Monthly Archives: June 15, 2021

How does Lance Armstrong do it? People ask that. I used to wonder myself if he had discovered some drug that has not yet showed up on the testing radar. Greg LeMond certainly seems to feel that Lance is up to no good. LeMond earlier this year made noises during an interview about the need for Lance to fess up and admit it. Then there was a book that came out which claimed Armstrong was not “clean.”

The Greg LeMond I remember was a fair-minded guy who never really bad-mouthed any other cyclist when he was competing, so his comments personally caused me great distress. Do these two guys have bad blood going on now? Lance recently made noises about how he wouldn’t be putting on weight once he retired, the way LeMond did. So, let’s assume something is up and they hate each other now. Maybe LeMond is a bit jealous of what Lance has accomplished.

LeMond was actually the first American cyclist to really put the sport on the map in this country. He rode some fine races in the Tour, and showed a world of courage. His final day time trial, when he came from a nearly impossible time deficit to beat Tour leader Laurent Fignon in 1989, was the most remarkable Tour finish EVER. No two ways about it. And LeMond did not have the strong teams committed to him the way Lance does today. So yes, I suspect there may be jealousy in the mix somewhere.

But still, I have come to the conclusion that Lance is the straight shooter he appears to be. He is simply a remarkable physical specimen, as CNN reported last night in a story about him. Physically, he has genes to die for, in spite of those same genes predisposing him to testicular cancer. His cancer did one good thing, it made him lose about twenty pounds. Not that he was a fattie to begin with. But Lance started athletic life as a triathlete, and they tend to carry a few more pounds (in muscle) than most cyclists need. So losing the weight was an excellent thing for him.

The CNN report also detailed how his heart is larger than most hearts, it pumps nearly double the amount of blood of regular folk. He has beautiful muscles too, they can go a lot longer without the same amount of lactic acid buildup that depletes the systems of other athletes.

In a word, the man is built for suffering, and that is really what the Tour de France comes down to. It’s not about the bike, although having a high-tech bike like the ones out there today can certainly help your confidence. It’s not even about the training, although Armstrong trains scientifically, meticulously, and you always need good training under your belt.

It’s all about how your mind, body and psyche process the suffering you are undergoing.

Armstrong suffers, I do not mean to say otherwise. He is human. But it’s the way he deflects it, absorbs it, resolves it. However you want to tackle the metaphysics of the thing. When you watch the faces of the guys climbing those mountain peaks, sweat dripping off them, you can almost tell they are in another time zone. Having climbed a few peaks in my time, it really helps if you can just let your mind, willingly, go deep into the suffering, until that ferocious wall of pain starts to break down, to become diffuse, and you feel you’ve broke through something. It’s almost meditation in action. LOTS of action.

The other day I heard Lance say, speaking of how he trains, that he loves going out for a six hour training ride, and wrecking himself. That’s exactly how I used to speak about it. You were happy you wrecked your body. Wrecking your body was the Key to the Kingdom.

Another time I heard him say, “I go out for six hours, maybe in the rain, maybe in the heat, I wreck my body, I come home, I feel great.”

Lance is the only athlete I can recall, besides Andre Agassi, who can so beautifully describe his inner workings as an athlete, and how that affects him as a human being.

That is what sets Lance apart from the rest of the field. They all know how to suffer, that’s why they’re here. For that feeling of exhilaration when you break through so much suffering. The endorphins just flow, you feel like you’ve ingested the finest drug the world has to offer.

Lance knows how to drain this particular cup like nobody else. Fortunately, in a few days, the liquidity of suffering will be magically transformed, this time into champagne, as he stands atop the victor’s podium.

Damn, the boy looks great in yellow.

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Lanny Bassham trained five hours a day, five days a week for ten years before making the 1972 Olympic Team as a rifle shooter. He came in second. A silver medal. Most people would be happy with a silver medal but he was devastated. He felt that he had disappointed his family, his country and everyone else including himself. He wasn’t prepared for the pressure of the Olympics. He was nervous and lost his concentration. He couldn’t perform up to his usual standard.

There were no mental training courses at the time so he spent those five hours a day interviewing Olympic Gold medal winners for the next two years. He asked them what they were thinking in training and competition and what set them apart from other competitors. Why did they win when others lost? He used that information to streamline his training and prepare himself for the 1976 Olympics. He won the gold medal, goal accomplished. He also won the World Championship two years later.

He used the information he gathered to develop a system of mental training that he uses to train Olympians and other athletes. You can read about in With Winning In Mind.

What does Lanny Bassham think is the biggest error that people make in competition?

They try too hard.

Last week’s Sports Illustrated included a column containing quotes from athletes promising to give 110% effort, 140% effort, and even, in the case of golfer Jerry Kelly who wanted to make the Ryder Cup team, 1000% effort. He didn’t make the team. What is 1000% effort anyway?

