Sunday
Feb272011

Tennis as a Narrative Experience

I was talking to a client the other day about narrating her matches. No, unfortunately, I didn't have video of her playing a match, I was talking about actively narrating her match as it happened. 

Our conversation came out of a visualization exercise we were doing to help her prepare for competition. I had her write out, from her perspective and using the present tense, what she would experience as she prepared and played an imaginary point. In order to make it maximally vivid, she described every detail about a specific court she was familiar with, her opponent, and the situation. For example, "I see my opponent shifted her weight waiting for my serve. I choose my target. I'm going to hit the 'T.' I exhale, feel my muscles relax, and toss the ball," etc. She then read through and practiced placing herself in this situation in order to get mentally more familiar with the routines and actions that she wants to execute as she plays. 

The next step is to realize what kind of narration is happening during a match. There is often a stark contrast between the present-tense-narrator voice, and what players are thinking about during a match. Often, the biggest difference is that players drift away from the moment and think about the future during play ("What will my team think about how I played? I'm going to have to tell them I lost." "It'll feel great to tell my Mom that I won."). This is amazingly tempting, but usually not very helpful. As Nadia Comminici said about her "perfect 10" balance beam routine, "Athletes don’t think about history when making history. They think about what they’re doing, and that’s how it gets done."

Another common diversion is thinking about details that aren't helpful, such as something that annoys the player ("I can't believe that guy's outfit. What a joke!"). Of course we'll notice all kinds of details, but if we analyze and dissect things that aren't relevant to playing good tennis, we're wasting mental energy. Most of the time, getting annoyed with something is a way to avoid the battle that needs to take place. If a match is hard, it's easier to focus on not liking the opponent, or some minor annoyance, than facing the fact that getting over those things is the surest path to good performance.

Overall, the narrative visualization exercise serves several important purposes: it allows a player to mentally practice routines and responses that they desire to execute in future matches, and it allows the player to practice focusing on the present tense in matches. Finally, it can serve as a contrast to the player if their thought patterns during play diverge from a present-tense narrative.

 

 

Wednesday
Feb232011

Repost - Nick Bolletieri Article and Comments

Omnipresent tennis coach Nick Bolletieri has been writing articles for tennisrecruiting.net, a site used by college tennis coaches and junior players. I've enjoyed the articles quite a bit, despite harboring some long-held suspicions about Bolletieri's actual coaching (A lot of people have trained at his academy over the years, but I was never sure how much coaching he was responsible for.). At any rate, here's his latest:

http://tennisrecruiting.net/article.asp?id=674

Read it? OK, here are my comments.

I think the article gets off to a rocky start with his response to a question about keeping focus after "blowing" a big point. He says, "If I could figure out how to strengthen player's ability to handle adversity..." and makes a joke about not only being the most popular coach on tour, but being in demand to help everyone who gets frustrated solve their problems. He's not making himself out to be much of a coach here. He has no idea how to help players respond to adversity? That can't possibly be true. He says that working on "coping skills" is "untouchable." The only explanation I have is that he doesn't see this part of the game as his role (He has two Sport Psychologists and a Master's-level mental skills coach on staff at his academy.).

From there, I think his approach of using video to construct more detail about these "blown" points is constructive and a great place to start in conversation, with coaches and mental skills coaches, about how to approach these points. A lot of times, it's hard to develop objective information about what happened in a match, and video is by far the best tool we have. I think it's critically underutilized below the top levels of tennis.

I think it's a little odd that he ends that section by saying that "the most important thing" is to play every point like it's a big point. Well, if that's most important, shouldn't that be first? Shouldn't that concept be flushed out a little more? Isn't it exhausting to treat every point the same? Is it even possible? How do you train to do that? 

I really liked his treatment of the question about playing someone who is better than you. His advice isn't earth-shattering, but it conveys many of most important aspects of approaching these matches: being assertive on big points; adding a little chaos into the mix by playing some unexpected shots; carrying yourself with confidence. Overall, I think this is a nice summary of how to play well as the underdog, so I'll forgive the collection of coaching cliches that serves as the article's closer.

