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.