When I studied martial arts, I used to read translations of ancient martial arts texts. Books about the Japanese martial art of Kendo described competitions that lasted through the night and required sword fighters to push themselves to their limit.

I studied tai chi. Don’t be fooled by those slow, measured movements, tai chi is one of the most effective fighting arts in existence. What did the ancient tai chi texts say about effort? Do 70% of what you can do, not 100%. Don’t bend your knees and go as low as you possibly can, don’t kick your leg as high as it’ll go, do less. Not only are you less likely to injure yourself, you’re also in a better position to move with the fluidity and grace the practice calls for. Imagine moving gracefully when your knees are shaking and your muscles are strained. You can’t do it.

Tai chi is a reactive martial art. You read and disarm your opponent instead of kicking the stuffing out of them. That requires relaxation.

I remember watching Fred Lynn play for the Boston Red Sox in the 1970s. You’d swear he had cork in his bat the way the ball jumped off it. He didn’t lunge viciously at the ball or corkscrew himself into the dirt swinging for the fences, he swung the bat with a smooth, relaxed motion. He looked like he could have been in the batting cage taking batting practice before the game.

Bassham says that this is a good model for level of effort in competition. Work as hard as you do in a good practice. If you try harder, you’ll be adding a level of unnecessary pressure. You might even try shots that you don’t usually hit in an effort to do more. A true recipe for disaster.

Come on now, tell me how much you swear and smash your racket in frustration on the practice court. Someone as volatile as Marat Safin doesn’t even do that. Use the level of relaxation you have in practice to give yourself the best opportunity to win in competition

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The Tennis Channel has finally arrived at my house.

I knew it would be frustrating and I’d like to tell you that I was prepared but it just isn’t so. The Adelphia representative who opened my account assured me that the Bronze Package contained The Tennis Channel. It doesn’t. That’s the Digital Plus package. He then neglected to tell me that my billing rate was a special that would go up seventy percent after the first four months. The installation man forgot the DVR on the first attempt. I cannot turn the DVR off because they still haven’t closed the work order thirty-six hours after installation. It’s a good thing I am living alone. It allows me to scream and curse at the top of my lungs in complete frustration – after I get off the phone, of course.

Welcome to World Team Tennis, Billie Jean King’s long running innovation in team play and equality. You play and travel with a team and men and women contribute equally to the score. One set each of men’s singles and doubles, women’s singles and doubles and mixed doubles. No ad scoring, first to five games wins the set – nine point tiebreaker at 4-4, and three shot spot challenges per match. Except for the shot spot challenges, don’t worry, they’ll soon arrive in tournament play, these rules look very much like the new ATP doubles rules. If the tennis world will not convert to World Team Tennis, at least it’s starting to look like World Team Tennis.

Tonight we’re watching the Boston Lobsters and the New York Sportimes play at the at the hockey arena on Harvard University’s campus. Fans wave inflatable lobsters and applaud when the opposing team makes an error. The Lobsters’ mascot shimmies next to the net on crossovers, every four games not every other game, while the Sportimes mascot, well, there isn’t one. And what would it be anyway – the front page of the New York Times sports section? That is the most boring team name I’ve ever heard

Tonight is a special event because it marks the first singles match ever played between Martina Hingis and Martina Navratilova. Martina junior is named after Martina senior. When has this ever happened before? A tennis player sticks around long enough for a twenty-four year old to play her namesake? Navratilova is exactly twice as old as Hingis.

We start with the men’s doubles. Thomas Blake and Jonathan (Chu Chu Train) Chu play for Boston against Mark Merklein and Robert Kendrick. Thomas is James Blake’s older brother. He has the same hair but doesn’t move as well.

All four players hit big serves and volley well enough to get to 4-4 in the set. This means that it’s time for the nine-point tiebreaker. The tiebreaker also gets to 4-4 so it’s a sudden death set point and the receiving team chooses which side to receive serve. For some reason, Boston chooses the rookie, Chu, to receive serve. He hits the return long and New York wins the first set 5-4.

Thomas Blake now plays the men’s singles against Robert Kendrick. The first to four points wins a game. If the game gets to 3-3, it’s another sudden death point and the receiving team gets to choose which side to receive serve. Down 3-4 in games with set point against him, Kendrick returns the favor by choosing to receive on the deuce side. This allows Blake to serve wide. Which he does, for an ace, giving Boston the set and a 9-8 lead.

Women’s doubles is next with Navratilova and Daja Bedanova playing for Boston and Hingis and Jenny Hopkins playing for New York. I hope Hopkins speaks some Czech, she’s surrounded by them. Hingis has always been an excellent doubles player and the other Martina still plays in grand slams doubles. It’s a joy to watch their quick hands and intelligent strategy. Bedanova makes more unforced errors than Hopkins. An amazing backhand overhead winner by Navratilova and great net play can’t compensate for Bedanova and they lose the set 5-3. New York now leads 13-12.