Sunday
Feb202011

Order and Chaos

One of the recent additions to my reading list is a book called "The Fighter's Mind" by Sam Sheridan. As with a lot of things relating to fighting, some people can't get over the violence. I understand that perspective, but I have learned a lot about non-violent sport from combat sports, and from books like this. Here’s an example: in the book, Sheridan travels around the world and discusses the mental side of fighting with trainers from a wide variety of disciplines. One of the more enlightening conversations is one he has with a guy who competes in two arenas that are not-traditionally thought of as combat: chess and tai chi.

The competitor he interviews is named Josh Waitzkin, whose name might ring a bell if you saw the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer." Josh was a chess prodigy as a child, and the movie was based on a book his Dad had written about Josh's chess career. Having set chess aside, Josh took up tai chi, and it's competitive form "push hands." "Pushing" is a kind of standing wrestling match where the combatants attempt to throw each other off balance. Waitzkin has been able to beat people with far more skill and experience because he has a very advanced ability to pinpoint and exploit weaknesses.

Here's the part of the book that makes me cower to it’s brilliance...One of the things that Waitzkin tries to exploit is his opponents' fundamental orientation towards Order or Chaos1. His idea was that some players tend toward a highly-structured, predictable game, while others enjoy, and thrive while, exploring uncharted waters. In Waitzkin’s view, chess as a series of decisions that you present your opponent with. Often, there is a choice between two moves: one which is orthodox and one which is not. At the same time, one move is more likely to lead to success. The trick was, in moments of high pressure, to present your opponent with a choice where the better move was the one that was against his or her general orientation. That would lead them to play the weaker move because it fits their style more. At the level of chess he was playing, that little weakness might be enough to eventually win a game.

But here's the problem: chess players are specialists at being hard to read. What Waitzkin did to figure out which players tended towards Order and Chaos during a two-week tournament in Bermuda was ingenious: he watched how they reacted to the sudden rain storms that popped up. He noticed that some people ran for cover, and some people didn't worry too much about the rain. The people who couldn't handle a little unexpected weather were the Order players; they were the ones who would be comfortable as long as they were following a well-defined plan, but they weren't comfortable reacting to the unforeseen. The ones who easily tolerated the rain, even enjoyed it, were the Chaos people, and they were good at being creative in new situations. However, they weren't good at being disciplined and following a long, complicated, technical plan. Waitzkin was able to recognize these kinds of tendencies and alter his strategies just at the critical moment (and later applied this technique in tai chi as well).

So where does that lead us? Waitzkin's personal emphasis is on self-knowledge, and I think that's the place to start. As a competitor, what environment do you thrive in? Do you love a gameplan, and execute them well? Do you always seek to be steady and in-control? Is your technique impeccable? Or, are you more willing to try new things and adapt to circumstances? Are you hoping for the game to be a little bit wild, confident that you'll find a way to win?

There are examples of great athletes who embody both of these ideals, though there seem to be more who thrive on Order than Chaos. "Order Athletes" are the ones who had steady, lasting success, such as Pete Sampras, Joe Montana, and Mariano Rivera. These aren't necessarily the flashiest performers, but they are diligent and controlled. The "Chaos Athletes" are those that had one or two brilliant achievements, but could not sustain their level for a long period. I'm thinking of people like Marat Safin, Jim McMahon, or Derek Lowe. People who really know particular sports well can pick out the true Chaos players: they don't always succeed, but they succeed where all others fail, often employing unexpected or rare tactics.

The best Order Athletes will generally beat all the other Order Athletes, even if the lesser player is in top-form. However, a Chaos athlete who is playing their best can unsettle a great Order Athlete, forcing them to question whether being steady and solid is enough; that might be enough to earn an unexpected victory. Likewise, a great Chaos player will defeat lesser Chaos Athletes nearly all the time, but if an Order Athlete can play well enough to convince a Chaos Athlete that "Order Will Prevail!" then, well, they'll prevail.

