Dumb Little Man

How to Learn a New Skill The Fast and Easy Way

Can a complete novice learn to play tennis in under 30 minutes?

In the 1970’s, Timothy Gallway’s claim to fame was that he could teach anyone to play tennis in 30 minutes — even if they had never played tennis in their entire life!

Morely Safer was an investigative television journalist for the nationally broadcasted CBS news show. When he heard of Tim Gallway’s claim, he decided to test his claims and report the findings. He found a bunch of tennis novices, including a middle-aged woman named Molly Grover. She had never touched a tennis racket in her entire life and hadn’t exercised in over 20 years.

Could Tim Gallway teach this woman to play tennis in 30 minutes on live TV?

Molly had heard about Gallway’s claim but she doubted that she could ever learn to play tennis, let alone do it in 30 minutes! She imagined herself chasing the balls all over the court without making a contact with the racket and then giving up. In fact, she had called on the previous day to cancel but CBS news had talked her into trying it.

The “Inner Game” approach to learning and teaching

Timothy Gallway called his approach to teach tennis “The inner game of tennis.” He explained the “inner game” using the analogy of a child learning to walk.

The child learns to walk without being taught. Mostly by observing others, imitating them, and learning to get feedback from her own body and how to coordinate her movements. There is no instruction and no criticism from the parents. There was only praise and encouragement.

She may fall down several times before learning to walk on her own but because of the praise, encouragement, and fun, she doesn’t view it as a mistake or failure. In fact, there is no fear and there are no mistakes. There’s just a lot of fun and learning going on at the same time.

“Teaching” interferes with learning

Now, imagine if we teach a child how to learn to walk in the same way we traditionally teach someone to play tennis. This is how it would go:

We would instruct the child “Hey lift the left foot. No no, not the right foot. Ok, good. Now, put it forward while keeping your balance. No no no… Don’t lift it that high, and don’t put it that far away or you will lose your balance. OK now put the left foot down and do the same with your right foot. Oh shucks… you lost your balance. Please keep your balance – how many times do I have to tell you to do that!”

Of course, this approach would be ridiculous!

It will only interfere with the child’s natural learning ability. It will make the child fearful of making mistakes. Apart from that, it may also discourage her from trying again. In the end, she may just give up.

This approach of instruction, correction, and criticism will delay the process and take all the fun out of it. It may even cause some lasting damage. For example, the child will be fearful of making another attempt not just when learning to walk, but also whenever she has to learn anything new in her life.

Timothy Gallway used his “Inner game” approach to teach Molly Grover (and other novices) to play tennis. He started with hitting the ball across the net and asked Molly to observe. Molly’s only task was to say “hit” when the ball hit Tim’s racket and say “bounce” when the ball hit the court and bounced.

Then, he asked Molly to stand inside the court near the baseline and repeat the same task. Initially, she didn’t have to actually hit the ball. She just needed to say hit when she would think of hitting it. Eventually, when she felt comfortable, she attempted to strike the ball with her racket.

Hitting forehand comfortably by the 7th minute into training!

7.5 minutes of this and Molly is comfortably hitting the balls over the net with her forehand! Tim then starts the same process with her backhand. He asks Molly to hear the sound of the ball hitting the racket to distinguish between the sound of a nice hit vs. a not so good strike of the tennis ball.

Learning to serve by the 17th minute into training!

17 minutes into the training, Molly is good with both forehand and backhand strokes. She was hitting the balls comfortably across the court and was able to continue a game. Tim then worked on teaching her the serve. He explained that the serve is just another stroke and it has a rhythm like a dance.

He asked Molly to call out the rhythm of da-da-da as she observed Tim tossing the ball up in the air and hitting the serve. When she was comfortable, she tried it herself. Anytime she made a mistake, Tim asked her to focus on something else and work on the next serve.

In about 20 minutes, Molly was playing a tennis game effortlessly. Watching her, it is hard to believe that the first time she ever touched a tennis racket was just a few minutes ago!

In fact, all of the novices selected by Morely Safer to test Tim Gallway’s claim learned to play tennis within the 30-minute deadline.

You can watch an excerpt of Tim Gallwey teaching tennis to Molly Grover by clicking this link.

Learn to silence the “inner critic” and keep an eye on the ball

This all may sound a little silly and too simplistic. What is really going on here?

The fastest way to learn any skill is to observe and attempt while learning to silence the inner critic. Whenever we attempt a new skill, we are bound to fail!

No one is ever going to hit an ace at their first attempt at serving the tennis ball. However, due to our past experiences with failure, we get into a negative and self-critical mode which interferes with our learning. We tense up and become afraid to make mistakes.

What is also important in any sport is that we keep our eye on the ball. All the instructions by Tim Gallway to the novices were designed to help them pay attention to the ball. However, this was done without evoking the memories of past failures in trying to learn a new skill. Any failed attempts were quickly brushed aside and there was a constant encouragement to try again.

And this is the key to learning any new skill really fast and while having a lot of fun.

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