The vast majority of teaching pros focus on two things — technique and strategy. These are essential, needless to say — you can’t play good tennis without them.

That being said, I see a hole in the standard approach, and it’s a big and important one. One could call what’s missing the ‘inner game,’ but that just scratches the surface for me, so let me try to elaborate.

Let’s say I’m taking a lesson with Joe. He tells me, “Turn sideways more on your volley,” and so I try to do so. Or he says, “Your opponent was crowding the net so that would have been a good time to lob him.” In the first example, he’s teaching technique — in the second, strategy.

All well and good — but that’s just the first story of the house, and that’s why this approach is just a starting point for me. This is because we’re conscious beings — and what I mean by this is that we aren’t a one-story house. We have a second story, i.e., a level where we choose to put our attention here or there — in the above examples, on turning more sideways when we volley or on noticing where our opponent is standing.

What we’re really doing when we follow Joe’s advice is directing our attention to do what he says. That’s a second-story job — it’s us consciously pushing the buttons of our operating system, i.e., our attention-management system.

Thus we come to what my friend Scott Ford calls Tier One and Tier Two teaching. Tier One is all about strategy and technique. Tier Two pays attention to attention.

Tier One is flat — we erase the mind and we ‘just do it.’

Tier Two is three-dimensional — it brings our mental operations into what we’re working on, whether it’s as a student or a teacher.

To be clear, our consciousness isn’t a two-story house, either. Meditators watch their thoughts — that’s Tier Two awareness observing Tier One mental activity. (It entertains me to think of our thoughts as a sort of inner-game equivalent of chasing after tennis balls.) But wait, there’s more! There’s a third story, too. I can watch myself watching myself watch my thoughts — and I can keep climbing that ladder, theoretically forever.

One of the non-secular goals of meditation is to help us get more skilled at watching the watcher watch the watcher because there can come a point when all that climbing — all that layered watching — produces a sort of escape velocity and busts us out beyond our narrow self-sense into the void, which depending on the tradition is called the All, satori, non-being, and so on.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When we teach mind skills along with strategy and technique, and especially when we teach the skill of attention, not only are we helping our students become less mechanical in how they approach the game, but we’re opening the door to what elsewhere I’ve called ‘tennis as a secular martial art.’ For what makes the martial arts special — what makes them ‘spiritual’ — if not their focus on the nature and quality of the practitioner’s attention?

There are Tier Two teachers out there. Scott Ford is one. Peter Rennert of Telos Tennis may be another. I’m a third, to the extent that I can be considered a tennis teacher (I’m not out on the court feeding balls to people). We’re pretty rare birds, though, as far as I can tell.

I believe it will be a sign that we’re evolving in a good direction as a culture when Tier Two tennis teaching becomes as easy to find as Tier One teaching. Culturally, we tend to flatten consciousness into two dimensions. There is ‘I,’ and there is ‘it,’ as in — I hit the tennis ball. The reality, though, is more nuanced — and it is also three-dimensional. There is the watching ‘I’ (or, if you prefer, the watching eye), the acting I, and the action that ensues. This three-dimensionality is the container in which our selfhood blossoms, ideally in the direction of self-knowledge, wisdom, and union with the All.

The more we live at the Tier One level — the more we let ourselves be defined by Tier One consciousness — the more we’re corralling ourselves. It takes three dimensions — it takes a pyramid climbing toward the stars — for us to truly find ourselves.

For us to truly become free.

How much attention do you pay to attention? Do you see yourself as a Tier One or a Tier Two person? Do you see value in escaping from Flatland?

When I was sixteen years old, I played a fourteen-year-old named Harold Solomon. You may recognize the name. He’s the semi-famous moonballer who got to number five in the world. He was just a kid then, as I was, and he was newly back to the Washington, DC area from full-time tennis immersion in Florida, where he was reputed to have improved enormously. I played him evenly for two sets. Then he attacked my forehand, which was my power shot, and won the deciding set 6-1.

