When we think of feedback, the most common picture is a coach providing input to a player. That is one type of feedback. However, there is an entire dimension of feedback that is not about the coach giving feedback.
REFRAMING TENNIS LEARNING AND SKILL ACQUISITION:
To understand the pros and cons of both types of feedback, we need to define some of the goals of learning and skill acquisition in tennis. If we frame a tennis match as a series of problems encountered by the player, then learning tennis is all about being a problem-solver. For example, receiving a difficult serve presents a reception problem to solve. If the opponent comes to the net, the problem to solve is how to pass them.
To find solutions, these are some of the abilities required:
- The ability to perform independently (since there is no coaching in tennis, during a match, the players must self-coach)
- The ability to adapt technique for the situation. Tennis is an open skill, so adaptation is a critical ability. (click here for video)
- The ability to apply effective decision-making.
- The ability to retrieve these solutions in the long-term (motor skill memory).
When a coach directly provides feedback to the player, that is explicit feedback. In other words, it is a conscious conveying of information. For example, when a coach tells (or shows) a player to swing low-to-high for a topspin shot, that is explicit feedback. It is typically also directive and prescriptive (corrective). (See previous articles in this series that cover these concepts)
As a young coach, my idea was that players couldn’t possibly learn it if I didn’t tell them the right stuff. Of course, if I had just applied some logic, I would have realized that not being privy to many lessons as a junior, I learned lots through playing without a coach. So, the notion ‘unless you tell them they won’t learn’ is false.
Based on the reframing paragraph above and all the ability requirements listed, there is an inherent disadvantage to explicitly giving players solutions to every problem. Yet, this is the approach of the vast majority of coaches.
However, you eventually realize that people learn as much or more through the situations they experience than from the great nuggets of wisdom that flow from a coach’s mouth.
Implicit feedback is more complicated and sophisticated. It is when a player acquires knowledge (or skill) in an indirect and often unconscious process. Answers to problems are not provided directly. Players find solutions for themselves.
In my experience, when a coach uses this approach, they can make real transformational change in a player. The reason is that, for the most part, people resist change (even if they are paying for it). When they are taken outside their comfort zone by a coach, this is resisted even more. When I say ‘resisted,’ I am not saying they will refuse to listen. Most people will do whatever a coach tells them in a lesson but, they will often not believe it, trust it, or fully adopt and use it in a match. Their game isn’t transformed.
However, if they figure something out for themselves, the changes seem more ‘natural’ for them and are accepted fully (since they were the ones who initiated the change).
I will apply one of my favourite quotes is from an Australian Noble-winning author: ‘I don’t remember anything I was taught, only what I learned.’ All coaches need to reflect deeply on this quote.
The critical question is not, ‘What do I need to teach‘ but rather, ‘What do they need to learn.’ That question takes a coach on a more effective and fulfilling journey (for both them and their player).
Two essential concepts factor into the explicit/implicit conversation:
- Guided Discovery
Utilizing implicit feedback does not mean leaving players to their own devices in endless wasted hours of trial and error. The coach becomes a ‘facilitator’ and steers players to solutions. This is called ‘guided discovery.’ The trick is to strike the best balance between explicit/implicit without short-circuiting their learning process. In other words, they are empowered to find their solution, although it may never have happened in a timely way without the coach.
- Push vs Pull Learning
Another vital facet of the explicit/implicit discussion is the concept of ‘Push’ versus ‘Pull’ learning. Push learning is where the coach directly imparts the information (they ‘push’ it into the player). The player has no power in defining the problem or finding the action or knowledge required to find the solution or improve. It is all given to them. Push learning is explicit by nature.
‘Pull’ learning, on the other hand, is where the coach draws out of the player what is needed for performance. The drawing out can be done through questions and setting up an environment that allows players to find their own solutions.
Not to say that there is never a time for ‘push’ learning; however, a balance is required to maximize effectiveness.
TWO WAYS TO PROVIDE IMPLICIT FEEDBACK
There are two avenues a coach can use to supply implicit feedback. They can be used independently or simultaneously. In both processes, the player is the centre of the process although the coach drives it:
- Utilizing a ‘Pull’ Questioning Process: In a cooperative approach, a coach poses questions and works with the answers provided. (click here for an additional article on Coaching Styles). By utilizing questions, the player is guided to frame the problems, explore possibilities and empower their improvement. In this process, the goal is for players to provide feedback to themselves. (Click here for an additional article on using questions in coaching). Questions can channel focus, invite creativity, and cement learning. Through questions, the coach also gains critical insight into the player’s thoughts, knowledge, and attitudes.
