How to Be a Beginner, and How Not To

My wife has been expressing interest in learning to play tennis. She's been asking me to go out to the courts with her and teach her a few things. Last Saturday, we went and did so.

Before we went to hit, I asked her, "Have you done any racquet sports before?" She said, "I played a lot of squash in college. But I haven't played tennis since high school. And back then we were still using wooden racquets."

That's a long time ago now, and while playing squash is good for practicing hand-eye coordination, the tennis stroke is completely different. So we were starting not completely from scratch but close to it.

I'm not really qualified on teach more than the very basics of the tennis stroke, but I am able to see things like swing path and what the racquet face is doing. What we found most effective was me standing at the net with a bucket of balls and hitting them to her so she could practice groundstrokes. Unsurprisingly, she hit a lot of them into the net and a lot of them long. In response, I would either say something like, "You opened the racket face on that one" or I would try to demonstrate what I'd seen so she'd have a visual of what her body had done. I figured if I could help her understand the "why" of when her shots went awry, she might be able to use experimentation and her intuitive understanding of what a good swing looks like (from having watched high-level tennis) to improve without me saying too much. Because she's seen good tennis shots before, some part of her brain/body is trying to emulate what it has seen. My hypothesis was basically this: if you can help a student understand what she did to get the result she didn't want, she'll know where to focus her attention as she experiments.

At one point, after hitting the unpteenth ball into the net, she said, "I'm pretty bad at this." I responded almost automatically: "No, you aren't bad at this. You just haven't ever done it much, and you haven't done it at all for half a lifetime."

When I say that, I'm not being insincere and I'm not making a semantic distinction without greater significance. Having watched the improvements I've seen from my ski students this winter, I have come to believe that most people are capable of doing much more than they give themselves credit for, but they don't know how to let themselves be beginners. I am convinced that the difference between not doing something well and doing it well is partly good instruction and mostly a willingness to practice.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we try a new activity, compare ourselves to people who've practiced it much more than we have, and then declare ourselves to be bad at it? Bad is not a neutral word. In essence, we're declaring ourselves to be in some way deficient. We're shaming ourselves. And I'm not claiming that I'm somehow immune to doing the same thing. But I see it all the time and it's starting to make me sad. We use that judgment to narrow our worlds. We use it to keep ourselves from exploring, from experimenting, from fun. By saying, "Oh, I'm bad at that," we limit our lives.

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