Category Archives: Body Mechanics

bits and pieces versus learning as a whole

This is the way most people learn a tennis stroke: an instructor stands across the net from the student and tells the student to bring their racket back, bend their knees, keep the racket level, brush up on the ball, follow through and any number of other instructions to help them construct a useful tennis swing. The idea is that each step is practiced until it becomes automatic then you go onto the next step. Let’s call this learning in bits and pieces.

I take periodic lessons with Sean Brawley. He is certified by Timothy Gallwey, the Inner Game of Tennis guy. Sean seldom gives me technical instruction. Instead of telling me to bring my racket back or brush up on the ball or follow through, he suggests that I think about where I want the ball to go as I’m hitting it. If it doesn’t go where I want it to go, he suggests noticing what I was doing and making an adjustment. If I keep running into the ball on my backhand, for instance, I hit a number of backhands and after each one ask myself on a scale of 1-5 whether I was close or far away when I made contact with the ball. In other words, he gives me exercises to increase my awareness rather than telling me what to do.

I recently had a phone session with David Gorman. He teaches an approach called Learning Methods. The Inner Game of Tennis and Learning Methods both suggest thinking about where you want the ball to go then letting your body figure out how to get it there. However, if the ball doesn’t go where it should, Learning Methods looks at the thought that led to that result.

I switched to a one-handed backhand after a few years of hitting two-handed. One reason I changed was to get more topspin on the ball. I thought that I had to hit up on the ball sharply to get topspin but when I tried that, the ball ended up barely reaching the net. When I changed my focus to hitting a certain point on the opposite court, my stroke adjusted to get the ball to that point. My original, incorrect thought was interfering with getting the ball over the net.

If you focus on the goal at hand, getting the ball over the net and to a certain point on the court, and let your body carry out that goal, you can expect a smooth motion. That’s exactly how your body carries out most of its functions when there is no unnecessary interference.

There are problems with learning in bits and pieces. The first problem is the idea that the steps become automatic after a lot of practice. I’m still trying to remember to use the split step whenever my opponent hits the ball and, though I’ve practiced it time and time again, I still run backwards for an overhead instead of turning my body sideways.

When I add a new skill to my game, the steps that were automatic sometimes become conscious again and now I have a more complex set of instructions to think about. My footwork may have worked well for a deep volley but my feet aren’t quite sure what to do when I am learning a drop volley so I have to retrain them.

As the instructions get more complex, it gets harder to be in the “zone” – playing in the moment without thinking about anything extraneous – because I have too many things to think about.

As I’ve worked with the methods taught by Sean and David, I find that my stroke motion has become one smooth, simple motion of bringing the racket back and then forward to hit the ball. That’s what you would expect. If you learn in bits and pieces, you can expect a stroke that is broken up into steps. If you focus on the goal at hand, getting the ball over the net and to a certain point on the court, and let your body carry out that goal, you can expect a smooth motion. That’s exactly how your body carries out most of its functions when there is no unnecessary interference.

pride goes before an injury

I injured my right wrist by being dumb but it’s my left wrist that hurts. Nine months ago I saw a man practicing his serve on the public courts where I play and I asked if I could return his serve. He was practicing his second serve trying to kick it as high as possible. Pretty quickly I realized that I was out of my league but I stayed out there still trying to get the ball back over the net. One of his serves kicked up and bent my right thumb backwards. Turns out he was a semipro player. Way, way out of my league.

It took about three months and many different treatments before my thumb healed. One of the treatments was acupuncture. The acupuncturist put needles in both wrists for symmetry but the needle in my left wrist accidentally hit a nerve. That is why my left wrist still hurts even though my right wrist is fine.

Last week I found myself in a similar position. This time the server was hitting the ball so hard I knew that my back would hurt if I continued to return his serves. Yet, I could not pull myself off the court? What is the problem here?

I have been taking Alexander Technique lessons since 1990. F.M. Alexander was an actor who lived in Australia at the turn of the 20th century. He liked to give solo shows of readings in Shakespeare but each time he started to perform, he would lose his voice. No one could tell him why this was happening so he embarked on a long study of observation and experimentation to find the cause of the problem.

It turns out that just as he was about to open his mouth and speak on stage, he would pull his head back, depress his larynx and suck in breath. These movement were present whenever he spoke but they were magnified when he performed. Sitting in front of a mirror, he worked to change his movement habits until this was no longer a problem. Alexander eventually moved to England and began training others with the technique he developed.

After fifteen years of Alexander lessons, I still get injured. And it doesn’t help me figure out why I can’t leave the court when I know that I am likely to get hurt. I recently came across the work of David Gorman. He is a certified Alexander Technique teacher but he has taken it one step further with work that he calls Learning Methods. He wondered what would have happened if Alexander had asked himself what he was thinking when he performed publicly instead of changing his movement habits. What if Alexander thought that he had to speak much louder and try much harder in performance than he did during rehearsal?

The key here is not to change the movement that is causing the injury but to work with the thought that leads to the movement.

