Can an Old Dog Learn?

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?”

Dave Spilseth

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.

Steve Diamond

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.

4. Unconscious Competence – 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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8 thoughts on “Can an Old Dog Learn?

  1. Here is a highly recommend book for those that are interested in learning new things. Carol Dweck’s – Mindset!

    Learning a growth mindset does in fact change the way we learn and ultimately the way we perceive the world.

    Like learning “bounce, step, hit” for tennis players. The Stoics remind us that life is actually, “action, opinion, reaction”. By intently focusing and challenging our own opinions (our internal filtering system) we hold the power to change whatever we choose.

    Go out and learn something new! Fred Robinson

    Fred, great stuff! thanks, george

  2. Love the conscious competence model and agree completely – except for that 3-6 month time frame. Being OCD and maybe inclined to practice a bit more than most, I’d still guess that 18 months would seem to be more realistic. 🙂 However, have found that “stage 3” is *not* a terrible place to be.

    Kevin, yes, i spend a lot of tennis time in stage 3 of learning! thanks, george

  3. As we have discussed, players get into a “comfort zone” and become reluctant to change something even if it isn’t working as it might have once (or never has) worked.
    One of my favorite teaching stories is when I showed a student a chart of his just completed match. I showed him that when he came in to net at the appropriate time, he won 65% of the points but when he rallied from the baseline he won 50% of the points. When I asked why he didn’t come to net more often, he said he was more comfortable at the baseline. I asked “So, you are more comfortable winning 50% of the points than 65%? You can’t make this up!!
    As long as you don’t expect immediate results and are committed to allowing enough time for it to become comfortable, ANYONE can make a change at any point in their game or life!! You are living proof of that!

    Steve, thanks! 🙂 george

  4. George,
    Very timely. At 81, I enjoy drills as much playing.
    2 weeks ago I started working with my tennis pro who works primarily with developing juniors. He agreed to work with me at my request to start at zero and teach me like I am aspiring junior in minute detail. It’s wonderful. I have the enthusiasm of a 10y/o. I’m having fun and improving something I love to do.
    Ron Smith

    Ron, “What goes around, comes around.” thanks, george

  5. Really, really great advice but I don’t have much time to write as I am barely into stage three and must hurry to the court and work towards hitting my 10,000th serve.

    Dave, hurry, hurry. george

  6. Impressed that Fred R referred to the great Roman philosopher, Seneca, in his post (above)…first time that Seneca has made this blog….I think!….and yes, we can learn…..especially the mental/focus on the ball aspect of the game. Everyone stay safe. scoot

    Scoot, both you and Fred bring a little class to the blog! 🙂 george

  7. George,

    I’m not much of a tennis player like some of your bloggers, but ever since I retired two years ago I’ve been able to work on my game. From watching you-tube videos, to working with some pros, and getting tips from my fellow competitors, my game is improving. An example is Joe Lisi, the pro at UPCC recommended a change in my grip for my serve and forehand…the results are amazing.

    On another subject, tennis has been a life saver during this covid 19 pandemic. From working on my game, to getting some great exercise, this sport has kept me sane. The best part is interacting with my fellow competitors. So many wonderful people from different backgrounds, that are all enjoying each others company. We are all so lucky!

    Drew, you are living proof for the rest of the Old Dogs! And when i was shut out of tennis for several weeks, it was the friendships i missed more than the exercise. thanks, george

  8. I really like Steve Diamond’s method of introducing the new stroke gradually. I’m trying to remake my backhand slice, with all the various components, and can do a good job on the ball machine. But going straight to a match and it all goes to pieces.
    I also video myself when using the ball machine to make sure I am REALLY making that shoulder turn (along with other things), and that has helped a lot. What I feel and what I see aren’t necessarily the same!

    Mike, find a good friend to play practice points/games/matches with and you will do it! thanks, george

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