Knowing what kind of player you are, what should you do? If you have a tendency towards one or the other, it's best to train yourself to understand and gain comfort going against your nature. It's always wise to keep your 'A' Game sharp, but a really good competitor will work their 'B' Game until they are comfortable using it as well. Also, it’s interesting to look at your opponents and their abilities: if they’re stronger, faster, and/or more skilled, Chaos may be your only way to win. If they have a lot of variety, but lack consistency, then embrace Order and constantly attack the weakness.

1. A few weeks after first reading this concept, I spoke with a writer whose company has developed psychological tests to help determine whether people are oriented towards what he calls "Structure or Improvisation." Many of the concepts he had developed independently were almost identical to the Order/Chaos idea.
Saturday
Feb192011

Quotes Talk 2

How much of fighting is mental?

"Everything. 100%. Everything starts mentally and goes from there."

-- Fedor Emelienenko

 

I'm writing this post with a bit of sadness, for Fedor, long the king of the heavyweights in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), has been officially deposed and exiled. Fedor went on an amazing run while fighting in Japan (coincidentally during the time I was living in Osaka). In a sport where the best struggle to win 5 contests in a row, Fedor won 31 of his first 32 fights, and the "loss" should not have counted. During his win streak, Fedor was known for an eerie calmness in all circumstances. Several times, he looked to be in a lot of trouble, but was able to recover and notch victories time and time again. He always seemed to manage his emotions and absolutely never panicked.

Unfortunately, time appears to have caught up with him, and he was trapped last summer in a submission for his first legitimate loss. Last weekend, he got beaten up badly by what many considered to be a decent but hardly amazing young fighter. If this is the last we've seen of the dominant Fedor, he'll be well remembered as physically talented, but his ability to stay calm and keep thinking under extreme pressure is what made him the best heavyweight of all time.

Tuesday
Feb152011

Rules Disputes and Bad Line Calls

            When I was in grad school, my schedule was pretty packed, and I didn’t play any matches for the team at my club in the fall. Going into the spring, I hadn’t played any real matches since the summer, but I decided I needed to compete more (to complement my studies and for fun), so I made myself available. In February, I got the call to make my spring debut against a tough team that we always played pretty close against. Because of the layoff, I was a little nervous, or at least I wasn’t feeling very confident, especially on my serve. Our opponents were Rick, who I’ve played a million times, and an older lefty named Jim (I changed their names.). In the first set, I started to recognize that Jim had great hands. Not powerful, but he would hit his spots pretty well (Later, I found out he’s in the USTA New England Hall of Fame!). At any rate, we slipped through the first set by a break, 6-4.

            Then, it got weird. Jim was serving to open the second set and he hit a serve long. I bumped it into the net and said, “Out.” Instead of setting up to hit a second serve, he walked over to the ad-court and said, “You can’t call it after you’ve already hit into the net.” So we discussed it,

            “It was out. Second serve.”

            “You already missed it. That’s too late.”

            “It’s my call. Out. Second serve.”

            “The rule says you have to call it as soon as you see it.”

            “This is ridiculous. I’ve been playing in this league for 5 years and I have literally never     heard anyone talk about this. Second serve.”

            “Are you saying that I don’t know the rules?”

            “I’m saying that that’s not how the game is played.”

At this point my partner tried to convince me that we should just let it go, but I was fired up and the exchange continued for another 30 seconds or so before I angrily relented.

            What followed was about 45 minutes of the most distracted, horrible tennis of my life. I started out just trying to kill the ball (particularly at Jim), then recognized that I wasn’t helping my team and tried to settle myself down. After dropping the second set, we found ourselves fighting for the match. In our league, if neither team wins two sets, the winner is decided by total games at 90 minutes. In this case, we split the two sets evenly and so needed to be leading in the 3rd set when time elapsed to win (The second set ended with about 10 minutes left, so there was no possibility of finishing the match.).

