The 4 Stages of Learning in Tennis and How to Make the Most of Them


Even a skilled club player can improve his game, if he becomes conscious of his weaknesses and works on them.
Even a skilled club player can improve his game, if he becomes conscious of his weaknesses and works on them.
When you're learning to play tennis, you will pass through 4 stages of learning. These 4 stages are not specific to tennis, but are present with everything that we learn.

Knowing which stage you are in at the moment and how to make the best of it will shorten your learning time and help you become a better tennis player more quickly.

The First Stage: Unconscious Incompetence

When you are unconsciously incompetent, you don't even know that you are not skilled (either in the whole game of tennis, which is very rare, or in a certain part of the game-for example, volleys, footwork, or baseline tactics.

Ignorance is bliss as they say and in this stage there's really nothing you can do directly since you don't even know that you're missing something.

But while you may not be exactly aware WHAT you are specifically missing in your game, it's probable that you are missing SOMETHING, so what works best in this stage is:
  • accumulating a lot of knowledge about tennis, and
  • observing carefully how others play (including the pros) and comparing their game to yours.
This will help you become more aware of the scope of tennis and eventually identify the skills you lack.

You can also hire a pro to evaluate your game and help you become more aware of the various weaknesses therein.

The Second Stage: Conscious Incompetence

Once you become aware of what's missing in your game, you become conscious of it. You KNOW what the problem is, but you are unable to fix it.

The reason for that is, of course, lack of practice and repetition. The more complex the task, the longer it will take to become competent.

The best way to shorten this stage is to:
  • focus on your practice and
  • be patient.
While you may intellectually know what needs to be done, your body cannot learn as quickly. It needs more repetition to be able to learn a new movement.

That's why you need to be patient and wait for your body to catch up with your mind.

Another key to becoming competent (skilled) is to focus on a single task. Don't try to work on too many things at once. If you're working on your forehand technique, then focus only on this technique and don't try to improve your footwork, tactics, and speed at the same time.

Your focus will be split among 4 different tasks and none of them will be performed well. Remember, your body needs a lot of repetition to make a lasting change.

The Third Stage: Conscious Competence

If you continue working on your stroke, you will eventually "get it". You'll be able to make the right movement for the first time and you'll probably also feel a new sensation, which will signal to you that this is the movement you've been looking for.

That means that you have just become consciously competent.

In this stage, you are able to perform the stroke correctly, but you have to keep reminding yourself (you are being conscious) of what needs to be done (i.e., keep your grip loose, lift your racquet head, extend through the ball).

As soon as you forget or start focusing on something else (become unconscious again), you'll go back to the old technique (or skill).

The key to shortening this stage is the same as in the second stage:
  • focus only on one thing at a time, and
  • repeat the stroke or process in order to store the new information in your subconscious.
If you are learning more aspects of a stroke, for example learning an early preparation, having a good wide stance, rotating your hips and shoulders into the shot, and accelerating the racquet through the ball, then first focus on EACH cue separately for a few minutes.

Play 5 minutes and focus ONLY on having an early preparation and don't think about other parts of your stroke. They will not be done correctly but that's not important in this stage.

Your goal in the conscious competent stage is to STORE the information in your subconscious and you do that by CONTINOUOUS UNINTERRUPTED repetition.

Store the feeling of early preparation for 5 minutes (focus on it) and then switch to the next task, perhaps having a wide stance. Do not focus on the preparation but instead focus only on the wide stance for 5 minutes.

Keep switching from task to task like this for many lessons. Eventually, try to link them together; it's very likely that they will already have become unconscious and work together well without your conscious effort to link them.

The Fourth Stage: Unconscious Competence

Once the new skill(s) has been repeated many times, it will become automatic. You will become unconsciously competent, which means that you'll be able to perform a new skill (a new stroke or improved technique) without thinking about it.

This will free your mind for other tasks. You'll be able to work on other weaknesses in your game and you'll finally be able to PLAY tennis, which means that you'll be able to focus on tactics and various ways of outplaying your opponent.

Your technique will be completely unconscious and it will become a tool for solving a tactical problem.

There's nothing more you need to do in this stage regarding your newly acquired skill, but you can, of course, return to the first stage and explore what else is missing in your game and what else can be improved.

Now that you have become conscious of these four stages of learning, identify which stage you are in for a certain stroke, footwork, or tactics and make the best of each stage to accelerate your tennis learning.


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