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Learning to Play Tennis: Watching is Learning

Have you ever been to a country where soccer is the most popular national sport?  In Mexico, for instance, it’s hard to go 5 minutes without seeing kids kicking a ball around on a field, back lot, dirt road – or, well, anywhere basically that has space enough to kick a soccer ball.  Kids get this love for soccer from their parents and friends, most of whom spend an inordinate quantity of time talking about how badly the Chivas or America suck respectively.  Naturally, this same phenomena is equally apparent here in the U.S except that the sports we obsess over are football, basketball and baseball.  The point, then, is made that sports are not equally popular in all countries.  A less obvious observation, though, is that even Mexicans who don’t care much about soccer are better at kicking a ball than I am.  Likewise, I have never played football or basketball on a team, yet I am better at shooting and throwing a ball than most Mexicans who have also not played the sport.  Why is that?  Simple – Mexicans are constantly exposed to soccer and I am constantly exposed to basketball and football, and simply seeing a sport being played, regardless of interest, makes us better at that sport.

Exposure can be Voluntary or Involuntary and the Results are Similar:

We all know that our brains are fascinating organs, and we strongly suspect that they are capable of all sorts of hitherto unknown feats.  Perhaps not on the magnitude of telekinesis, understanding how brains interpret and relay instructions to muscles is pretty darn interesting.  Explained here, researchers have been experimenting to figure out how our bodies learn to perform tasks which involve a series of complex muscles movements – for instance, riding a bike.  The discovery in a nutshell is this: our brains, having been tasked with directing physical movement, create a visual map of the necessary motions before the body even flinches.  In other words, the brain teaches our muscles to perform complex, non instinctual, movements without so much as a conscious thought from us.

Don’t Play Tennis Until you First Watch Tennis:

If you want to be the best, you’ll have to watch the best.  Experienced writers say that aspiring writers can learn a lot by reading crappy books.  Reading bad prose can be so tedious that it’s easy to know, after suffering through it, what not to do.  The same does not hold true in sports.  If you watch bad tennis you will likely learn bad tennis, and unlearning bad habits is difficult (though not impossible) because learning, as we’ve discovered, is in great part subconscious.   This is why we here at the Gonzo Tennis Academy want our students to watch professional matches on TV whenever possible.

‘Sure enough, those who watched others learn the task did better than those who did not.  And those who watched students learning the wrong task had a much harder time than those who watched nothing at all.
In a second experiment, the researchers distracted the students who were watching the video by making them do arithmetic. It didn’t matter; they still learned the motor skills by watching the video.
“Motor learning by observing may occur unbeknownst to the subject,” Mattar and Gribble suggest.’

— WebMd (see full article linked above)

When you aren’t on the court with us you should be watching matches.  Observing Roger Federer gracefully bound to a seemingly impossible ball is as educational as it is motivational.  Therefore, when it’s raining or cold, watch tennis.  When you’re injured, watch tennis.  When you finish playing for the day, empty your mind and watch a match.  Now, I’m not telling you to eschew work or live your entire life for tennis.  I’m simply saying that when it comes to practice, being a third party can be just as instructional as being a participant.

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Discuss: “Learning to Play Tennis: Watching is Learning”

  1. December 23, 2011 at 4:58 am #

    Yes definitely watching is a great way to pick up how to move on the court and learn how your idols hit the ball.

    Posted by Ben Reed

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