It is said that repetition is “the mother of skill.” What that means in the real world is that if you practice something a lot then you get good at it. Today in the blog I want to talk about how repetition impacts skill development in tennis. I guarantee it is not what you think…
The brain learns skills in astounding ways. I am constantly learning and seeking new information to be a better coach and recently I have been reading about the brain. There is a term often used to describe skill acquisition called “muscle memory.” The truth is your muscles are dumb and they have no memory. Skills like hitting a forehand or serving are motor programs stored in the brain. If they are practiced enough the brain and nervous system prioritizes them as being important and strives to become as efficient and effective at performing them for future tasks. It relates back to evolution where our brains allow us to adapt to our specific environment in order to survive.
If we have to repeat a motor program over and over again our brain recognizes that this skill must be important for survival and it aims to be able to execute the skill as efficient and effectively as possible. We have countless motor programs that have developed in our lives like walking, squatting or even keyboarding. These skills have all developed because the brain has tagged them as important because we are performing them so often.
In tennis skill development occurs the same way, through practice and the brain then prioritizing the skill. That is why it is critical to hit lots and lots of tennis balls. In fact, there is a direct correlation early on between how many tennis balls a player hits and their skill level. It has nothing to do with an innate talent and more to do with the fact that some players may have just hit more tennis balls than their peers.
However, doing something like hitting a forehand is different than playing a piano because there is an element of randomness to tennis. Learning to play a song on the piano is different than learning to hit a forehand. You see the keys on a piano are always in the exact same place when you play a song so you can truly make each and every repetition identical. This is not the case in tennis because there is an element of randomness where every ball has a different level of spin, pace, height, bounce, etc. There are so many variables it is impossible to truly have identical repetitions hitting a forehand. The truth is even if you could create identical ball bounces, spins, etc. you would not want to because playing a match is a random open skill.
The thought that enters my mind is, “How then do players learn to acquire a skill like hitting a forehand if there is no such thing as identical repetitions?” Well the answer is actually very interesting. Hitting something like 500 forehands is more like data collection for the brain than repetitions. It is more accurately viewed as hitting 500 forehand samples. What happens in the brain with those samples is very amazing. When you are sleeping your brain compiles all the information from those samples and begins building and refining a motor program. The next day if you hit 500 more forehands it does the same thing. And this process continues with the brain continuing to refine the forehand motor program from all the random samples striving for efficiency and effectiveness.