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Tennis Practice and the 10,000 Hour Rule

I am a believer that as long as you are not injured, and you enjoy what you’re doing, there is no such thing as too much practice.  After all, practice makes perfect, right?  And, I’m not alone with this reasoning.  The virtues of frequent practice has some backing in what is called The 10,000 hour rule.  The rule, proposed by Malcolm Gladwell, in his bestselling book, Outliers, is just one piece of his study of successful people. It says that success is driven, in part, by copious practice (duh).  The magic number, he says, is 10,000 hours.  This works out to roughly 3 hours of practice per day for 10 years.  You might think that number is too high, but keep in mind that there is more than one kind of practice.  In tennis, you don’t actually need 10,000 hours on court.  Bouncing a ball, watching matches on TV, reading sports psychology books and any number of other tennis specific activities count as practice.  The necessary division of these activities is up for debate, but here is the important thing to glean about practice: Passionate quantity is more important than fastidious quality.  Yes, it runs counter to everything you were probably taught as a youngster.   But, let’s just consider it for a moment.

Quantity over Quality:

Whatever it is you’ve chosen to do with your life you should do it with passion; nobody is suggesting that mindless repetition will be enough. Don’t, though, mistake passion for perfection.  Perfection comes through repetition, and each incarnation of your effort can look like garbage so long as it is accompanied with passion – until it slowly gains competency and then mastery.  A good illustration of this comes from the book Sketching User Experience, by Bill Buxton.

“A ceramics professor comes in on the first day of class and divides the students into two sections. He tells one half of the class that their final grade will be based exclusively on the volume of their production; the more they make, the better their grade. The professor tells the other half of the class that they will be graded more traditionally, based solely on the quality of their best piece.

At the end of the semester, the professor discovered that the students who were focused on making as many pots as possible also ended up creating the best pots, much better than the pots made by the students who spent all semester trying to create that one perfect pot.”

There is no indication that one group of potters was more passionate about making pottery than the other, and I make the assumption that both groups possessed the same degree of desire.  Obviously, a person who has no interest in making pottery and doesn’t care about the outcome will be careless no matter what.

What Makes a Good Tennis Player?

The first and most important trait of any player is a passion to find perfection.  Agassi, who hated tennis, became great despite not liking tennis because he was passionate about perfection.  I don’t suggest taking that rout, though, because it makes much more sense to become great at something you like. But the point is clear – potters, writers, athletes, etc… who want to improve, will improve. It could have been any activity and Agassi would have succeeded. He has a unique passion for winning regardless of the pursuit.  He says himself that he enjoyed poetry as a child, and he would always find escape from tennis in art.  I have no doubt that if he had spent as much time with reading and literature as he did on the court we would be talking about Agassi, the poet, not Agassi, the great tennis player.  You don’t have to have awesome physical gifts to be a great player, you have to have passion, and you have to put in the time.  That’s it.

Stop Worrying About the Details!

Becoming a world class athlete is not for everybody, but tennis, as a recreational sport, can be.  No matter how much passionate practice you put into it, it will be more than you had the day before, and it will begin to mold you into the player you want to be.  Don’t spend time worrying about the technicalities of your swing and getting stymied by not being able to do it just right.  Remember, if you want to get better, you will — it doesn’t help to stand around thinking about it.  Actual doing — action! makes us better players — just like producing pottery makes for better potters.  If you want to take a few steps toward a goal, take some classes.  The more you swing that racquet, the better you’ll get — I promise!

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Discuss: “Tennis Practice and the 10,000 Hour Rule”

  1. June 1, 2016 at 4:16 pm #

    I can tell you based on the last 4 years of my daughter playing tennis that the quality of practice is much more significant in a players development than simply getting on court every day and hitting balls. In fact I would bet that 99% of the club players who play 3 days a week or more are not much better than they were 10 or 20 years ago. They never really improve.

    There are dozens of examples of kids around hear who show up at the club take lessons once or twice a week and play every day and yet have not really advanced their tennis significantly in the four years I’ve known them. My daughter is the exception. She has made tremendous advances and it’s because of a coach who makes her practice things the correct way. I see students who have the same terrible forehand technique that they had 4 years ago. They never change. According to this article, simply getting out there and playing is the key to improvement. I’m sorry to say that’s not how it works. You need a great coach who will teach you the right way to do things because nothing about hitting a ball with a racket is intuitive or natural.

    Posted by Bob

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