I seem to recall Harold telling someone afterward: “I went after his forehand because a person’s game will crumble if you go after their strength.”
Welcome to my topic: Your strength is your weakness.

This maxim applies to your mental game, too.

Here are two examples from out of my own experience — and psyche.

Like most people, I’m gifted in some ways and, er, not so gifted in others. Just ask my wife about my ability to misplace things! But one thing I am blessed with is an active ‘empathetic imagination,’ the term I use to describe the capacity to imagine your way into another person’s head.

Socially and creatively, this serves me well. On the tennis court, though, it translates into weak anticipation. When my opponent sets up to hit the ball, I tend to lead with my empathetic imagination and base my prediction on what for many reasons is a pretty stupid question: What would I do in their situation? Which ignores the obvious — I’m not them. And another obvious — there are way better ways to anticipate, like reading their body language and racket takeback.

My strength is my weakness.

Example #2: In a fascinating personality typology called the Enneagram, I fall into the personality type called “The Witness.” My default position is that of an observer. This has real strengths — I tend to keep a relatively even keel, and frankly, it has a lot to do with why I’m able to write these meditations, which require a lot of honest self-assessment.

On the court, though — Uh-oh.

Because I’m a witness, I tend to observe my shot to see how I did instead of keeping my feet active.

When I play doubles and the rally involves my opponent, I often pull up a chair, metaphorically speaking, and just watch.

I often think I’m doing something technically correct when in fact I’m only thinking it.

Again: My strength is my weakness.

It’s a problem we can work on. I’m better than I used to be at not letting my strengths get in my way on the tennis court. I doubt I’ll ever completely eliminate the problem because, in the immortal words of Popeye, I yam what I yam. Still, progress is a good thing, even if it falls short of perfect.

It’s all part of the grand dance of getting better.

What are your strengths on and off the court? In what way or ways are they also weaknesses?

In past meditations, I’ve written about the all-important moment of not-knowing. This is when we’ve set up to hit our shot and have committed to our swing. Will it succeed or will it fail? Will the gods smile when we find out how we’ve done? Also: How do we respond emotionally to that plunge into uncertainty? Do we get overcautious and try to control the outcome? Do we falter in the opposite direction, say “what the hell” to ourselves, and just go for broke?

There are better and worse ways to approach the moment of not-knowing. If we take a deep dive into why this is, I believe we come out here: We are wired to be binary. An event can produce a positive reaction, and it can produce a negative reaction. This is why we get so invested in the outcome. We want to feel good, not bad, when it’s done.

The less invested we are in the outcome, the easier it becomes to be present and to execute as well as we possibly can. When we’re non-attached, hopes and fears don’t get in the way. “No appointments, no disappointments,” as the spiritual teacher Muktananda used to say. But how do we get there? How do we achieve this equanimity?

My answer for today is: From on high. Our binary processing tracks back all the way to survival essentials. ‘Feels good’ means our needs will be met. It means we’ll get to eat and live for another day. ‘Feels bad’ means the opposite. It means — cue the anxiety! — we won’t eat. No, we’ll get eaten by that big-shouldered critter across the net!

Climb up the ladder, slip through the wormhole, and that silly, simple shot you’re facing translates into nothing less than: Light versus dark. Good versus evil. And, even more to the point: Life versus death.

So how do we find our way to being okay with the prospect of death? It’s a hard nut to crack, to be sure, but the sages have done it, and you and I can do it too, even if we don’t subscribe to a convenient heaven-ever-after worldview, which certainly makes it a lot easier.

In a prior meditation (“One Paradox to Rule Them All”), I wrote about how more and more terminally ill people are taking big doses of magic mushrooms in a supervised setting to help them deal with their imminent passing. Typically, this takes them to a place where they’re deeply okay with dying. There’s a mystery beyond what our minds can process. Magic mushrooms give us a glimpse of that Mystery, and that glimpse tells us: There is only good.

