Optimal Duration of Practice for Tennis Players

6 Aug

High Quality Practice is Difficult

Authentic high quality practice can only be sustained for limited periods of time. Why? Because it’s hard. Not always physically, but mentally. The formula outlined in Geoff Colvin’s book “Talent is Overrated” tells us that “perfect” practice involves performing highly specific activities at the upper limit of your abilities, and paying close attention to errors. These activities require intense concentration, and we can only stay in the optimum zone for learning as long as this mental intensity is maintained.

So let’s talk hours and minutes

Anders Ericsson, in his landmark paper The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance, reviewed several studies that showed no benefit from durations exceeding 4hours per day, and reduced benefits after 2 hours, due to a decreased ability to maintain sharp concentration. Among his own study subjects he found practice sessions among elite performers averaged 1 to 1.5 hours, with experts completing more of these short sessions per week rather than practicing for longer periods. This included professionals who have all day and night available to train if they wanted to.

This difficulty of maintaining sharp concentration plays a role in the 10 year timeframe that is usually attached to the 10,000 hour rule. Theoretically at 6 hours per day you could churn out 10,000 hours of practice in 5 years, BUT the research shows that the number of high quality practice hours would likely be much lower, for the reasons stated above. This gives some insight into why players can typically only reach the top of world tennis after a decade or more of playing.

Chalk this up as another advantage to early starters, since later starters cannot simply blitz out insane amounts of hours over a few years to catch up. Attempts to train for durations beyond the optimal levels (over 4hrs/day and less if younger) may yield rapid short term results, but without the necessary recovery schedule (rest breaks and sleep etc) players are prone to burnout (mental and physical fatigue, loss of motivation, injury). Quitting tennis altogether due to motivational burnout has been shown to be a common occurrence after increasing training to high levels as competitions become more competitive.

The Good News

The good news for readers of this blog (and The Blueprint Tennis Manifesto) is your knowledge of what makes quality practice. Many kids are training for hours per day, but quality is an area where there is still scope for big advantages to be gained. One hour of the highest quality practice can be better than 3 hours of just hitting balls! Indeed Daniel Coyle in his study of talent hotbeds found that in most cases the hours practiced were not extreme. Instead a premium was placed on quality, perfecting techniques, and intensity.

Recap

  • No benefits from practicing more that 4 hours per day (not because more practice isn’t better, but because quality of practice falls dramatically over long peiods due to mental and physical fatigue).
  • Practice sessions among elite performers averaged 1 to 1.5 hours (optimal lesson duration is shorter for young children because they typically maintain concentration for even shorter periods)
  • Experts complete more of these short sessions per week rather than practicing for longer periods (because concentration levels are higher during shorter sessions). The same applies to children. Four 30 minute sessions per week is far better than one 2 hour session because the total time spent “sharply focussed” will be greater.

Lessons

I think the lessons here are: 1) Practice is more than just hitting balls; and 2) While more practice is better than less (that hasn’t changed) you should be committed to highly focussed, high intensity practice sessions. Sessions that extend you to your limits. Sometimes physically, but always mentally. If you do, you will be getting more bang for your practice buck…or maximum improvement from the time you spend on-court. And figuring out how to maximise the return from your investment of time and money is one of the key skills needed for the race to the top.

What are your thoughts? Please leave your comments below.

2 Responses to “Optimal Duration of Practice for Tennis Players”

  1. C'mon March 15, 2014 at 10:05 pm #

    THIS WEBSITE IS SHIT I PLAY FOR 10 HOURS EVERY DAY AND IM STILL NUMB ER 1 IN THE WORLD WITH REGARDS YOUR GREATEST RAFAEL NADAL.

  2. Jay April 18, 2014 at 3:07 pm #

    Very helpful piece!
    Thank you.
    How about training for 2 hours with 1 hour of rest in between? Would this be good for an adult learner who has more awareness of mind/body?

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