As we age, is it still possible to change your strokes to improve how you play the game of tennis? This question comes from one of the better senior tournament players.
Old Dogs/ New Tricks?
“Hi George, I love your blog and the wonderful insights that you and your followers send out. At the World Tennis tournament last January, you passed on an observation from Hank Irvine who had watched my match. Hank said I wasn’t following through enough on my serves which could lead to shoulder problems. I have been working on changing and I am making progress when I practice, however in a tight match I revert to my old ways. At 74 am I too old to change? Does anyone else have these problems?”
Yes, You CAN!
According to the National Institutes for Health (full study results HERE)
“Many studies have demonstrated that aging is associated with declines in skill acquisition. In the current study, we tested whether older adults could acquire general, transferable knowledge about skill learning processes… The experimental group exhibited faster learning than that seen in the control groups. These data demonstrate that older adults can learn to learn new motor skills.”
Take it Slow
Steve Diamond, a friend and tennis teaching professional, says, “You CAN teach old dogs new tricks. Just not the stubborn ones.” What he emphasizes is the same thing that I believe in… you must have transitional steps between practicing a stroke and using it in critical match situations.
What he means is, while rote repeating of a new/correct motion is critical to the learning process; also it is critical to gradually introduce it into mental match play. After practicing the new motion, you should then play some points using the new skill. Then you play practice games (with an understanding and cooperating partner) using the new skills. And then play some “fun matches,” where you give yourself permission to lose points, games, and the match while you practice.
On Friday, I played singles with Pelican Bay’s Super Senior, 86 year old Gordon Hammes, who is just now trying to learn to play with the oversized, 137 sq inch racquet. That is one Old Dog who never stops learning new tricks!
Four Stages of Learning
It is my experience that changing a stroke can actually take 3-6 months to fully incorporate into your game; and I remind myself to remember the Four Stages of Learning:
1. Unconscious Incompetence – Here is where the process starts out. You can’t really hit a good backhand down the line – and you are not even aware of your shortcoming… you just keep on missing, almost every time you try to do it under any pressure at all.
2. Conscious Incompetence – In this stage, you RECOGNIZE the problem and want to do something about it. You either take a lesson, get some pointers from others, or start practicing a better stroke. Although you still cannot hit a good backhand down the line, you are aware of it … and trying to do something about it.
3. Conscious Competence – Here is where you start making real progress… you now UNDERSTAND what you have to do to change the stroke, you have made the changes, and can start hitting the backhand down the line – except you really have to think about what you are doing to execute the stroke properly.
– This is what you worked for! The stroke is now one that “you own” and can hit
it whenever the occasion arises – without even thinking about it!
You must have patience for this process to really work for you. First you have to be committed enough to want to change and work at it regularly; but also recognize the process of change takes time. According to tennis teaching expert, Vic Braden, it takes TEN THOUSAND (correct) repetitions of a stroke before you can actually “own it” and put it in your Unconscious Competence category.
How about YOU … have you learned a new stroke?
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