I took my first tennis lesson 40 years ago, and I still remember it vividly. What was remarkable about it was that at no time during the lesson did I actually strike a tennis ball with a racket. Instead, the lesson began with a lecture on “eastern” versus “western” grips–a topic my instructor had apparently made a bit of a study of–after which we spent a few minutes “shaking hands” with our rackets, then watched as the instructor repeatedly demonstrated a proper forehand, and finally ended with a session of “air tennis” where we all swung our rackets while the instructor critiqued our form.
My lesson was a classic example of a mistake that is often made in training: assuming that learners need to be loaded up with a lot of information before they can be allowed to actually perform the skill they are meant to be learning. One of the most spectacular refutations of this view I’ve ever seen comes in the form of a very different kind of tennis lesson taught by a man named Timothy Gallwey. Gallwey was a tennis playing Harvard psychology student who one day started wondering beginning tennis players looked so awkward and seemed so unhappy. His answer, which he described in a bestselling book called The Inner Game of Tennis, was essentially that the theory we learn in advance of attempting a skill can actually become a burden–it makes us awkward because we are trying to interpret and apply too many instructions at once, angry because we perceive how poorly we are executing the theory, and ineffective because it distracts us from the natural feedback mechanisms that help us learn in the first place. By avoiding this mistake, Gallwey claimed he could teach someone to play tennis in 20 minutes.
Harry Reasoner, a well known news anchor of the day, read the book decided to call Gallwey’s bluff: He challenged Gallwey make good on his 20-minute claim with a novice of ABC News’s choosing. On camera. To be shown on national TV. Gallwey accepted the challenge. You can see the result in this amazing video.
The video quality is really poor (because: 70’s broadcast TV), but trust me, it’s worth suffering through to watch it.