Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Learning from just one session of tennis

Ok, I've come back from a game of tennis and I wanted to make a couple of notes. A big part of the reason for this blog is to collect my thoughts and I need to keep this brief so here goes.

The main points I want to make are about:
  • Transfer of learning: where the transfer is and is not
  • how to unlearn bad behaviours
  • the use of techniques from the book 'the inner game of tennis'
Ok how can I make so many points from just on session of tennis?

Well first off I've been playing around with transfer or learning because I wanted to see if I could play tennis left handed given that I'm right handed. A tried it a few years back and couldn't believe how just after a few hours I could play forehands, backhands and volleys. It felt quite natural after a short period of time. I'd learnt about transfer of learning, the idea that once you've learnt a skill on once limb it's easier to learn it in the other, before and this has even been shown when you just observe someone else. I thought that'd be a great time saver and also practically it's been useful when I've injured my right hand cos I can still play with my left.

I did notice though that while I could play the shots I didn't have the power, strength or other physical attributes I had playing with my right hand so I have focused on building these things up. It's come along way and today I feel I'm was almost better on my left side than my right. I focused on quality of shot today so my shots weren't so powerful. I think that's where my left side is weaker. What I noticed a big deal though is that my left handed shots are much more natural and fluent compared to my right handed. I've felt this for years but since I only played right handed I had no reference. When I'm warming up particularly shots from my right hand often fly off in weird directions. The warm up for me is almost a battle to calm them down. What it feels like is that I'm going through the motion and all of a sudden a muscle or a nerve suddenly causes a tiny jolt and the racket head moves offline. All this time I've never found a way to stop it. and I think it's because I don't know which part of the kinetic change is having the problem, and it may be more than one part.

Playing with the left side though it was fluent right from the start. So thinking things through I began to feel that the problem is likely to be in the sequence used by the nerves of my right hand are to trigger the muscles. I feel the problem is closer to my right hand rather than being in my brain or spinal chord.

Why do I say this?
Well, it's a presumption to be honest that I've worked out given my experience of the body. basically as a software developer who also has experience in IT and it's hardware side I look often at the mind and body as you would if you were putting together a pc or something. And every time I learn about the human body I find that it's generally years ahead of pcs and software. So what i do to understand it is think, what would be the best software I could right or hardware I could build. I bet it's what's running the body. and more often than not I find that the answer I get seems to be supported.

Any way that sounds pretty crazy but here's my thinking. My left hand plays fine but my right plays jerky. I learnt really quickly on my left hand because I'd had years playing on my right. When I warm up my left hand my right hand needs less of a warm up and vice versa. Some of these things you could explain just be being warmed up and other reasons. But my view is that the brain and spinal chord basically make up their own little program for each shot I play. They make the program flexible by allowing the senses and mind to tell it certain things like how fast to go, what height to start at and what power to use among other things. But the little program itself simply calculates the sequence and timings in which to fire each muscle group. This program also listens thousands of times a second to the rest of the body to see if anything has changed like there being spin on the ball so it bounces differently. This may sound far fetched but tyhere is plenty of evidence of this kind of thing happening in motor control studies.

So how do you get transfer of learning?
Well as a software developer once you've written a program to solve a problem, if you've done a good job it should be relatively easy to adjust that program to solve other related problems. You also don't want to copy and past the code you wrote. You want to adjust the code, maybe add a little extra sub routine or something than does a little more but basically make your original program do more without having to write too much code.

That's how I think the body works. Logic says to me that if it knows how to do something on the right hand. Then surely it can just reverse the idea for the left hand. This is awkward for us to do at a high level but with practice we can do it. But at the low level of software it's very simple. I think this is probrably how our bodies solve this.

Anyway what point is this. Well if that's the case then I don't think it will technically be the program itself that causes the problem. I think the program actually sends signals to the nerves and at some point these signals work differently for my right and left hand. It could be the way the nerves have adapted to trigger the msucles. This could be different for each side of the body and to fix this is would need a physical adaptation. It could be that as the signal leaves the spinal cord there is a cell or set of cells that store a program that interprets the main instructions and applies them for that side of the body. At this point there could be a mistake. Either explanation and many others are possible. I'd love it if some one who has more expertise could explain to me in more detail what is actually happening.

Anyway is there a fix?
That's where Gallweys' book 'The Inner Game of Tennis' is a real insight for me. I read it a few years ago and it's helped me ever since. He explains in detail a simple method for training yourself that I have to say is just about the most effective and practical peice of advice I've every had for learning physical skills.

he basically says don't beat yourself up when you get it wrong. Just be clear in your mind what you want. Visualise it. Then ask your brain to do it. Then relax and just play the shot, but let it come from your body. don't force it. You won't always improve straight away but if you just keep at this then over time and often quite quickly you'll naturally get it right.

i can't mention how many times this works for me and over the years I've just found more and more research from lots of different areas that explains why this approach should work.

So, without going into detail, that's how I plan to fix this problem. just by using my left arm as a good reference, visualsing and feeling how it should work and then letting my right hand just play. Overtime I know the jolts will go. I'd just really like to know quite where exactly they're coming from.
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