Things aren’t binary, in other words. All that’s a grand con, a cosmic ‘gotcha’ game. The entire contest — good versus bad, life versus death — is a fiction. An illusion.

Our tennis game thrives on equanimity. We self-destruct when we get rattled. Thus, the converse also obtains: If there’s no getting rattled, there’s no self-destruction. How do we get there? By climbing back down through the wormhole.

If death is okay, then all as-if deaths are also okay.

I’ve always viewed the New Age expression “it’s all good” as a cocktail-party way to spiritual virtue-signal. Behind that, though, it’s profoundly true and it’s also truly profound. I’m going to keep saying something to myself, and I’ll keep saying it until it finally sticks: You know what, Carl? It really is all good.

How do you handle not-knowing? How good are you at equanimity when you play tennis and, more importantly, when you play the game of life?

I got some shocking news the other day.

I’ve always felt supremely healthy — invulnerable, almost. For years now, I’ve had no serious physical issues. At the age of 73, I felt healthy enough to start seeing a longevity doctor who helps people maximize their healthspan, the emerging term for a full and active life as distinguished from years with a low quality of life — think drooling in a wheelchair. She recommended a coronary calcium test to check out my heart health. We both assumed it would come back zero. To the shock of us both, it came in really high. It seems I have lots of plaque in one artery leading into my heart.

I immediately wrote her and asked if this meant I should change my expectation of decades more of healthy, active life. She responded with an unequivocal and massively reassuring “no.” With proper management (diet, supplements, meds to reduce lipid levels), there’d be no change in my healthspan prognosis. Medical science had progressed to the point, she told me, that a bad outcome for me was entirely preventable.

Dr. Leventhal also told me that I’d probably developed compensatory arterial capacity along with vessel workarounds by playing as much relatively high-level tennis as I do.

This brings me to the heart of the matter: Playing tennis may have saved my life.

I mean this literally. Playing tennis may have saved my life.

I think back with wonder and gratitude at some of the matches I’ve played over the last few years. Two and a half hours in 90 degree weather a half-dozen times or more. Only last month, I played a two-plus hour match in high-80s heat and felt great throughout. I never dreamed I might be at risk.

I’m grateful to Dr. Leventhal who has been wonderfully supportive with communications like this: “You truly have to look at these inflection points as opportunities. It’s really good information, life changing and life saving, and also a way to rethink things (for the better). Good things will happen, I promise!”

In other words: High coronary calcium as an AFGO, Another Fucking Growth Opportunity.

Thank you, Shery Leventhal, for preaching the gospel of positivity …

I’m confident I’ll get through this, and pretty quickly. My shock absorber is a lot better than it used to be. Things will start to get seriously normalized for me once I see my cardiologist (soon, I hope) and get launched on the regimen that will set me back on my path to having those decades of great healthspan I’ve been counting on.

For now, I’m left with four words of advice for you.

Play tennis, people. Seriously.

How well do you deal with setbacks? Do you assimilate them skillfully? Do you rebound quickly?

You‘re playing a match that you’ve gone into with a clear strategy. The competition sucks you in and when you emerge from the vortex, you realize that as things got hotter, you totally forgot about your strategy.

Sound familiar? Hell, I’ve even written instructions on my sweatband and forgotten they were there!

Why does this happen to us, over and over again?

Tennis drags you into what I call the Immediate Now. It’s where you go when your fight-or-flight instincts have been activated and you experience yourself as in a life-and-death struggle for survival.

When a guy comes at you with a knife, all you can see is that knife. All you can think about is staying alive. You‘re in the Immediate Now.

Tennis matches simulate fight-or-flight battles for survival. That’s what makes them so absorbing. They are battles to the death where the blood is only metaphorical. They‘re like medieval jousts, only without the horses and with rackets instead of lances.

