Memory Gaphic"In the groove"

by Matthew Leitch, 17 February 2002

Misconception: A sport like tennis or cricket involves learning a set of strokes. Each stroke is a single, set movement to be repeated as consistently as possible. The more perfectly we can repeat the exact motion in the coaching book on every occasion the better. When you succeed it's because you're "in the groove". The shot is "grooved".

Signs: Watch people enjoying a game of tennis at their local public tennis courts any summer and you'll see the effects of this belief. As the ball approaches, a player (mentally Agassi) winds up, racket back, shoulders pumping, racket moves forward for a terrific top spin winner - but wait! Suddenly the player checks, adjusts, lunges, and dinks the ball back at the net. Once again the ball was not in the right place for the shot he was longing to play. Perhaps the next ball will be a bit higher and a bit faster.

How skill really works: In reality "shot selection" is much more than a selection between a small number of very different alternatives such as forehand topspin, forehand loop, hook shot, sweep, and so on. Every shot situation, and every shot is unique. Here's an illustration of just one dimension of variation.

Smooth curve

Even once the initial decision has been made the movement has many variable parameters whose values need to be determined (e.g. how high to start the hand, how fast to move, how bent the knees should be, where to be when playing the shot. These won't all be decided at the same time. Sometimes a value will be chosen, then modified as the judgement is improved with more time and information.

In learning such a skill we need to become aware of the things that differ in the situations where the movement is needed and which drive our choice of parameters for the movement.

We need to learn our movements as "families of curves" whose shapes vary smoothly with variables of the situation. Those variations should be smooth and easy, without sudden structural changes as far as possible.

It's true that it's usually easier, in tennis for example, to hit the ball in a certain zone, and that it's worth trying to get your body in a position where the ball is in the area you can hit it best, but there is still a need to produce a unique stroke every time to cope with the variation that still exists.

Sometimes we need to design our movements so that they can be started before the ending has been decided. This is more often the case in sports where speed is vital such as table tennis and martial arts.

Here are some examples to explain what I mean without mathematics:

Example: Snooker. Having thought ahead to decide what ball to aim for, what pocket perhaps, and where to put the cue ball, the player has to "compute" by judgement where to hit the object ball, and how hard, and with what spin and how much, then decide whaere and how hard to hit the cue ball. To hit the cue ball in the chosen way requires adjusting stance, bridge, and cue action to the ball and the height of the strike, and its speed. If an electronic computer were programmed to do this it would be given all sorts of equations to calculate parameter values and more equations to generate actual movements from the parameters. The human brain builds the equivalent by much practice and observation of examples.

If you are aware of this process and pay attention to variations in the situation of the shot and in your own movements, the skill will develop faster and with less frustration for you.

In practice sessions you could try hitting lots of balls in a similar way, but varying in one respect e.g. hit several of gradually increasing, then decreasing speed, then spin, and feel how your action should vary to achieve the variations.

Example: Swimming. At first glance, sports like swimming, cycling, and running seem to be exceptions to this approach. Not so. The variations may be subtle, but they are still needed and you still need to master them. For a given swimming stroke - front crawl for example - the instructions your brain sends to your muscles still have to vary according to such things as how fast you're going, how fast you're trying to accelerate (if at all), how fast you are decelerating (e.g. after a dive), and how tired you are.

Example: Martial arts. Opponents will vary in height, speed, strength, and in the technique and angle of their attack. No two situations will be exactly the same so it's obvious that the skill you acquire must be families of movements whose parameters of variation allow you to cope with different situations.

How the misconception affects us: Believing there is a perfect stroke/shot/kick etc to be repeated exactly, "in the groove" blocks us from being aware of the variations we need to learn. Learning is slowed or non-existent. We fail when an opponent gives us a situation outside the tiny range we can deal with, and don't understand why.

And, even though top players successfully master variation in situation and movements, when they turn to coaching they focus again on movements in isolation from situations, and without a study of variations. Just look at almost any coaching book.

A better belief: A skill is the ability to generate movements appropriate to the situation, in a systematic and reliable way. See and feel the variations and design them well.

If you want to know more, search the net for Schmidt's Schema theory.

© 2002 Matthew Leitch