Talk Less, Communicate More

Coaches, we tend to talk a lot. Constantly. All day, every day. But are we communicating? The definition of communication is “to share or exchange information, news, or ideas”. Notice that talking is not a part of the definition….

Years ago teaching pro certification required the pro to give a five-minute verbal introduction to each class explaining and demonstrating the topic of the day. In tennis camps in the 70s and 80s, pros also offered 30-minute “chalk talks” filled with long-winded explanations that most probably bored even the most die-hard tennis enthusiast. But is this really the most effective way to teach and communicate…?

Over the last few decades there have been multiple studies in different environments with one common thread: We humans have short attention spans and they are getting shorter and shorter thanks to the effects of an increasingly digitized lifestyle on the brain. How short? Recent studies show people lose concentration after only eight seconds. To put this in context, the average attention span of a goldfish is thought to be nine seconds… So, anytime tennis coaches speak more than eight seconds at a time in a tennis lesson, they are probably losing the attention of their students!

So the question begs to be asked, if coaches should not speak for more than eight seconds at a time, how can they communicate to teach? The short answer is to increase the amount of teaching through a non-verbal approach. There are three primary ways humans receive communications and learn. It is referred to as VAK learning. VAK stands for Visual (seeing), Auditory (hearing), and Kinesthetic (feeling).  

To elaborate a little further, visually-dominant learners absorb and retain information better when it is presented in, for example, pictures, diagrams and charts. In the case of a tennis lesson, this means lots of visual targets! Auditory-dominant learners prefer listening to what is being presented. They respond best to voices – this is great for us extraverted coaches! Hearing their own voices repeating something back to a coach is also helpful as is explaining the technique to another student. And, finally, kinesthetic-dominant learners prefer a physical experience. They like a “hands-on” approach and respond well to being able to touch or feel an object or learning prop. On a tennis court, this means using training aids to facilitate learning. Now, everyone learns through a combination of visual, auditory and kinesthetic methods, but each person will tend to have a more dominant learning preference, and so it’s helpful to find out from your students which learning style they relate to best so that you can adapt your teaching accordingly. 

Okay that’s fine in theory but how does this work in practice? That is, can you really communicate visually on a tennis court? The answer is a resounding yes. We conducted an on-court study with 48 recreational adult players divided into two groups. Points were scored for groundstrokes landing past the service line. Both groups understood the correlation between arc and depth. One group had no visual guide and the other had a bright yellow line three feet above the net to aim over. The group guided to hit higher over the net with the yellow line scored 67% higher in depth accuracy over the other group. There were no verbal instructions about how increased arc results in more depth; instead the visual guidance system placed above the net got the message across.

What about kinesthetic guides? How do they work? Let’s take a look at one example. I recently designed a simulated tennis racquet with a hinge in the middle and a ball on the end. It feels and weighs very much like a tennis racquet with one difference. The movement of the hinge replicates what a player’s wrist can do to help increase racquet head speed on topspin groundstrokes and serves. The idea is to give players the kinesthetic “feel” for the action of the wrist before having them swing a regular racquet and try to duplicate that same feeling while hitting a ball. (Note: I am not advocating a loose wrist that merely slaps at the ball, but rather a simulation of how top players use their wrist to accelerate the racquet into ball contact without losing control.)

Nice examples but is learning visually or kinesthetically faster than just through verbal communications? Absolutely.  Studies in other sports such as golf and skiing show a 200% to 300% increase in the speed of learning through visual and kinesthetic guides. 

In the 1990s there’s a story of a well-respected Division One college coach whose lectures apparently lasted a little longer than the attention spans of his players. The students were too nervous to approach the coach directly. So, one day someone with a felt marker went to the men’s locker room and wrote on the wall next to the hot air hand dryer with an arrow pointing to the start button, “To hear one of the coach’s lectures, press here.” As the famous 1st century BC philosopher Publilius Syrus  is well known to have said, “I have often regretted my speech, but never my silence.”