Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Talking Tennis

I’ve been playing a lot more tennis lately. Not an inordinate amount, but two or three hours every week, including the hour I spend with a tennis coach.

One of the consequences of training is that I’m thinking a lot more about how I’m playing tennis – I have a lot to learn, having never had lessons before – and I’m playing far more deliberately.

As part of that deliberation, there’s a tennis ‘narrative’ going on in my head, as I try to mimic that which the coach is asking me to do, that which is required of me to play a better game.

I started thinking yesterday, started asking myself, exactly where is the line between the narrative in my head, and what actually happens on the tennis court.

Some of the things happening in my head correlate directly with what happens on the court: when I see the ball coming, I decide whether I’m going to play a forehand or backhand shot, and immediately adjust my grip accordingly, and start moving in one direction or the other. In my head, I set out to say the whole word, but increasingly, the rest of the word is lost – my nervous system knows what decision has been made in that circuit from the first ‘f..’ or ‘b..’ – not a lot more interpretation required.

I can remind myself to watch the ball, and benefit from the conscious recognition that my eyes and related nervous systems have isolated the ball (and started processing its path of movement) from other elements in the visual field. It’s yellow, it’s fast, it’s furry, it’s spinning this way, it’s moving in relation to me.

But some things are just too complex and happening too quickly for me to narrate the whole process. Hitting the ball, for example, involves the grip, the backswing, the stance, the position, the path of the ball, the path of the racket, the moment and point of collision, the position and movement of the counter-balancing arm, not to mention the intention of all that.

What to do? I know the process will go better when I talk myself through it, but I simply can’t talk that fast.

So I break it into parts, similar to the parts I narrated above, and talk myself through the different parts. I practice a particular aspect of hitting the ball, for example, until I’m satisfied that I have that aspect happening the way I want, then move on to another.

But even then, some of the aspects will always defy complete narration. I can think ‘foot’, knowing I 
mean to place my foot in a particular position and at a particular angle to how I want to hit the ball – a position and angle that I can perhaps adjust in my mind somewhere later if I find that that position isn’t providing me, with my limited tennis skills, with an optimal result.

And so on.

There’s no doubt though, that I get a far better result, and improved game, if I do deliberately narrate my way through my play, than if I just wait for and respond to the next ball.

Maybe that’s the essence of ‘practice’ – deliberately attending to a single aspect of play (whether it’s tennis or piano accordion, or whatever) and actively thinking about it while doing it. And part of the human condition demands that we narrate about that aspect as we attend to it.

At least until such time that the process becomes ‘automatic’ – a time by which perhaps the neurons, the synapses, the pathways in the brain have become ‘hard-wired’ to some extent.  My tennis coach tells me it takes 18-20 hours of deliberate practice before a novice player like me can properly hit a ball with top-spin: 18-20 hours of me narrating my way through the same shot, just one of many in the good player’s repertoire.

So now I have an idea of where that ‘line’ is, between the narrative going on in my head and what’s happening on the court. It’s shifting, moving, from something being clearly, deliberately narrated, to becoming something ‘hard-wired’ requiring no further narration (at least in the short term).

But now I’ve started thinking about this, I’m thinking what other approaches might be used to augment the quality of my tennis game. Can I, for example, visualise a particular image, and use that instead of words to construct a particular response to a situation in play. Or perhaps rapidly narrate my way through a catalogue of images to the one that best matches the state of play, and then imagine myself in that image. Or perhaps a catalogue of video segments, perhaps of the great players. Or perhaps I could even try to imagine myself, responding to a ball as if I were one of those exemplary players, channelling them in a whole of body experience. Selected through a rapidly narrated process through the catalogues of the mind. Perhaps…

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