You can’t strategize from inside the Immediate Now. Strategizing requires you to look at patterns and tendencies over time, and that can only be done from a hilltop above our survival-driven absorption in the present moment. This is why we forget about strategy in the heat of competition.

In order to stay strategic while competing, we need to duplex our consciousness so that it stays active both at the level of the Immediate Now and upmountain a piece, where we can think more strategically and inclusively.

This requires us to inhabit a paradox — we have to stay detached while also being fully engaged. We need to be here now, as the expression has it, while also maintaining a certain distance and perspective. This doesn‘t come naturally to most of us. But it‘s do-able.

A great time to bring your strategizing self back online is during the break to change court sides. There, at least theoretically, you have a chance to regroup, remember, and climb back up the mountain until the time comes for the next change of sides, and the next remembering.

But you have to remember to remember — and therein lies the challenge.

Do you get sucked into the Immediate Now in ways that don’t serve you? Do you use your capacity for different time perspectives to your strategic and emotional advantage?

It’s been a long time coming — I’m not a guy who’s good at commitment. But now, at last, my time has come. I know when I’ve found The One, and so I’m dropping onto one knee.

“Tennis, will you marry me?”

I’ve finally come to realize that you have all the qualities I look for in a life partner:

  • You’re really there for me. I get feedback from you every time I hit a ball, and it’s alway honest and direct. You never bullshit me. You never, ever freeze me out.
  • You’re really good with boundaries. In is in and out is out. And yet you don’t care who I play with!
  • You’re forgiving. Even when I screw up, you don’t quit on me. You welcome me to try again and you never sit in judgment. You are a benevolent witness.
  • You’re fun. Even on your worst day — hell, even on my worst day! — you’re fun. And fun matters a lot, doesn’t it?
  • You’re good for me. You keep me healthy and you keep me happy. You’re probably going to help me live longer, too.
  • You’re gorgeous, and you age well.
  • You’re not high-maintenance. A can of tennis balls isn’t a big price to pay for all the pleasure you give me. Sure, in the cold months, we need to get a room, but it’s a sensible expense.
  • You don’t mind if I obsess about you — and goddamn, do I obsess!

I didn’t bring a ring because rings get in the way. I did bring a sweaty wristband, though. Will you accept it as a token of my forever commitment?

I promise I’ll never cheat on you with pickleball.

What sort of things are you married to? Why did you choose those specific activities?

I had a moment of sobriety over the weekend — a moment of tennis sobriety. What do I mean by this? Well, I understand the term ‘moment of sobriety’ to mean that the addict has a moment where they see with luminous clarity what they’ve been pushing out of sight forever. The distractions fade away, the denial goes on holiday, and at last one sees the truth about oneself.

I first picked up a tennis racket 66 years ago. I didn’t play at all for a couple of decades along the way, but that still adds up to a whole lot of time for flaws to get deeply embedded in my game. One of those defects declared itself to me last Saturday evening as I was lying in bed and drifting off to sleep. This is a highly alive and creative time for me — things show up in my awareness that would not get through when I’m awake.

What declared itself to me was this: My grip isn’t right on my backhand volley.

The flaw is subtle, not egregious. I volley using a continental grip, as per the conventional wisdom. Thus I’ve had plausible deniability on the question: “Do you have a problem with your backhand-volley grip?” “Hell, no,” my answer’s been. “I grip the racket correctly.”

And yet. And yet.

(A pause ensues while Carl dissolves into copious weeping.)

And yet I coulda-shoulda known better. Now that I’ve had my moment of sobriety, I look back at my backhand volley and note multiple glaring symptoms of a less-than-perfect grip:

  • I have trouble ‘sticking’ the ball, the tennis term for hitting it crisply with just the right amount of underspin. Instead, it tends to float.
  • My accuracy is approximate, not precise.
  • I tend to be a bit too wristy, which I now see as how I compensate technically for a grip that doesn’t allow me to bring the racket into the ball at precisely the right angle.
  • No matter how much I work on my backhand volley, it only gets marginally better, which suggests that I haven’t been getting at the real problem.