            To my recollection, I had settled myself down to some degree (using some techniques from my studies) and was feeling “normal” by this point, at least for a tight third set. After Jim and my partner both held serve, the other team hurried to start the next game before time expired leaving us with a tie. Sure enough, the buzzer sounded after the first point; according to league rules, this would be the last game. As fate would have it, the game came to 40-40, so in our No-Ad league, this would be the last point, and the winner would win the match. We had choice of who returns, and I turned to my partner and said, “I want it.” He gave me a confident look and we lined up. Rick doesn’t have the biggest serve, and, he told me later, decided to spin the first one in and get to net in order to avoid the risk of double-faulting. I was focused, moved my feet and unleashed a good, dipping cross-court forehand return. I thought I had won the point, but Rick was equal to it, and got down for tough backhand half-volley. Unfortuantely for him, my partner had closed in to the net, in prime position to put away the ball as it came across the middle. Easy put away, celebration, relief.

--

            Jim was not gracious in defeat, but his partner apologized profusely, as did other members of the club who had overheard from other courts. They said he always tries little tricks to rattle his opponents. I am honestly not sure that he does this stuff consciously, or even realizes that nobody else in the league does. However, I have to acknowledge that he is tough, that he saw that his team was losing and needed to change the feel of the match, and that he totally disrupted my rhythm with his little gambit.

For my part, I learned so much, that I have considered writing him a letter of thanks. First, I need to prepare myself better for matches. The doubts I had going in did not help me, and I felt pressure to prove myself to my teammates, which also did not help. I think that this pressure put me closer to the edge when we had our dispute.

            Second, I recognized that I am sensitive to arguments like this. They really get me out of sorts. There were several things about this that were significant:

            -I had never seen a dispute about this before. I know how to handle myself if someone disagrees with my call, but nobody else has ever tried to take a point because of a late call on a serve.         

            -I didn’t like the implied accusation that I was cheating by calling the serve out after I know I missed. I like to think that everyone in our league wants to play competitively, but fairly, and I was not trying to cheat and should have the benefit of the doubt.

            -I didn’t like the idea of being bullied about my call, letting him have his way because he was more insistent than me. I still felt like I was right.

            -Once I started arguing, I was in Panic mode. If I had stopped and let it go quickly, I could have gotten back to playing, but I lost my composure before I realized this. It’s a personality trait of mine (I often never feel truly angry until I raise my voice.), and I usually avoid getting so agitated. I think I got there quickly because this was such an unexpected argument.

--

            I did a lot of the right things to settle myself down, but I still felt my face burning 15-20 minutes later. I tried breathing more, taking perspective (Geez, this was the first point of the set! Who cares if it was in or not?), recognizing that I was playing his game instead of mine, trying to get to the task at hand. All of these things helped, but it was a slow recovery. I wouldn’t have been able to get back if this had been later in the match. I need to be able to do this more quickly.

            I was glad to have the opportunity to take control on the last point and swing through a return. I promised myself that I would attack the ball. Of course, the reason we won the point was that my partner made the right move and finished it, to say nothing of the friendly first serve. I was proud, though, that I was pro-active about the finish and didn’t shrink from the chance. 

--         

Jim was still was under my skin 6 months later. His team was playing at a district championship with us. In the first round, we were both playing other clubs, but he was on the court next to us. One of his opponents had a weird serve style where he would start 2 steps behind the baseline and move forward during his service motion. He ended up hitting just about the same serve as anyone else, and definitely kept clear of the baseline. It was such a unique motion that it caught my eye, even though I had my own match to play.

Shortly therafter, Jim started calling foot faults, which is only done at this level when someone is blatantly stepping into the court and it’s not even common then. Beyond that, I saw a few that he called where the server clearly didn’t step into the court! Jim saw that they guy did something unusual, surmised that he might be a little self-conscious about it, and poked at the weakness. It totally rattled the guy, and in some ways, it rattled me a bit too. Thankfully, I stayed with my match pretty well, we played well and won, but I think that at that time, I would not have played well against him.

