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December 12, 2013

Learning from Lessons (Part I) – Gregg Collins

by NIIT Managed Training Services

Knowledge is not skill. Knowledge plus ten thousand repetitions is skill–Shin’ichi Suzuki

“Our knowing is ordinarily tacit, implicit in our patterns of action ….. It seems right to say that our knowing is in our action.”–Donald Schon

“What we pay attention to and how we pay attention determine the content and quality of life.” –Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The greatest efforts in sports come when the mind is as still as a glass lake.”–Timothy Gallwey

There’s been a lot of criticism in the media lately of parents who “over schedule” their children by enrolling them in too many structured activities. My six year old daughter takes lessons in gymnastics, piano, ballet, swimming and tennis, so as you can imagine I’m a little sensitive about this. My only excuse for my overzealous parenting is that herlessons are so good that I would hate to take her out of any of them.

I disliked virtually every organized educational experience I had before graduate school, so I’m actually pretty surprised about the seeming abundance of high-quality training for kids these days. Apparently there has been some kind of revolution in extra-scholastic education since I grew up, and no one bothered to tell me about it. In this column I try to figure out why my daughters lessons are so good, and what we as instructional designers can learn from that.


My first tennis lesson consisted of a long lecture about “eastern” versus “western” grips—a distinction that escapes me to this day—plus a bunch of weird drills like rolling a ball around in circles on the face of the racquet for ten minutes straight. Actual tennis did not occur until several lessons later. I’m still bitter about that, in case you can’t tell.

In contrast, my daughter got to start hitting tennis balls, which were bounced to her by an instructor, ten minutes after the start of her first session of her beginning tennis camp. Throughout the camp, she and her fellow students spent most of their time with racquets in hand, hitting real tennis strokes. Instructors kept them focused on simple outcomes, while being careful to avoid ratcheting up the pressure. Results were dealt with dispassionately—data points to be considered, not indicators of individual success and failure. There was no detailed presentation of theory about stance, grip, swing, and so on–instruction was brief and to the point, and coaching inputs were confined mostly to specific, individualized suggestions that learners could put into practice immediately, and that slowly built on one another over time. By the end of the camp, which was about four hours total, most of the kids could hit a variety of surprisingly solid shots including ground strokes, serves and volleys. My daughter emerged feeling confident about the skills she’d learned. “I think I’m going to be better than you at tennis,” she confided to me in a whispered aside. I think so too, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

I think the improvement in how tennis lessons are taught is to a significant extent due to the influence of one man: Timothy Gallwey, a tennis playing Harvard graduate who in 1974 wrote a book called The Inner Game of Tennis.

Gallwey describes the travails of the tennis novice as being the result of a struggle between two inner selves: Self 1—“the teller”—and Self 2—“the doer”. Self 2 learns physical skills through trial and error, building competence reliably, gradually and unconsciously. Self 1, on the other hand, is good with theory, but not with execution. Skills like tennis are the natural province of Self 2, but Self 1 has a bad habit of losing confidence in Self 2, and trying to take over. This usually results in a significant degradation of performance. Learners in the grip of their Self 1, Gallwey observes, tend to be stiff and awkward, attempting through sheer force of will to make their bodies do the right thing. Learners being guided by their Self 2, in contrast, find that successful execution seems to come naturally, almost without their having to make any conscious effort.

Gallwey’s argument is presumably meant to be taken as a metaphor, but it may be closer to the literal truth than anyone would have thought. Daniel Willingham, a Psychologist at the University of Virginia, has done a series of experiments showing that subjects playing a simple video game can learn to improve their performance in two different ways: by being explicitly taught the underlying patterns that control the game, or by implicitly learning those patterns through practice. What is interesting is that these two modes of learning seem quite separate and distinct, as evidenced by the fact that subjects who learned implicitly often cannot describe the patterns to which they are clearly responding. What is even more interesting is that the brain activity of subjects who are playing the game using implicit knowledge is different in location and character from the brain activity of subjects playing the game using explicit knowledge. In other words, Gallwey’s Self 1 and Self 2 may turn out to describe real components of the brain. Of course, a careful scientist would feel compelled to attach a long list of caveats to a statement like that, but I prefer, for the moment, to just enjoy the crazy long-shot possibility that a pop-psych metaphor might actually turn out to be an accurate psycho-physiological theory.

