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THE HOURGLASS OF MOMENTUM IN TENNIS
By Ken DeHart
Imagine you have an hourglass in front of you. The top half of the hourglass represents the momentum in your tennis match when you are winning. The bottom half represents the player who is losing..
The person who is winning has a wealth of information available to them represented by all the grains of sand in the top half of the glass. However, while all that information is available to them they are only using a few pieces of that knowledge at a time.
This small flow of information is represented by the few grains of sand that pass through the tiny filter or the middle of the hourglass. This is like playing in the zone where you are not thinking too much but allowing the flow of the match to occur naturally.
On the bottom is all the sand that has fallen and continues to fall like rain, coming down on the player who is losing - can't hit, playing poorly, never lost to this person before, he is playing so lucky and etc. Nothing seems to be going well for them and they can’t seem to manage all that is coming down on them.
At some point, the player who is losing can feel desperate or frustrated by not being able to control what is happening. They realize that time is about to run out. Now instead of all the disconnecting thoughts they decide upon a strategy - go to the net, lob every ball, hit every ball down the middle and etc.
The point is that they quit worrying about their circumstance and focus on one tactic to solve their situation. Perhaps it is to rise above all the sand that has fallen and use it as a platform to stand taller and block the middle where all the sand is flowing from. They decide upon one specific tactic instead of being overwhelmed by their situation. At least now they have a specific purpose – a plan of action instead of being the victim.
The player on top suddenly realizes that time is about to expire and he is on top, they are winning. Gradually or even suddenly, thoughts begin to distract them. They have never beaten you, they can't wait to tell their friends, they will now be in the next round of play and etc.
Suddenly the hourglass will have turned upside down. The player on the bottom has forgotten all the disconnecting thoughts about how desperate their situation is and begins to have only one thought or purpose. The player who was on top is now aware of all their options and opportunities. No longer is there a natural flow to what is happening. The player who was on top now experiences all the disconnecting thoughts.
This is how a match will normally flow. When I realize I am about out of time and ready to lose the match, my focus will change to one thought or purpose. Having accepted that I could lose I begin to focus on a singular plan to salvage my situation. Winning or losing is no longer my focus, my fear is not my driving force. My fear has pushed me to a point where I must make a decision
As you mentioned, the eyes are the key. If you can see the ball rotating as it comes to you, your mind will become quiet and things will slow down in your mind. A good game to play with yourself at this point is "yes" or "no". After you have contacted the ball, say "yes" if you were able to pick up the rotation of the ball before contact and you had previously selected a target for your shot before the ball bounced on your side of the court.
We call this, "paying attention to attention". If you could evaluate your attention level after a shot and it was at 8-9 or 10 on a scale of 10 you would have excellent "attention" and a relaxed focus of mind.
You can also focus on "paying attention to tension" or how tight you are gripping your racquet and the tension level of your body. This should be about level 2 or 3 on a scale of 5.
Some of the unique aspects of tennis are that there are no time limits, it is one of the only sports where the opponent calls your lines, and one of the few sports that makes you start at 0 or even at halftime. All the success you had in the first set goes back to zero for the second set and you must start from scratch to win the next set.
This is one of the many "treasures" you will learn and re-learn as you play the game of Tennis...
USPTA Master Professional and PTR International Master professional Ken DeHart has been teaching tennis for over 30 years at both the recreational and performance level. He was the 8th inductee into the PTR Hall of Fame joining celebrities like Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, Dennis Van der Meer, and Dr. Jim Loehr. Based in San Jose, California, Ken is a published writer, having co-authored the original "International Book of Drills" with Dennis Van der Meer and his book, "Mastering your Tennis Game." As a National Tester for the Professional Tennis Registry, he helps train and certify tennis-teaching professionals. He enjoys being a mentor to anyone who loves the game of tennis. Ken is a Charter Member of the PTR and the PPR (Professional Pickleball Registry.) The Director of Racquets at Alpine Hills Tennis and Swimming Club in Portola Valley, CA says, “My goal is to assist in providing continuing education for tennis-teaching professionals and coaches.”
DOES PRACTICE TYPE MATTER?
