Practice works. Everyone gets better over time, and almost without fail the guys who stick around for a PhD will be some of the best players on the Uni team, regardless of how talented they appeared 6 or 7 years before.
But it’s also worth remembering that not all practice is equal. For any really good player I’ve ever worked with, I can point to a magic half-hour when some concept or technique or skill just clicked for them. That half hour is often worth as much as everything else they did that year.
Sometimes, of course, it’s just cumulative – that extra half-hour working on your forehand suddenly means it’s good enough that you don’t spend the whole game working out how to get your backhand away, and you become a more rounded player. Small changes can look like big changes when they cross a threshold.
But there are also occasions when people just learn more and differently than in any other practice they ever had. Things don’t always click just because you finally know enough to make sense of them – sometimes they click because you’re receptive, interested, focussed, confident… because you want to learn, and you believe you can.
When we’re small children, a part of the brain called the nucleus basalis is switched on the whole time (at least, if the research of Merzenich and others is to be believed). This part of the brain is responsible for focussing attention. For children during a critical period, there is no need to try and pay attention to particular stimuli – attention is on constantly. Everything is noticed, and everything that is noticed affects the structure of the brain. It all matters, and it’s all remembered, and it all rewires your neural circuits.
Obviously when we’re older, we don’t want quite so much plasticity in the brain – we want the lessons we’ve learned as children to be relatively harder to unlearn. We need some stability, and we need to not allow our most recent observations to overwhelm a lifetime’s experience. The nucleus basalis is now mostly switched off, and we have to pay conscious attention to something before our brains really step into ‘learning mode’ and release the right quantities of various neurotransmitters to make permanent changes to what we know.
And this is the point – the magic half hour arrives because someone really wants to learn. They have faith that they can do it if they try, they are invested in the process of learning, and they give it their full attention. They’re not thinking about what they’ll have for tea, or how embarrassed they are that they can’t do this yet and the cute member of the opposite sex is watching, or whether they’ll ever be as good as that Club player over there… they’re in the moment, and they just learn.
Can you make this happen? Well, you can certainly try. As an individual player, the ability to understand that your moods can be controlled, that you can choose to feel almost anything, that your downs are as likely to be caused by low blood sugar as by the things that actually happen to you – that’ll all help. Time spent meditating is not wasted – the ability to control your focus is vital. Perform difficult tasks that require concentration and application. Read classic books rather than watch 10-second online clips. Learn to focus, on demand, for longer and longer periods.
Jim Parinella’s book talks about picking a road sign in the distance as you walk to practice, and trying to empty your mind of everything but a complete focus on that sign. This is really hard, and feels really stupid. But it will help you.
And as a coach, rather than a player? There is one thing you can do which takes no effort and will make a big difference. You must get your players to consciously engage with you before showing them anything. There’s a world of difference between asking people to shut up and listen, or asking people if they want to listen, and waiting for a response. The mere act of stating that they’re interested will make them more attentive. When you see a beginner who needs help, ask if they’d like some advice rather than just telling them. When they say yes, they’ll listen. You might just get them to learn.
You can’t suddenly give them a magic half-hour every time. But if you know such half-hours exist, and if you understand what sort of state their brain needs to be in for it to happen, you can certainly help them to learn.