David lives in the south of France and there are no instructors in California so I made an appointment to speak to him by phone. He asked me what I was thinking when I couldn’t pull myself off the tennis court even though I knew my back would hurt. I said that I didn’t want to leave the court because I wanted the server to think that I was a good tennis player and I certainly wasn’t a good tennis player if I couldn’t even stay on the court.

The server might think I’m a good tennis player no matter what I did or he might think I’m a bad tennis player no matter what I did, David pointed out. And what is the criteria for a good tennis player? A more useful question would be, “Is this thought helping me?” Clearly it’s not if the result is injury.

David asked me what I was thinking when I played well. I told him that I use a technique I learned from Lanny Bassham’s work. When I play a match, in between points I occupy my mind so that there is no room for negative thoughts. Before I play a point, I think about where I want the ball to go on the next shot and I mentally rehearse the shot. After the point ends, if I won the point I say to myself, “That’s like me.” If I lost the point, I repeat the preparation for the next point. These thoughts are helpful, they prepare me for the next point and they keep me from getting distracted by discouraging thoughts.

Because I want to perform well in front of others, I do things that are beyond my capabilities and I get injured. What if Alexander had taken the stage and used exactly the same voice he used in rehearsal, doing nothing extra? Maybe he wouldn’t have lost his voice.

The key here is not to change the movement that is causing the injury but to work with the thought that leads to the movement.

How will I use this information? Tomorrow I am meeting members of my new USTA team. If I’m playing with someone new, I like to get to the courts an hour and a half early, use the hitting machine and practice my serve so that I am completely warmed up when I meet them. All the better to impress them. Tomorrow, it turns out, there are no courts available so I will just have to warm up with everyone else.

Trying too hard in a performance situation is a common way to interfere with yourself and end up underperforming or, possibly, getting injured. David told the following story as an example. Someone asked Anne-Sophie Mutter, a well-know concert violinist, what she does about stage fright. She said she never gets stage fright. For her it’s just like practice and if something goes wrong, well, then that’s just something to learn from.

pitchers and steroids: why I believed in Sidd Finch

I am embarrased to tell you that I am one of those people who believed in Sidd Finch, the engimatic mythical figure created by George Plimpton for a 1985 April Fool’s article in Sport’s Illustrated. I was so excited to read about Sidd because I am the kind of person who is always looking for faster, easier ways to get by in life. If there was magic to be found, I was going to find it. I read books like Autobiography of a Yogi and thought it was wonderful that his guru helped him pass his exams. I wanted a guru too.

I haven’t found one. Turns out that magic usually involves hard work.

I’m also embarrassed to say that it means I believed that a pitcher could throw a 168 mph fastball. Why not, I thought? It seems that pitchers limit themselves to 100 mph for some reason.

Well, there is a reason. A recent Slate article, Pitcher Perfect, Why can’t anyone throw a baseball faster than 100 mph, explains the limitation. To send a fastball screaming towards the plate, you need to generate as much force as possible to get your arm moving as fast as you can. It turns out that you can build up your muscles all you like but beyond a certain point, the ligaments and tendons will snap from the force applied to the shoulder.

The official record for the speediest fastball is a shade over 100 mph. It’s no surprise that Nolan Ryan holds that record.

Increasing muscle strength, of course, can increase pitch speed. In the Slate article, a biomechanical engineer says that he has seen increases in pitch speed of 84-88 and 88-91 but not 98-100. A 4 or 5 mph increase in pitch speed. That’s a good enough reason to take steroids.

Steroids help in two ways: they increase strength and they decrease recovery time. Are pitchers taking steroids? Almost fifty percent of the players who tested positive for steroids in Major League Baseball’s new testing policy were pitchers. That answers that question.

We know that sluggers have been taking steroids by looking at the court records and the home run records. Between 1920 and 2004, 61 players hit 45 home runs or better. Twenty seven of those players played from 1990 to 2004. In case that wasn’t clear enough, that means 44% of the top single season home run hitters played in the last 14 years.

How could we measure the impact of steroids on pitching records? The JUGS radar gun has been around long enough for us to chart the average speed of a major league fastball over the last decade and see if it has increased. The problem is that there is no way to accurately know pitch speeds for eras before the JUGS gun was invented.

Though it is unlikely that Jason Giambi could have become his formerly bulky self without steroids, pitch speed is harder to pin on steroids. Tommy John surgery and sophisticated biomechanical exercises have helped pitchers recover from injuries better, increase their speed and pitch longer.

I no longer look for magical solutions to life’s problems. I’m happy enough if I can do something today that I couldn’t do yesterday. Although… This past week 11-year-old Katie Brownell threw a perfect game and struck out all 18 batters she faced in a Little League game. That’s pretty magical.

pressure drop

I was supposed to play an opponent who is ranked below me in my league match this week. I was sure I could pick up some games and get my winning percentage up to 50% by beating him. I hoped to win by at least 6-3 but it rained hard the day before the match and I was concerned that I might not get to play. If a match is rained out, there’s no makeup and next week I have a much harder match. I have to play a guy who toys with his opponents by running them all over the place even though he limps and wears a brace on one knee and is likely over fifty.

