Little White Ball

Now that the leaves are off the trees (and hopefully off your lawn) and the summer clothes are packed away, a New Englander’s thoughts naturally turn to golf.

Wait—what?

Yup, I’m posting a golf essay on a tennis blog the day before Thanksgiving. Why would I do that? Four reasons:

  1. Golf is just a metaphor for Important Life Lessons.
  2. The essay does mention tennis. Three times, in fact.
  3. The theme feels Thanksgiving-y, in a counting-your-blessings kind of way.
  4. I needed to clear the cobwebs off this blog and post something. This is what I have on hand.

 

A Thanksgiving Golfing Essay

As anyone who has taken up golf knows, the first few outings can be rough going. You hack up a giant clod of sod while the ball remains placidly on the tee. You shank the ball off the butt of the club. You twist your spine, rotate your shoulders and unload on the ball, only to see it roll a begrudging ten yards. It’s a lesson in humiliation, especially if you’re in the company of seasoned golfers.

My mother came to golf late in life. A childhood tomboy and college tennis player, she enjoyed most sports, yet the plodding pace of golf held little appeal to her. When my father retired, though, she wanted to join him on his long golfing afternoons. Her early forays weren’t pretty.

My mother, God bless her, was a master of positive thinking. She knew she’d eventually conquer this sport, if she could only get past its two initial hurdles: one, learning the correct technique, and two, dealing with the soul-sapping frustration that comes with recording scores of 17 or 18 on a par 4 hole. That early frustration can itself lead to bad form and worse results–and ultimately drive a person to quit the sport altogether.

So my mother invented her own scoring system. She called it “counting my beauties.” While my father and their golfing friends would dutifully add up every stroke, my mother would record only the shots that soared straight down the fairway. Any shot that dribbled off the tee, or bounced meanly along the ground, or veered off in an unexpected direction, simply didn’t count in her score.

In essence, she turned a blind eye to her failures. She neither censured herself nor gave herself pep talks. The failures weren’t something to curse, accept, or forgive herself for. They just didn’t exist.

I was a young adult when my mother adopted her unconventional approach, and I found it a bit embarrassing. Her game of “let’s all pretend I didn’t take eight shots to get out of the sand trap” seemed childish. I imagined her fellow golfers rolling their eyes as she cheerily penciled in a “1” at the end of a hole.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom of her self-deception. Although her failures were evident for all to see, she refused to incorporate them as part of her reality, as part of the measure of her worth. By refusing to give them any weight, she robbed them of their power.

Of course, my mother was blessed with a healthy dose of confidence and optimism. (“Moxie” was one of her favorite words.) For me, such blithe blindness to failure is harder to come by. Losing a tennis match can leave me in a funk for the rest of the day. A publisher’s rejection invariably provokes a minor existential crisis.

But while my mother’s natural disposition helped her to focus on the positive, it’s also true that ignoring her failures reinforced her optimism. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, fueled not just by outlook but by choices.

As the weeks went by, my mother’s beauty count steadily increased. The higher her score, the happier she was, exactly the opposite of how most golfers want to see their scores trending.

Eventually, my mother didn’t need an alternate scoring system anymore. She worked her way up to the point that her score matched my father’s, in the process becoming an accomplished golfer.

I’ve spent most of my life outside the optimism loop, not seeing an on-ramp for someone with a naturally pessimistic outlook. While I’ll never be as sanguine as my mother, her scoring system makes me wonder if I can become more optimistic simply through willpower. Rather than focusing on my win-loss record in tennis or publishing, I’ve started counting my beauties. That well-placed serve. That well-turned phrase.

On my mental score card, I pencil in my “1.”

 

Hope you all have a beauty-filled Thanksgiving! 🦃🎾⛳️

**Essay originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.

Confidence Crises

Finally!

On Sunday, Rafael Nadal finally won his first clay court title of the year–in fact, his first title on any surface this year.

And–finally–we have a new blog post! I have been remiss. Inexcusably so, but let me offer some excuses anyway. First, I was taking a novel-writing class, so I was spending my creative juices elsewhere.

And two, I just wasn’t feeling it. I wasn’t sure I had the bloggerly chops to tackle some bigger topics. I wasn’t sure the blog even mattered–to me or to anyone else. Out of nowhere, I was having a mini-crisis in confidence.

Which brings us back to Rafa. (You know everything eventually goes back to Rafa.) Continue reading “Confidence Crises”

The Beetle and the Ballboy

Here’s a little fable that played out at the Australian Open this morning. Top-ranked Novak Djokovic was playing Daniil Medvedev, seeded 15. Djokovic was up a break and receiving serve at 5-2.

