The Psychology of Skiing for novices

Well, as a novice skier, I’ve come to realize there is great opportunity for sport psychology practitioners in the ski industry. I’ve come to love skiing over the past couple of years, yet as a novice I have to deal with fear. My son started skiing last year and loves it. He’s a novice too but has little fear. I on the other hand, like many adult novices, have trouble with steeper slopes. Although I am more apt to practice correct technique than my son, I get scared when the slope is steeper. Don’t be fooled by a slope being green. In some resorts green slopes are harder than blue slopes at other resorts.

Last weekend we went skiing at Pats Peak in New Hampshire. I loved the place. It was the first time skiing for the season and I approached it in a logical adult fashion. My son and I started by doing several runs on the learning (bunny) slope. Then, we moved to the next level of green slopes, Puff and Whisper; they are as intimidating as they sound:-) This was a perfect progression. All of the sudden, however, my son wanted to move to the longest green slope on the mountain (Breeze, Zephyr, and Blast). We did it because I want him to feel really comfortable taking risks. For me, however, it was steep and I had to adjust mentally especially when we hit some steeper terrain. I naturally reverted to pizza (wedge) skiing and eventually moved back to stem Christie turns when I felt comfortable. I also of course realized that I have some way to go before I can become a competent skier and move on to intermediate (blue) trails full time, but the good news is that I’m closer than I was last season. Although a little scared, I actually wasn’t that scared and was ready to go with steeper stuff! I’ll be working on it over the next couple of weeks. Indeed, we went skiing on this tiny hill in Rhode Island today, Yagoo Valley, and of course all went well. Actually, it was a great place to practice turning and tune my technique for later this week when we go north again!

Here’s what I’ve learned so far. There are a lot of adults like me who want to ski well but are afraid of the steeper terrain. Unlike me, however, most go once and then quit. If we, in the sport psychology industry, can find a way to help novices overcome these fears, we’d help the ski industry tremendously, and create jobs for ourselves. For my part, I have learned to focus hard on my technique. When I hit a steeper slope, focusing on my turns helps me keep my mind off of the fear until I become comfortable again and can let go and speed down the hill. I’ve actually come to enjoy speed but only when I feel comfortable. By continuing to ski despite my fear, as I have been doing, I have also come to realize that I have quite a bit of power to deal with steeper slopes. Reverting to the pizza method from time to time, although not pretty, is quite effective, and it provides a perfect transition between fear and confidence. Imagine if we can teach all absolute beginners to manage their fears too. We’d open this great market and create jobs for ourselves. I’m practical!

I imagine being on the slope in beginner classes, with absolute beginners, and then helping them realize just how much control they have when skiing. One problem most absolute beginners have is they cannot translate what they’ve learned in the lesson to the actual slope. I have seen many beginners freeze (psychologically) as they go down a hill, as if they have no way to stop. For one, they can just fall. Alternatively, and more useful, they could go into a really heavy wedge form. Although a bit painful on the thighs, it’s quite effective. Best of all, however, they could turn. I imagine a place for the practitioner on the novice slopes, helping fearful beginners. It’s not hard to spot them, really. Even with me, a good sport psychology consultant could have helped when I felt fearful and stopped me in my heavy pizza (wedge) form. S/he could have said something like, “I notice you are really heavy into your wedge, are you afraid of this hill?” I of course would have said yes. The sport psychology consultant could then have helped me relax by showing me how to focus on my technique instead of the hill.

Given that I am currently working on my AASP certification, I am really in tune with my sport psychology practice and was my own consultant. Indeed, I helped myself return to good form, or at least the best form that was right for my level. Then, today, I really did an excellent job fine tuning my technique.

Sport psychology consultants consult because we deeply understand how the mind can affect human performance. The problem is that many of us are overly interested in elite athletes, forgetting that there are non-elite individuals out there who need our services. Moreover, it’s the “hacker” out there who has the deep pockets, and is more likely to pay for our services. Performance is performance, and for my part, I find working with non-elite athletes extremely rewarding. Hey, I’m just thinking that if we expand our view of the field, we can open up new markets and create jobs. After all, if we want to practice what we love, we need to earn enough to pay the bills so that we can actually practice what we love.

Psychoadaptation II: What is Psychoadaptation?

Well, last time I wrote on the topic, I introduced the importance of knowing one’s context. Without understanding one’s context, I argued, it’s not possible to know exactly to what one must adapt. However, understanding the context is not in itself sufficient to advance the self to its ultimate state. One must also look deeply into the self, and be willing to evaluate the self with respect to the contextual constraints (the context’s criteria for success).

The second principle of psychoadaptation is clarity of self in relation to one’s context.

Looking into and understanding the Self is at the center of most psychological theories of mental health, and is the cornerstone of psychotherapy. One cannot change unless one knows what must be changed. Yet, little is written in most theories about how one evaluates the Self in order to change. Fortunately, this is covered well in psychoadaptation, with specific directions for how to make changes to the Self when necessary.

