Next up the French Open

Playing With Freedom

I am back at my son’s tennis club again. It is an unusually warm Wednesday evening and on the eve of his tenth birthday he is pushing into his fifth year of tennis lessons. My son was learning how to jump and hit an overhead smash as the ball was being lobbed over his head.

Sometimes it feels like I have absorbed all of those hours of coaching too from the sideline. I often wonder about the fine line between just playing with instinct and natural intuition and practising structures and drills. How might this be a metaphor for the broader design of learning in our lives? Where is the place for intuition?

His coach was breaking each part down for him and George was really struggling to sequence each element correctly. “Turn sideways, point towards the ball, racket behind your head, side-skip backwards, jump, strike the ball, kick out your trailing leg and land on the opposite foot.”

When he practiced he struggled to get each bit right or, jumped off the wrong foot or swung too early. He almost had too much structure in his conscious, working memory. (Like learning to swim on the side of the pool)

A little while later, during a little game, it all clicked. He was jumping and smashing the ball back. He probably wasn’t thinking about it at all. More likely he was instinctively moving into a position to hit the ball, he was playing what he saw in front of him. It wasn’t rulebook perfect, but it was markedly smoother and more natural than his stilted practice.

Eric Cantona the footballer spent his most successful years playing for Manchester United in the English Premier League. I always enjoyed watching his playful style. He would seem to be trusting his instinctive capacity, some sort of deeper intuition. It always seemed effortless for him. Whether chipping the goalkeeper or hitting a cross field pass he seemed to be playing with a freedom I remember from the playground. (I once scored 9 hat tricks in a single break time!)

The word “over-coaching” cropped up recently when I was watching some commentary on the Australian Rugby League. Although I have never played, the game is seemingly filled with structures and set plays. Commonly the ex-player analysis of star players in different teams, especially the creative playmakers, refers to providing freedom to play. Not over structuring the processes or thoughts so the talented half back can express himself.

Phil Gould, the general manager of football at the Penrith Panthers, refers to some good examples of the need for instinctive play:

it was interesting to listen to Brad Fittler on Thursday night as he commented about the two Manly halves Api Koroisau and Dylan Walker trying to find a way through the South Sydney defensive line to produce the winning score. Brad was making the point that the two playmakers were guilty of trying too hard and they would be far more effective if they stopped thinking so much. He suggested they would be far better off if they actually stopped thinking and just played.

Gould goes on to highlight comments by Andrew Johns about Anthony Milford, a rising star of Rugby League at the Brisbane Broncos:

Milford was so effective because he is one of the few playmakers in the game today who actually watch the defensive line and react instinctively to their movements.

No doubt successful teams, whether in football or rugby league rely on a balance of: structures that are shared and drilled and the instinctive capacities of creative individuals. The same would be true of tennis. Players need the structures as well as the room to express themselves and trust in their intuitive ability.

I have watched George hit shots that were not in the rule book, win points when he shouldn’t have done because he behaved instinctively. He played the point, not the tennis textbook.

I wonder how far the similarities go within school? How much room do we allow for that unstructured intuition led learning? How do we strike the balance between structures and freedom? When do kids have the room to simply play?

I had better run, #tennisdad duties call!

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