A beetle on the baseline caught Djokovic’s attention. He bent over and flicked it with his racquet a couple of times, trying to move it off the court. Then he tried picking it up while a ballboy stood a few feet away. Unsuccessful, he finally stepped back to let the ballboy take over. Continue reading “The Beetle and the Ballboy”

Three Ways I Overthink

Thinking is a real asset on the tennis court–except when it’s not. For me, thinking sometimes gets in the way of playing. My conscious brain gets in gear, and my shots go all to hell. But as they say, recognizing that you have a problem is the first step to solving it. Here, then, are three situations where thinking is my enemy. Continue reading “Three Ways I Overthink”

The No-Warm-Up Warm-Up

A while back, I was at a club as a member of the visiting team. We took the court and proceeded to warm up for our doubles match. The woman I was hitting against seemed to be, well, terrible. Her groundstrokes had nothing on them, little powderpuff balls. When I tried to warm up my volleys, her shots either landed limply in the net or sailed over my head. The few that actually made it to my racquet felt like little marshmallows.

Frustrated, I briefly considered saying that I would warm up against my doubles partner. The league rules allow this, but I’d never seen it done before. I pretty quickly decided against it. For one thing, we’d already used up most of the time allotted for the warm-up. I couldn’t very well start the warm-up over, could I? Anyway, my partner and I were obviously better players. Maybe the warm-up, or lack thereof, didn’t really matter.

But the real reason I didn’t request to change warm-up partners? I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. By saying that I wanted to hit with my partner, I’d be essentially telling my opponent she wasn’t a good player. I couldn’t see how to get what I wanted without making this stranger feel bad. Continue reading “The No-Warm-Up Warm-Up”

The Dreaded Yips

True story from last week’s matches: On Thursday, my partner and I won a match. Afterwards, she complimented me on my serve which had set her up perfectly at the net.

Two days later, we played another match. When it was my turn to serve, I tossed the ball and it went sailing over my head. I caught it and started again. Same thing. The third toss was almost as terrible, but how many times could I catch the ball? I hit it, and unsurprisingly, the serve landed two feet wide.

And so it went for the rest of the match. Toss, catch, toss, catch, toss, fault. I had a case of the yips.

If you’ve ever had the yips, you know the unique stress it causes. A case of the yips can seemingly strike out of nowhere. The simple motion of tossing a ball in the air suddenly becomes impossible. The previously inanimate ball now flies out of your hand, as lively and uncontrollable as a Quidditch snitch. Time is standing still, and everyone is waiting–your opponents staring at you, your partner ready at the net, your coach and teammates on the sidelines willing you to please, for the love of God, get your shit together and serve the ball!

So you try to be more careful in how you toss the ball, which is absolutely the worst thing you can do. You gingerly push the ball up, and it hangs in the air momentarily, mockingly, many inches lower than it ought to be. You’re going to need to rush your serve because the ball was already too low and now it’s dropping. You swat at the ball with your racquet. It lands meekly in the bottom of the net. You’re just lucky it didn’t bounce first.

The charismatic Serbian player Ana Ivanovic suffered from extreme yips in the latter portion of her career. In her first years on the tour, Ivanovic owned a powerful serve that won her many free points. But sometime after winning the French Open and reaching number one in the world, her serving toss went wildly awry. She eventually resigned herself to chasing her wayward tosses. After one particularly acrobatic service motion, sportscaster Mary Carillo drily observed, “That’s a lot of footwork for a serve.”

The yips don’t affect only tennis players. More than one baseball player has been driven from the game because of a sudden inability to throw the ball, missing their targets by wild margins. Professional golfer Ernie Els has been seized with the yips on three-foot putts.

A tennis player with a prolonged case of the yips may try addressing the mechanics of the toss. They might practice tossing along a wall or holding the ball in the fingertips. As good as these suggestions are for learning a tossing technique, they are less effective for overcoming the yips.

That’s because the yips aren’t really about technique. Take the same player on another day, in another venue, and they may serve just fine. I myself served just fine the day before my yip attack–and also, thankfully, the day after. I hadn’t changed anything. The curse just vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared.

Rather than a technical issue, the yips are about what’s going on in the brain. Focusing on the brain, however, doesn’t fix the problem. As any afflicted player would tell you, the more you think about the toss, the worse it will get. A reduced awareness would seem to be the better approach.

But how do you reduce your awareness about your toss at the very moment it’s humiliating you? Telling yourself “Don’t think about the toss” as you’re serving works about as well as you’d expect.

The only somewhat effective trick I’ve heard is to busy your mind with something else. One friend said that when she’s having trouble with her toss, she directs all her attention to her hand holding the racquet. Drawing her conscious mind away from her tossing arm frees her muscle memory to take over.

