15 December, 2007

Complete Fun

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.


Tari said...

Oh, codepoke! This was a joy to read. You found a great coach! But more than that, you're an exceptional student of the game to be able to apply all of this, work hard at it, and make it pay off.
Not to mention quite an athlete.
Well done. :)

Good luck in the tourney. Very exciting!

Milly said...

Cool Cowboy!
Praying for a great tournament

Weekend Fisher said...


Anonymous said...

A great post--lots of things that resonate with me, though I never could have guessed how an emotionally sensitive personality would have looked with an overlay of competitiveness. I am so totally non-competitive (I had a German friend who heard that fact about me from another friend. He came to me to confirm if it was true--"But you are so normal," he said, "and I thought the only reason for someone being non-competitive was that they had emotional problems." Ha, ha! How that has made me laugh over the years :)

Confidence is an interesting bird, isn't it? I think we sometimes crack it up as more important than it is (and don't get me started on using confidence as an indicator of emotional health or not....!) However, in performance type things, confidence really does come into its own--that is the place where it makes a huge difference.

I like what you said about knowing what your personality can handle.

"I even played both with and against ladies, without affecting my mood either way." So, I was curious, how has playing with and against ladies affected your mind in the past?

I appreciate the insights into life that your post gives--extra amazing since I'm hard put usually to find any life connection or insight from sports!

Milly said...

I am so totally non-competitive (I had a German friend who heard that fact about me from another friend. He came to me to confirm if it was true--"But you are so normal,"

I'm not competitive with sports. We aren't normal!!!!!!

codepoke said...

Thanks all for enjoying this little post.

Competition comes naturally as breathing for me. I was raised by a professional bowler, and rumor has it my first words were "bowling ball." Oddly enough, 4 hours a day in those buildings from age 0 to age 18 taught me to loathe the game. ;-)

> how an emotionally sensitive personality would have looked with an overlay of competitiveness

Haha. Yeah, that's good. But out on a court, sensitivity IS an emotional problem. It is AKA "mentally weak," "head case," "choker," and "loser." Learning to work with and around it has been interesting to say the least.

> So, I was curious, how has playing with and against ladies affected your mind in the past?

You've never seen guys get stupid around women? [Chuckles]

Playing around women almost always helps my game. Somehow, and I'm not sure how, it gives my mind somewhere to focus besides its own self-cannibalism. I tend to quit over-playing, and become a much more consistent player. Along the way, there's lots of confusion about how to serve to the woman, whether to crack the ball just as hard at her, etc. That night I was having so much fun just hitting basic shots, none of that was on my mind. It was just fun.

A bunch of us reached agreement that when playing against women, the rallies tend to get cooperative. Instead of trying to kill the other player, you're both trying to create a memorable point. It's not that you're not trying to win, but that you're trying to win differently. It's an interesting difference, and nobody was sure whether it was the addition of femininity to the equation or the the addition of the opposite sex.

Anyway, mixed doubles looks like the same game as men's doubles, but mentally it's a second cousin sometimes.

Anonymous said...

I have seen guys get stupid around women, but I assumed you meant something different than "just that" :) Thanks for explaining. It's interesting to think that playing tennis with women has had a stabilizing effect (at least that's my, admittedly biased, interpretation of your explanation). I like what you said about the focus switching to making a memorable point instead of just trying to kill each other. I think I could actually enjoy sports and more games if I felt safe that it was about "making a memorable point" and not about being killed, squashed, conquered, beat, skunked, etc.! Memories, I love--whether I win or lose at something. "Being defeated" is very different, to me, than "losing" a game I enjoyed playing with a friend.

Wow, 1/6 of your first 18 years spent in a bowling alley! I never really thought about people hanging out there for such long, consistent periods of time. Makes me want to go and sit and observe what goes on in bowling alleys (the wannabe anthropologist in me hears about life in a bowling alley and thinks, "That would be an interesting cultural context to get to know people in.")

Anonymous said...

It all depends where your starting point of "normal" is :)

Milly said...

One thing I’m sure of is that my starting point for normal is different from most.

My grandfather was a bowler we use to have a ton of trophies. I never went to watch him bowl. CP knows why. My husband can bowl well but can’t stay out of his head on it. I can’t bowl very well, I strictly play the game to have fun.

As for seeing dudes act stupid around women-Heck yes!
Where is my husband? *-*

codepoke said...

Bowling alleys.

There is no spare change behind anything in a bowling alley. The dust behind the video games is not particularly interesting. Nor is watching the game go through its demo sequence for the 9,000th time, even when pressing the buttons as if you actually had a quarter. In my day, you added to that glorious picture the haze of a hundred cigarettes, and always the constant plunk, whirr, bash of three or four balls at a time hitting the pins.

It was worse when I was older, and I had to function as her coach. I was supposed to invent criticisms of a game I did not know in hopes she would turn her game around when she was losing. And why not? Dad could evidently do it, so why couldn't I?

Bowling is a very streaky game. If you throw the same ball in the same place every time, the same thing should happen. Due to numerous changes in oil, humidity and mood it does not work like that, though. Add to that a completely lack of credibility, and "coach" becomes one nasty pro bono position.

Now that I am grown, I see the interaction of the adults, and it's interesting after a fashion. It's actually a pretty supportive group. Just not for me.

codepoke said...

Hey! Hey! Hey now, missy!

There'll be no counting of coup on husbands on this site!

Or well, I guess it's not really Missy's fault.

But then, that's what she gets for picking such an oft abused name.


codepoke said...

On the subject of emotion in tennis, I'm not alone.

In this youtube clip, Pete Sampras (arguably the best who's ever played along with Laver and Federer) struggles to play while unable to push thoughts of his coach's impending death from cancer out of his mind.

Pete and Roger are both exceptionally emotional people and emotional players. They both dealt with it by hiding it from everyone. They are both extremely attached to their support teams, Pete to Tim Gullikson and Roger to his girlfriend Mirka.

codepoke said...

> Wow, 1/6 of your first 18 years spent in a bowling alley!

Thinking about this. That's a ridiculously high number, and got me to thinking again. It was probably more like 3-4 days a week, and only before I was old enough for school and during summer vacations. We only went bowling after school one or two nights a week, and probably not after age 9-10 or so. By the time I was 15, I was only going with her one night a week and probably not much more than that during the summer.

It was 4 hours at a time, but it was never 7 days a week, and eventually only 1 day a week. But at least there was the 1 hour each way commute to get to the big city where she had to bowl to look forward to once or twice a week.

I keep promising to try to watch for hyperbole, but it really wasn't until you pointed it out that I even noticed I did it. :-(

Milly said...

I would have hated spending all that time in that place. It's a fun outing with friends once in a while but not a great place to be all the time. My husband worked at one when we first met. Not his fav place to hang.

And he knows he does stupid stuff around us. ;-}

Missy said...

HEY!! >: (them's angry eyes)

Actually, I think I play that game. It's like Russian Roulette with reactions.

And blame my dad for "Missy" - it was Jocasta's (his siamese cat) momma's name.

Anonymous said...

I don't have any problem with hyperbole (it's an important literary device), except that I'm such a literalist, so sometimes I need to be reminded that, indeed, something IS hyperbole. In the end, it doesn't matter, I suppose, because the hyperbole works and makes me notice a statement in a way that something like "I spent a lot of time in a bowling alley growing up" wouldn't have. And when I notice, I want to know more and I ask questions. Through that, I realize that the person was speaking hyperbolically, and I also get to learn and think about things I otherwise wouldn't have.