After one learns about one’s context and its constraints, the next step is to adjust one’s understanding of the world, along with one’s competencies, to the context. The context has specific constraints to which each of us must adapt in order to be considered successful. For instance, kids must go to school and get good grades. Good grades are defined on a letter scale. Getting A’s and B’s is good. Getting a C is average, whereas getting D’s and F’s is poor performance. Within a specific class, getting an A is defined as scoring above 92 or 93 enough times so that when averaged, the score remains above the cutoff for an A. Thus, one is considered highly successful if one can achieve an A, successful if one can achieve a B, average if one can only attain a C, below average if one attains a D, and a failure if one receives an F.

One may counter by asking what happens when one cannot attain an A or a B for other reasons, including biologic reasons, even if the individual works extremely hard. Good question, I’d say. However, the system offers solutions for students who are unable for some reason to achieve high success, including tutoring and remedial classes. Thus, if the individual is unable to achieve success in the traditional fashion, that student’s constraints change and adaptation must occur to the new set of constraints. However, it is important to note that the macrosystem (culture) doesn’t change, and high achievement is still defined by A’s and B’s, as before. Although this individual will now adapt to remedial standards, s/he will still be judged in relation to the macrosystem’s standards by most. It doesn’t seem fair, but life is nothing about fairness; it’s about adaptation.

The education context, and grades in particular, is but one example of how adaptation works. However, students are monitored by a system that identifies competence and places students in classes based on some objective standards. Psychoadaptation, however, suggests that we learn to adapt to our constraints. In other words, we are capable of knowing our contexts, the contextual constraints, along with our Self’s standing in relation to those constraints. Thus, unlike school students, we must know ourselves. Knowing one’s Self is easy and hard at the same time. It is easy because we are the source of this knowledge. We are our own libraries and databases. However, knowing the Self is hard because our selves have many layers, some of which are difficult for us to fathom, and others are just plain scary.

The notion that one’s own Self can be scary is not far fetched. Indeed, we can easily scare ourselves with unsavory thoughts, such as murder, suicide, terminal illness, and even speaking offensively or being offensive in public. Further, we may fear embarrassment or failure. Thus, there are many dimensions of the Self that are outright scary. Further, some of us may even have a higher than average propensity for nightmares, visualizing demonic images or images of dismemberment and other utterly disgusting scenes. Then of course there is the fear of madness. Many a person has lost sleep fearing going mad, or losing control of the Self. These are all thoughts that are difficult to bear. Thus, it’s no metaphoric walk in the park to look into the Self. Yet, the only way to adapt and attain the healthy Self is to accurately judge one’s Self in relation to the environment. Like target practice with a bow, one must align the arrow with the target. Failure to thread the arrow in preparation for its release will not allow the archer to pierce the target.

To understand the Self, one must have an open understanding of one’s psychological and biologic processes. Mindfulness is the goal. Mindfulness is a state of high awareness. When mindful, we are keenly aware of what we feel physically and emotionally, and perceive, in relation to our contexts. For instance, when eating, we are aware of the different flavors we perceive when chewing. This is natural. However, some people are more mindful than others. Thus, it requires great training to become truly mindful. Buddhist monks are mindful and they achieve it through intense meditation. As for the rest who don’t have time to mediate in peace all day, we can attain mindfulness through practice during normal activities, such as eating, walking, or even working.  For my part, I practice mindful driving. When my attention strays from the road, I return it to my driving. I just stay focused on what I am supposed to be doing at every moment, like focusing on the road ahead instead of checking out the cute girl to my left:-) When at work, I keep my attention focused on my writing rather than my desire for yet another scone. Yes, it takes great practice, but learning to attend to what I’m doing at the moment enhances my ability to experience my Self and its fluctuations, as my awareness is sharpened and when there are issues that become pressing, I’m more aware of them.

We think many thoughts throughout a given day, too many to count. Yet, not all thoughts are equal. We weight some thoughts more than other thoughts. Those thoughts receiving the highest weights are the thoughts we think most. They are the ones that are really important. Once our mindfulness increases, we come to experience these thoughts more fully. Yes, that means that even the scary thoughts are more scary. However, the good news is that we now are more motivated than ever to improve our conditions to eliminate those recurring thoughts. As we are well aware of what constitutes success in our contexts (contextual constraints), and we are able to experience a problem with our selves, based on the recurring thoughts, we can now judge the relation between our thoughts (conceptions) and our contexts. William James once wrote that self-esteem is the ratio of successes to pretensions. He suggested, that when we cannot succeed in ways we’d like, we should drop our pretensions to increase self-esteem. He was right. If we find that we cannot live up to some of our conceptions of ourselves (pretensions), we should change them to make ourselves feel better. From a psychoadaptation perspective, this means that if the way we conceive of ourselves is not in line with our context (or the data of our experience), we must change the Self so that we can eliminate this misalignment.