--

            After watching that match, I decided to change my attitude about Jim. I think he’s is just a different kind of challenge to play, a fading but formidable physical talent who will try to rattle his opponents, especially when he’s not winning. We went down to his club again to play them some months later, and I decided I wanted Jim to play against me. I think that what he does gives me a good chance to practice controlling myself, preparing for the unexpected, focusing on the task at hand. No luck. He played against our other team (and amazingly lost by one point again!), while my partner and I took a nice 7-5, 7-6 (2) win. Nothing unexpected happened this time.

--

            Aside: This same partner and I had another match with a disputed call more recently. In the third set, we had a scramble and I switched to the ad court to get a lob. My shot wasn’t particularly good, and my opponent at net went for an angle volley to the deuce court sideline. I was about in the center of the baseline and my partner was turning around on my right after the switch. The volley looked to me to be out, giving us two break points at 15-40. I called it, and the volleyer went a little ballistic. At first I wouldn’t yield. I actually didn’t think it was that tough a call. My partner said he didn’t see it, and neither did the other guy. We lined up to play the next point, and I stopped it. I thought I was right, but the guy was so sure, and he was closer, so I decided that my mind would be much more settled if I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Good decision? Not for that game, which we lost, but definitely for my mindset, as we were more composed than them the rest of the way and won the match.

Monday
Feb142011

Quote Talk 1

I'm taking quotes from my "Wisdom" page and dissecting, discussing, and disavowing.

--

Tiger Woods has been transformational for the game of golf in so many ways. That is indisputable. But he has proven to be just like every other figure who fell for the little guy with the pitchfork on his shoulder telling him, “It’s all good, no one will know, you can get away with it.” But that little guy on his shoulder didn’t tell him that in the real world, you don’t get away with it because even when you are the only one who knows, that is enough to destroy you.

--Doug Glanville

--

The source: Doug Glanville is unique among major league players; in this era, a lot of players don't have a lot of time for education. Glanville graduated from Columbia University and went on to have a solid major league career.

The topic: Tiger Woods

My take: I found this quote interesting because it applies to a lot more than Tiger and his escapades with women. It's applicable to ALL athletes in terms of the consequences for cutting corners. If you're training alone, nobody is going to call you on it if you skip the last set of pull-ups, or run a sprint at 80%. Even with a team, it's pretty easy to slow up on the last step of a sprint and nobody will notice. In the long run, however, it's those last steps that make all the difference, both because they add up to better training and because they are the actualization of commitment.

Every moment that an athlete consciously chooses to continue doing something difficult when they know they can decrease their effort without immediately being called to account is a moment in which toughness grows. This is because intense competition provides a multitude of opportunities to decrease effort. Training help develop physical skills, but the mental part that develops is the habit of how one responds to unpleasantness. Unpleasantness can be pressure, pain, embarrassment, fear, or fatigue. Athletes are constantly deciding how to respond to these things. Their responses in practice reflect what their mindset will be in competition.

Sunday
Feb132011

Game today

Looking forward to the Celtics/Heat game today at 1:00. The Celtics have to feel like they're going into this one as the underdogs, despite owning the Heat earlier in the year. The Heat have become more comfortable with each other and have overtaken the Celtics in the standings. The Celtics have limped around lately, and badly need to get healthy. One of Boston's strengths going into the season was that they had a lot of depth, but right now, they're very thin with the two O'Neals out, Delonte West likely only to be able to play a few minutes, Nate Robinson day-to-day, and Marquise Daniels out. 

Enough of the nuts and bolts. I think this game will be a chance for the Heat to put some distance between them and the Celtics. A big win here might signal to the Celtics that the should just rest up and try to get ready for a playoff series. And LeBron has always been a little stronger as a front runner. Anyway, the Celts have a lot to gain if they can hang with the Heat in their depleted state. Really, the game is set up for Miami to roll, and Doc Rivers would really show his coaching skill if he can get the Celts to perform today. The Celts have to stay focused on the task at hand, each possession, each play on offense and defense. Everyone has injuries at some point, and the Celts have to do the best they can with the players they have. If they think long-term, I think they'll lose today. That wouldn't be the end of the world, but it might be the end of their chances at home court in the playoffs.