It’s not that my backhand volley is terrible. It’s vulnerable, though. Thanks to my moment of sobriety, I now believe I know why.

My equivalent to waking up with a splitting headache in a gutter somewhere came to me over the weekend when a backhand overhead came my way during a doubles game. I was on the ad side and I wanted to angle it away from my opponents into the alley on their ad side. I did get a sharp angle, but I overdid a good thing by a wide margin, and I do mean wide — my shot hit the side wall on a short-hop.

Yowzer. I blushed, said something appropriately self-deprecatory, and did my best to move on. It was only that evening as I was lying in bed that I realized that a misbegotten grip was the only way I could have botched that shot so badly. While a coach watching on the sidelines wouldn’t have seen anything wrong with my grip, at a more subtle level I was sabotaging myself and dooming myself to a subpar backhand volley.

Tomorrow I’m scheduled for a practice session and my backhand volley grip will get my full and extended attention. Is the problem the angle of the racket in my palm? The position of my index finger? Will I do better with a slightly different shade of continental — a tiny bit more in one direction or another? I’ll run experiments tomorrow in the hope that I’ll discover the nuance that shifts my backhand volley from suspect to reliable.

There are levels beneath the levels — there are games beneath the games. This is true in the great sport of tennis, and it’s also true for the psyche, where the darkness can hide the greatest jewels of all. I’m grateful for the liminal moment that gave me my insight into my backhand volley, and I’m even more grateful that I noticed it — and had the good sense to mine the jewel.

Do you pay attention to the whisperings of your subconscious? How well do you pay attention to the wisdom that lies within?

I’m a bit weird. When someone communicates to me, I try to respond immediately. This is partly self-protective — I don’t want to carry the stress of having to remember to get back to them — but the more important consideration is that anything less feels discourteous to me.

In a world where people habitually respond not at all or — by my standard — belatedly, the norm is a source of constant vexation to me. Every day, I have to remind myself that other people have different response styles, that the culture normalizes non-acknowledgement, that maybe they didn’t see my communication, that forgiving others’ trespasses is a crucial practice, and so on.

I have a philosophical commitment to flexibility and open-mindedness. I’m firmly convinced that I’m in the right and the world is in the wrong on this one, though — it’s become a sort of soapbox issue for me. In a memorable set of experiments called the Still Face Experiment, researcher Edward Tronick had mothers interact normally with their babies. The moms smiled, baby-talked, and made loving eye contact. Then he had them go, as per the name of the experiment, ‘still face.’ The moms stared blankly at their babies as the little ones did their best to interact. Every time, it took literally less than a minute for the infants to decompensate completely and lose motor control, start squawling, and so on.

The babies are telling us something hugely important: We’re wired for connection. Non-responsiveness hurts and, in fact, it cuts deep. I know that people will scoff at this — we have weird notions in our culture of what it means to be an adult — but those infant needs still live inside us. If we disregard them, it’s at our own — and our neighbors’ — peril.

My inner grown-up knows that the people who don’t live by my communication rules mean no harm. That doesn’t keep me from having to override an inner wince every time it happens. That’s how deeply attached I am to what a friend — and, like me, a rapid responder — calls “response-ability.”

To be clear, it’s not validation I’m after. I love approval as much as the next person, but what I’m really looking for is acknowledgement — not that I’m great, but that I exist and matter enough for my interlocutor to, so to speak, smile back at me.

And now we come to tennis. Wonderful tennis, beautiful tennis, good ol’ reliable tennis — tennis that unfailingly practices response-ability! Every time I smack that fuzzy yellow ball, I get feedback. The great game of tennis says to me, “Well done!” Or: “Wow, you really screwed that one up!” Or: “Release the wrist more next time.” If I hit 1,000 balls in a practice session, I’ll get 1,000 units of feedback. It is guaranteed. And it happens immediately.