Let’s take a break and review an example to clarify what is meant by aligning the self to the context. Suppose for instance, Tommy believes he is a good singer. Indeed, he loves singing and sings all the time in the shower or whenever he’s out walking. Yet, he rarely exposes his singing to others for fear of rejection. Why? Well, Tommy is scared that others may not believe he’s  a good singer and by not exposing his singing to others, his pretension of his Self as a good singer is protected. Importantly, given that nobody has told him otherwise, he is indeed a good singer. Of course, nobody could tell him otherwise since he does not let anyone judge his singing. Using James’s formula, his self-esteem should be high since his pretensions equal his successes; he experiences equilibrium.

Now, let’s say that Tommy is walking around town with some nice headphones and he’s singing out loud, forgetting that others can hear him. I mean, that’s possible when one is in the zone, not to notice others around the Self. However, to his surprise, a cackle of youth are following him and laughing at and making fun of Tommy’s horrific singing. Catching a loud outburst of noise from behind his back, Tommy notices the kids laughing at him and one vociferous youth even mentions that Tommy should give up singing because he’s so bad. The unforgiving youth asks, “have you ever heard yourself sing?” Following this with an emphatic, “you suck!”. This causes quite the embarrassment and Tommy gets angry and walks away even faster than before. Given that he started practicing mindfulness, Tommy began to realize the anger and pain welling up from within his psyche and even began to question his singing ability. Yet, he continued to sing, albeit more cautious of being heard than ever before. As the psyche is relentless in its pursuit of equilibrium, thoughts about his bad singing started to creep into Tommy’s head, and even affected him when speaking to others about unrelated topics. The psyche begins to ask for change and, like a broken record (antediluvian reference for old people; what’s a record?), it keeps playing back the same message; it has only one shut off button, and we have to discover it for ourselves.

C.G. Jung wrote of the transcendent function and how the psyche has a natural propensity for balance; equilibrium. Material from our personal unconscious, the part of our Self outside consciousness but close enough to encroach upon consciousness when necessary, wants to escape captivity. Like water behind a dam, it has great potential energy. Unlike a dam, though, instead of flooding the village below and causing destruction, liberation of this painful content brings balance to the self, and creates a special third thing, as Jung called it, something that is greater than either consciousness or the unconscious alone; it’s a special, sought-after state. It’s the Christmas star, it’s the alchemist’s gold. Once this content is liberated and incorporated into the Self, we become truly special individuals, no longer the same individual we were before; it’s as if we were once caterpillars but now butterflies.

Singing in public started to bring shame. Indeed, fear became so great that our hero no longer wanted to sing. Worse, Tommy’s voice would crack more than ever when any opportunity came to sing or even speak in public. He started to develop a singing complex and it was affecting his whole being. Paraphrasing Jung, people don’t have complexes, complexes have people. Tommy’s life was now no longer his own. Thankfully, though, Tommy was exposed to mindfulness and was keenly aware of these painful feelings. Further, reading the psychoadaptation blog as he was so fond of doing (of course I’m taking liberty here), he came to realize that the easiest way to alleviate this problem was to re-conceptualize himself. Knowing that in his context, good singing is judged by others with very clear standards for what is considered a good singer (the internalized Simon Cowell), he asked a peer who is a professional voice instructor to judge his voice. Kind but straight forward, the instructor told Tommy that his voice was not good as is but that with lessons and practice he could improve as a singer. He’d never be a truly great singer, she noted, but he could certainly improve. Now, Tommy had clear knowledge that he was not a good singer, and learning from psychoadaptation (Tommy was smart too!), he re-conceptualized himself as someone who enjoys singing but does not have a good voice. He then decided that if he was to sing again so that others could hear, he would invest in some lessons first. Doing so, he embraced his true singing nature, aligning it with the data of experience and his context. He even learned to make fun of his singing in public and invested in lessons. These lessons improved his voice to the point where Tommy became a competent if not a really good singer. He even began singing in a church choir and no longer has anxieties.

True to Jungian analytical psychology, the anxieties our hero experienced were purposeful. Part of the transcendent function, their purpose was to help Tommy re-align his Self with reality. The Self was out of balance. Tommy believed he was a good singer (Self) when others (Context) did not think he was a good singer. The result was disequilibrium and anxiety, a symptom of disequilibrium. By learning mindfulness, Tommy began to attend to his experiences and came to realize he needed clarification. Receiving it, he was able to adjust his Self conceptions to the data of his experience and attain equilibrium, attaining a higher Self than he had achieved previously.

