Feast of All Souls
It felt like the first weekend of the rest of our lives. Mark did not have to go to work, having retired from the radio business and his regular freelance gig at 1010 WINS. After 10 years of me working weekdays and him working weekends, we have a schedule in which we both have the same days off.
We chose to spend this day, an uncharacteristically mild All Souls Day, in Long Island playing tennis with my new US Tennis Congress buddies, founder and Road to 4.5 Tennis blogger PJ Simmons and tennis national and world champion and mental game guru Bob Litwin. Bob and his wife, Jo Ann, had invited us to play at the Village Club of Sands Point, a country club on the grounds of a former Guggenheim estate.
PJ was looking a little less frazzled. "I haven't played in 6 weeks," he said. Bob warmed us up, while Mark and Jo Ann played on the court next door.
First thing Bob said to us, as we took up positions on the service line: "I hate warming up on the service line."
I heard that from tennis teaching pro Paula Scheb at the Congress. She told me it only leads to short backswings.
Bob didn't like it for a different reason. "It doesn't replicate a match situation. You'd never warm up like that at a tournament."
But he obliged us. As we took turns hitting Bob's feeds, he asked us what we were using our warmups for, what we were focusing on. Focus? He's talking about that already? But we're just getting started.....
I caught myself up short. Yes, of course. It needs warmed up just like muscles do. PJ said he used it to work on his relaxation and his breath. He said he wasn't too worried about whether he was dumping balls into the net or shanking backhands.
Me, I am focused on just those things. I'm warming up my technique, thinking about whether I'm getting my racquet back, whether I'm stepping in, whether I'm using hitting through the ball. I was focused on form. Bob encouraged me to focus on function.
By function, he meant a particular area of the court. He suggested right in the middle of the back of the court. "See if you can hit all your balls there," he said. Bob encouraged us to not worry about how we get them there.
"I don't care how ugly my strokes are," he said. "If I get the ball where I want it to go, does it matter how it looked?" He says the process of teaching tennis is broken. "We focus on form, on racquet back and follow through and all those things, rather than, 'where are you hitting the ball?'"
PJ was hitting the ball with good pace and direction, nice and deep. I noticed his footwork, how he quickly worked his way up to a short ball. He moved very well. I know he's been working on that. I read his blog.
It took me a few minutes to shift my focus from my constant mental chatter of "racquet back, pivot, out in front, follow through" to hitting the ball into the middle of the back court. Several of my shots fell short. I was pushing them, too. I did a Jeff Greenwald: I scanned my body for tension. My neck was tight. My right shoulder and forearm were, too. Hmm, duly noted. By just noticing the tension, it started to disappear. I recommitted to focusing on the center of the ball, watching it off my strings and sending it to the middle of the court.
"There! That was it! What did you do?" Bob said after my next shot. "Whatever it was, it was noticeable."
He encouraged me to stay with one particular tip that was working for me, rather than sampling suggestions like a college football player at a buffet.
"Once you find what works for you, you have to do it all the time, own it. If you keep working on other things, then you forget what it is that works to reel you back into focus."
Later, Mark joined us. We played doubles, Mark and the national grass court champion Bob Litwin versus The Bloggers. If PJ and I didn't win, at least we'd have something to write about.
I warned PJ about Mark, who was camped so close to the net, he could have used it as a hammock. "He's good at net, so don't try to scare him off by hitting the ball right at him."
If PJ heard me, he didn't let on. We lost several points when PJ tried to pass Mark up the line or drill the ball right at him. Pop goes the put-away. Mark's ability to volley where we ain't was impressive.
Bob kept up his coaching during the games. Serving to me, he held up the ball for a moment and looked at me, as if to say, This is your target. Go get it.
I hit several solid returns, past my poacher husband. I kept scanning my body for tension and releasing it, kept feeling my body loose and relaxed, kept trying to see the blur of the ball as it left my strings. And.....I kept getting more consistent. Hey, this stuff works.
Have no fear, Haters. Tennis Hate wasn't banished completely from these bucolic grounds. During one point, I had returned Bob's serve and had come up for a short ball, joining PJ at net. Bob and I got into a little back-and-forth before I swatted a volley wide. I let out a yelp, a verbal slap upside the head.
"Okay, so there was that shot, but what about the two that preceeded it?" Bob asked me, seeking to nip the blossoming negativity in the bud. Oh, yeah. Those. I guess they count, too.
It's amazing to me how easily I discount the good in my game, while giving such weight to what's bad. Maybe I'm too much a journalist. Bad news makes headlines. Good news is rarely thought of as news at all. We call them fluff pieces.
We wrapped up our day with Bob, PJ and Jo Ann with lunch at the club's restaurant, talk of the next Tennis Congress and why most of the best tennis players on tour have big hearts and good character. On this Feast of All Souls, a feast for the soul. Tennis, with four great Worthy Opponents with big hearts and good character. And time spent with a saint -- my husband Mark, who's put up with me when I've been small of heart, miserable on court and not much fun to play with.
Today -- every day -- is a chance to recommit to a new, more empowering story and start the first day of the rest of your life.