I remembered her advice during my yippy match, and I did have some limited success with it. My troubles didn’t go away, but my tosses were marginally less erratic and I didn’t double fault. I expect that if I ever need this technique again, it will work better because I’ll already know how to do it, and I’ll trust that it can help.

But I really, really hope I never need it again.

This will be my last post of this week. Have a fantastic, pie-filled Thanksgiving!!!

The Art of the Non-Answer

Here’s something interesting I noticed during this year’s U.S. Open. When the younger pros walk down the stadium corridor and stop for the pre-match interview, they listen to the question and respond appropriately. The more experienced player? Not so much. Continue reading “The Art of the Non-Answer”

Taming Butterflies

When I think back to my first year playing league tennis, one thing stands out to me more than any other–my nerves. Every match morning would be the same. My brain would be buzzing. My breathing would be shallow. My arms and legs would feel heavy and uncoordinated. Worst of all, my stomach would churn, and I’d make an alarming number of trips to the bathroom.

Not only did I struggle with nerves, I struggled with embarrassment over being so nervous. This was just recreational tennis. All the women in the league have careers, families, bigger issues in their lives. But telling myself that nothing was actually at stake made no difference. Neither my brain nor my gut believed me.

That first year I didn’t tell anyone how nervous I was. I didn’t think anyone else suffered from this level of pre-match anxiety. It seemed beyond pathetic that this silly little match could matter so much to me.

I’ve since learned that many people–including people who were on my team–experience pre-match jitters. I wish I’d known that my first year. Just knowing I wasn’t alone would have taken some of the edge off those feelings. Being able to laugh about it with my teammates would have helped.

By the second year, those nerves didn’t affect me as much. That sounds like I learned to control them, but I didn’t. They simply abated on their own because I’d been exposed to game-day stress so many times. Matches just didn’t trigger the same adrenaline rush they used to.

I’m rarely troubled with excessive nerves now, unless I’m facing a different kind of match, one where I fear I’m out of my league, or one where something really is at stake, such as winning the division. At those moments, I can end up feeling like a league newbie all over again, jelly legs and all.

But I don’t have to let those feelings derail my game. After a little brainstorming and poking around online, I came up with eleven ways to combat pre-match jitters.

  • Accept. Know that everyone gets nervous before matches. Not only is it normal, but a little adrenaline buzz can help you play better. Don’t let the fact that you’re jittery make you even more jittery!
  • Confide. Find a sympathetic teammate and share your feelings. No doubt she’ll be able to relate and may be able to help you relax.
  • Laugh. Listen to your favorite morning deejays on your way to the match. Or hang out with the funniest person on your team while you wait for your match to start.
  • Reframe. Don’t think of the match as a test you’ll either pass or fail. Reframe it as just one step in the process of developing your game. That process will include wins as well as losses. If you never lose, you aren’t challenging yourself enough–and your game isn’t growing.
  • Rebrand. Labels matter, so rebrand your anxiety. You’re not anxious! You’re energized, excited, amped up, eager, psyched… Find a label that puts those feelings in a better light–and then embrace them!
  • Focus. You have the power to decide what you want to think about. So replace negative thoughts about possible failure with positive thoughts about how you’re going to play. Keep it simple. Picture how you’re going to move your feet or get low on volleys.
  • Exercise. Burn off the negative energy. Hit the treadmill or elliptical before taking the court. If the club doesn’t have any exercise equipment, jumping jacks work, too.
  • Stretch. Gentle stretching can help release muscle tension. Find a quiet corner where you can practice a few downward dogs.
  • Breathe. Take deep, slow breaths. Count each inhalation and exhalation. Tune out the noise around you, and keep your mind focused on only your breathing.
  • Sing. Belt out your favorite song as you’re driving to your match. (Don’t worry–no one’s looking.) It’s impossible to stay nervous if you’re rocking out to an upbeat song.
  • Decaffeinate. Go easy on the caffeine. A little will help you stay alert, but too much will contribute to your jitters and your upset stomach.

Have you ever gotten nervous before a match? What do you do to tame your butterflies? And what are the best songs to blast in the car when you’re on your way to your match?

Ritual and Superstition

Bring up a mental image of Maria Sharapova when she’s in between points. What’s she doing? If you watch enough professional tennis, you know she has her back turned to the court and she’s fiddling with her racquet strings.

And Rafael Nadal before he serves? Even casual tennis fans are familiar with his elaborate pre-serve choreography–a tug on the shorts followed by an unvarying sequence of touches (left shoulder, right shoulder, nose, left ear, nose, right ear.)

What’s the point of these quirks? Are they just silly superstition? Continue reading “Ritual and Superstition”

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