Skip to content
Blog

Learn Tennis Faster – Using Neuroscience to Accelerate Learning

Learn Tennis Faster – Using Neuroscience to Accelerate Learning
A little while ago I was really struggling with my backhand – I had completely lost confidence in it. I announced on Instagram that I planned to make some major changes. Lucky for me Ryan Reidy got in touch. He put me side-side with Novak Djokovic (widely considered to be the owner of the most efficient two-handed backhand on tour) and proceeded to show me all the things I needed to change. Over the course of a month, following the progressions he suggested, spending only 5 to 10 minutes a day, I completely remodelled my backhand and now it’s my safest shot.

That experience, along with a recent obsession with Andrew Huberman’s work on learning and neuroscience, inspired me to try to put forward TopspinPro’s view on accelerated learning in tennis.

Learning isn’t easy. You can’t pick things up as fast as they do in Hollywood. But it also shouldn’t take you 10,000 hours. Repetition is the bedrock of learning. But it’s not as simple as that. How you do the repetitions can make an enormous difference. In this article we will be looking at how you get a bigger bang for your repetitive buck.

Before we get into the detail though let’s look at the bigger picture. It’s useful to view this as a continuum. On the left we have “reach & fail” this is where the learning takes place. And on the right we have the “flow state” which is ideal for performance.

No time for the theory? Skip this section and head straight down to Getting to the Starting Line to get stuck into the actionable steps to mastering your new stroke faster!

learn tennis faster

Reach & Fail vs the Flow State

In 1975 Hungarian-American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, gave the name “flow” to a highly focused productive mental state in which a person experiences incredible energy and enjoyment from being fully immersed and absorbed in an activity.

It’s considered hyperfocus, yet in the flow state, the prefrontal cortex is believed to temporarily down-regulate in a process called transient hypofrontality. This temporary inactivity may trigger distortion of time, loss of self-consciousness, and loss of the inner critic. In other words, they’re playing without thinking. Unsurprising - since you’re essentially doing things you already know how to do.

Former world no. 55, squash coach and friend, Jesse Engelbrecht, thinks of it as a spectrum. Let’s say on the far right we’ve got “flow”. Then on the far left we have the “reach and fail” environment. When you want to learn a new skill, ‘flow’ isn’t much help. When you’re developing new techniques and working hard on changing habits the prefrontal cortex lights up. And this is as it should be, those experiences of stretching ourselves, failing and making corrections need the parts of the brain that help secure new neural pathways to be triggered.

We’ve seen these ideas echoed by Timothy Gallwey in The Inner Game. He speaks of Deliberate Practice when working on one's game but when playing matches suggests shifting to ‘mechanisms’ like ‘Bounce-Hit’ to sufficiently distract the mind so one is able to get out of one’s own way and play unencumbered tennis “in the zone”.

This has been my own experience, when I recently upgraded my two-handed backhand it required a huge amount of concentration and effort but over time it shifted across to unconscious execution.

Jeff Ritter, Golf Digest’s #1 Ranked Coach in Oregon, says the same thing. In golf you’re either learning or performing and they're very different states.

Well, here at TopspinPro HQ our mission is to help you make changes in your tennis as quickly, and as enjoyably, as possible. So perhaps unsurprisingly, we’re less interested in flow and more interested in reach & fail.

The Science of Learning

Now that we’ve established that learning sits on the left of this spectrum in the reach-and-fail environment let's look more closely at the key principles behind the learning process.

Unsurprisingly, and for your benefit, I am going to lean heavily on the work of others in this examination.

Dr Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist from Stanford, released a fascinating podcast on triggering neuroplasticity to accelerate learning “Using Failures, Movement & Balance to Learn Faster”. It was the catalyst that got me started down this path.

Trying to summarise a 90-minute podcast by a neuroscientist who is already distilling complex principles into layman's terms is well, not only terribly insulting to the neuroscientist but suggests delusions of grandeur. Regardless, I am going to do it anyway because I want to apply Huberman’s principles to the practical challenge of acquiring new tennis skills. To truly understand why they work though, you’ll have to listen to the podcast yourself.

To learn something new you need to enter a neuroplastic state. Neuro meaning brain and plastic meaning changeable. We are naturally neuroplastic up until the age of 25 - that’s why children pick things up so fast. But for people like me, we need to induce a state of neuroplasticity. Luckily there are a bunch of things you can do to trigger it.

Getting to the Starting Line

How are you arriving to the start of the learning bout?

