing a skill I think it could be pretty helpful. My favourite site for high speed video is hi-techtennis.com. If you want something more entertaining and are working on a specific stroke then compilation videos are a good option. Here’s are two great ones featuring Wawrinka’s one-handed backhand: Wawrinka slow motion and Wawrinka amazing backhands. Of course a quick internet search will give you slow motion footage of pretty much any top player you want to watch.
Watch online coaching videos
One of my favourites is Jeff Salzenstein at Tennis Evolution Plus. I’m a premium member at his site, so in addition to having access to all of his existing and future courses, I also get emailed a weekly video lesson that’s typically 5-10 minutes in length. These can be about either mechanics, patterns, strategy or even off-court activities. One thing I’m trying to do is watch these lessons repeatedly. If I watch one once, I’ll think, yeah, that’s great, I’m going to apply it, but I’ll often forget all about it with all the other things I’m working on. By watching these lessons a few times over the course of a month or just returning to them periodically, it seems like I absorb the information and it becomes part of my tennis knowledge.
b) Break it into Chunks
Coyle gives an example of how students at the prestigious Meadowmount School of Music in upstate New York break difficult pieces of music into chunks. He says:
The goal is always the same: to break a skill into its component pieces (circuits), memorize those pieces individually, then link them together in progressively larger groupings (new, interconnected circuits).
Breaking a skill into chunks makes intuitive sense – learning small, manageable skills is easier than learning larger, more complicated ones just as memorizing a short verse is easier than memorizing a longer one.
Apply it to your game
Spend time working on one stroke
The forehand itself can be thought of as a chunk of the tennis game as a whole. Instead of hitting with a partner with no rhyme or reason, try spending time just hitting, for example, crosscourt forehands. This allows your brain to focus just on the crosscourt forehand for a period of time, making corrections from one to the next and building myelin around the forehand circuit.
Focus on one aspect of a stroke or movement at a time
The purpose of this is to make one part automatic so that you can then move on to focus on something else and eventually all parts become automatic. So try, for instance, thinking about just keeping your head at the contact point in every stroke for awhile. Don’t worry about anything else that happens, just think about that. Eventually keeping your head at contact will become automatic and you can turn your attention elsewhere. Then periodically just check in to make sure you’re still keeping your head at contact.
The one I’ve recently been working on is introducing the split step. This shows my tennis-newbiness, but I recently realized that I don’t split step. Ever. So I just started thinking only about split stepping for chunks of time. While I’m doing this my only definition of success is whether or not I split stepped. If I suddenly realize my attention has drifted to ball placement or some other aspect of my strokes, I just correct myself by reminding myself to split step and resume. After only a few weeks of this (periodically, not all the time), I now find I split step more often than I don’t, even when not thinking about it.
Separate footwork from strokes
It’s easy to forget about our footwork when we’re worrying about where the ball is and how we’re going to hit it. By working on footwork patterns without the ball to consider we can really focus on our feet. Then once the patterns become unconscious we won’t have to think about them during play.
A good progression is: footwork only → footwork plus shadow-strokes → footwork plus hitting controlled balls (i.e. ball machine or hand feeds) → playing live rallies or points.
I’ve been doing this with my overhead and have seen huge improvements already. During live play I usually forget to turn sideways and shuffle or crossover step to get into good position, and instead I stay facing the net and back peddle or run forward. My partner and I are now doing a drill like this:
- Shadow strokes: we both stand at the net, and then pretend we’re getting an overhead that we need to move back for. We turn sideways, get our racquets up in the trophy position, and side-shuffle or crossover a few steps, then hit a shadow overhead. We do at least 20 of these in a session.
- Catch the ball: Player 1 continues as in step 1 while Player 2 feeds lobs from the other side of the net. Instead of trying to hit the overhead, Player 1 gets into position and then catches the ball with the non-racquet hand (which should be extended upwards). This teaches good positioning for the overhead and also takes away the temptation to make the ball outcome the focus of the drill.
- Hit stationary overheads: Once we start hitting overheads, Player 2 starts by feeding short lobs directly over Player 1 . This allows Player 1 to focus only on turning sideways and contacting the ball properly without also having to move up or back.
- Hit moving overheads: The final step is for Player 2 to feed lobs all over the court. Player 1 has to start at the net in the middle, turn sideways, get the racquet up, and shuffle or crossover step into position to hit the overhead.
Chunk strokes without the ball
Chunking can be difficult in tennis where without performing a stroke from start to finish we often won’t get the ball over the net. For the most part, chunking is easiest without the ball. That is, break strokes down into component pieces and practice them independently of each other, then put them all together into the full stroke. It’s important to remember that bad habits can form this way as well as good. A few suggestions for making sure you’re using good technique while chunking off the court are:
- have a friend or coach watch you
- take videos of yourself and compare to online coaching videos or slow motion videos of pros
Chunk patterns of play
Having a plan for your first two shots in a point is a form of chunking. Rather than thinking of the point as a whole, you’re taking a more manageable piece of it to focus on. So maybe you’re working on serving out wide and then going to the open court if you get an easy return up the middle. Just think about this, rather than getting overwhelmed by planning out your whole point.
c) Slow it Down
According to Coyle, slowing down serves two purposes:
First, going slow allows you to attend more closely to errors, creating a higher degree of precision with each firing…. Second, going slow helps the practicer to develop something even more important: a working perception of the skill’s internal blueprints – the shape and rhythm of the interlocking skill circuits.
