Feedback and Focus

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One of the joys of teaching 10 & Under Tennis is hearing young students shout out, “I made the sound, I made the sound.” They are telling me they are experiencing feedback, one of sport’s most satisfying pleasures.

The red and yellow balls designed for use on 36-foot courts were engineered to produce a distinctive sound and feel with smaller rackets used by young beginners. This equipment tells them very quickly if they hit a good shot.

Sound and feel are so important in tennis that The New York Times recently featured an article by Ben Rothenberg about Duckhee Lee, a deaf South Korean ATP player ranked 149th in the world.

His achievement is remarkable because most players and researchers believe that “in tennis, simply seeing the ball is insufficient … hearing the ball, top players say, enables faster reactions.”

Sound is so important to Martina Navratilova that she considers grunting almost “cheating” because it masks the sound of the ball hitting the strings. The article quotes Andy Murray as having been bothered by the rain on the new roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium. Murray says that, “We use our ears when we play,” and that players use their hearing to determine the speed, spin and pace of their opponent’s shots.

The article also reports that science seems to support players’ beliefs about the feedback that sound provides. Research suggests that humans react more quickly to an auditory stimulus than a visual one.

So I was amazingly surprised to discover that eliminating both feel and sound was a great tool for improving focus.

I recently began using foam balls on a mini-court in a rally ball drill with accomplished students.

Using slow-bouncing silent foam balls allows players to focus on every aspect of their stroke. This drill and the silence enables students to pay attention to their anticipation, set-up, take-back and point of contact. It also helps improve mental concentration.

I confess that I was never good at rally-ball drills. I used to say it was because when I learned to play, finishing the point quickly was always the goal. The reality is that once the ball passed over the net more than three times, I began to fear I could not keep the rally up.

Last month, I am happy to report, I achieved a personal best when I did this drill with a talented 10-year old, and we cooperatively succeeded in rallying the ball 100 times over the net.

Since the total feedback of sound and vision are so important in teaching, I do not routinely use foam balls. But, I keep this drill in mind as a way to work on focus. I am going to rest on my laurels, but if you want to up the challenge, try using a 25-inch racket.