There are a few things that can help you get to the starting line of neuroplasticity. You have to care about what you’re learning, you need to be alert but calm and strangely, spending some time off balance is another thing that triggers the release of the right neurochemicals for plasticity.

learn tennis faster

It Has To Matter

For starters, studies have shown that what you want to learn has to matter to you. Something has to be on the line. Maybe it’s a doubles tournament you want to be ready for or a player at your club you really want to beat? This gets your brain fired up. You can even create a subjective reward that is contingent on you learning something to elevate this ‘meaning’. Having a strong incentive to do something has been shown to have a dramatic effect in learning in adults.

Alert but Calm

You need to be in an alert but calm state - not too excited, not too relaxed. Your state of autonomic arousal needs to be at the right pitch - to match what you’re learning.

The best way would be to be well-rested. But if you’re not then there are some useful breathing exercises you can do to get you to the right state. If you’re too tired or calm you some controlled hyperventilating will increase alertness neuromodulator epinephrine (yes, I’m one of the "Wim Hof methods" would work).

If you are too alert or stressed, a ‘physiological sigh’ will take you down a notch - 2 quick consecutive inhales followed by a slow exhaling should do the trick.

Essentially you’re trying to manipulate your heart rate. The principles are quite simple, to increase heart rate, inhale longer than exhale; to slow heart rate, exhale longer than you inhale.

The-Arousal-Continuum

There are a couple of reasons to aim for this state. Firstly, this will maximise the difference between your dopamine baseline and the dopamine spikes generated by your reaction to doing something well.

Secondly, learning benefits most from being in a state of broad awareness. In other words, prioritise ‘panoramic vision’ over ‘focal vision’. A heightened state tends to generate tunnel vision - great for escaping saber-toothed tigers, and incidentally, great for hypnosis but not for learning. Learning requires a more meditative state. Think of it like F-stop 11 on an SLR camera (I’m showing my age now!) For learning you want to dilate your gaze so you’re aware of everything.

Get Off Balanced

Disrupting the vestibular system is another way to trigger plasticity. The vestibular system is responsible for our balance and detects rotational motion in all three axes - yaw, pitch, and roll. So movements that involve shaking, nodding and tilting your head are perfect to get this underway. It’s one of the reasons dancing feels so good. And it explains why surfing, skating and roller coasters are so popular. It generates both euphoria and the neurochemical cocktail essential for learning. But it has to be novel TO YOU. If you’re a gymnast or spend a lot of time upside down then it’s going to be a lot harder to achieve neuroplasticity this way.

It also improves performance. Stuart Gordon, a Dip Phys. Ed., ITEC sports therapist in the UK, made a startling discovery while working as a consultant with neurologically challenged children. Doing “un-balance” exercises for a few minutes before playing tennis or a similar sport dependent on motor movement completely transformed the children’s performance. As a result, balance has become a core part of his practice.

Consider finding a couple of un-balancing exercises that work for you - a handstand, an unusual dance move or simply spinning on the spot!

The Learning Bout itself

Enough preparation - let’s get stuck into the exercise. We can’t get around the rather obvious requirement for repetitions when it comes to acquiring a new skill but there are a number of other things we can do that are steeped in neuroscience that will help accelerate the process.

Repetitions, Repetitions, Repetitions

For motor learning the number of repetitions is really important! The movement needs to be repeated enough times to become familiar and natural. But it’s how you perform them that really matters. Instead of mindless repetitions, using a purposeful, systematic and mindful approach to how you work on your technique - in other words, Deliberate Practise - will make your sessions much more productive. Heightened awareness and mini objectives will also help.

But back to the numbers - we can’t get around them. James Clear maintains habits can’t be removed, the get replaced. So I often think of the TopspinPro as is a Habit Replacement Tool. With the TopspinPro it’s possible to create hundreds more repetitions of the correct technique in one session and that’s why it works so well. It’s science, not magic.

The TopspinPro essentially makes repetitions fun and easy. But interestingly they can’t be too easy.

Make Errors

Ironically, we also need to make just enough errors during these repetitions as that sends crucial messages to the brain to get it into error-correction mode. Errors cue our focus - the errors tell the brain we have a problem - we need to change the circuitry. This induces a plastic state so these changes can start taking place. But it’s not quite as simple as that. Bizarrely, our attitude to those errors really matters too.

