How much practice is needed to develop your tennis skill?

Published by Dr. Machar Reid

Novak Djokovic trains ahead of a match against Rafa Nadal.
Is the concept of 10,000 hours to become an expert applicable to tennis skills? Our experts discuss

How much practice is required to develop tennis skill? Damian Farrow – Senior Skill Acquisition Specialist at the AIS and Professor of Sport Science at Victoria University, Bruce Elliott – Professor of Biomechanics at the University of Western Australia and Rob Leeds – Talent Search and Development Coordinator share their insights with Dr Machar Reid.

MR: In its efforts to advance coaching, the sport science discipline of skill acquisition occasionally appears to have created more confusion than it has clarity. To this end, the ‘10,000 hour rule’ has become very quickly embedded in the vernacular of sport. Has it been misrepresented particularly in tennis?

DF: Good question. I will just clarify one thing. I don’t necessarily think it’s the discipline of skill acquisition that has created the confusion. I think what has happened is that a number of popular authors, for example Malcolm Gladwell to name one, have picked up on the concept and translated it into popular science. Unfortunately for skill acquisition in some respects, more coaches read Gladwell and the like than our work – which is a bit of an indictment on us. Sometimes the message then gets misconstrued; in this instance that 10,000 hours is a prerequisite to becoming an expert performer.

What we do know of deliberate practice – which is where this 10,000 hour rule comes from – is that it’s a very specific form of practice and that it’s also one that needs to meet specific criteria. Not all practice is the same. As the name deliberate practice implies, it’s very deliberate, it’s structured to improve your current performance level, and it’s very specific to the skills or the sport that you’re performing, it requires a very concerted effort on behalf of the player and it’s not necessarily enjoyable. However, most people think that you practice deliberately every time you step on a tennis court and knock up tennis balls … and if you accumulate 10,000 hours of that, you’re away; you’re going to be an expert. I reiterate all practice is not equal and for practice to be considered deliberate it has to meet a number of very stringent criteria.

RL: I think Damian’s right in pointing to Gladwell and his contemporaries and the impact that their books, articles and commentaries have made on the thought processes of many coaches. It’s been positive in that it’s heightened everyone’s awareness of the investment of time required, yet, it cannot just be any investment of time. Of course, it’s a generalisation but I think that there has been the tendency to interpret the 10,000 hours as an endorsement of the traditional high volume, high repetition practice structures and the need to rack up hours on court.

One point I would like to add is that I think it’s important to contextualise the type of player that we are talking about … we’re not really referring to those players who participate in tennis for fun. Deliberate practice, and the accumulation of deliberate practice, becomes all important for those players who have ‘specialised’ or who have exhibited the desire and interest to become a professional tennis player.

MR: As mentioned above, the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice (or the 10 year rule) is commonly referenced, however is there any tennis specific evidence to guide us here? Or are we simply borrowing from other sports to fill in the gaps of our own understanding as a sport?

DF: There is some early work, not necessarily done under the premise of deliberate practice that certainly demonstrates that you do need significant investment from a relatively young age to be an elite tennis player. But, on the whole, tennis is borrowing from the literature of other sports quite a lot.

I think one of the key things that we need to further tease out is something that Rob has mentioned. You can have high volume, high repetition practice sessions that are not considered to be deliberate practice. So, for me, it cannot always be about how much but rather the quality of what’s being done and its purpose. If you have high purpose and high quality and you do 10,000 hours, you’re going to be a better player than one that does 10,000 hours of practice, which is low in quality and low in purpose. That’s a pretty simple message.

BE: And this really is where things can get confused. No one really knows how to measure the 10,000 hours, nor in fact whether it’s 10,000 hours that are required. We know that it’s a sizeable investment of time over a number of years – more importantly though within that, it’s the manner in which you practice that is critical. As Damian has mentioned, not all practice is equal.

The other side of the coin is that once something is developed, say technique, subsequent modifications do not require that same extensive investment of time. In using technique as an example, the amount of time required to make technical change is a function of the problem itself and the appropriateness of the interventions used. In other words, I don’t think that the importance of deliberate practice subsides when expertise is reached.

MR: Can you elaborate on an example of deliberate practice in a tennis context? Where does competition fit?
DF:
We’ve already touched on the criteria that are considered to comprise deliberate practice. Basically, it’s where a player with or without the help of a coach has decided to improve their current performance level and have actively engaged in that process. So, if they are going to change an element of their forehand technique, deliberate practice in its most rudimentary form would see players set aside practice time to intentionally work on that aspect of their forehand – often at the expense of other parts of their game. It may involve hitting 1000 of the same type of balls or it may feature live ball drills or game play – the point is that players are actively engaged. It is hard work and they are not necessarily getting an immediate reward for their investment.

Where does competition fit? Well, this is where some of the more academic arguments may occur. The original theory was built off musicians. It was all to do with solo practice activity. It had nothing to do with sport. When it was transferred to sport, researchers did not count the number of hours of competition within their tallies or descriptions of deliberate practice. And to me competition is an essential part of practice if it meets the criteria that we’ve just talked about. Has the coach watched the player compete? Have they discussed the lessons learned from the competitive outing? Has the player taken me, it cannot always be about how much but rather the quality of what’s being done and its purpose. If you have high purpose and high quality and you do 10,000 hours, you’re going to be a better player than one that does 10,000 hours of practice, which is low in quality and low in purpose. That’s a pretty simple message.

BE: And this really is where things can get confused. No one really knows how to measure the 10,000 hours, nor in fact whether it’s 10,000 hours that are required. We know that it’s a sizeable investment of time over a number of years – more importantly though within that, it’s the manner in which you practice that is critical. As Damian has mentioned, not all practice is equal.

The other side of the coin is that once something is developed, say technique, subsequent modifications do not require that same extensive investment of time. In using technique as an example, the amount of time required to make technical change is a function of the problem itself and the appropriateness of the interventions used. In other words, I don’t think that the importance of deliberate practice subsides when expertise is reached.

MR: Can you elaborate on an example of deliberate practice in a tennis context? Where does competition fit?
DF:
We’ve already touched on the criteria that are considered to comprise deliberate practice. Basically, it’s where a player with or without the help of a coach has decided to improve their current performance level and have actively engaged in that process. So, if they are going to change an element of their forehand technique, deliberate practice in its most rudimentary form would see players set aside practice time to intentionally work on that aspect of their forehand – often at the expense of other parts of their game. It may involve hitting 1000 of the same type of balls or it may feature live ball drills or game play – the point is that players are actively engaged. It is hard work and they are not necessarily getting an immediate reward for their investment.

Where does competition fit? Well, this is where some of the more academic arguments may occur. The original theory was built off musicians. It was all to do with solo practice activity. It had nothing to do with sport. When it was transferred to sport, researchers did not count the number of hours of competition within their tallies or descriptions of deliberate practice. And to me competition is an essential part of practice if it meets the criteria that we’ve just talked about. Has the coach watched the player compete? Have they discussed the lessons learned from the competitive outing? Has the player taken

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