Life is adaptation (quoting Piaget). We are constantly faced with evidence that either supports or contradicts our conceptions of Self. We also receive evidence that supports or detracts from our perceptions of our competence. Learning to attend to these clues and how we feel in our various experiences allows us to align our selves to reality. Psychoadaptation is the aligning process. It is not possible, however, unless we know our contexts’ standards for success, and know where we stand in relation to those standards.

 

Merry Christmas

I hope you all got everything you were wishing for. If not, I hope you are happy anyway. Christmas is definitely as special time, especially for children. As for parents, we just want to see our children happy. My son was happy, and this year he went out and got gifts for me and his mother. That made me happy. Buying gifts for others can make one as happy as receiving gifts.

One observation that bothered me this year was seeing my home town paper, the Washington Post, not have a “Merry Christmas” headline. It’s a shame how people feel scared of celebrating obvious holidays. Data still suggest that the vast majority of Americans are Christian. I don’t think people would be offended by a simple Merry Christmas.

For my part, MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!

Two versus one handed backhand

I like hitting both strokes, but for myself, I think the one hander is easier when playing against average players who don’t hit with a lot of pace. As an older individual this makes hitting a pretty ball with lots of power easy. If, on the other hand, I’m hitting against someone with pace, I do a better job with the two hander. I generally hit the one handed backhand late and don’t get it where I want it to go. If I played a lot and were to attune my stroke to a high pace, I might be able to be a successful one hander. However, at this point in my life the two hander seems to be more advantageous. Moreover, I have the same control over it that I have with my forehand. I can actually place the ball where I want to. In a slow-paced game, I can actually place my forehand with great angles. I can do the same with the two hander but have less ability to do so with the one hander. Thus, I’m migrating my stroke to the two hander. Did you catch all that? I said one hander and two hander too often; I think I’m getting dizzy!

Thus far, my experience with the one hander is good. I have lots of work to do on mastering it but it’s coming naturally to me. I even made my first successful passing shot today and celebrated it vigorously! I love hitting good passing shots, and to do it on the backhand side was fun! That’s talking tennis for tonight. Off to the slopes tomorrow for some early season skiing.

Psychoadaptation I: What is psychoadaptation?

The question has been asked before, and I have been rightfully blamed for not providing an adequate definition. I will therefore start adding posts to define psychoadaptation more thoroughly. For this evening, I will make only one comment. Psychoadaptation is not a theory but a way of living.

The Psychoadaptation way of living (lifestyle) involves an open and fluid sense of self, a self that is able to change with experience. Thus, Psychoadaptation is psychological adaptation, and psychological adaptation means changing our conceptions of the world in response to experience. This is not easy, mind you, as we are as defensive of our conceptions as we are of any possession. Just enter a debate about some important topic with your peers to understand what I mean. We own our conceptions as we own our bodies and our homes, cars, and other earthly possessions.

Psychoadaptation has its roots in theory. The historical figures most responsible for its development are William James, the putative father of American psychology, Carl G. Jung, and of course Jean Piaget. Other important figures providing rich content for the construction of Psychoadaptation include Charles Horton Cooley, George Herbert Meade, Susan Harter, Hazel Marcus, Carl Rogers, James F. Masterson, Lev Vygotsky, Urie Bronenbrenner, Barbara Rogoff, and Seymour Epstein. The work of these critical figures has shaped my understanding of how the world functions in relation to the self.

For today, though, I will discuss Psychoadaptation’s first important principle, understanding one’s context. To achieve adaptation, one must first know what to adapt to. Life may be adaptation, as Piaget once wrote, but without knowing the standards to which we are to adapt, there can be no adaptation. Therefore, to attain healthy existence, one must understand the context and what are the constraints to which one must adapt. Let’s take education as an example. In education, teachers provide the standards. To be successful, students must adapt to those standards. Whether one agrees with the standards or doesn’t agree with them, to succeed in the academic world one must conform to the teacher’s demands. If one conforms to those demands, one has achieved adaptation. Achieving adaptation, one experiences equilibrium, the ultimate prize. Failing to understand the contextual constraints, adaptation is impossible, as is equilibrium. As such, achievement of this placid state is impossible. One is instead stuck in the muck of disequilibrium.

As I mentioned previously, Psychoadaptation is more a way of living than a theory. To live adaptively involves getting to know one’s context. To my faithful reader, this means being in tune with your world. However, it’s important to really understand your context, and deeply. Using Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bio-ecological model, this means getting to know the global context (the macrosystem; culture) as well as the immediate face to face setting, the microsystem. Many of us are really good at adapting to our immediate contexts but fail to adapt to the global context. For instance, the American macrosystem has specific constraints governing what is deemed to be “success”. This macrosytsem however allows for many microsystems. Indeed, in America, one can be successful being a tycoon as well as running a brothel. America is just that diverse. However, running a brothel is not high on the success ladder in the American Macrosystem. Thus, it is not the best option to attain true success as defined in the Macrosystem’s constraints. Knowing one’s contexts would circumvent such difficulties. A well adapted individual would understand that the American macrosystem allows for many different possibilities. However, to be truly successful, one must conform to the broader macrosystem rules. Hard work in a company is fine, as is being an entrepreneur. However, running a brothel is not.