A Positive Attitude

Framing them as positive - ie. “Yay! Learning is taking place” makes a huge difference. DO NOT give up when it inevitably gets difficult. Frustration and being uncomfortable is a sign it's working, not a sign of failure. If you can somehow connect the difficulty to positivity you’ll get a dopamine kick that will accelerate plasticity.

A State of Play

We can’t be too serious either - being in a “state of play” sets us up for plasticity too. It’s no coincidence that that’s why children’s brains are so plastic. The catch-22 is not lost on me though. I’ve asked you to set practice objectives and now I’m telling you to relax and have fun. I think though it is possible to do both - give yourself the latitude to explore but within an overarching framework.

Mind the Gap

We also need to take advantage of the “gap-effect”.

Using brain imaging, neuroscientists discovered that if you take random 10-second breaks during learning sessions and do nothing for a few moments then, during the pause, the brain will replay the same pattern you’ve just been exploring. Interestingly the brain replays the movement 10X faster! That’s a lot of extra reps. They might be ‘virtual’ reps but they all contribute to changing the circuitry.

One Focus

In Archie Dan Smith’s, phenomenal book, Muscle Memory and Imagery: Better Tennis, he exclaims the importance of only having one focus. Often coaches will try to cover the forehand, the backhand, approach shots, volleys and serves all in an hour! The brain simply can’t cope with multiple strokes. And that’s why progress is painstakingly slow. Focusing on one shot is the only way for enough repetition occur to make permanent change. This change of approach is equally hard for players who often want their whole game to receive attention.

And it’s often not enough to simply focus on one stroke. Here’s a quick summary of the Tim Ferriss view on “How To Learn Anything”:
Deconstruction – breaking down skills into smaller component skills
Selection – 80/20 analysis, find the 20% of material that provides you with 80% of performance
Sequencing – deciding what order to practice things in
Stakes – what are the consequences of not following through

That’s a pretty good recipe to follow. I might argue that ‘topspin’ is the 20% that will give you 80% of the performance. But that’s an entirely different article. Which I have in fact written.

Pick a segment of your stroke you want to work on and determine the change you want to make. It’s easier to change a small segment of your stroke than trying to fix the whole thing at once. This is called ‘chunking’ - picking a shorter sequence of actions and making them automatic.

Another way to set the scene for a practice session might be to focus on outcome only. You could let the fact that the ball landed in or out drive the change you want to make. You could follow Tim Galway's approach to letting the body figure out what changes are needed to achieve that outcome. I like that conceptually but I also really like the idea of the guidance of a coach to reduce the time this takes and avoid you ending up embedding the wrong skill - like a recreational golfer spending hours cementing his slice at the driving range.

Alternatively, you could choose to focus on mechanics or perhaps just focus on sensation and feeling? If you choose a mechanics session you might want to use video to see what you’re doing and check the movements are correct.

In a session on feeling you might occasionally close your eyes to raise your awareness of your other senses. Can you feel the spin? You’ll often see a tennis coach get a player to hit the ball into the back fence when they’re teaching the serve. This is to help the player pay attention to the sensation and eliminate any attention on the outcome. Players serving into the court invariably turn their attention to where the ball landed.

How Long should your Sessions be?

As we’ve discussed above, with adults, plasticity was shown to be more effective when you don't try to learn too much at once. Doing smaller amounts of learning more often is way more effective than longer bouts where you struggle to maintain focus for the entire session. The temptation is to feel like you have to put in hours of effort to make substantial change, but the truth is that even 5 minutes of sustained effort will always trump a longer session that ranges in intensity.

How Often should your Sessions be?

The answer is at least daily. The same way all repetitions are not made equal, when it comes to learning, units of time are not equal either. 10 minutes a day for 7 days is MUCH more effective than that one 70-minute session a week. There are a few reasons for this. Apart from the one we’ve just mentioned, the big reason is the impact of sleep on learning. We’ll discuss that in the next section).

learn tennis faster

If you can manage more than one session in a day that allows you to take advantage of the concept of ‘spacing’. Although more commonly, associated with memory and retention it has been proved that short sessions distributed across the same day will also accelerate learning.

It didn’t make me particularly popular at home but while I was working on my backhand I had a TopspinPro up permanently in the hallway. I was taking advantage of James Clear’s suggestion to reduce friction in the process (not set up required!) and was able to manage 3 or 4 five minute sessions on some days.

After your Learning Session

If possible, after your learning session you need to make sure you can set aside some ‘idle time’. The longer your learning bout the longer the period of calm you’ll need but even a few minutes is better than nothing. Like the ‘gap-effect’ covered above, your brain will re-playing the strokes in your mind. Ideally you’re doing very little, perhaps even lying down engaging in a session of Huberman’s newly coined Non Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR). But going for a walk or a run should also be ok.