AN INTRO TO BLOCKED VS. RANDOM PRACTICE IN TENNIS
By Matt Kuzdub
Many experts in the field of motor learning believe that the way a coach interacts with an athlete bears a tremendous impact on the improvements that athlete makes. These same experts, however, would argue that the organization of a practice is perhaps even more important than what a coach says to his/her athlete. Let’s assume that to be true for a moment. As a coach, would that change the way you look at your practices? As a player, would it affect your perspective when attempting to improve serve accuracy, for example?
While I am by no means an expert on this topic, it’s one that interests me greatly. This interplay between how practices are organized and implemented versus what is said during that time period can have a tremendous impact on learning. But I’d like to focus on the latter point - the organization of practices. To keep it simple, we'll explore two basic forms of practice, blocked and random. This post, therefore, will define both practice types, offer some examples as they relate to tennis, and try to make sense as to which is more effective...a tall order to say the least.
STABILIZATION & ADAPTATION IN LEARNING
Before we get into the details regarding blocked vs random practice, it’s important to note that the goal of practice in and of itself is to improve performance beyond the point at which we started. In beginners, the process generally happens at a faster and steeper rate. As a performer becomes more skilled, improvements are smaller and less noticeable. This concept is termed the ‘law of diminishing returns' (figure below). The question we need to ask ourselves is, does learning stop at a certain point? Or can even the most elite tennis players, athletes, musicians, and so on, continue making improvements throughout the course of their careers/lives?
Before this complex question can be answered, we must have some sense of how learning occurs. Here’s a brief rundown. Our bodies are constantly seeking homeostasis - in other words, equilibrium. We don’t like disruption; we rather stay at our current point. When it comes to learning complex motor skills, however, this disruption, is exactly what is necessary. When we are confronted with drills and tasks that are novel and difficult, this is the beginning of the adaptation to the learning process. A review by Correa et al (2014) on this topic says it best:
“Adaptation occurs when changes in the environment perturb the system, challenging its stability and causing uncertainties”
The key concepts here are stabilization and adaptation. Let’s use a tennis example to illustrate the interplay between these 2 terms. Imagine you’re coaching a complete beginner on how to serve. Perhaps one of the early steps is to have them simply make contact with the ball in an overhead position, regardless of technique, the direction the ball travels, etc. Even this can be challenging for some. Sometimes they make contact with the frame instead of the strings, sometimes they contact the strings but it's off-centre and other times they do hit the sweet spot. Over time, as they are continuously exposed to this scenario, stabilization occurs. In other words, they are able to make clean contact with the ball, relatively consistently. This is achieved via the ‘negative feedback mechanism’ - meaning that internally, because the performer is aware of the desired outcome, they provide themselves with feedback - 'no that’s not good, it hit the frame’, ‘no that impact is too low’ or ‘no that’s not quite the sweet spot.' Note that there are positive internal feedbacks as well, but because beginners make more mistakes than not, the negative mechanism is theorized to predominate. In any case, our actions have adapted and we are now capable of performing this task with consistency - it is ‘stable’, so to speak. But to gain increased skills and abilities, we must again perturb the system and create uncertainties by challenging the learner with ever-increasing demands.
So to come back to our earlier question, can we continue to learn, even at the most elite levels? I will answer this with another question - can we create tasks for elite players that are challenging them and causing instability in the system? I believe so. But look again at the law of diminishing returns graph - if only learning and performance looked so simple. It doesn't. There are times when certain skills outperform others. And other times when you need to revisit a certain skill entirely. All of this now leads us to the main topic of this article, practices. How we organize practices will determine how our players learn, re-learn, adapt, and ultimately, how they will create stability to continuously achieve higher levels of performance.
Let us begin with blocked practice as this is probably the form of practice that is most common, especially in tennis settings. Blocked practice’s premise lies within consistency. The theory here is that to learn a skill, we must repeat that skill over and over until it looks and feels like the desired outcome. In blocked practice settings, the coach would instruct the learner to perform task A first, then task B, task C, and so on.
In tennis, true blocked practice would be something like hitting a specific forehand, from a specific position on the court, towards a particular target and repeating this skill many times - usually, until the student is showing signs of improvement or for a specified number of attempts. Once this task is complete, you would go on to a different type of forehand task, for example - perhaps hitting from a different location of the court, or with less spin, more direct, and so on. Next, you would move on to a backhand drill, finish that drill and move on again. While studies demonstrate that learners do quite well DURING practice time with a block schedule, most research looking into this form of practice suggests that it doesn’t hold much value in retention tests - i.e. longer-term learning (Schmidt and Wrisberg 2000). How many tennis practices have we either seen or carried out that follow this type of schedule? I know I’ve done them...and still do. But are they completely useless? We’ll explore this question below.
