Tennis Chronicles: What did I tell my best friend?

There had been a lull for some time since the last time I had written about my Tennis. A book we often recommend is Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath. One of the techniques they talk about while taking decisions for yourself is to answer the question “What would I tell my best friend in this situation?” If you can detach yourself from a situation but also think about it for your best friend, you will care enough. That really increases the chances of taking better decisions. I have been trying to get this balance of dispassionate-ness and ‘caring enough’ in lot of the decisions I have been taking at work and in life.

Coming back to my tennis - I had a feeling that I was just showing up at my tennis class every day and going through whatever was on offer that day – it was not really going through the motions but it felt like that to me because I didn’t have a plan; I felt I was drifting. I decided to take a step back and look at my learning, what could I change and of course, give some rest to my troublesome knee. So I decided to take a break for the month of May.

During my cycling trips every morning, I chanced upon a different tennis academy and decided to play there for a few days to see how it goes. The new place was different in many ways:

  • It’s a hard-court. I had played only on clay courts for one year.
  • It’s much closer to my house. So I could save a lot in transit time.
  • There were three courts as against the four at the previous place.
  • There were fewer people who came to play.

I started with some doubts but decided to give the new place a shot anyways. The first week was horrible – I found it difficult to get used to the pace of the court; I was anyways coming off a month-long break. But I slowly got more comfortable. When our kids came back from their vacation, I convinced them to join me at this new place (leaving all their friends from their older class). Around 2 weeks in, I realized the biggest difference – the coach at the new place has given me ‘technical advice’ on exactly 2 occasions in the last 40 odd days. You might recall the equation I had quoted from The Inner Game of Tennis,

Performance = Potential – Interference

In the book, the author talks about how the ‘coaching’ from the coach becomes an interference for the player because she wants to implement what she has been told – extend your arm, check your grip et al. This new coach plays regularly with us; has been coaching for a few decades. So I’m sure he has a lot to say but his philosophy seems to be to let players develop their own style. He has a slightly different approach with the kids but largely the philosophy seems to be the same.

This works very well for me, personally. I can make my plans for what I want to improve every day. Since there are fewer people, I play more sets instead of going through the standard routine drills that everyone was put through. Fewer people as compared to the earlier place also means that there are fewer people whose tennis skill- level will be rated as high. Yet, my level has definitely gone up because I have been able to make the changes I want to and plan for. The biggest difference is that I feel more in control of my tennis journey and I feel happy about it! For an autodidact like me, this is the perfect scenario. I’ll wait to see how it goes for the kids.

So if I had to report back to my best friend, this is how his advice helped –

  • Found the new courts when I was out cycling -  Increase exposure to new situations, people, to improve chances of serendipity to happen to you
  • Took a break – allowed me to do detached reflection
  • Tried out the new place – experiment before coming to any conclusions
  • Fewer people at the new place – more mind-space and playing-time
  • Under-coaching allowing me to do my own thing.

What advice would you give to your best friend?

The seam of the tennis ball, Draupadi's swayamwar and the Universal truth of life


After my last post on Tennis, I was recommended by at least two people to read The Inner Game of Tennis. When I did a quick Google search, what really intrigued me about it was the fact that this book was used by coaches in different sports like Tennis and hand-egg. Usually, when a book has applicability and relevance in different domains or areas, it means that the book is talking about something more fundamental and higher-level. This book is considered the Bible of tennis coaching and the author, Timothy Gallwey has apparently written more books and is now an acclaimed business coach as well.I bought the book on Kindle immediately and started reading it. The book talked about what I go through on a daily basis – the trouble with concentration, the one great winner that I manage to hit once in a blue moon and call it ‘patchy’ form. The big equation to come out of the book is

Performance = Potential – Interference

Where Interference is the instructions you try to give yourself to hit a shot in a particular way or what the coach is asking you to focus on or what you think the situation demands. If you can minimize the Interference, then the performance can actually be as good as your potential. And it all boils down to focus. So what I've been doing all this while is sledging myself!! The idea is to figure out what works best for you – and this starts with understanding yourself and becoming more self-aware. You try out different approaches without being judgmental about the results and then once you do what's working enough number of times, you get into the groove i.e. you can do it exactly in the same way every time. Thinking complicated skills like walking, writing, driving!  There is always the risk of regressing to old habits because your ego needs the satisfaction of being in control and wants to ‘drive’ you towards great results. And that’s when you need to have practiced ‘how to get your focus back’.

This is a great equation because it’s a very fundamental equation. It’s applicable in every sphere of work and life. All the great saints, teachers, leaders have said something on similar lines – keep things simple; maintain razor-sharp focus and try to achieve the Zen state in whatever you are doing. Whether it is spiritual readings or self-help books or books on leadership/ behavior science or a bootcamp on hypnosis (and I’m speaking from personal experience), the ultimate message that you bring it down to is the same – keep it simple, focus, you have to figure out what works for you on your own and once you find that, rinse and repeat. And it’s always a system! Targets can be deceptively detrimental.

