the art of unlearning
it's a true pain in the ass
Thanks to everyone who responded to last week’s email — a lot of very interesting conversation ensued, and so I’m very grateful for your time. Please keep sharing!
As I mentioned last week, the latest focus of this newsletter is Overlay, a passion project I’ve been tinkering on.
Today, you’ll get a peek into Il Laboratorio Ammario as I use the app to improve my tennis technique. Feedback is welcome.
The Art of Unlearning
Here’s a fun thought experiment. Suppose you have never played tennis before. Your friend stands on the other side of the net and feeds you a ball.
You swing your racquet, trying get the strings to meet the ball. You hit the ball and it goes sailing out near the back fence. You laugh and shake your head, muttering “I can’t play tennis.”
Wait, but you just swung a stringed racquet at a moving ball, and then you hit that ball well enough to hit it over the net.
How did you figure out how to do that? I thought you “didn’t know” how to play tennis!
Try this thought experiment out with other tasks and skills. It’s trippy. How do we sorta-kinda already know how to do things we claim we don’t know how to do?
My intuition is that most of “learning something new” is actually “unlearning something old.”
In the case of the beginner tennis player, they have an unconscious map of how they’re supposed to hit a tennis ball. Maybe it’s super blurry, something only understood by the body and by muscle memory. Maybe it’s a duct-taped combination of “this is how you hold a thing” and “this is how you swing a thing”. But it’s a map nonetheless, guiding their understanding.
To improve as a tennis player, this old map is gonna have to change.
“Most learning is unlearning” sounds like BS you’d hear on a TED Talk. That cushy, feel-good, pseudo-spiritual gobbledygook that gets the heads nodding in abstract agreement.
Screw that. Let me share with you a concrete unlearning process. Unlearning is not very pleasant. But it is profound and effective.
How to Hit Like Carlos
I’ve been trying to figure out what differentiates elite tennis technique from my own. Particularly, how can I hit a forehand like Carlos Alcaraz; how can I hit a backhand like Stefanos Tsitsipas?
In Overlay, I can compare my forehand frame by frame with Alcaraz’s. I see some obvious differences in technique. Most obvious is the position of the racquet and arm during the backswing.
Impatient Ammar: “Okay, so just do it the way Alcaraz is doing it.”
Impatient Ammar incorrectly imitates Alcaraz’s swing a few times and then immediately tries to implement it at full speed.
Impatient Ammar eagerly reviews the video. Somehow, the technique has gotten worse. It looks nothing like Alcaraz’s technique.
I could’ve sworn I was swinging just like Carlos. Is the video lying to me? What is happening?
Here is what’s happening. A big little idea called proprioception. Awareness of what it feels like to put your body into certain positions. Stick your arm out at a random angle. Do you know exactly where your arm is?
My proprioception is not very strong. I have a conception of what it feels like to produce a forehand. It is so conditioned by how I normally do it that even when I’m trying to do it differently, I’m going to do what feels normal to me. Which is my old swing. The very thing I’m trying to not do. My body trusts it, even if it is incorrect.
To hit a forehand like Alcaraz, I cannot hit a forehand like Impatient Ammar. Everything in my body wants me to hit it like Impatient Ammar, the old and comfortable way.
To learn the Alcaraz Forehand, I’m going to have to unlearn what “normal” feels like and get accustomed to the feeling of a different normal. It’s nothing new. It’s just a different way to carry my body. But I’m gonna have to drag my body and mind through hell to make the change.
Stages of Unlearning
In order to incrementally move away from my old forehand and towards one that resembles an elite forehand, I must methodically unlearn. Ido Portal has done a lot of exploring in this realm. This is my humble contribution.
Shadow and Freeze
1. Shadow and Freeze
This is the stage that for many years I ignored and skipped past. It’s arguably the most important part of the unlearning saga.
For the new skill that you’re learning, do it in slow motion. Freeze at various intervals and compare your current state to a reference state. Compare from different angles and perspectives. Stitch together the full picture.
Once you’re sure you can move on, gradually speed up until you can do it at regular speed.
I did this with a video of Alcaraz’s forehand and started noticing major differences between my technique and his. Even when I thought I was doing the right thing.
When you’re learning a different way of doing things, it just feels weird! I wanted to learn this different technique while still retaining what felt normal. Hence the unexpected hitches in the swing. Proprioception is tough.
2. Exaggerated Drills in Isolation
Now that you’ve shadow-mastered the skill, it’s time to introduce some degree of reality. Your body is going to try to immediately revert to the old way of doing things. So to protect against that, exaggerate aspects of the different technique you’re trying to adopt. Don’t introduce too many new variables.
Here’s an example of Dominic Thiem working on his slice backhand follow through and recovery. Notice how he holds the follow-through for much longer than he would do in an actual match. He’s trying to get his body to trust his new mechanics.
3. Randomized Drills
At this stage, you introduce the new skill into an even more complex scenario. You’ll have to apply various techniques depending on the situation. And sometimes you’ll encounter a situation that requires applying the new skill.
Can your body and mind remember and trust the new skill? Or will it revert back to the old.
Here’s an example of a famous randomized drill they use at Spanish tennis academies (or so I’ve heard). A coach hand-feeds balls, and the player has to read and repeatedly apply the correct footwork, swing, and recovery mechanics.
Finally, the ultimate test: reality. The actual situations you will encounter. Not a test mimicking the reality, but reality itself. Matchplay.
This is the true unlearning challenge.
In the first three steps of unlearning, you gradually introduced more variables and complexity. In this final step, you unleash a significant mental component: stress and nerves.
Your mind and body will revert to old patterns when it does not feel safe or does not trust the new pattern. This is especially true in situations that feel like (and sometimes might be) life or death. A crucial point in a tennis match. A deadline at work. Performing emergency surgery.
This last piece of unlearning is so tough to get right, primarily for this mental aspect. That is why you’ll notice that some of the world’s best athletes and performers train as if they’re in matchplay. They introduce that level of stress into their training. So that when they encounter it in a match, it’s something familiar.
Does this correspond with some of your own learning journeys? Interested to hear!
It’s been fun applying these insights into how I even think about developing Overlay. Rather than “starting from scratch”, I’m walking through how I would accomplish what I’m trying to do without Overlay (using just the iPhone camera roll, an email thread, and text messages to my coach).
Here are some of the challenges I’m running into:
Importing, capturing, trimming, tagging videos for future retrieval
Importing reference videos from YouTube or other sources
Tracking progress over multiple sessions
Leaving feedback for easy future reference
Knowing what to focus on for the next session
Pulling in other people to leave feedback
More to share in the coming weeks. Happy Friday!
Note: I don’t want to waste anyone’s time here. If you don’t enjoy these emails, please unsubscribe. I won’t take it personally. I am currently not very active on social media except for emails like this and text messages.