The other form of practice that has been extensively researched, is called random practice. It doesn’t mean you assign random drills, it simply means that instead of practicing one particular stroke over and over, a number of different skills are practiced in a mixed manner. This may mean, for example, that a coach feeds a variety of balls to a player, in a random sequence (i.e. all over the court). In extreme scenarios, none of these feeds are directed towards the same position more than once in a row. In other words, the balls are fed constantly in random order - one deep to the forehand, one wide to the backhand, and then a short forehand, for example. While block could look like this: AAAAAA etc. BBBBBB etc. CCCCCC etc., random could look like this: AAA BBB CCC or ABC ABC ABC or like this ABC BAC CBA and so on.
Many studies confirm that random practice outperforms block practice when it comes to long-term learning, even though performance initially dips compared to block. The theory is that learners must reconstruct the action plan with each repetition because we’re not seeing the same task consistently. It’s interesting to note that random practice has been seen to extend beyond what was performed during training (Schmidt and Wrisberg 2000). In other words, researchers theorize that when a thrower, for example, practices throwing a ball for a distance of 10m, 20m, and 40m, they will also be able to throw with accuracy to the 5m mark, the 30m mark, etc - even though they never practiced throwing to those distances. This contradicts the specificity of learning theory but does make practical sense. Tennis players cannot work on every single shot type - I mean, how many spots can the ball land on a tennis court, with varying degrees of spin, speed, and height. I’m sure someone out there has done the math...and I’m guessing the possibilities are almost infinite. But elite performers still have the ability to adapt to these different shot types. Given this info, should we only structure practices that reflect a random schedule?
WHAT ABOUT OPEN ENVIRONMENTS?
Before we debate the effectiveness and implementation of each practice type, let’s remember that tennis is primarily an open skill sport. And while I do believe closing skills off in practice has its place, for better transfer to the match court, practices should reflect the situations that a player we’ll encounter in competition.
That said, it’s easy to distinguish between blocked and random practice when feeding balls out of a basket - i.e. in closed-loop environments. But it becomes a bit trickier when players are in open-loop environments. Of course, playing points and competing would be considered a form of random practice - we don’t know exactly where the oncoming ball will end up, and our shot responses will vary. But what about a cross-court forehand drill? On the surface, it may seem like a blocked skill - and it very well could be - but it could also be classified as a random practice drill. Let me explain. Hitting cross-courts at low speeds, with little movement, virtually no variation in height or spin, and towards the same target, would likely be considered under the blocked practice type.
On the other hand, if we’re hitting cross-courts with greater speeds, making the appropriate recovery movements, adjusting to the depth and spin of the oncoming ball by moving in multiple directions, and varying the targets (even if it’s just slightly) - in my opinion, would be considered random practice. In essence, no 2 shots would be EXACTLY identical. From my experiences, both forms of practice types hold value - even when working with players who are competing on the national or international stage.
Here’s where the debate begins. Why do I believe both forms of practice are important? Remember Ericsson’s theory on deliberate practice? His theory is that we should constantly be challenging our students by organizing tasks that take them out of their comfort zones. Well, if we are to take it as 100% fact, our athletes would be completely wiped out. It’s just not logical for someone to be uncomfortable all day long, on every task, over the course of time. This is something that coaches and researchers call ‘cognitive/emotional load’. Think of those times when you were in school studying for a big exam. And how you felt after writing that exam. If you were anything like me, you were completely drained. The same concept applies to sports. This is why, in my opinion, simple, repetitive drills still have a place in the training of elite performers. In fact, repetitive tasks with low thought may provide parts of the brain breathing room to get creative - but that’s a whole other topic we’ll leave for another day.
BLOCKED VS RANDOM - FROM RESEARCH TO PRACTICE
Let’s take a look at some of the research to help gain more perspective on this topic. In a landmark study by Shea and Morgan (1979), 2 groups of individuals were asked to perform a variety of arm and hand movement tasks. The aim of the task was to knock down a small barrier (located on an apparatus), as fast as possible, in response to a light stimulus. One group practiced the sequences in a block format while the other in a random format. During these practice settings, the block group outperformed the random group, but after 2 retention tests - one of which was administered 10 minutes after practice and the other 10 days - the random group had superior results. The author's conclusion was that, while block practice is better at improving performance immediately, random practice produces better LEARNING.