Now, my detractor may question my conformity stance. I understand the questioning, and counter it by stating that I do not advocate perpetual conformity. Conformity is essential, however, to understand the context. Through conforming, one masters the environment, and through this mastery one comes to see the context’s benefits and its flaws. As such, this so called conformity is the precursor to outstanding development. Outstanding development can be defined as rebelling against the social norm, and indeed creating a new, higher, norm. Yet, one cannot rebel unless one knows what it is that one must rebel against. True rebellion, therefore, cannot occur unless one conforms first. True, there is the danger that in conforming, one may never rebel. Who cares, I counter. So long as the individual is happy and is not causing harm to others, conformity is great. However, some individuals for whatever reason, see the flaws in society and select to move forward and out. If you are one of those individuals, I’m with you. If you select to conform and remain, I’m also with you. Psychoadaptation makes no enemies.

For tonight, my friends, I leave with the following. Psycho-Adaptation is psychological adaptation. Borrowing from William James, it’s the ability to change one’s pretensions about one’s relation to the surroundings in order to facilitate healthy living. If you, my beloved reader, want to reap the benefits of adaptive living, you must be open to changing the way you conceive of (not perceive of) the world. You must be OK with being wrong, for the intelligent person is wrong pretty much all of the time, and is only right from time to time. If you can do that, you are living Psychoadaptation. Won’t you join me?

Knowing when you’ve hit the perfect shot

In my full time job, I conduct research. Much of my time is spent writing and critiquing writing. Others critique my writing too. The end product of this process is a well written paper, suitable for publication. In tennis, we lack the luxury of peer review. Thus, the onus is on the self to judge the validity of the shot. I use the term validity here as I do in my research world. If I, for instance, design a survey to measure tennis competence beliefs, it must pass a rigorous test to be deemed a valid measure of tennis competence beliefs. Tennis strokes can be judged for validity too. A perfect forehand, one that matches the prototypical forehand, however it is defined, is valid. Any other manifestation of the forehand is less valid.

The easiest way to judge the validity of one’s forehand is to have an expert review it, just as my peers review my writing in the research world. However, it’s not always possible to have an expert review one’s forehand. Indeed, it’s quite expensive. Rates for instruction in my area range from $70-$90 per hour. That’s quite expensive for the average person, particularly in our current economy. Thus, one must learn to judge the validity of one’s own shot. If you are dedicated to playing tennis well as I am, whether a junior hoping for greatness or an adult seeking USTA league success, I’d suggest scraping up the money to take at least one lesson. If you cannot afford the hour, go for a half hour. Many clubs offer half hour lessons. The instructor will review your strokes and show you the ideal stroke, explaining the difference between your stroke and the ideal. After practicing it several times with the instructor, you will have the ideal stroke in mind and more important, you will know what hitting a valid stroke feels like. It’s that feeling that will allow you to judge the validity of your strokes in practice, in the absence of a professional.

Simply put, a good ground stroke feels good. I was hitting with a partner yesterday and I was enjoying hitting some ground strokes very well. However, when I didn’t hit my forehand or backhand well, I knew it immediately. It’s interesting, as an avid learner I am always motivated to hit the ideal stroke. Sometimes, however, I win points with less than ideal strokes. When I do so, I am displeased. To me, hitting the perfect stroke is more important than winning the point. Learning always means seeking to match one’s skills to the ideal. Anything less is, well, less.

Now, for parents out there, I’m not implying that people have to be perfect. Perfection is an ideal, not reality. In tennis, perfection would be winning every match. This is an impossible goal. Even last year, when Novak Djokovic had his amazing season, he didn’t win every match. Serena Williams doesn’t win every match either. The reason for this lack of perfection is that one cannot control an opponent’s performance. Opponent’s have a lot to do with the result of a match, and if your opponent is better than you are on a given day, you will lose the match. However, we are capable of executing our strokes perfectly on every shot. Yes, it does take effort to do so, but it can be done. Even when one is out of position, one can still execute a stroke in the ideal fashion. Take the forehand for instance. The perfect forehand requires swinging the racquet from low to high to generate topspin, among other things. Even when the tennis player is on the defensive and off balance, the player can still swing the ball from low to high. Doing so will give the tennis player the highest likelihood of keeping the ball in play, and living for another shot! I’ve seen top-level tennis player hit forehands in the air (jumping), sliding on clay, or diving onto the grass. In all cases, those individuals made the effort to hit the ball correctly. Only when impossible, they adjust their strokes in some way. Even then, you will see that they are making the best use of well-learned techniques.