Speaking of rest, let’s come back to the most important rest of all: sleep. Sleep closes the learning loop. It’s when the proper rewiring of neural circuits takes place. Similar to during rest, we replay the stroke in our mind, but in deep sleep it’s as if this process is done on steroids - in a dream state at much higher resolution and at a much faster speed. Using our previous example, in a week that would mean 7 ‘closed loops’ relative to 1 loop if you opt for the longer session. Good sleep has a dramatic effect on learning.

What about Visualisation and Slow Motion as ways to accelerate learning?

Visualisation and slow-motion swings are very popular methods for learning. While useful they are not as effective as the other things we've talked about above.

Visualisation or mental rehearsal does create activation of the upper motor neurons really well, however, it lacks the proprioceptive feedback so it's not nearly as good as the physical movement. So where possible we’d always encourage actual shadow swings over imagination. And even better than shadow swings are swings on the TopspinPro. Having a ball makes the experience more realistic and more memorable.

Slow motion movements also lack proprioceptive feedback and tend to be too accurate so don’t result in enough errors to generate plasticity.

Conclusion - the Journey and the Destination

I recognise everyone’s learning journey is going to be different. We’ll leapfrog obstacles at times, dip at others and often plateau when we least expect to.

learn tennis faster
Courtesy of SquashMind

 

As we’ve mentioned, what’s more important is our attitude to those moments. Like most things in life, it’s more about the journey than the destination.

I hope what I’ve shared resonates with you. It will be difficult to apply all the recommendations - perhaps pick a few that suit your lifestyle.

I’ll let you sleep on it.

twitter Tweet
facebook Share
Reddit
Pin
3
shares

Stay in the loop

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to sign up for our newsletter and we'll keep you up to date about new posts

8 responses to “Learn Tennis Faster – Using Neuroscience to Accelerate Learning

  1. Wow! You and your content is amazing!
    I truly wish I could spend time with you and chat, especially at a cool pub in your area!!
    How’s the serve trainer coming! I am improving my topspin serve (my go to serve when I play competitive doubles) but still have loads of improvement that can be had!
    Thanks for this article!!

    1. Hi Bob – nice to hear from you again and thank you for your kind words. It means a lot to me as I worked really hard on this article.

      Serve trainer is going well – should be out early next year. Nothing like watching one’s topspin serve bamboozle opponents!

      Would love to have a pint with you in a local pub 😊

  2. Some interesting facts and like the idea of chunking and focusing on one small piece of information.
    Changing a lifetime of bad habits is very challenging so will try frequent and short
    Also a warm up including balancing on one leg, eyes closed might be useful for groups.

    1. Thanks Malcolm – I definitely found focusing on just a section of the swing at one time made a huge difference to how fast I locked in the new motion. Yes – good idea re one leg & eyes closed – that really challenges one’s balance. I now have a slack line in the garden. I’m not sure it helps plasticity, but it’s great for improving balance, which is equally crucial in our sport. Just wish my children weren’t better than me 😊

      Please let us know how you get on with your changes!

  3. It seems to me that there are least two types of tennis players. Those that are preternaturally gifted with the requisite hand/eye and focus attributes that the rest of us struggle to learn, and the rest of us. You can make a dent in the obstacles that prevent you from being in the former group (very small dent, btw), but you can’t equal the former group, no matter how hard you try. Your club 5.0 has probably maxed out. So too your club 4.5 and your club 4.0 champion. There are dedicated tennis players who will never exceed 3.5 through no fault of their own. They just don’t have those gifts. They could be trained to a higher standard, but typically they don’t put in the effort. The Holy Grail of us recreational tennis players is to continue to “improve”, incrementally year to year, before we die. Check please….

    1. Jim – there are certainly disparities in the abilities we are born with and occasionally I watch in amazement at the bio-mechanical genius of some young players. But equally I marvel at the child that never gives up and makes his improvement through determination and effort. Luckily our sport gives us both!

      I am thrilled to still be improving my tennis in my fifties… and many more decades to come!

Let us know what you think. Post your comments below.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

TopspinPro Newsletter

Sign up for drills, tips, news & offers

Connect with the community

Check out #topspinpro for inspiration

© 2024 TopspinPro Ltd | Company Reg 09206858 | VAT 198786914