Monday, March 21, 2011

Inner Game: Words are Worthless

from "The Typical Tennis Lesson"
"Imagine what goes on inside the head of an eager student taking a lesson from an equally eager new tennis pro. The pro is standing at the net with a large basket of balls, and being a bit uncertain whether his student is considering him worth the lesson fee, he is carefully evaluating every shot....Before long, [the student's] mind is churning with six thoughts about what he should be doing and sixteen thoughts about what he shouldn't be doing. Improvement seems both dubious and complex, but both he and the pro are impressed by the careful analysis of each stroke."

Back when I was coaching Syzygy in the late 90s, I got a hold of a bunch of statistics from previous college nationals. What I saw was stunning. Looking at just the semis and the finals, I found that teams were able to go 70 yards without a turn only 1 in 9 tries. 1 in 9! 11%! Why not huck and play d? Surely we can throw hucks that are better than 11%. Up to that point, I'd coached Carleton in a very conservative and classic dump-swing-comeback style, but throughout the 99 season I again and again exhorted the handlers to huck it. I'd quote them from the statistics. I'd encourage them that their throws were good enough. I'd call plays that set up a huck, but no matter what, we couldn't get away from our short little handler-handler-handler game. I don't know if we'd have beaten Stanford in the finals (they were magnificent), but as it was, we had no chance. All those words hadn't changed a thing about how we played. I walked away from that year feeling like I'd squandered an opportunity.

When I came back to coach again in '00, I made one small change in the way we did business. We ran a huck drill every practice. It was our main conditioning throughout the season. Structurally, the offense was the same, but looked totally different. We hucked and hucked and hucked some more. It wasn't always pretty, but it sure was effective.

I don't trust that words will produce a change in play. Now, when I see something that we need to adjust, I immediately begin trying to develop a plan to physically practice it. The goal is to get the players from idea to action. At the outset, I will talk about what we are doing, but typically only to put it into context. Often, it is less a skill than an series of actions, like the various scenarios in the triangle offense. So at the beginning, I use words to paint a picture, a visual framework. Then, a physical demonstration. After that, it is usually a scaffolded series of drills that move us from the very basic up through full speed and almost game-like scenarios. This process usually can be done within a practice (sometimes two) although you should never expect a drill to yield results after one run through. That first run-through is only to learn the drill itself. Subsequent run-throughs will produce results. Once the drill is learned, the skill is practiced and implemented in games, the drill can be brought out at later practices when fine tuning is necessary.

By way of example, look at learning the dump-swing against the trap. Begin by running a three person drill where the cuts and throws are set up. Then add a marker who just stands there. Then make the marker live. Then add a defender on the first handler and make her live. Maybe you play 2 on 2 if you think that piece needs work. Finally you are playing live 3 on 3. Later, if you come back from a tournament feeling like your dump-swing broke down, you break out these drills. Maybe you start at the beginning and go all the way through. Maybe you start in the middle or at the end. The only words involved in the process would be, "We need to tighten up our dump-swing, so we are going to run the dump-swing sequence of drills." Then trust the drills, not the words, to effect the change you want.


  1. Interesting and helpfull observation, my team and I seem to have similar issues with too much words instead of well structured drills. This POV should help us improve our practice!

  2. Wonderful article, it's been my experience as well. You do what you practice, so practice what you want to do.