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Former Cornell professor lends education theories to sports training

Lakewood Ranch's Joe Novak, 92, works as a consultant for NXT Athletics Institute for Learning and finds that his learning theories are still in demand.

Tennis Coach Dickie Herbst and Cornell Professor Emeritus Joe Novak formed a friendship after Herbst read a story about Novak in the East County Observer. Novak died in September.
Tennis Coach Dickie Herbst and Cornell Professor Emeritus Joe Novak formed a friendship after Herbst read a story about Novak in the East County Observer. Novak died in September.
Photo by Jay Heater
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For much of his life, 92-year-old Joe Novak wondered whether he has been banging his head into a wall as he promoted a societal change to "meaningful learning" as opposed to the norm of memorization-heavy Rote learning in public schools.

Perhaps Novak, who lives in the Sheridan in Lakewood Ranch, was just competing in the wrong arena.

Tennis anyone?

In September, Novak's story was told in the East County Observer with an article that covered his educational studies, his 41 books on education subjects, and his basic concepts of learning.

At the end of that article was Novak's telephone number and his offer to speak to anyone interested about the topic. He thought, perhaps, someone from the School District of Manatee County would like to pick his brain.

The call came, but the person on the other end of the line was an unexpected inquirer. It was Lakewood Ranch's Dickie Herbst, a former professional tennis player and a longtime coach. Besides his professional and college career at Pepperdine, Herbst, who is entering his second season as Lakewood Ranch High's tennis coach, is known for coaching pro stars such as Patrick McEnroe and Tim Mayotte.

"As a coach, it is difficult to improve, to get better," Herbst said. "I was fascinated on Joe's theory of education, and his concept mapping."

Herbst wondered if he could incorporate many of Novak's strategies into his coaching, and if he could go even farther and positively influence the way kids in general learn tennis, or any sport for that matter.

He began meeting with Novak, a professor emeritus at Cornell University, at least once a week, starting in October. They quickly developed a friendship that will promote changes to the way kids approach learning a sport. A bonus developed in that goal when it became a very healthy relationship for Novak as well.

Novak's wife, Joan, died in January, so his regular work with Herbst has kept his mind busy.

"It has been so refreshing to talk to Dickie and his friends," Novak said. "It's like I am back in the classroom again."

Highly motivated

Novak said that most of the people his age he encounters only want to talk about "what the next meal is."

Now he wakes up each morning "highly motivated."

"Joe says that I have given him a new lease on life," Herbst said with a smile.

Herbst is motivated as well. Besides incorporating Novak's concept mapping and interview strategies into his own coaching methods, he is using the concepts to spearhead a non-profit he has helped to form with other powerful tennis personalities. 

The NXT Athletics Institute for Learning hopes to integrate Novak's concept mapping into a program it hopes to spread across America.

The NXT Athletics Institute has put out a statement saying, "The most impactful and transformational contribution coming out of Novak’s 60-plus years of research is a process known as 'concept mapping.' Concepts, connected by linking words, form propositions that describe one concept’s relationship with one or more other concepts.

"Such maps reflect externally the hierarchical way in which the brain comes to understand, connect, store and access these concepts. Understanding the hierarchical nature of knowledge leads to greater retention."

Lakewood Ranch's Joe Novak, now 92, saw his book Helping People Learn" published in 2022.
Photo by Jay Heater

Simply put, NXT Athletics Institute for Learning believes that children play sports, but they don't learn how to play a sport.

The nonprofit offers the following example. "Memorizing multiplication tables does not result in an understanding of the concepts of math, nor does knowing how all the pieces on a chess board move result in understanding the strategies of the game."

Novak has pushed that concept for years in the education arena.

Herbst points to Novak's last book "Helping People Learn," that was published last year, and notes that it offers "compelling evidence that most American students today experience Rote learning in a “memorize–test–forget” environment.

He said it leaves most students "unable to grasp the connections and relationships between concepts, and so they are not able to “see the big picture.”

Novak thought his days of trying to convince educators that a better way of learning exists was over.

"It is surprising to me they think I have nothing to say," Novak said. "But a lot of my work was in direct opposition to what was popular."

Spreading the word

He is hopeful if his ideas spread through the sports world, through coaches like Herbst and nonprofits like NXT Athletics Institute for Learning, school systems might take notice that the concepts can be used in the classroom.

"This has been a new theory of sports learning," said Novak, who first started creating concept maps in 1975. "If we can get the parents to see this works in sports, they might ask 'Why can't we get this to work in education?'"

That thought makes each day exciting for Novak, who has lost most of his vision and in October said he wasn't going to write any more books.

Working with Herbst and NXT Athletics Institute, he said another book might be possible.

One of the hooks that prompted Novak into working with Herbst was a seemingly simple practice wall (3D Sports Walls) the coach created. 

"He developed this wall, but it's not flat," Novak said. "It has panels at an angle. The players have to think about strategy (because of the way the ball comes off the wall), how they will cope. I told him, 'You are a creative guy.' I thought we could work together."

Herbst, who is 68, loved the compliment.

He started taping his interviews with the players (of all ages) that he coached, and he would have Novak review the tapes to critique them. 

"There is not a lot of meaningful learning in coaching," Herbst said. "That is what frustrates me about coaching. You see these kids, and they are drilling six hours a day. In tennis, you are physically memorizing how to hit a stroke. But the players don't understand the job of a forehand or a backhand. They are looking at it from one piece."

Herbst would interview players and develop a concept map to get them to consider the "conceptual framework" of the game. He said a concept map helps them organize a plan. He would ask questions such as "What do you like about this game? How do you win points? How does your opponent win points?"

Longtime tennis coach Dickie Herbst, who now coaches the Lakewood Ranch High team, works with one of his 3D Sports Walls that uses panels to send return shots in different directions.
Photo by Jay Heater

He said a lot of the strategy had been coming to him for some time, but Novak gave him the "scaffolding" to build a better system.

Dave Fish, who coached tennis at Harvard for 44 years, loves the "scaffolding" as well. Fish has joined NXT Athletics Institute and he believes Novak's concepts will be a big part of the nonprofit's efforts.

"Joe is like Yoda and Buddha," Fish said of Novak. "He will listen, and then add something that will pull everything together.  He is going to impact families on the way kids learn. It's all so simple, that it is easy to overlook. With this, I would like to redo (his coaching career). But you can only do your best with the tools you have at the time."

New ideas

Fish said he hopes parents and youth sports coaches are willing to listen to the new ideas about to be spread by NXT Athletics Institute.

"The mission is to pass this on," Fish said. "What we are seeing is that, at first, parents are uneasy, and the kids are uneasy. But with questions, they all jump in."

The whole system also uses parents as observers who can work with the coaches, and offer input that can be passed to the athlete with "one voice."

Fish said he also has built his own concept map.

"I'm 73 and I'm playing better than ever," he said. "I am treating myself as a Guinea pig. I've found that the concepts create a better way to learn. The potential here is enormous. This could have a lasting impact on the future."

For more information about NXT Athletics Institute, 3D Sports Walls, meaningful learning or concept mapping, call Herbst at [email protected].



Jay Heater

Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.

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