The Art Of Learning

by John Debnam Thinking Tennis

The simple yet powerful truths of the learning of tennisare not limited to the tennis courts. They extend into all areas of life. In this lesson I will quote seven uniquely skilled individuals, successful athletes, painters, poets, and people of other disciplines, who have shared their wisdom about the art of learning. My comments follow each quote to help you make application to your tennis game.

  1. “Progress comes to those who train and train; reliance on secret techniques will get you nowhere.” (Morihei Ueshiba, founder of the Japanese martial art aikido)

Not much to explain here! Tennis players are constantly looking for a magic bullet or quick-fix mechanics to catapult their game on to victory. Not so for the elite in any field. The achievers are the ones who are relentless, year after year, in their practice regimen. While everyone else is trying to figure out what to do, the Champion is out doing it.

  1. “If you understand real practice, then archery or other activities can be Zen. If you don’t understand how to practice archery in its true sense, then even though you practice very hard, what you acquire is just technique. It won’t help you through and through.” (Shunryu Suzuki, famous Zen monk)

In other words, technique without a quiet, relaxed mind and free, unconscious play is like a house with no foundation. Fantastic on the outside, but when the pressure of a storm hits, everything falls apart. Tennis players who overemphasize technique will experience this. Once pressure hits, everything falls apart. The players’ strokes may look pretty, but they have no foundation to keep their game together during the storm. Stability comes from the combination of intense practice and unconscious play.

  1. “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice reduces the imperfection.” (Toba Beta, poet and author)

You are not striving to be perfect. Perfect is not going to happen! The repetition, hitting tons and tons of balls, is to reduce failures, not to play perfect tennis. Failure will always be there, so get used to it! Remembering the mantra, “the next shot is more important than the last mistake,” will keep you moving forward.

  1. “People ask me, ‘How do you mix your paints?’ and I say, ‘Paint a lot of paintings and automatically everything is coming to you.’” (Bill Alexander, artist)

  2. “You learn to draw by drawing.” (Mick Maslen, artist and art teacher)

These are two of my favorites. Why? Because they depict the heart and soul of learning tennis – self-discovery and unconscious play. As your repetition practice continues from month to month and year to year, your conscious mind automatically begins to receive a sense of feel from the unconscious. This sense of feel enables the mechanics to work instinctively and spontaneously without your conscious mind controlling every intricate detail. Talk about fun. When that begins to occur you have an exhilarating experience that amazes and stuns even you! This is exactly what these artists are describing. The learning that comes to you is self-discovery of the highest magnitude.

  1. “He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, philosopher, poet and composer)

Learning is a stratified process that flows from the simple to the more complex over time. You must work in baby steps to stand, then walk, then run and climb. No need to practice running or climbing right away, you must first develop the balance or timing necessary for walking. Most of the mechanics that tennis players are learning belong to the running or climbing levels, but they have no balance or timing yet to support those techniques. Many players remain frustrated because they can never quite accomplish what is expected of them. This is the reason. They have simply not done enough repetition to learn to stand or even walk. You cannot fly into flying!

  1. “Practice makes myelin, and myelin makes perfect.” (Daniel Coyle, author)

As I explained in a previous lesson, myelin is the insulating material surrounding the nerve fibers in the brain. Myelin thickens with repetition practice, allowing the sensory impulse signals to travel faster and more accurately through the body for improved stroke production. The thicker the myelin, the better you play. The top pros are said to have myelin superhighways from years of hardcore repetition.

There you have it. A martial artist, a poet, a philosopher and others giving their expertise, their wisdom, about what it takes to reach sublime levels in any endeavor. Ignore them at your own peril!

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