In Brief

Tennis players who learn to anticipate an opponent's return shot direction through their own experience perform better than players who receive explicit instruction about key postural anticipation cues underpinning successful performance, finds a study in APA's Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (Vol. 11, No. 2).

A. Mark Williams, PhD, a professor of motor behavior at England's Liverpool John Moores University and a visiting research associate at Florida State University, and his colleagues investigated which of three instructional techniques would best help tennis players predict the direction of an opponent's forehand and backhand shots. Because tennis shots can top 100 miles per hour, Williams explains, players don't have time to react to the ball after it has left an opponent's racket. To return shots, he says, players must anticipate a ball's direction by using cues such as the posturing of an opponent's shoulders or hips as they prepare to hit the ball.

The researchers split 36 junior tennis players in England, averaging 10 years old, into four groups--explicit instruction, guided discovery, discovery and control--and let them watch videos of teenage players hitting various tennis shots. They told the explicit instruction group exactly what to look for--for example, the opponent's shoulders will rotate more for cross-court shots, less for down-the-line shots. Researchers told the guided discovery group to focus on details like the shoulder positioning to derive patterns but did not explicitly say what those patterns were. The researchers simply encouraged the discovery group to find cues that might predict a shot's location.

The control group completed only the laboratory-based pre- and posttests, which involved responding to life-size filmed images of various tennis opponents.

After training, participants demonstrated their decision time and accuracy by watching videos of passing forehand and backhand shots and stepping on pressure-sensitive pads in the direction they believed the ball would travel. Researchers elevated participants' anxiety by telling players that they would rank their anticipation skills and notify their coaches, and also by telling them they weren't performing well, regardless of their performance.

The researchers found that all participants did better than the controls, but participants in the explicit instruction group learned most quickly how to anticipate an opponent's intentions. Yet in the anxiety-provoking test, this group did worst: They overthought each rule, creating an additional cognitive load that prevented them from anticipating a shot, Williams says. Meanwhile, the discovery group proved least susceptible to pressure--possibly because these players were unconcerned about breaking rules they never learned, Williams hypothesizes.

"Skills require less attention with practice, but the nervous novice thinks too much about what they are trying to do, a form of paralysis by analysis," Williams explains.

Given the results, the researchers conclude that guided discovery--pointing players toward key information, then letting them infer patterns on their own--is most effective in developing anticipation skill because it combines the best of both worlds: It's faster than self-discovery but less susceptible to anxiety than explicit instruction.