On a given day, you and I may be off our game. Tennis is never off its game. In a world where Joe may think it’s fine not to respond if you don’t have something clever or useful to say, and Jill may think it’s fine not to respond because she’s busy and why bother, tennis is always there for us, always engaging with us, always interacting, never letting go of that love connection.

Always being a great mother.

Where are you on the response bell curve? Are you good with how you handle your communication obligations? Do you practice response-ability?

Among other things, tennis is a dance — and it’s a dance that starts with the feet. Like many people, I tend to forget this. I focus on the ball coming at me, getting into position for it, and striking it well and correctly. That’s all good and necessary, but inside the busyness of all that, I tend to forget the power and importance of what I’ll call The Dance.

When I consciously decide to play from within the mental construct of ‘Dance with the ball, Carl,’ good things happen. My feet get more life in them — they become quicker, more engaged. My timing improves, as well it should — hey, I’m dancing! The aliveness tends to extend to my knees and above as well — I play with what the celebrity tennis coach Patrick Mouratouglou calls a “lower ceiling.”

Last but by no means least, I tend to have even more fun when I play. Of course I do! I’m dancing!

There’s another great reason to roll out the dancing carpet when you play. If you want to get into a groove — or flow, or the zone; call it what you will — entrainment helps enormously. And what is that? Here’s a fancy scientific definition: It’s a “temporal locking process in which one system’s motion or signal frequency entrains the frequency of another system. This process is a universal phenomenon that can be observed in physical (e.g., pendulum clocks) and biological systems (e.g., fireflies).”

When women who like each other and aren’t on the pill hang out together, their menstrual cycles tend to align — that’s a wonderful example of entrainment. They don’t decide to do it, it just happens.

When Sufi whirling dervishes do their thing, they’re consciously pursuing entrainment. Why? Because it takes them into an altered state — in their case, ecstatic transcendence.

Similarly for pursuing entrainment on the tennis court: When you get into that very special rhythm, or rather when that very special rhythm takes you over (you’ve been there, right?), it’s a magic carpet ride that can take you straight into the zone.

How aware are you of your twinkling (or less than twinkling) toes when you play? Do you consciously do The Dance? Do you practice the rhythm method? Is it something you might bring to the rest of your life, spiritually and metaphorically speaking?

‘Micro-tennis?’ Micro-tennis????

Yup! Or, as it’s usually known, short court.

I’ve become a huge fan of starting off with short court. I find that I play much better when I spend a few minutes hitting the ball gently, focusing on things like feel off the racket and slow-motion technique while allocating special attention to what I’ll be working on that day. Recently, that’s meant things like turning head and neck as single unit to watch the contact, making sure I’m giving myself enough space on both sides, engaging the wrist in the newfangled modern way (lag-and-snap, y’all, lag-and snap!), and more.

I find short court to be a great way to sharpen my attention and get ready for the full-on session to come. It’s like putting a toe in the water rather than diving into the pool straightaway.

Most if not all undertakings have an underlying process, a sequence that allows them to unfold with all the style and elegance they’re capable of. When you jump over that process, when you cut to the ball-banging chase, you’re denying yourself the chance to get in synch with the beneath-the-surface rhythms and the quality of attention that let you make the most of your game.

This is why the alternative name ‘micro-tennis’ occurred to me. The power of what’s commonly known as short court doesn’t come from the size of the court — it comes from the quality of attention that it makes possible. Micro-tennis gives us a great opportunity to drill down to subtle levels without having to deal with that big scary ball coming at you.

Transitions matter — a lot. Micro-tennis makes a great bridge that lets us pass from our ordinary off-court reality into the altered state that is part of tennis’s great allure.

Want to increase the odds of getting into flow? Sart off with micro-tennis.

Are you a short-court aficionado? Do you honor the rhythms of transition on the court and off it?