Gallwey’s general prescription for success at learning tennis is all about learning how to “quiet” Self 1 and “trust” Self 2. Three key things need to be done, according to Gallwey, in order to accomplish this goal.

The first requirement is to de-emphasize technique, which is the verbal description of how to perform a skill. Technique is the province of Self 1. In a traditional tennis lesson, the learner is loaded up with technique right from the start: Keep your wrist locked! Keep your elbow straight! Turn sideways to the ball! Get your racquet back early! Keep your eye on the ball! Transfer your weight as you swing! Swing low to high! Follow through! Self 1, in possession of all of this theory, wants to put it into practice immediately. Self 2, however, will go through a gradual process of learning from experience with or without the theory. So Self 1 gets impatient and tries to take over from Self 2, and that’s where the trouble starts. Gallwey’s conclusion is that the less Self 1 knows, the less likely this is to happen.

The second requirement is to de-emphasize ego. The involvement of the ego creates pressure. We’ve all experienced this: When you become focused on the need to succeed–especially when others are watching you and you realize that failure would be embarrassing–you suddenly begin to feel as though even the simplest, most familiar actions have become very difficult to execute. In sports, this effect is called “choking”. According to Willingham, choking is what happens when people lose faith in their unconscious abilities and revert to their conscious, explicit mode of control–in other words, when Self 1 takes over from Self 2. Gallwey’s advice to the learner is to cultivate a Zen-like detachment from the ego (“letting go of the self” and so on).But not everyone is able to suppress their own ego in this way. What is of more practical import, in my opinion, is Gallwey’s prescription for the coach, which is to avoid expressing too much focus on success and failure. This is important because it is more or less the opposite of traditional coaching wisdom.

The third requirement is to pay attention to the outcomes of actions. Most people think they do this already, but for the most part they are wrong. One of Gallwey’s most interesting observations is that novices often fail to observe what happens when they hit a bad shot, apparently because it is too painful to watch. Sometimes they literally cover their eyes when they miss. The trouble with this is that the feedback from where that shot lands is critical to Self 2’s gradual, feedback-based learning process. This is where a coach can help, setting up exercises in such a way that learners are highly focused on seeing outcomes clearly regardless of whether they are “good” or not.

So that is Gallwey’s theory, or at least my slightly fractured version of it. The real question is, does it actually work? Well, it happens that Harry Reasoner did a sixty minutes piece many, many years ago that makes a pretty good case for the effectiveness of Gallwey’s approach. (If you look on youtube, you may be able to find the video—if so it’s well worth watching.) Reasoner actually recruited people who had never played sports to come and take a lesson from Gallwey, which he filmed.

In the video, a student, who is holding a racquet in her hands for the first time, stands to the side as Gallwey and a partner hit the ball back and forth. Gallwey instructs the student to say the word “bounce” whenever the ball bounces, and “hit” whenever the partner hits it. When she has done this for some time, Gallwey kicks the partner off the court and puts the student in his spot. Gallwey continues to hit balls with the same location and pace, and instructs the student to keep saying “bounce-hit, bounce-hit”, with the word “hit” now being uttered when the partner would have hit the ball. A few more balls go by, and Gallwey then suggests that, if the student feels like it, she can try swinging her racquet, but he cautions her to keep focused on maintaining an accurate “bounce-hit” cadence—what happens when she swings is not important. The student does indeed swing the racquet, and, having by now internalized the precise timing of the ball’s arrival, she is able contact it squarely on the first try. When you see this on the video, it’s utterly amazing.

When the student has begun hitting the ball reliably for a while, Gallwey starts giving her tasks to do that involve focusing attention on the ball. One is to describe the sound the ball makes when it hits her raquet. Another–not captured in the video–is to ask the learners to call out fhow far each shot lands from the base line of the court.Gallwey assures the learner that it doesn’t matter where the shots land—he just wants an accurate distance estimate. But an interesting thing happens: the shots start landing closer and closer to the baseline, without the learner making any conscious effort to get them closer.

I’ve seen this video several times and I’m always amazed by it. Even knowing what I know about learning, I’m still surprised to see that Gallwey’s technique works as well as it does.

I believe that Gallwey’s key points—to de-emphasize ego and technique, and to emphasize focus on outcomes—have been incorporated to a significant extent into modern tennis lessons, and that they are the central reasons why these lessons are much more effective than the ones I took.

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