Striking the ideal stroke feels great. My favorite shot is the volley. I could stay at the net all day. When I’m at the net, I channel my favorite coaches. I try to step in with my forward foot, punching at the ball. When I hit a really good volley, I hear the perfect sound and my racquet feels firm. It’s as if my racquet were a wall, and the ball was bounced back fiercely to the open court. What a feeling it is! With respect to my forehand, I can taste the spin, as if I were guiding the ball with a remote control. “A little more spin please!” It feels so right. I hit the ball in front of my body and fully rotate my upper body into the shot, maximizing power. My backhand feels similar. Although I enjoy far more control over my forehand than backhand, my backhand generates far more spin, and feels even better when hit right. I love hitting it with power.

The opposite occurs when I don’t hit my shots well. I feel rushed and out of control. My worst shots are generally shallow, landing inside the service line, or late and weak. I also feel cramped, striking the ball too close to the body. I really know when I hit the ball poorly and do not like it. Fortunately, there is always another shot to hit in tennis, and another opportunity to hit the ball well. That’s what I love about tennis.

The next time you go out to hit, work on matching the ideal shot on all your strokes. Don’t panic if you cannot do it at first. Stick with it and focus hard on matching your technique to the ideal. Be mindful of how you feel when you hit your strokes too. Focus on differentiating your affect (feelings) between ideally and poorly hit strokes. Memorize that feeling and try to attain the good feeling over and over again. It’s so reinforcing! In my research world, my colleague Dr. Janet Audrain-McGovern and I focus on behavioral economics theory and alternative reinforcers. We’ve learned that sports are good substitutes for drugs, and keeping youth on a positive life trajectory. We’ve also studied why sport is a good substitute reinforcer. Sport provides reinforcement similar to drugs, stimulating one’s dopamine neurotransmitter system. Dopamine is a rewarding molecule in the central nervous system. It acts upon the reward centers of our brain in response to success. When we achieve success, we are stimulating this system. Addicts stimulate this system in simple, effortless ways. Unfortunately for them, though effortless to ingest, drugs have devastating consequences. Engaging in sports like tennis, although more effortful than drugs, provide equal reinforcement without the negative consequences. Indeed, they are actually healthy, promoting longevity. When I hit that perfect forehand, I feel better than any addict could ever feel by snorting cocaine or taking a large drag of a cigarette. I guess I am lucky in that I never engaged in drug use and found sport instead! Feel lucky too. Work on mastering those groundstrokes so you too can feel this natural high. It’s so worth it!

Why it’s so hard to be good at tennis

I’m writing this post for every tennis player, regardless of your age or level. I’m also writing this for the tennis parent, the one with grand hopes for the child athlete. I titled this post “Why it’s so hard to be good at tennis” because my work in the sport psychology consulting has provided me with much insight into what exactly is required to attain mastery. Further, my own struggles with the game provide additional insight, particularly with overcoming failures.

Tennis is like any of life’s pursuits. To succeed, one must persevere. However, it’s not battling against others that is our greatest task, it’s battling ourselves and mental inertia. Although we may not like to think so, we are very satisfied with the status quo. Indeed, it’s our preference. In this peaceful state, our conceptions of ourselves are in line with our experience; I played well today therefore I am a good tennis player. Yet, this mental harmony is ephemeral. Like the fizz in a carbonated beverage, time flattens euphoria and we return to a state of desiring, wanting more. We constantly seek to attain this blissful state again; mental equilibrium is our foremost goal.

In tennis, the reciprocal interweaving between equilibrium and disequilibrium is frequent, much more frequent than in most other sports. We hit one forehand, and within a few seconds, the next forehand is hit. Thus, if we hit one good forehand, there isn’t much time to celebrate equilibrium as the next forehand may be hit poorly. Conceptualizing our global tennis competence therefore requires the ability to look at ourselves as a whole rather than the result of any one point, game, or match. It requires one to suspend judgment until a later time when the one can sit down and evaluate the Self’s performance. I suggest going over each skill and doing a careful self evaluation weekly. For instance, ask yourself “how good is my forehand? Is it as good as my peers’ forehands? Do I have control over direction and spins? How confident am I in my forehand in clutch situations?” Once these questions are answered, ask yourself what you should do to improve upon your competence? If you don’t know, get a teacher to tell you.

For my part, my game’s biggest weakness is dealing with pace. I look great when the ball is hit at a reasonable old man’s pace. However, when playing younger hard hitters I simply cannot adjust easily to their pace, especially with my backhand. It shows as I hit many more balls late and into the net. I learned my current backhand from one coach who focused on the ideal one handed backhand swing. I love it but I have a hard time completing the entire backswing in time to strike the ball where I should when hitting against hard hitters. More recently, a different instructor told me to start lower to ensure a low to high swing. This past week I started working on the latter during my usual ball machine session and it actually helped; I hit my backhand far better using a different backswing than originally taught. The remainder of my swing was the same, but I altered my backswing for a better result.