Uplevelling @ Choose To Thinq

This framework is something we follow at work. At Choose To Thinq, we uplevel growth-minded leaders to beat the status quo for themselves and their teams. The nature of problems can be quite varied. We have worked on challenges like –

  • My customers are smart. I can’t be doing the same standard thing to engage with them. What can I do differently?
  • The people coming to this Sales conference have probably got bored of seeing the same kind of demos and presentations. How do I convey my message more convincingly?
  • I want to engage better with this group of employees and develop these channels of communication. Skip-level meetings can’t be the solution!
  • I want to develop a culture of intrapreneurship in my company. How do I do this?

These business problems are from domains as varied as marketing, sales, traditional HR and organization development. The framework that we typically apply is –

  • Work with the leader to help them discover a destination to aim for.
  • Help the leader to creatively engage, persuade and recruit allies and equip them with new knowledge, skills and tools required.
  • Help shape the environment and build habits and culture for the quest to succeed.
  • Help sustain the change.

Some typical attributes of our approach are

  • Keep it simple and maintain focus.
  • Try out different approaches first to figure out what is working in your situation. (There’s no guarantee that what worked in another company similar to yours will work for you)
  • Something not working the way you wanted it to is part of the process.
  • Observe what’s working and amplify it.

We came up with this approach based on multiple philosophies and frameworks like design thinking, lean startup, systems thinking, B J Fogg's behavior design and books like Influence, Switch, Decisive, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Flow, The Power of Habit etc. Above all, we use a lot of common sense instead of being dogmatic about any one framework/philosophy. It’s our own version of Din-i-Ilahi, the religion that Akbar founded based on the best things from different religions.


It all boils down to the same universal truth –

  • Keep it simple.
  • Focus.
  • Figure out what works for yourself – it could be very different from the ‘recommended best practices’.
  • Rinse, repeat to make a system out of it.

A simple trick Timothy Gallwey talks about for maintaining focus is to try and watch the seams of the ball and nothing else. Then the ball seems bigger and it even slows down for you to play your shots at ease. How different is it from Arjuna hitting the eye of the fish in the swayamwar to win Draupadi's hand in marriage?

Harish is co-founder, Choose To Thinq and Thinq2Win

Tennis Chronicles - the Background


Our kids started going for tennis coaching last year. I used to look at others and have a comment and an approving look (all to myself) about their technique – all based on more than 30 years of watching tennis on TV. One day when I was watching some of the new students, the coach called me and asked why don’t I join the class? I initially resisted because I couldn’t  be taking up something new at the age of 36, could I? I was also worried if I’d be able to control myself if I actually start playing a sport that I have loved for so many years – would my work suffer? But I decided to allow myself to be seduced and I fell for tennis, hook, line and sinker. It became such an integral part of my life that I just had to go to the tennis courts at least for an hour every day – irrespective of the weather, work or a bad knee.

I also started looking at tennis as an experiment in self-learning and deliberate practice. I’d set small targets for myself before going to the class and see if I’d be able to execute my plans. It was now a game within game and my sense of enjoyment actually doubled. I must have missed more targets I have set for myself than met them. The other outdoor sport that I have played with so much passion is cricket. I once practiced alone for 50 days, just trying to get my yorker right. I am capable of such single minded determination and believe that I can crack a complex problem by dividing into small parts that I can ace this way and then it’s just a question of putting it all together.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to use this approach fully in my tennis practice yet as I end up playing with someone else. Finding a partner who is at the right level has been a challenge – I need the high of beating someone who on his/her day could have beaten me but I also don’t want to battle it out with the more superior players because I theoretically know what I should be doing but clearly, my skill is nowhere near what I’d recommend to a Roger Federer in a blog post (like this). This is very similar to the concept of flow where you have to get the levels of difficulty and the skill just right.

It is fun to introspect on how I play and analyse how I did. Unlike the serve, most other aspects need another player on the other side of the net. I end up losing my rhythm very badly when I end up playing against someone who doesn’t hit it hard enough or plays as if he’s playing table tennis (yes, I had two such players in my batch today!). And once I lose my rhythm, it takes either a week or 30 minutes of practice with the head coach to get back to square 1.

I know I’ll never be playing tennis at the highest level. In fact, looking at the way the sport is played at the junior level (where well-built hunks try to pass off as under-12 participants or a Nike-cap wearing boy calls a shot out on his side simply because he knows there’s no referee around and he can speak in English as against his opponent), I’d not have lasted too long anyways. Yet, seeing some of the older people play at the academy, I feel this could well be the type of physical activity that I could continue till my body allows.

Scott Adams, in his book “How to fail at almost everything and still win big” recommends picking up a daily habit like tennis (where you can see daily improvement) as the key to happiness. Well, the habit’s been picked up. The book also talks about self hypnosis and programming your mind. I did a self-hypnosis bootcamp last year. Now I just need to figure out how not to be reminded of John McEnroe’s joke about Ramesh Krishnan’s 10 kmph serve every time I face a newbie-pretending-to-be-an-expert (like me) and focus only on my game and my game within game. I’ll try to post regularly about my Tennis chronicles – you might be able to use something from here in other pursuits of your life.

Harish is co-founder, Choose To Thinq and Thinq2Win