5 Ways In Which Tennis Coaching Can Aid Learning

As published in Business World

By Jaideep Bhatia, co-founder, EduTennis

The tennis court can be the ideal informal setting that links educational content (such as language skills) with something that learners find attractive (such as learning how to hit a ball).

"It's no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence because every match is a life in miniature. Even the structure of tennis, the way the pieces fit inside one another like Russian nesting dolls, mimics the structure of our days. Points become games become sets become tournaments, and it's all so tightly connected that any point can become the turning point. It reminds me of the way seconds become minutes become hours, and any hour can be our finest. Or darkest. It's our choice. "

-- Andre Agassi, Open

That there is a link between learning and time spent on the tennis court is no coincidence. Billie Jean King's highly influential Women's Sports Foundation has maintained a research interest on this question. It put out a report in 2019, titled How Tennis Influences Youth Development. The study, based on a survey of 115,000 young people, established a significant correlation between playing tennis and success in school and life. The survey's objective was to understand how tennis and other popular sports affected teen well-being. Its findings, detailed in this report, provided evidence that taking up tennis had a positive impact on the lives of American adolescents. 

Interestingly, this wasn't a standalone study. It built on two previous research projects - More Than a Sport: Tennis, Education & Health (2013) and Teen Sport in America: Why Participation Matters (2018), both of which look at teen sports as an educational tool and public health asset.

It is this insight about the synergy between tennis lessons and life skills that animates our efforts at the Amba Dalmia Foundation's (ADF) EduTennis programme. This project, being incubated in partnership with a Delhi Government School, draws on global innovations in curriculum design. From our experience, we could identify five reasons why tennis works brilliantly as a template for teaching, and this is something curriculum designers might want to explore.

1. Crossover learning

The tennis court can be the ideal informal setting that links educational content (such as language skills) with something that learners find attractive (such as learning how to hit a ball). Connected experiences are more likely to kindle interest and encourage learning. They exploit the strengths of both classroom and tennis court environments and provide learners with authentic and engaging opportunities for learning. Since learning occurs over a lifetime, feeding on experiences across contexts, crossover learning often stays with learners for life.

2. Learning through argumentation

A skilled coach who knows how to engage, and not dictate, would know the value of this approach. Argumentation helps learners compare and contrast ideas in a safe space. Non-judgmental, technical reasoning that is public, for all to learn from, allows learners to refine newly-learnt concepts, discuss original ideas with others, and experience how creators think and work together. Scientific ways of holding an argument can teach learners to speak in turns, much like in a tennis rally, where the ball is on one side of the court, and then the other, until a point (or the argument) is won. It is also a space that provides practice in active listening and offering constructive responses.

3. Incidental learning

Unplanned or unintentional learning that may happen while doing something unrelated to the topic at hand is a powerful source of acquiring new information and insights. Unlike formal education, incidental learning is not led by a coach, guide, or teacher. However, the capacity to reflect could be used to encourage learners to discover a different way of understanding what they have learnt.

4. Computational thinking

Crucial to problem-solving, computational thinking involves breaking down larger problems into smaller parts, knowing how these steps relate to similar problems solved in the past (pattern recognition), put away unimportant details (abstraction), identifying and developing the necessary steps to arrive at a solution (algorithms) and refining these steps (debugging).

Whether the learner is writing an article, developing a process flow or planning a work project, such skills can be invaluable when studies become more complex, and when the learner enters the job market.

5. Embodied learning

Awareness of the body as it comes in contact with the real world -- the mind-body connection, is known to catalyse learning at both the levels. The domain of mindfulness, taught in many educational and corporate contexts to reduce stress, overlaps with embodied learning.

These are some of the core principles around which we have built ADF's EduTennis, a rather unique sport-for-development initiative in a country like India. The long-term goal is to make sure we can use tennis coaching as a way of teaching essential life skills such as critical thinking and interpersonal communication skills that are not always the primary focus in the conventional schooling system.

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