The Inner Game of Tennis – The Competency Cycle

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Sports coaches have come to recognise that competency develops through four recognised stages. Understanding the stages of the competency cycle is a key aspect of mastering the inner game of tennis. It will also help you persist with your efforts to improve your tennis strokes.

The four stages are described below.

Stage 1: Unconscious incompetence

Before you start to improve a tennis stroke, you are often unconscious of what you are doing wrong. It may have to do with your swing, your stance, your grip or the way you address the tennis ball.

In this stage, you are not conscious of your specific incompetence though you may experience a sense of unease or dissatisfaction with the results of your effort. This dissatisfaction leads to the desire to improve the way you play tennis.

Stage 2: Conscious incompetence

Through your reading, coaching or observation, you have now become aware of what you are doing wrong. You may have been watching a slow motion video on YouTube and seen how Federer plays his backhand. You have identified an area for improvement, e.g. improving the way you grip the racquet to complete a backhand stroke.

You are now consciously incompetent, you are aware of your specific incompetence in relation to gripping the racquet for a backhand. You start to change your grip in practice and it feels very uncomfortable and you are not successful initially. One of the challenges at this stage is to unlearn established, unconscious habits.

It is important to persist despite the discomfort and frustration. This is where so many people drop out, give up and go back to their old way of doing things.

Stage 3: Conscious competence

If you persist with practising a better way (e.g. improving the way you grip your racquet for a backhand shot), you will start to feel comfortable with the new grip. You will also start to be more successful with your backhand shots.

The improvement in your backhand gives you positive reinforcement to keep up your practice.

You still have to make a conscious effort but you are acquiring the necessary competence, you are becoming consciously competent.

Stage 4: Unconscious competence

This is the stage where the new backhand grip becomes a part of your normal play, you do not have to think about it as you just do it naturally. It requires no conscious effort.

The old saying, ‘practice makes perfect’ is emphasising this stage of achievement. If you persist with conscious practice, eventually you will overcome old habits and replace them with new ones that are equally unconscious.

If you reflect on your game as you play tennis you will notice that there are many things that you do on a tennis court that represent unconscious competence, things that you do naturally or spontaneously, without conscious thought. These are the micro-skills you have built up over time.

As you progressively build from unconscious incompetence to conscious competence across a range of tennis strokes, you are building your inner strength and inner armour. You are developing your ability to win the inner game of tennis.

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