The sun came up in the morning, thank heavens, and I got to the court early for practice. We were the third match on our court and the sky was clouding up. I ran around trying to find an empty court so we could start earlier but I couldn’t find one. Luckily the weather held and we started our match. Oh no, I got an attack of nerves. I won the match 6-4 because I played consistently and he didn’t, but my ground strokes were all landing short and I was nervous on my serve. What happened?

I was so anxious to pick up more wins that I forgot the task at hand. This is called trying too hard, putting pressure on yourself, getting tight. Whatever you want to call it, it’s not a good thing. If you’re the New York Yankees and you get to the World Series, you’re expected to win. If you’re the Florida Marlins, it’s a huge surprise if you win. Who’s gonna feel looser and play better? It’s bad enough if others put pressure on you to perform well but it’s really unnecessary if you do it yourself. I don’t see anyone lining up to see me play.

Anyone who thinks we play sports for fun isn’t paying attention. Watch people routinely berate themselves and throw their racket and scream when they make an error. While I was playing my opponent today, his teammate kept applauding his winning shots and cheering him on. That bugged me so I looked over at him and gave him a dirty look. He left. Heaven knows what I’d do if I had to play in front of a hostile crowd. The point is that all the insecurities and doubts that plague my everyday life are also front and center at a tennis match.

If I wanted to have fun I’d have taken up bingo. No, I want to learn how to compete and do it well and I want to chase away the demons that drown out a much larger part of the day than they should. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a happy highly functioning human being but a lot of the internal messages I generate are negative or critical. If I wrote them down they’d look absurd. No one would admit to having thoughts like that. Houses have burned down, whole families are dead and cities have crumbled before I’ve woken up from some daydreams.

I’m working under the assumption that I can use tennis to slowly decrease the volume of those inner voices. If I can play tennis and focus on the task at hand, getting the ball back over the net, then I’m not thinking about anything else. If I can develop that skill in tennis, I can develop it in other parts of my life. Actually, the volume of the voices probably won’t decrease at all, it’s just that I won’t be paying attention because I’ll be thinking about something else.

Practice and Competition Report: played league matches, one set of doubles and one set of singles: 3-6, 6-4.
Solutions Analysis: looking for a solution to the problem of getting nervous. Possible solution: use an affirmation that deals with playing under pressure.
Success Analysis:
1. Won my singles match. Got the ball back over the net consistently.
2. Returned serve well.
3. My serving is starting to feel automatic.

how to psyche yourself out

I lost the second tiebreaker 7-0. Ouch. I kept telling myself that I was not going to lose this tiebreaker at love, there was no way, it’s not gonna to happen. But whenever I try to psyche myself up I play even worse. It takes me out of the task at hand which is, of course, to hit the ball over the net and into my opponent’s court. It also puts greater pressure on me which interferes with my flow. Lanny Bassham puts it this way: trying too hard is the biggest factor in poor performance.

Trying too hard – what does that mean? Flow – what is that?

Here’s an example. Your opponent has just hit a short ball and your eyes get really big. You know you want to come into the net and hit the ball deep into the corner and force them to pass you. But by the time you’ve gone through all of these thoughts, you’ve completely run past the ball and have to turn back and take a weak swing to get it over the net where it lands short and puts your opponent in the same position you were just in. What happened? Once the point starts it’s too late to think. Timothy Gallwey’s book, The Inner Game of Tennis, explains it like this: in order to get to the ball, get into position to hit it and send it into the corner on the other side of the net, well, let’s just say that it would take a fast supercomputer a long time to calculate all of the angles and arcs and coefficients of friction necessary to pull that off. The conscious mind, the one that’s thinking, “I’m gonna get to the ball, turn to hit it, send it deep into the corner….”, it’s hopelessly outmatched. My tennis instructor, Sean Brawley, certified by Gallwey, explains that a one inch change in the angle of your racket can send the ball seven feet beyond the baseline.

The point is that the brain is a supercomputer beyond all supercomputers and the instructions are carried out because you’ve practiced the approach shot to the point where you don’t have to think about it. If you decide you need to raise your game and put pressure on yourself to do better, it just interferes. What calculation is involved in doing better? If you mentally rehearse your next shot and remain calm, your little supercomputer can carry out its instructions

There are some players who seem to do better when they have a fit. John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors are two that I know about. Most of the time, though, they pulled a tantrum when the momentum was going against them and the goal was to unnerve their opponent, not themselves.

Practice and Competition Report: hit with someone for an hour and a half and played three sets with T, 4-6, 6-7(7-5), 6-7(7-0)
Solutions Analysis:
1. Looking for a solution to the problem of running backwards for a lob instead of turning to my side and sidestepping so that my racket is in position to hit the overhead.
2. I am learning to place the ball safely. Before my current emphasis on getting the ball into my opponent’s court, I would try to hit a deep shot in the corner and often it would go out. Now I try to hit the ball into the court near the corner.
Success Analysis:
1. I returned serve very well.
2. I hit a lot of first serves in. I lost rhythm on my serve at one point but I was able to regain it.