This one is really interesting to me as a tennis player. I think it’s so common for us to find it easier to play against fast-moving balls. When the ball comes at us quickly we swing instinctively, without thinking. We often find that when the ball moves more slowly we really start to feel our bodies and might even say we have too much time to think about it, and this feels quite uncomfortable.
When the ball is moving fast, it’s much harder to make adjustments to your technique – you don’t have time to think about the components of the swing and take control over any of these and you just swing. If your technique is sound this is fine, but if you’re trying to make changes, by swinging instinctively you’re just continuing to reinforce the old habit.
Apply it to your game
How do we slow things down in tennis? Here are a few ideas
- have a coach, partner or ball machine feed you slow balls
- play mini-tennis and really focus on your technique. If you’re one of those players who “can’t play mini-tennis” there might be some issues in your technique worth exploring. Coyle quotes football coach Tom Martinez as saying, “It’s not how fast you can do it. It’s how slow you can do it correctly.”
- Play “cooperatively” – focus on using good technique to hit nice, easy balls to your partner in extended rallies. I find this to be sometimes more challenging than a rally game where I’m trying to hit winners.
Rule 2: Repeat It
How much time should we spend practicing? We often think that the more reps we do of anything, the better. But this can be untrue if you’re repeating mistakes. To really maximize your learning you want to stay in deep practice for all of the repetitions.
Let’s say you go out with your ball machine and work on backhands with a specific goal of improving your shoulder turn. For the first hundred balls, you really focus on how the movement feels – are you getting the racquet well behind your body? – and in between shots you do shadow strokes. You might take breaks to watch videos of yourself or discuss with your partner or coach what your stroke looks like. This is deep practice for technique. But around 100 balls you find that you’re consistently getting the technique right, and so you starting thinking less about it and just hitting unconsciously. You feel good, things are flowing, you’re having fun, it’s easier! But now you’re no longer in deep practice, and you’re being less efficient at your improvement. You might be reverting to a smaller shoulder turn without realizing it, thus wrapping the wrong circuits with myelin.
You don’t necessarily need to stay in technique outcome deep practice. Perhaps you’ve already been practicing this new technique, so your backhand shoulder turn has become quite automatic. After the first hundred balls of focusing on the shoulder turn, you could change your focus to something different in your technique or perhaps to a ball placement goal, checking in occasionally to make sure you’re still using the right shoulder turn. But if you’re going to practice by hitting 500 backhands, make sure all of those backhands are hit in deep practice to make the best use of your time and reduce the chance that you’re actually reinforcing bad habits.
As Coyle puts it,
Spending more time is effective, but only if you’re still in the sweet spot at the edge of your capabilities, attentively building and honing circuits.
Apply it to your Game
Make sure to stay in deep practice as much as possible. When the skill you’re working on gets easy, make it more challenging or move on to another skill that requires your focused attention
Rule 3: Learn to Feel It
For ball outcome goals, judging the outcome is usually easy (as long as we actually focus on it) since we can see the ball, and where and how fast it went and with how much spin. For technique deep practice, feeling the errors is really important and I think a milestone in technique improvement. Once we can learn to feel whether we’re doing something the way we want to or not, we don’t need to rely on coaches, friends, videos.
Coyle quotes Skye Carman, teacher at Meadowmount School of Music and former concertmaster of the Holland Symphony, as saying:
The point is to get a balance point where you can sense the errors when they come. To avoid the mistakes, first you have to feel them immediately.
For me, there’s a huge difference between how I can feel my forehand (my most comfortable and practiced shot) and my relatively new one-handed backhand. In my forehand, when I notice a few balls missing the target, I’ll sort of “watch” my forehand and see what’s going on. Without really disrupting my play, I can notice things like I’m holding my wrist tight at contact or not extending through the ball properly. I can feel the component pieces of my forehand working together to make up the whole stroke, and can make adjustments to any of these pieces without throwing off the others.
In my backhand, I don’t have a good sense of this yet. It still feels more like the shot either works or it doesn’t, and I don’t really have much of a sense of why. I often have to rely on the ball outcome to label the shot as successful or not, which isn’t what I want. I’m starting to notice things like if I’m keeping my arm straight at contact or if I’m forgetting to move back or up on high balls and just swinging high, but when I focus on changing one of these things I’ll forget about the other one. At this early point in my one-hander I think it’s really important to spend a lot of time in technique deep practice to avoid building strong bad habits, so I’m doing a lot of shadow-stroking, drop-feeding and ball machine work and using video analysis as much as possible.