It’s time for the big match. A heel injury led to Hingis’ retirement. Well, that and the overpowering strokes of the Williams’ sisters. Will her heel hold up? Is she in match shape?

I guess so. Hingis breaks Navratilova right away. On game point in the second game, she runs Navratilova wide then drops a drop shot to the same side of the court as Navratilova scrambles to get back to the middle. Hingis’ serve is so-so and she never overpowered anyone but there was no smarter player on the tour. She runs Navratilova all over the court and passes her readily. The only mistake she makes is to receive serve on the ad side on sudden death in the fifth game. What is the problem here? Can’t anyone get this right? Navratilova is a lefty, that’s her strong serving side. Hingis gets out of it, though, with a passing shot and beats Navratilova with the surprising score of 5-0.

I would have preferred to watch Lleyton Hewitt throw down the lawnmower and Guillermo Coria retaliate with a mocking vicht in the Australia-Argentina Davis Cup quarterfinal earlier today. There is a match that had it all: tension, bad feelings, and a rabid home crowd.

New York is now up 18-12 and you would think that the match is over because the most games Boston can win in mixed doubles is five. Not so. If a team is leading going into mixed doubles and they win the mixed doubles, they win the match. If the team that is behind wins the mixed doubles then the match continues until the team that is ahead wins one more game – thus winning the match – or the losing team ties the score. If there is a tie, a supertiebreaker is played.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter tonight. Navratilova and Chu play Hingis and Merklein in the mixed doubles. Hingis and Merklein are experienced players. They go right at Chu and win the mixed doubles 5-1.

New York wins 23-13.

I like tennis as a team sport. I think tennis would benefit a great deal by introducing team tennis to high schools to compete with other team sports. It would also introduce the sport to more players at a younger age.

But I’m not sure about World Team Tennis. It imports tennis stars who play only a few matches, Roddick, Boris Becker, even Steffi Graf will play this season, so it’s hard to build a team identity and the enmity and adoration that comes with it. The season only runs for three weeks. It’s not possible to develop a following with such a short season.

I would have preferred to watch Lleyton Hewitt throw down the lawnmower and Guillermo Coria retaliate with a mocking vicht in the Australia-Argentina Davis Cup quarterfinal earlier today. There is a match that had it all: tension, bad feelings, and a rabid home crowd.

When World Team Tennis develops those three things, I’ll be in the front row.

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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.

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Sometimes travel takes on a certain theme. A story within the trip starts, develops and resolves itself during the museum shows, performances and visits with old friends. This happened to me on a recent visit to New York.

On Friday I went to a session of The Feminism and Music Conference at the City University of New York Graduate Center to hear my friend Robin give a paper. Another woman presented a paper about Lil’ Kim, the rapper, at the same session. She discussed Lil’ Kim’s transition to sex goddess of the universe as a study in race and class. Lil’ Kim is famous for turning up at the MTV Awards with one of her surgically enhanced breasts exposed except for a pasty. Diana Ross, never one to be upstaged, evidently walked up to her and flicked the pasty.

Sunday evening I went to an evening of performance art at CB’s Gallery next to the famous rock and roll haven CBGB’s. I was surprised to see two men in the audience walking around completely naked. One of them wanted to read his poetry to me but I brushed him off by saying “If it’s not Virgil or Dante, I’m not interested”. I was even more surprised that four of the five female performers did a burlesque act. One wore a lobster suit, she kept circling her breasts with her lobster claws, and another started out dressed as a motorcycle accident victim. I was finally getting the picture here. Today’s feminism is reclaiming sexuality for women instead of making women the object of men’s desire.

I spent Monday morning with Gary Powers at the Roller Derby Hall of Fame located in Brooklyn. Gary runs the Roller Derby Foundation which raises money for Roller Derby skaters, many of whom live on a fixed income. He and I talked about the current version of Roller Derby that started in 2004. The new Roller Derby has women-only teams who skate around the track in fishnet stockings and create female personas with names such as Tequila Mockingbird and Juana Rumbbel. Original Roller Derby skaters were a rough bunch. One elbow from Joanie Weston and you went flying into the rail. There was a reason they called her the “Blonde Bomber”, not the “Blonde Bombshell”.

Monday afternoon I went to the Museum of Modern Art to see photographer Lee Friedlander’s show. There were four photographs of Madonna amongst the nudes. The pictures were taken before the blonde hair and the pointy breastplates. You can see her underarm hair for heaven’s sake.

I had come full circle. I had taken a trip within a trip from Lil’ Kim the sex goddess, a transition pioneered by Madonna, to performance art’s fascination with striptease, to Roller Derby in fishnet stockings then all the way back to the unadulterated Madonna.

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