Mentally, I felt better after hitting my backhand more consistently. I had evaluated my competence in real time, during practice, and concluded that I wasn’t as competent as I could be. Indeed, hitting the ball into the net made me feel quite incompetent; I was in a state of disequilibrium because my conception of myself as a competent tennis player wasn’t matching the data of my experience (hitting the ball into the net). Thus, being a practitioner of Psychoadaptation, I decided to adapt my approach to the data of my experience. Reviewing the data (my performance), I surmised that I was not performing well. More specifically, I was hitting the ball low and wide. This meant I was hitting the ball late. I knew this because I internalized my coach’s comments about my poor performance. I had at least two options to remedy this situation. First, I could continue to swing as I was swinging and hope to adjust to the pace. This would be an excellent strategy if a) I played more than I do and b) if I was a bit younger. As an alternative, I could heed to the last instructor’s advise and use a lower, less circular, backswing. I decided upon the second option and it worked well for me in this situation. It will be interesting to see how I do the next time I hit. Which approach will I use? It depends to a great extent on how my partner will hit and how competent I feel at that moment. The cycle of equilibrium and disequilibrium is constant, and so is the need for adaptation.

Life is adaptation, as Jean Piaget once said. Therefore, to be your best in tennis and life in general, I suggest having a fluid sense of Self. Although we have very stable facets of our selves, such as our backgrounds and physical makeups, much of the Self is open to adjustment. Rigid selves are bound to make us feel poorly, particularly when they contradict the data of experience. Thus, when playing tennis, be prepared to adjust your Self conceptions to the specific context. If you are playing poorly, let your Self know that “right now” you are not as competent as you would like to be, and accept that feeling unconditionally. Then, ask your Self, what can you do to improve your competence right now. To answer that question, open your Self to all the data at your disposal, including your performance and your opponent’s style. Then, formulate a strategy and implement it. This process will entail some failures as you experiment with different strategies. Yet, once you settle upon the optimal strategy, you will perform at your best. This doesn’t mean that you will win, but your odds of winning will be higher with the optimal strategy than with any less optimal approach.

As I noted in the title, it’s hard to be a good tennis player. Good tennis players accept constant interweaving between equilibrium and disequilibrium. They are perpetually adjusting their games to the current situation. In long matches, there are many variables to account for. Players undergo changes in momentum. They get tired and reenergized. They win games easily and struggle in others. In a three-set match, it’s not uncommon for the better player to breeze through the first set, lose the second, and then come back and win in the third. Good tennis players win these matches because they understand that a tennis match is a long process, and that it’s hard to win matches in straight sets; the mind is simply too fragile to control a match for so many points straight. That’s why it’s so impressive to see tennis players win important matches in straight sets. Playing well during a whole match or even in practice requires hard work. Each shot must be as important as the last. Each shot must be approached in exactly the same way, trying to execute it perfectly. That’s a lot of focus and we get tired of doing so! This should, however, be your goal.

Next time you go out and play, whether it’s for an hour or several hours, keep your Self fluid. Allow your Self to experience equilibrium and disequilibrium fully, with all their positives and negatives. Accept what you are feeling unconditionally and then make whichever adjustments are necessary to improve your game. Your Self is a barometer and it will let you know when you have attained equilibrium again. Once you’ve attained it, keep on playing in that same style until it’s lost and you have to adapt again. Psychoadaptation is the process of adapting the Self in the face of disequilibrium. If you can master this process in tennis and other parts of your life, you will experience moments of peace that others only dream to achieve. Playing tennis is indeed hard but as far as I’m concerned, the hard work is worth it.

 

Finding the ideal tennis academy for your child

It takes a great deal of effort to select the best placement for your child. Essentially, selection involves matching the program to your goals for your child. For young beginners, ages 7 and below, most programs are good. I would stay and observe the coaches, though, just to make sure they appear to know what they are doing. A well-run program is not only well organized, but it comes across as well organized to the observer. If you don’t stay and observe, you won’t know whether the program is safe and worth the money or something worse. Also, speak to other parents. Parents who stay and observe their kids are good agents; they can tell you a lot about a program. I always speak to parents to get as much information as I can.

If your child is gifted in the sport, and your child really enjoys participating in the sport, I urge you to find a solid program that has a good reputation and an outstanding record of producing top tennis players. This means the program has produced tournament champions and Division I scholorship athletes. This does not mean that your child will automatically get a scholarship by participating in the program. However, it does mean that if your child has talent, the program will make the best of that talent.