---

After 1 quarter: Heat up 20-15. Neither team has shot very well. The Heat came out shaky, but quickly recovered. They looked poised, and the Celtics were a little off on their shots. They had plenty of opportunities.

Heat coach emphasized: We'll play better, we're settling in.

Celtics coaches were pleased with increased effort in defense in the early second quarter.

Second quarter: Heat are all over the place, lots of terrible passes. Celtics have increased the pressure, but have also missed some wide open layups. Their focus isn't quite there. Overall though, they have to be pleased to have the lead (by 3) with a few minutes left in the half. 

Third Quarter:

The game is getting more physical, with some hard screens set by both teams. The Celtics are having their point guard Rajon Rondo cover LeBron James, and the Heat don't look like they know quite how to react yet.

The Heat lost their cool a little and came out on the short end of an exchange where Dwayne Wade ended up going after Celtics big man Kevin Garnett. The call could have gone either way, but it looked to me like Wade went extra hard to hit Garnett as they were setting up to rebound. He got called for it, and the Celtics lead increased to 13 on the next possession. 

Fourth Quarter:

The Heat came storming back and pulled to within 2 points with just a couple of minutes left. It's always interesting to see this situation, as there's a big difference psychologically if the trailing team is able to come back and tie the game. In this case, the teams traded possessions and the Celtics were able to stay ahead. 

--

I think overall, this was a good win for the Celtics, but not a backbreaker for the Heat. The Celtics are now 3-0 against Miami this year, and this win was a good one in that they were missing a lot of players, and one of their best players had a terrible offensive game (Paul Pierce was 0-10) while the Heat had key shooter Mike Miller for the first time against the Celtics. That said, the Heat still hung right with the Celtics in Boston and were just a shot or two away from winning. 

--

It was fun to watch Celtic reserve Vonn Wafer in this game. He made some good plays, and he made some pretty silly mistakes. You could see on his face that he felt a lot of pressure getting minutes in such a big game, especially in his big reactions when he made mistakes. If he focuses on staying calm through good and bad, he'll benefit from this experience.

 

Sunday
Feb132011

Sport and Psychology

First things first: I am not a sport psychologist. The word "psychologist" describes a professional licensure which requires qualifications and a licensing procedure that I have not undergone. I'm glad this procedure exists for psychologists because it allows for quality control and sanction. That being said, anyone who is a psychologist can claim to be a sport psychologist, whether or not they have specific training or experience with sports. I will always talk of myself as a "performance coach," "mental skills coach," or "sport psych practitioner." I never mean to mislead, and I believe that sometimes a little distance from the misconceptions about psychology is helpful anyway.

In general, psychology and sports have a pretty tangled relationship. There's still a stigma associated with talking to a psychologist in general, and the macho culture of some sports can be a further impediment to athletes. It seems like talking to someone about the mental game is an indication that the athlete is weak, so they try to work it out on their own. In my experience, trial-and-error is almost always trumped by technique, and what we call "the mental game" as a set of techniques, often called "mental skills," that can be learned and practiced. 

It is also interesting that sport psych practitioners are bound by confidentiality, so their best work is often done without public knowledge. This perpetuates the idea that using a coach specifically for the mental game is highly unusual and perhaps only reserved for those who need it the most. In circumstances where larger bodies pay for the practitioner, such as the Olympics, nearly every athlete is involved with a staff sport psychologist, and many continue to privately contract with those psychologists outside of the big competitions. However, again because of confidentiality and stigma, the success stories aren't discussed in the same way athletes discuss a Speed and Agility Coach or a Nutritionist.

Lastly, it should be emphasized that sport psychology is a piece of the puzzle. In competitions where people are equally skilled, fit, and coached, mental skills can play a major part in the outcomes. Paying attention to these skills for the first time can make a difference, but it can also take some time. Mental skills training isn't a panacea (Beware of miracle cures!), but it's not a sham or a sign that the athlete is doomed either (as some have suggested). Lots of people benefit from training these skills, whether their trainer is a certified sport psychologist, a coach with a master's degree, or the athlete themself learning and applying skills on their own.