Many studies have confirmed these results; even in tennis settings. Hernandez-Davo et al (2014) put the theory to the test using the serve. The block (consistency) group improved at a steep pace early on - and continued to improve even during the first retention test, which was carried out at the 2-month mark. The random group, on the other hand, experienced decrements in performance during practice but had steady improvements at the 2 and 4-month marks (look at radial errors in the figures below).
This is an interesting finding for 2 practical reasons. First, it’s ok (and normal in fact) to see performance drops early on when utilizing a random approach. A review article by Reid et al (2006) confirms this. These researchers argue that many coaches are only concerned with the observable. What if a student isn’t achieving a certain task at that particular moment, something must be wrong. Oftentimes, the task is adjusted (usually by decreasing its difficulty) so that success is achieved right away. But many times, when practice outcomes look awful, the student is in the process of learning. During these periods of missing and not achieving, learners are constructing mental maps through constant evaluation and reevaluation.
That said if block practice is so effective early on in practice schedules, shouldn’t we employ these tactics as well? I’d say yes. Not only does it tell the coach, and the player, that yes, they are in fact capable of performing this shot, thus providing confidence and belief, but it also sets the stage for more complex (random) drills later on. Here’s a quote from Correa et al (2015), that highlights this interplay:
“Consistency is necessary to achieve goals with reliability. Variability (on the other hand) is fundamental to cope with environmental instability.”
A mentor of mine once questioned me - if an athlete can’t master a fundamental closed chain skill, in a closed parameter, why would you introduce variability? If a player has difficulty hitting a serve target with some resemblance of consistency, is it logical to assign them to hit a variety of targets in random order? While researchers may disagree with me, I’d argue no. Remember the stability-adaptation theory from earlier? Many beginners must practice in this block-type manner in order to create stability in the specific movement patterns necessary to execute tennis shots. And this type of practice allows beginners to concentrate, uninterruptedly, on one particular skill. But elite players can benefit too. Just because a player was able to hit a wide serve consistently 3 months ago, doesn’t mean they can do it today. We need to revisit certain skills and qualities many times during the course of a year and/or career. It’s just not realistic to think that a player can do everything well, all the time.
A CRITICAL VIEW OF THE RESEARCH AND FINAL COMMENTS
Now while I’m not discrediting random practice and its value (I actually believe it’s EXTREMELY valuable and EXTREMELY necessary) - but we must look at research with a critical eye. Yes, studies have seen better results following retention tests (tests conducted after some sort of delay, whether that be days, weeks, months, etc), that random practice outperforms blocked practices. However, as with most research, these studies are short-lived. What about longitudinal results? Like 6 months or 1 year later? Furthermore, each player is unique and may respond differently to each form of practice. I’ve been around the game long enough to know that some players need the extra repetition in a closed setting to gain confidence. While other players want to play points right off the bat. Some players need that repetition - and if it helps them ‘feel’ the ball, and improves their perception of that skill, can we argue against it?
In any case, what this tells us, in my opinion, is that both types of practice structures are necessary depending on a number of factors. Like what stage of development your athlete is in, or what time of year it is, or each individual's response to training, and so on.
Lastly, researchers believe that “motor skills should be conceived of as hierarchically organized at a macroscopic and microscopic level”. Put another way, skills are placed into either one of 2 categories - macro or microstructures. It’s this macrostructure that is order-oriented (consistency focused) while this microstructure is dis-order oriented (variability focused). Given this, both blocked (order) and random (dis-order), have a place, don’t you think? It’s up to us to determine when and to what extent we implement each form of practice type...echoing the words of my mentor, beyond theory and science, lies the art of coaching.
I coach tennis players both on and off the court. My coaching philosophy emphasizes a holistic approach - everything matters and nothing can be neglected.
I hold an MSc in Sports Science. While completing my studies, my research areas included strength & conditioning and nutrition for exercise and sport. More specifically, I studied the role sports science research can have on peak performance in tennis players. (Matt's website)
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