Finding an ideal program is not easy and you will make mistakes. If you do your homework, however, you are likely to make fewer mistakes. Once you find the ideal program and the ideal coach, stick with that coach. I observe some parents taking their kids from coach to coach just to get more playing time. I don’t see the value in that, as different coaches have different philosophies about tennis and if philosophies clash, your child’s game could crash! Remember that learning is a long and slow process. Just because you can take your child to a bunch of coaches doesn’t mean you should. Be patient. If your child has talent, that talent will blossom under the right setting. If you over expose your child to tennis, you will stifle his or her motivation. We want sport to be a lifelong pursuit for physical and mental health.


 

Let’s talk tennis

I love tennis! If I could choose between breathing, eating, and tennis, I’d probably choose tennis. Of course, I’d then die because well… Unlike the few really good tennis players out there, I am one of many average players. We are the life blood of the sport. Indeed, if it were not for players of my ilk, there would be no tennis business. We are the dreamers, the ones who pretend we are playing in the Majors. We are the ones who spend all the money on the fancy racquets and shoes, and private lessons. For us, tennis is a huge part of our self conceptions. We are tennis.

I also love science and the psychology of sport. As I work toward my certification as an Association of Applied Sport Psychology consultant, I am learning how to mix tennis with science. I am presently accruing hours at several locations. One is noteworthy as it involves working with adults like myself, but adults at various USTA levels. I enjoy this setting because I am on the court with the athletes, speaking with them between points. I catch their errors and support their initiative as they strive to improve. It’s a wonderful experience.

Today, in “Let’s talk tennis”, I want to discuss doubles and playing at the net. In my experience, doubles players are the best net players. That should be obvious, as much of doubles is played at the net. Indeed, the goal of any doubles team should be to dominate the net. However, at the novice levels, we see players shying away from the net. My guess is that much of this has to do with a fear of being hit. However, it also involves a lack of knowledge of doubles positioning. As a result, many doubles teams lose points when a an opponent’s shot lands at the feet. If only the individual had stood closer to the net, the individual would have been in a better position to respond correctly. Thus, my first point is get comfortable playing closer to the net. Don’t stand on top of the net, for that will make it difficult to respond to lobs, but somewhere in between the service line and the net is good. A good game to help increase one’s comfort is volleying back and forth with a friend. One doesn’t even need a net to do it. Just go outside somewhere, with your tennis rackets and a tennis ball, and just volley back and forth. See how long you can go without dropping the ball. Focus on control not power.

The second error that many novice and even intermediate tennis players make is using the wrong grip. I was guilty of this too until coach Mary Rompf at Newport Hall of Fame Tennis Club corrected my error. Use a continental grip when at the net and serving. It will prevent one from hitting ball downward into the net as it makes it easier to open the racquet face when volleying. Also, it provides an additional focus point. Indeed, focusing on the correct grip before serving and before volleying allows one to attend to something other than the fear of playing the net, or the fear of double faulting.

The third error I notice is lack of preparedness. When playing at the net, be prepared in the ready position, racquet head held high and in front of the body, making a 90 degree angle with the forearm, knees slightly bent. It’s also best to stay up on one’s toes as that will facilitate a rapid response. Then when the ball comes to one’s forehand, assuming one is right handed, one steps in with the left foot and punches at the ball. One steps in with the right foot if hitting a backhand volley. Remember, don’t swing, punch! Staying on one’s toes can be good exercise too. I try to keep moving the whole time, as if I was running in place. Indeed, when practicing with my ball machine friend (yes, I actually said friend), I am in constant motion and on my toes. It’s great exercise for the heart! Of course, I do so because I already have a healthy heart from exercising a lot.

Controlling the net is essential in doubles. Another issue I notice is that as points progress, some tennis players move backwards away from the net, toward the baseline. The baseline is great in singles when one is rallying and all the balls are landing beyond the service line. However, in doubles, staying at the baseline creates huge gaps in the court, gaps that smart tennis players are quick to exploit. If I see a huge gap and I’m at the net, I feel like a hungry man at Thanksgiving dinner; I’m going to pig out!

Finally, communicate. There is much to discuss. First, scout your opponents. When you see patterns or obvious weaknesses, tell your teammate and exploit it. Second, when going after a deep ball on the opposite side of your half of the court, make sure to tell your teammate to switch so that no part of the court is left uncovered. Indeed, doubles players should imagine themselves tethered to one another. So, when player A moves to the right, player b should move to the right as well. Similarly, when player a moves to the left, player b should move to the left as well. This forces your opponent to hit wide to win the point, and if she can do it, good for her. However, we won’t give her any free points!

Playing doubles is fun. I honestly didn’t like it at all until I started joining drill groups and doubles was all we played. Now, I love playing doubles because it has made my net game far better. The social aspect is great too! Find a good role model for your doubles game and try to emulate that player. There are plenty of good examples on youtube. Mostly, go out there and have a great time and get better!