Yes, it's tennis post time.
It's been months since I last burdened you with a blow by blow of my court wars, but yesterday was special. I walked off the court happy.
I won, but that was not the thing. I hit a lot of winners, but that was not the thing. I made a number of mistakes, but that was not enough to discourage me. I even played both with and against ladies, without affecting my mood either way. And it was the first time I really enjoyed myself that way.
I hit every stroke right.
For the first time in my life, at least once, I hit every stroke correctly. That's a flat, top, and high-top forehand; a top, flat, and slice backhand; slice, top, kick, and flat serves; forehand drop and drive volleys; backhand drop and drive volleys; and backhand and forehand overheads. You can only imagine how happy it made me to have to hit every one of those shots during a series of doubles matches, and to deliver under pressure. It was glorious.
I am a more sensitive duck than most. Most people experience a kind of a direct line between growth of skill and growth of confidence. I don't. When my skill doubles, my confidence goes down. I merely know how much further short of the ideal I am. It is not until my skill is "adequate" that I begin to relax and experience this "confidence" thing other people talk about. This time last year, I was able to hit a tennis ball better than most 4.0 players, but I did not have faith in my knowledge - so I lost to 3.0 players all too often and never beat a 4.0 player.
Does that sound strange? Arrogant? Like a cockamamie excuse?
I'll tell you what it is. It's frustrating. I would rally aggressively with these guys, and my shots would be deeper, harder, heavier, and better placed. The match would start, and their shots would get 5% worse, while mine got 30% worse immediately, dropping another 5-30% as the match wore on. Sometimes I would finish a match hitting like a 2.0 player.
It's that horrid emotional sensitivity.
Every little whisper in my head would be magnified to conversational tone, and every statement became a shout. Every doubt was backed up with historic evidence, and every fear was in itself a thing to be feared. It takes almost nothing to knock me off my game.
And then I took that coaching in Sept.
Joan Ramey showed me exactly how to hit the ball (all of the strokes I listed above.) She left no room for doubt. On the forehand, the right foot twists on the balls of the feet, which causes the hips to rotate, which allows the torso to twist and the shoulders to open up. The right shoulder is catapulted forward by the action of the whole body and the racket starts about 6 inches below the eventual point of the contact with the ball. The head tracks the ball back to the point of contact, even as it moves forward toward the eventual target. Finally, the racket strikes forward in a flat line toward the point of contact. It will naturally rise those six inches toward the point of contact in order to hit the ball upward enough to clear the net. The racket is gripped in a semi-western fashion, so the downward tilt of the racket will impart all necessary topspin. No wrist flick or forearm twist is required. Those things will merely introduce points of error. After contact, the arm follows through directly beside the left shoulder, not way up in the sky.
These are all coarse-grain movements by major muscle groups.
In other words, they are repeatable. No matter how much pressure I was under last night, I was able to do all those things the same way, and hit a solid, dependable ball. When I'm in the zone, I can add lots of fine-muscle touch to the gross motor motions of a basic forehand. But when I'm out of the zone, I can still hit the ball well enough to win points, and keep my opponent from figuring out how sensitive I am, and how quickly I might fall apart.
I spent the whole fall grooving in my baseline game, groundstrokes and serves. Two weeks ago, I started working on my net game, volleys and overheads. On Tuesday, I went and paid hard earned cash for an hour of pure volley lessons. Then I grooved those lessons in my basement Wednesday and Thursday. And it worked.
All night, Friday, even as I made mistakes (and I still made plenty) I was able to remember the coarse-grain, gross motor skills I'd learned and keep my head from falling apart. As the night wore to a close, I was still together. Tennis is a game that wears my personality down. At the start of the night, I am typically overconfident, and brimming with great shots. By the middle of the night, the burst of self-belief has passed, and I'm grinding out the things I do best. I've quit trying for anything new, and am pretty much shooting only for safe targets. By the end of the night, I'm holding on by the skin of my teeth. I've missed so many shots that I'm struggling to remember that I ever could play the game at all.
It was only recently I learned most tennis players don't go through that personal erosion. I always have. It's as if I know my back is only good for 2 hours, so I have to play as much as I can before it goes out. I know my personality can only handle so much, so I have to nurse my mind the whole time I'm out there. I have to practice good self-coaching, and not get too excited or too depressed, or the wheels come off.
Well, last night none of that happened. I played 6 sets or so sets of doubles, and I was as mentally fresh at the end of 3 hours as at the beginning.
They started me on the 4.5 level court. I feel barely qualified to hit with these guys, but I stand in the best I can. I probably lost 2/3 and Phil lost the other 1/3. That's not bad, because 1/2 & 1/2 is perfect. I'd much rather be the 2/3 guy, but I'm hanging on here. We played to a 7-7 tie with no breaks of serve, and we won the tiebreak 5-1. That means I held my serve 3 times. Three times the whole thing was on my racket, and I delivered.
The biggest trial was the volleying at 4.5 level. Volleying at that level is a very visceral, instinctive thing. From a max of 40 feet away, the ball is hit at 50-80 mph, sometimes right at you, some times out of reach. You have to decide whether to come in and face that barrage, or whether to back away. In the past my volley has always been so weak I have stayed back. Last night, I found I had just enough confidence to stay in. The thing is, if you do it right, the volley is good for an instant point. It's worth the gamble. I hit a few serious, perfect volleys at the 4.5 level last night. I also hit some bricks. That's OK. I don't mind failing when I know I'm headed in the right direction. Last night was a step in the right direction.
The rest of my matches were 3.5 level. I hate to step down, but it gave me a chance to build confidence. My daughter tells me that it's better training to beat up on people just slightly worse than you than to constantly lose to people better than you. So, I did. I stayed in, and made some volleys I never could have made before. It was a pleasure.
I've been a little technical here, so I don't blame anyone who hasn't gotten this far. The bottom line is that I've always been scared and nervous, and last night I finally got to see the fruit of all the coaching to which I've exposed myself. They say that "training" is something that happens to you, and "learning" is something that happens in you, and that if all goes well training results in learning. Last night I got to see that the learning is happening, and not just the training.
None of this is trite to me, though it rings so in my ears.
Every animal on Earth learns to survive by playing. Somehow I messed that up in my youth, but I'm gaining ground on life now. 2 years ago, when I started this whole blog thing, I was a 3.0 player who thought he was a 4.0 player. I would say the same applied throughout my life.
I don't talk much about the coaching I'm getting in life, religion and relationships, but it's almost bizarre how perfectly my experience and growth in tennis is matching my experience and growth in all these other areas. 2 years ago, I was the best tennis player on my team - so I quit my team. It was good for my ego and bad for my tennis to stay.
The biggest thing I've learned in these last 2 years is that I'm not really a head-case on the tennis court. I see now why my shots were failing me 2 years ago, and I found I could correct those errors. As I have begun to find reason for confidence, the confidence has come. Other people have a gift for confidence without cause. I do not.
Learning that about myself has allowed me to address the biggest problem in my emotional life. Learning that I can stabilize my emotional "strokes" to work under pressure, and that I can find confidence based on cause, even after 30 years of lacking it, has freed me to try some pretty un-Codepoke like stuff of late. I'm happy with the results, and looking for more "causes."
I left the tennis court Friday night, not euphoric, but blissful. I'm not there yet with regard to all my emotions, but the light at the end of the tunnel is getting closer, and I can smell the fresh air now.
And I'm looking forward to playing in the Midwest Indoor Championships.