Apply it to your game
Think about what it feels like
I think that the ability to feel your strokes kind of comes with time, but the more time you spend actively thinking about what your strokes feel like the sooner this will happen.
Describe how you feel
Coyle lists words that describe the sensation of deep practice according to people at the talent hotbeds he studied, and he notes words he didn’t hear as well. Here’s a table showing, on the left, what you should feel in deep practice, and on the right, what you shouldn’t. Notice if you (like me) tend to associate “good” practices with the words on the right, rather with the words on the left.
Spartak Tennis Academy
To close this discussion, I’ll give a tennis-specific example from The Talent Code that illustrates how students at one very successful Russian tennis academy practice deeply. One of the talent hotbeds Coyle examines is the Spartak Tennis Academy. This is where Marat Safin, Anastasia Myskina, Elena Dementieva and Anna Kournikova got their start.
At Spartak they do a drill they call “imitatsiya – rallying in slow motion without a ball.” Coach Larisa Preobrazhenskaya has students practice strokes, without the ball interfering by capturing their attention, and makes corrections to mistakes as she sees them. Once the players do hit the ball, anytime a mistake is made, they stop and do the stroke correctly, again without the ball.
Interestingly, Preobrazhenskaya’s students were’t allowed to compete in tournaments for the first 3 years under her coaching. She says:
Technique is everything. If you begin playing without technique, it is a big mistake. Big, big mistake!
I think that for recreational players there are things to be learned in practice and things to be learned in competition, so we do need both. Perhaps you choose to concentrate on your stroke mechanics only in practice whereas in games you focus on ball path, placement and strategy. If you think of it this way then both practice and competition can be used for deep practice, using different targets and goals as feedback in your loop.
Regardless of where and when we do our deep practice, if we want to accelerate our tennis progress then we should probably be doing it. For me a big advantage is just in how it helps me reframe my thinking so that mistakes aren’t a bad thing. Each “failure” in the traditional sense of the word (i.e. unforced error, match loss, double fault) can be used as a data point for improvement.
Looking at my tennis practices and my attitude towards them, it’s not so much that I need to be happy with my mistakes, but rather that I need to restructure my practices to make my mistakes meaningful, so that I learn from them. I need to have goals and targets for every aspect of my game and an awareness of when I’m deviating from these.
- High achievers typically spend a lot of time in deep practice which accelerates their learning.
- Deep practice is a loop where you set a target, reach for the target, assess the difference between the result and the target, and repeat.
- As we repeat skills, we build myelin, which is layers of insulation that wrap around nerve fibre circuits, making them fire faster and more precisely. By constantly correcting mistakes in deep practice we ensure we’re firing the right circuits and developing good habits.
- Deep practice is applicable in tennis for improving both our technique (stroke mechanics, footwork etc) and our ball control (path, placement, spin etc). We need to choose different targets for these categories so that we don’t use our ball control as feedback for our technique practice.
- In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle offers 3 rules of deep practice:
- Chunk it up (absorb the whole thing, break it into chunks, slow it down)
- Repeat it
- Learn to feel it
- I’ve suggested some ways that recreational tennis players can incorporate deep practice into their tennis. These suggestions are by no means exhaustive, but rather are meant to illustrate examples of they types of things we can do.
Final Thoughts on Deep Practice
Of the quotes that Coyle uses to describe deep practice (above), my favourite is the one about willing to be bad in order to get good. This is something I struggle with so much – criticizing myself and worrying about how others are judging me when I make mistakes. I simply find it really hard to be willing to be bad because of how I feel it reflects on me to myself and others (I put so much into tennis and feel like a failure if I don’t “perform”). Fitting my typical pattern into Coyle’s deep practice loop, I believe I’m deeply practicing a negative behaviour and building myelin around circuits that make sure I stick with my old habits and destructive thoughts. Here’s my loop:
- Pick a target (hit a good shot – look good to myself and others)
- Reach for the target (hit the shot)
- Assess the difference between the result and the target (shot missed? shot was weak? I’m a terrible tennis player)
After reading The Talent Code I see clearly that my current tennis practice needs an overhaul. I’ve already started implementing some of these techniques and am noticing a few things:
- I’m replacing negative thoughts between shots/points with shadow strokes or analysis of why the ball didn’t go where I wanted and what to change on the next one
- My partner and I are doing many more drills that include structured rallies and ball feeding so that we can both heighten our time in deep practice
- I’m constantly reminding myself of the importance of mistakes and even using the mantra “mistakes today make me the player I want to be tomorrow” when negative thoughts creep in.
Regardless of whether or not these things will help my game (which I have no doubt they will), I’ve found my time on the court to be much more enjoyable and less frustrating with these new routines in place.
Do you consciously deep practice? I’d love to hear your routines and drills and how they work for you.