The Learning Curve

by: Andrew Friedman | July 30, 2013

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Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned tennis player, a regular lesson has probably been a part of your life at some point, and it likely will be again. Given the time and expense lessons entail, not to mention the long-term effect our relationships with teaching pros have on our tennis happiness, it pays to examine ways of maximizing those lessons.

Some careful decision-making can yield big dividends in how productive your lessons are, beginning with the choice of pro. If you don’t have a relationship with a pro, don’t dutifully enlist the first one a friend, or the local club, points you toward.

“It’s very important to commit to trying a few pros to find one that speaks your language, relates to you in a way you understand,” says Joe Perez, director of tennis at CityView Racquet Club in New York City. Perez urges players to become aware of how they best receive information—some students respond to the physical, others to the intellectual. “Some pros talk a lot; some hit a lot. Do you learn more from hitting or from talking about hitting?”

It’s also important to find a coach who’s a good temperamental match for you and will create a teaching environment in which you’ll flourish. Some teaching pros are intensely demanding where others can be downright touchy-feely. “Not everybody wants to play for Bobby Knight,” says Jonathan Buchman, assistant men’s and women’s tennis coach at New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University. “Some want to play for Mike Krzyzewski.”

Once you have a pro identified, walk onto the court with an open mind and be willing to new try things, even if the value of those things isn’t immediately apparent. Perez says that it can take a while for new ideas to coalesce in the mind and body of a pupil, drawing on a classic movie moment to illustrate the point: “It’s like The Karate Kid. Sand the floor, paint the fence.”

One way to hasten your progress and maximize each lesson is to show up ready to work. “Because time and money are always of the essence,” Buchman says, “it’s better if the student shows up already warmed up and hydrated. I like to get to work, to establish a sense of intensity.” Some simple math proves his point: If you spend the first 10 minutes of a one hour lesson filling your water bottle, stretching and kibitzing with your pro, that’s about 15 percent of your time—if you take a lesson weekly, or more often, those wasted minutes quickly add up to squandered hours.

As in most long-term relationships, communication with your pro is paramount to your shared success. But communication is a two-way street: You’re there to take in information, but you need to let the pro know essential data about yourself as well. Al Pilate, a former head teaching pro at the Old Chatham Tennis Center in Old Chatham, NY, urges players to “communicate with the instructor. If I ask somebody to do something and it doesn’t feel correct, we talk about it, get to an understanding.” Those discussions can range from old habits that are simply too ingrained to change, to medical facts, like a bum shoulder that prevents a proper service motion. “They learn from me, but I have to learn from them, too,” Pilate says.

On a more fundamental level, never lose sight of the fact that tennis is complicated—it asks you to integrate movement, stroke production and tactical thinking, all in the blink of an eye—so don’t hesitate to speak up when an instructor’s wisdom eludes you. “I like when a student says to me, ‘I don’t understand what you’re trying to communicate,’” says Buchman. “I can express things in different ways.”

Also consider sharing your competitive experiences outside the lesson. Just because your pro isn’t with you for matches the way professional coaches are, doesn’t mean he can’t help you surmount competitive humps. “I have found with longstanding relationships that a lot of what we delve into over time is the mental—how you approach a shot, a person, cope with being behind or ahead,” Perez says. He’ll often play what he calls “situational tennis” with his students, crafting scenarios—such as being down 1-4, 0-40—to help them navigate mental and tactical minefields.

If you don’t already, you might also begin keeping a notebook or computer file in which you record what you want to retain, or work on, from each lesson. “I’m a big proponent of the journal or the log—it’s no different from being in business and keeping meeting notes,” says Buchman, who believes that notebooks help keep things moving forward in lessons by reducing the need to repeat. It also helps to keep things on track during extended breaks, such as when the student is on vacation or takes a hiatus from the teaching relationship.

Buchman and his more competitive players go one step further, not only keeping a written record of what they working on in a lesson, but also putting to paper what they’d like to accomplish outside the lesson. “We put goals in there, and how they’ve done against opponents,” he says. “I think that’s big.” Perez notes another benefit to note-keeping; sharing your journal with your pro is a good way to be you’re in synch and avoid misunderstandings.

Another form of recording, video recording, can be even more helpful if your pro has access to such technology. Ask your pro to start rolling tape and reviewing it with you. “Most people benefit from it,” says Pilate, who points out that many players have an inaccurate view of themselves. “We all think we look like Andre Agassi,” he says, “but that’s not the case.”

Buchman makes the comparisons between student and world-class player even more direct. “I videotape the student,” he says, “then after I’ve had time to digest and edit it, I put it up against, say, [video of] Federer, because he’s the ideal.” For visually orientated students, Buchman says that video analysis “can really fast-forward you quickly. It’s huge for people to see their own swings and have a recognition of where they are and what they look like. It should become much more widespread as a teaching tool than it has in tennis.”

Believe it or not, the most important thing you can do to get the most out of your lesson takes place outside the lesson: If you’re seeking to improve, at any level, practice and/or match play between lessons is crucial. Perez finds that, because they’re paying good money for his time, students “almost expect me to be a doctor and inoculate them and they’re cured of their bad swing.”

“It depends what the student’s goals and expectations are,” says Buchman, who points out that those seeking exercise and playtime in a weekly clinic may not have aspirations of improvement. But more competitive players “can’t just do it with me every week and expect results. They have to spend time between weeks working on it.”

“It takes five years to get to the top of your game, and that’s only if you play four or five times a week,” says Pilate, who believes one of the responsibilities of the pro is “to energize the student to go out and practice.” In areas where court time can be scarce or expensive, Pilate says that a pro can also offer creative alternatives. He has sent students everywhere from a handball court to the side of a building, to backyards where they can work on their service toss (“without ever hitting a ball”) to—in the case of a fencer who took up tennis—a garage, where he could work on developing new, less flat footwork. And when he sees these students for their next lesson, the first thing he asks: “Did you do your homework?”

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