CUP OF JOE
Waking up to the facts and myths of winning tennis.
‘Do Muscles Have Memory?’
In “Cup of Joe,” we want to evaluate accepted methods of how tennis should be played and coached in the context of the modern game. Some readers may conclude that many of the accepted ways of thinking are now obsolete; other readers may feel their importance is reinforced. Either way, we want to hear from you—about this current topic and on other topics you’d like us to address. Email me at email@example.com and we will try to publish your comments in future columns.
By Joe Dinoffer USPTA and PTR Master Professional
eople so commonly use “muscle memory” as a figure of speech, it’s accepted as fact. But the problem with thinking in terms of muscle memory is that it can overshadow the importance of understanding the basics of how and when neuro pathways in motor sports—specifically tennis—are best established. Admittedly, motor skill development and human neurology is an enormous field of study and continues to be explored. While there is so much that scientists have learned about brain function in recent years, the overall complexity of neuro pathway functionality is still daunting. In this article, we will keep it relatively simple and address some basic examples as they apply to how parents can help their children, as well as how players can help themselves improve their tennis.
Q: Do muscles actually have memory? A: Yes and no. Not in the traditional sense. It’s more like a computer being programmed. Interestingly, the
common word for storage capacity in a computer also is “memory.” Human brain thinking memory in the traditional sense is different. We can cram for a test and then forget what we studied a week later. Otherwise, the word “forget” would not be in the dictionary.
Q: Once a muscle learns a specific task, does it ever forget? A: Not really. Try this exercise. Sit in a chair. Cross your arms. Make note of how comfortable that position
feels since you have neuro pathways etched into your system to make that specific movement feel natural. Now, uncross your arms and then quickly try to cross them in the opposite direction. Chances are you will feel very awkward and perhaps can’t figure out how to do it at all. This arm crossing is just one example of thousands of specific daily movements that we do every day without thinking. They are automatic and chances are that even if you didn’t do one of them for a few years, you would retain the neuro pathways for that skill.
Q: What about age? Is it always easier to learn when young? A: Generally, yes, but there’s more to the story. Learning anything when young is easier, but it also has to be age-appropriate. Here’s a tennis example. There are two ways to teach children to serve. The first way is common since it is relatively easy. It’s called the “transitional approach” where the kids simply get the ball in the service box any way possible, without concern for grip or technique. In this scenario, the kids just hold the racquet the easiest way possible (generally with a forehand grip), with their palm up, and the strings pointing to the sky. They end up with a short, punchy swing and hit a flat first serve with low net
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Q: Which way do the pros and coaches teach in the U.S.—the “transitional approach” or the “advanced foundation”? A: This is where most coaches and teaching pros in America can learn quite a bit from other countries. Because part of the certification process in most non-U.S. countries includes the science of motor-skill development, coaches in those countries more often teach the advanced foundation as compared to their American counterparts. It is still a fact that coaches have to keep it fun to keep children in the game, but they can also be taught the age-appropriate correct foundation from the start. Here in the U.S., on the other hand, certification training for coaches is quick and painless (as little as a few hours). Plus, in the U.S. continuing education is not mandatory like most other countries, but rather the American certifying organizations offer “opportunities” for coaches to learn more. The problem is that only a small percentage of coaches aggressively pursue continuing education.
Q: What about older people? Can they still learn to become skilled
A: Yes and no. We’ve all heard the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog
clearance and then a powder-puff second serve, just to get the ball in. Sometime down the road, the assumption is made that kids will have to “re-learn” serving to master the correct technique and improve. The problem with this approach is that “later” generally does not happen. Kids get frustrated and simply stop playing. The second approach is to learn the “advanced foundation” right from the start and serve with a continental grip, knowing that a correct grip allows the player to serve with spin, to have the potential for a more powerful first and second serve, and that spin is a prerequisite for any type of effective second serve. The argument for this second approach is that “re-learning” is not easy at all, even though it can be more challenging to get a feel for the right technique at the start. It is much easier to learn correct technique while young, rather than to “re-learn” it later.
(under 10) these short strokes produce success. But, as they get older, the kids have to learn to relax and fully swing at the ball. In other words, they start one way and then have to change. Far from ideal. With the right supervision and guidance, QST helps children start with more relaxed, fluid strokes right from the start.
I would guess that one of the most attention-grabbing parts of this column was when you crossed and uncrossed your arms. The point is clear: Whatever motor skills we learn will be remembered. Call it whatever you like. The conclusion? For kids, the recipe for success is to start them young but also start them right. Just be sure to add a steady and heavy dose of fun to keep them coming back for more! Remember, “Big shots are just little shots who keep on shooting!” Joe Dinoffer is a Master Professional in both the PTR and USPTA, a distinction awarded to only a handful in the tennis industry. He has published numerous books and videotapes, and is a frequent speaker at tennis conferences around the world. For more information, visit www.oncourtoffcourt.com.
new tricks.” This axiom is only partially true. As humans, our brain and motor development, alongside our physical growth, is most dramatic when we are young. As young children, millions upon millions of neuro pathways are just waiting to be formed to enable us to perform activities ranging from simple ones like using a spoon to eat, to extremely complex activities that include learning how to play tennis. No doubt specific research on this subject is evolving, but some theories propose that we are most open to learning new skills prior to our fifth birthday, followed by a second window between the ages of 5 and 15, with a gradual decrease in available neuro pathways as we get older. Of course, these “declines” are gradual over time. The good news is that, even as adults, learning is still very possible although it may require more effort and may not become second nature quite as easily.
Q: So, what about QuickStart Tennis? A: QuickStart Tennis, for those unfamiliar with the program, is a nation-
wide approach to help beginners learn tennis faster. In QST the equipment and court size are modified with slower bouncing balls, shorter racquets and correspondingly shorter courts to make learning easier than ever before.
Q: What does QuickStart Tennis have to do with muscle memory? A: A lot. The concept of QST is that slower balls and shorter courts al-
low young beginners to start taking a full swing at the ball rather than “bump” and “block” as happens far too often with full-speed balls and regular, adult-size racquets. Kids just want to be successful. And since bumping regular balls is easier for them as opposed to taking full, fluid swings, this is what they do. So, at a young age, their “muscles” are trained to produce short, choppy swings. In the young age groups www.tennislife.com
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