I could have just read the quote below a decade back. But the profoundness would have been lost on me, had it not been for the game of tennis which has provided the backdrop and metaphor for the journey. Sometimes, makes me wonder how the past decade would have been, if not for that one serendipitous weekend!
It’s like flowing down a river, allowing the currents to carry you while also using your oar to correct yourself.W. Bradford Swift, Visionary Author
I found tennis by serendipity on a summer day, roughly a decade back, while browsing the internet. My online wandering had led me to the website of a local community tennis center. There, I stumbled upon a ‘Beginners’ group drill that weekend. At the drill, I first learnt the term ‘top spin’, a real wonder to me then. I watched in awe as the Coach demonstrated the ‘magic’ and some of my fellow drill-mates seemed to be easily getting it. And, there I was wondering if I will ever get it, swinging hard and fast like a monkey and spraying balls all over my court and the adjacent courts.
At the end of the session and in retrospective of what had just unfolded, the Coach said (with more sympathy than empathy I felt), “Well .., you have a natural forehand swing. Come back to the next session, I will have 3 racquets lined up for you to try.” So I turned up for my second session and tried the racquets. On my third try, it felt right. The moment felt like when Arya Stark discovered the sword needle or the moment when the Black Mamba first held the priceless Hattori Hanzo. Well, maybe not that dramatic, let’s dial it down a bit…haha!! As I settled into learning the three things you need to get started in tennis – a forehand, a backhand and a serve, I realized it is not as easy as it seems to be ‘consistent’.
As I reflect back on time well spent, since that drill a decade ago, I realize that tennis has given me so much more than a solution to boredom or the indulgence of playing the perfect forehand top spin that makes a perfect touchdown, spins out of reach of the opponent, and smashes into the back fence on one bounce like a Tsunami.. haha!!
The picture below summarizes what I have learnt so far in my quest for self-realization through the metaphor of tennis. Have also shared below, some of my learnings in more detail. These thoughts are still work in progress and will continue to refine them as I learn more.
A Mental Model
For improving as a tennis athlete, having fun and building meaningful relationships along the way.
to keep track of updates as I test, learn and share more.
- Focus on understanding the Basics: I re-discovered to be curious thanks to tennis. With tennis I realized the importance of developing good habits early. As an adult athlete I realized perfection is not the goal but consistency is a better goal to strive for while having a growth mindset. After a certain level of consistency is reached, tactics and strategy becomes more important to focus on. Here are some examples of tactics I have picked up along the way so far,
- ‘S.A.L’ (Short, Angled and low) service return in doubles tactic
- When you are fighting the wind in addition to your opponent
- Or if you run into a wall a.k.a ‘The Pusher’ or ‘The Moonballer’
- Learning and Growth Mindset: This to me means practicing with intent. Every practice counts, every time you set foot on a court is an opportunity. Every player you play with irrespective of their level presents an opportunity to learn and improve. Practicing as in competition is important, and it helps to even make it harder than competition. For example if you are a 4.0 player, find opportunities to play against 4.5 players. But, balance it with playing against 3.5 or other 4.0 players as it gives you the opportunity to apply your learnings.
- Focus on your Strengths More than Weaknesses: Always play to your strengths. Know your opponent and conditions. Be aware. Scout if possible. Use tech if available. Information is power. Be aggressive, go for the winner when opportunity presents, be the shot maker, be unpredictable. But, when things are not working, change direction, adapt. Defense before offense. Play high percentage based on context of the game.
- Be Fit to Play Tennis: As adults we tend to take up tennis to keep fit. Flip this mindset, will work better that way. Fitness and movement is the most important thing in tennis. Give importance to regular HIIT training and strength training. Walk, jog, run. Do what it takes to stay fit and build endurance. But life happens and there will be breaks due to injury or life events etc., but pick back up when you can. Find like minded people to partner with. You will find different people at different stages of life. It is just more exciting that way. if you need more inspiration see the movie on the world of Ultra-Senior Tennis players. (“If you are 60 yrs old, you have 30 yrs to work on your game”)
- It’s all about the Mental Game: Training the mind to be calm, composed and unflappable and having a problem solving / solution mindset like Captain Cool is a super power to have. Tennis is problem solving in a pressure situation and nothing exemplifies this in a tennis match than the match tie-breaker. It is important to be continually thinking what’s working, what’s not working, where is the opportunity in the gaps. But being able to quieten the mind once play starts is super important. Use every opportunity to consciously work on this technique – to be able to flow down the river, allowing the currents to carry you while also using your oar to correct yourself.
- Being Fair and Honest requires Courage and gives Meaning: In tennis, you can find the most drama and fighting happen over line calls. And especially in those few crucial moments of the game such as in a match tie-breaker, when a close line call has to be made, it is easy, a reflex action and very tempting to call the ball out. Finding the fairness, honesty and courage to call it in or to reverse it immediately after a bad call in the face of defeat in a close match is a real test of character. Remember,
“This is one-on-one, two players out there fighting each other with everything they have , trying to bring the best out of themselves. And the difference at this level of the game is all in the head and in the heart.” – John Newcombe
Sometimes you are on the other side, the receiving side of such a bad call or multiple intentional bad calls. My advice is to based on the context of the match, either walk away and be the better person or call an official to be present.
- Be Empathetic: In doubles, when playing with a partner there are good days and bad days. The bad days are when either you or your partner is making mistakes or unforced errors more, or things are just not working or sometimes it is just those few critical points of the game that doesn’t seem to be going your way or sometimes your Captain paired you up with someone you just may not like to play with due to some reasons. The best solution for all these situations, I have found is being empathetic. Just take a moment to put yourself in their shoes. Don’t start coaching or telling them what to do and at the same time don’t go totally quiet on your partner and into a shell either. The best thing to do is to try to pull your game level up, collaborate/communicate on tactics/strategy if that makes sense or just have positive and encouraging words and body language. Body language and words matter a lot. Have a smile always and be calm/composed. Doubles has served as a great tool to develop empathy for me.
- Have the Best Tools for the Job: Know your tools for the job intimately. Be curious, be passionate. Use technology and information to the maximum effect. Take pride in your tools, maintain, customize and take care of them. Racquet is an extension of your arm. Helps also to prevent injuries. Also know the rules of the game.
- Lead by example Be humble. If you are Captaining a team, be a leader and a manager, not just only the latter. Help create a culture. A culture of fun, learning, trust and respect. Respect is gained through your actions & achievements and not words. So focus on the former. Challenge your team members, Trust in their abilities. Get to know them. Help them play out of their comfort zone. Be warm, open and vulnerable. Have a growth mindset. Be a thought leader. Lastly, be a storyteller for your team and yourself because stories change lives and are the most valuable asset we create, inspire and germinate change with and leave behind.
Lots of good lessons derived from tennis here. Enjoyed it.