- Task-driven Coaching: In this process, the environment itself provides the feedback. Rather than an intellectual process, it becomes a primarily experiential process. Rather than a ‘teacher,’ the coach becomes a master architect who designs tasks with parameters that pose problems to solve and challenges to overcome. These tasks will shape technique. When solutions are explored in a fun way, this process is often called ‘Playful Learning.’ To better understand how it works, I will provide an example.
CASE STUDY EXAMPLE – TASK-DRIVEN LEARNING
We decided to do a little experiment at the Academy. We noticed that, like most juniors, our players were very weak at using underspin groundstrokes (‘slicing’). Rather than explicitly teaching the slice (which is the way we would usually do it), we decided to follow another process. We would play a competitive game in every training session where the players could only slice (this would help with both the receiving slice skills and sending slice skills). The game would only last approximately 10 minutes. The coaches would still give technical feedback but ‘on the fly’ while players were competing.
Soon, we noticed that slice shots were being incorporated into the players’ match-play. They were learning to slice short, deep, offensively, defensively, etc., by being exposed to slicing regularly. This was an advantage over the explicit process, which had two main glitches. The first issue was, even though we spent time teaching them, we typically wouldn’t see it in their match-play much. Second, we would teach one specific slice situation but, they still would be in the dark about many others.
We were not teaching but creating an environment for them to learn the skill of slice in neutral, offensive and defensive situations.
When we took the experiment further, we got the same result in our recreational groups (groups that many coaches would consider not good enough or not ‘ready’ to learn slice).
To be even more systematic, we modified the court during these various slice games to create different tasks. These tasks are problems players would have to solve with technical actions. For example, if they needed to learn attacking and defending with precision and short angle slices, they could play on a court using only the service boxes out to the doubles sidelines (a wide/short court area). If they needed to learn sending and receiving deep, driving slices, we could play on ½ width of the singles court but, anything shorter than the service line was out. A wire could even be placed up across the net (air zone) for players to hit under to control the height for more ‘drive.’ We realized that whatever type of slicing they needed to learn, we could create tasks to bring it out.
This process resulted in two big wins:
- Improved adaptation skills: Players learned a greater range of different slice techniques and, much faster than when we taught them individually.
- Far more acceptance and integration of the skills: This was because rather than slice technique being imposed onto players by a coach trying to teach them, they were finding technical solutions on their own (with plenty of guidance from coaches). It was their technique. You always will be motivated to use what you come up with for yourself.
Through experience with this process, I have identified blocks of skills players need for successful tennis. In each of these categories, there are neutral, offensive and defensive variations:
- Slice Skills: Deep penetrating slices, low approaches, drops, angles, etc.
- Topspin Skills: Medium arcs, high loops, short power angles, etc.
- Overhead Skills: Power serves, defensive overheads, overhead power smashes, etc.
- Volley Skills: Touch, block, punch, catch, etc.
(Note: It is important to note that these are volley ‘skills’ not learning the volley ‘stroke’)
I have believed for a long time that technique should be learned through tasks. As a young coach, I often had the experience of players ‘pushing back’ and not using what I was teaching when they play. A coach is not a successful technical coach because of what they teach but how much they transform players’ technique when they play! A well-defined task is a more excellent teacher than I could ever hope to be. My job is to help their technique achieve the task (not teach them some technique because ‘Federer does it’).
In reality, this is how all technique in tennis has ever been discovered. No coach in the history of the sport ever invented technique. Players needed to figure out how to perform the tasks necessary to win (e.g. hit harder, more accurately, more consistently, etc.). The result, technique that coaches then ‘reverse engineered’ and teach.
The challenge in creating an implicit environment is constructing tasks that require the appropriate technique to solve. Want a more powerful serve for U14 players? Make it so not only do they have to get the ball in, but it must hit the back fence before it bounces a second time. Want a deadlier drop shot? Make the task so the ball cannot clear the net too high but must bounce 3 times before the service line. Construct the task well and watch their technique transform (without the coach becoming the ‘dictator’). The only limitation is the coach’s creativity and understanding of tactics (The coach needs to know what the ball needs to do for the player to be successful at their level.)
Implicit learning by no means makes the coach irrelevant. They are still critical, so players don’t come up with inefficient technique (that wastes energy, causes injury, etc.), The coach is needed to shortcut the time it takes players to find the solution.
Of course, a coach should be using all the feedback tools available to be as effective as possible. There can often be interconnected feedback that flip-flops from implicit to explicit. A coach doesn’t have to make an either/or choice; however, using implicit feedback is less familiar to most coaches. Given that tennis is a problem-solving venture, harnessing the power of implicit feedback and guided discovery and ‘pulling’ more than ‘pushing’ is a goal all coaches need to strive for.