Practice Makes Better
My very first tennis vacation was at a well-worn resort in Safety Harbor, Florida, near Tampa. The hotel was a sprawling assortment of buildings, linked over the years with ramps and stairs and long passageways dotted with bland artwork.
The tennis pro was well-worn, too. Terry had spent so many hours in the sun that his skin had hardened and cracked into a series of maroon-colored plates. He may have been in his late 40s or 50s, but the sun had ripened him by 30 years.
One afternoon, I found him in his office, setting up the schedule for a USTA League tournament he was hosting. He told me many of his local clients participate.
"Like the woman you were hitting with at lunch today?" I asked. I had watched their practice session. I had watched several of them. She took a lesson every afternoon with Terry. She was focused and serious on the court. And she was, to my beginner's eyes, very good.
All my fantasies are about practicing."
"No, she just likes to practice," Terry said, not looking up from his computer screen. "She never competes, never plays a match or even a game. Just takes lessons."
At the time, I thought that was strange, and told Terry so. "What good is practice if you don't take what you've learned and use it against somebody in competition?" I asked him. He said he didn't know.
Now, 8 years later, I think I understand her. Practice offers its own victories and losses, winners and errors, without consequences. Practice offers freedom from Tennis Hate. I hate tennis, a lot, when I'm competing. I love it madly when I'm practicing.
Gerald Marzorati loves practice, too. Marzorati, the assistant managing editor of The New York Times, is writing a book about learning tennis late in life. (keep up with me, Haters; read about Marzorati here.)
"All my fantasies are about practicing, pleasing Kirill [Azovtsev, his pro] and myself, and not about beating anyone," he said.
We both agreed our favorite vacations are at tennis camps, where we play 5 hours a day, every day, until our legs are rubbery, get a deep tissue massage every night and hit the bed in a way that gives new meaning to the phrase, "fall asleep."
Don't get him wrong, Gerry Marzorati loves to win. Heck, the guy wouldn't be where he is in journalism if he didn't have a jones for beating the competition to a story and owning it.
"When I’m actually playing, I want to win and when I win, I feel better than when I lose," Marzorati said. "But I never feel better than when I leave a lesson where I've hit some shot better than I hit it last week."
I got that feeling recently during my monthly doubles clinic with Saintly Pro Anne Hobbs. We were practicing consistency with a forehand drill in which we were supposed to read the ball, prepare early for the shot, line up our feet in a closed stance and slowly swing the racquet out through the ball and up, catching it in our other hand. We were to say "yes" if we thought we executed the shot correctly and "no" if we felt we screwed it up. Anne would either agree with us or disagree, and we got points if our self-analysis aligned with her observation of our shot.
I was a metronome of "No's."
I rode a wave of emotions. First was the anticipation and excitement of trying the drill. Then, anxiety, wanting to please Anne. More anxiety because I wasn't succeeding. Then a tsunami of Tennis Hate, of anger and despair. I can't do this! What's wrong with me? Then, gritty determination. Keep trying! Do it again! Don't give up. Then, success -- the ball flew through the air with weight and purpose and good direction, and my swing felt easy and free and effortless, not tight and muscled -- and a big bubble of hope. Hey, Anne! Did you see that?!
I love those moments in practice. I love when the moment of grasping something new happens. I enjoy that state of Beginner's Mind. I enjoy tennis -- and any endeavor -- most when I give myself permission to be a work in progress.
That permission is a good guideline for life off-court, too. Perfection is chemotherapy for the soul, sickening and weakening it under the guise of saving it. True salvation comes from beginner's mind.
Marzorati, like me, a latecomer to the game, relishes the beginner's mind that tennis gives him. It's one of the gifts of having a passion for the sport.
"There’s a focus it brings to my life about improvement and physical well being and the potential to do something remotely beautiful that is a way of living," he said. "I’m just loving the place it has in my life. I like that it’s increasingly the white noise my head."