Wednesday
Feb092011

New Club, New Team

       Shortly after I landed my first full-time tennis pro gig, I made my debut for their open-level men’s team. The competition is generally pretty good, and even though I hadn’t played in this league for a couple of years, I thought I could definitely hang with these guys, and especially at #2 doubles, where the level isn’t quite as high. My partner was a guy who is more of a singles player overall (He has a big game off the forehand side, and doesn’t really like to come forward.). I’ll call him Randy.

       Randy and I started out fine. Our opponents were a solid team, and their club had been the league champions the year before, so I knew I had to be on my toes. What I didn’t know was that Randy had a bit of a reputation as a bad line-caller. He has a bit of a strong personality, and I think that plays into how a lot of people react to line calls. At any rate, the first set was bumping along, and we were at 3-all or so when my partner called a first serve out on his sideline. I didn’t see it well, but the opponents, apparently reacting to my partner's reputation, went a little ballistic. The server fired a ball into the net and said the call was BS. Here’s the thing: my partner had returned the serve anyway, it was a first serve, and the other team won the point on the second serve. Nonetheless, the server was a wreck for 20 minutes. They went up 40-30 on that point, but we broke them and the guy was steaming. We took the set, and I think it was largely because my partner called a first serve out on a point we lost.

       Another interesting dynamic was that in the second set, I started to miss a few returns. At some point, my partner started “coaching me” to “just get the ball in play, get it back and we’ll win the point, etc.” Sounds like good advice, and I started to try it. Dump. Frame. Way long. Easy volley. We lost the second. Nonetheless, his advice remained the same. Finally, I got so annoyed that I decided to hit the next return as hard as I could. Winner. Hmmm. Next return, aggressive, maybe not quite as good, but enough to win the point. At this point, I realized that "just getting the ball back," was part of the problem. Instead, I started to fire up my feet and try to rip a few. I didn’t play perfectly the rest of the way, but my percentage on returns went up, and the ones that were in were much more effective. I also recognized that my game in general came to life, and, not that this should be last thing I mention, I had a lot more fun.

       I took a couple of thing from this match. First, for myself as a player, I need to be sure that I don’t fear mistakes to the extent that it cripples my game. For me, and a lot of other players, trying to be careful is too inhibiting, and I tend to make more mistakes with this kind of mindset than an aggressive one. It also got me thinking about how to get on the same page as my doubles partner. In this case, what my partner was telling me was well intentioned, but it wasn’t helpful (until it made me really mad, which I don’t think was the intention). The annoyance I felt at my partner was enough to snap me out of my doldrums. At that point, I needed some kind of boost, and that turned out to be enough for me. Nowadays, I’m less likely to get mad while playing, mostly because I’ve gotten better at taking the necessary steps to avoid needing to get mad.

The other side of the coin is our opponent who lost his temper. In his case, however, he blew up at a very helpful time for us: while the match was close. I think when he exploded, after a relatively insignificant call, it was a signal that he was nervous and vulnerable. Someone who is confident about holding their serve is not going to worry about a close call on a first serve, especially if the serve was returnable, and especially especially if they end up winning the point. But that call, and losing the game a few points later stuck with this guy much longer than necessary, so there must have been more going on. To his credit, he recovered in the second set, but I think it cost them the first.

With evenly matched teams, momentum swings are often on something goofy: a lucky net cord, a ball that comes from another court, a broken string, or a bad call. You never can prepare for everything, but I think this guys mindset was more like, “He better not try to rip me off. I can’t beat him if he's cheating,” than, “He’s probably going to rip me off on a couple of calls today. If they’re really important, I’ll question them, but I’m not going to win any arguments, so it’s not worth losing my temper. I’ll just play my game, which is good enough, and I’ll probably hold serve all day.” I try to carry the second attitude against known cheaters or bad sports.