I’ve always resented challenging weather conditions. The wind disrupts my rhythm, the sun messes with my serve, the high sky downgrades my overhead to a sometimes thing. I prefer to play indoors. It makes the game simpler and more straightforward — the elements don’t mess with my timing.

Recently it dawned on me that it doesn’t have to be this way. When I was in my 20s, I took a weeklong solo bike trip through New England. The weather was brutal. Sometimes it was punishingly hot, other times it poured rain. About four days in, I resolved to stop whining and instead to invoke the mantra, “It’s only weather.”

Yet here it is many decades later, and I am resenting the weather. And so I need to remind myself: There’s a boundary between the realities life hands us and the emotions we experience about that reality. One is outside our control, the other is inside it.

For years, I assumed that sun and wind were BAD when I played tennis outside. It was my attitude that was BAD, and not in a good way. I was blaming the outside weather for my inside attitude, and that was getting in my way as a tennis player.

Logic and common sense argue for a positive approach toward playing outdoors whatever the weather conditions. Why rain on your own parade? Why not build outdoor-weather challenges into the vast and complex art of becoming a better tennis player? At the end of the day, making friends with the weather is just another opportunity to get better at pursuing excellence.

First, though, we have to remember that boundary, the one that separates our external circumstances from our attitude toward it.What’s your attitude toward playing in the sun and wind? More broadly, what negative qualities do you project onto the outside world instead of keeping them where they belong, which is inside your head?

Our capacity to absorb language is little short of miraculous. It’s an ability that’s not unique to our species — the Google tells me that a chimp named Panzee has acquired 125 words, and that ‘super dogs’ can learn up to 250. We humans are levels above that, though, not only in the quantity of words we acquire, but also in the quality — our word-brains can do nuance. We know the difference, for instance between ‘love’ and ‘like,’ between ‘sucks’ (as in ‘bad’) and ‘sucks’ (as in a physical activity), and even between ‘cleave’ (as in ‘cling’) and ‘cleave’ (as in ‘separate’).

How do we absorb all these subtleties? I’m neither a linguist nor a neuroscientist, so the best I can come up with is — we absorb them from the ether. Words are adrift in the cultural air like pollen on a high-allergen day.

Most if not all our words come packaged with a conventional meaning along with subsidiary significations. “Back seat of the Chevy” brings up for me an image of a 60s car against a backsplash of teen romance, courtesy of Bob Seger, any number of movies, and my own occasional coming-of-age experience.

We tend not to question words’ standard meaning — we seem to be wired for conventionality as well as for language-learning. This is not always a good thing:

  • Taking words for granted can make them less alive, less evocative. This is what makes etymology so fascinating — it makes words flower. Did you know that ‘ecstasy’ is derived from the Greek ekstasis, ‘standing outside oneself,’ or that the ‘mare’ in nightmare comest from Germanic folklore, in which a “mare” is an evil female spirit or goblin that sits upon a sleeper’s chest, giving them bad dreams?
  • Conventional meanings can be cruel. ‘Slut’ is one example — the N-word is another. Thus we see serial ‘word rebellions’ in which a word is is reclaimed, redefined, and turned into a point of pride. This has happened with both the N-word and ‘slut.’

On the tennis court, too, we can get trapped inside words’ conventional meaning. Take the word slice, for example. In the context of tennis, we typically think of it as a noun or adjective. I ‘hit a slice’ or I ‘hit a slice backhand.’

Well, it dawned on me with a sort of ‘aha!’ the other day that ‘slice’ is also a verb. If you’re in a knife fight, that’s what you do — you slice.

I’m delighted to report that this revelation has transformed how I hit my slice backhand. Previously, when the ball came to that side, I ‘noun-ed’ my response. I’d decide to go with that shot (“come under the ball!”) and I’d execute accordingly. As soon as I started ‘verb-ing’ the word, the shot became more forceful, more aggressive. It became not a mechanical action so much as a weapon. Live by the slice, die by the slice …

And then there are the words ‘win’ and ‘lose.’ We all know the standard signification: You ‘win’ or ‘lose’ a tennis match. But that definition can mislead. In the quarter-finals of the 2022 French Open, Felix Auger-Aliassime lost in five sets to Rafa Nadal, the greatest clay court player of all time. By the conventional definition, he lost, but he walked off the court convinced for the first time that he could compete with the very best. So it was also a victory.

An example from my own life: At the grass nationals in 2021, I played Gary Jenkins, then the top-ranked 70+ player in the country. During the entire season until then, I don’t believe he’d lost more than two games in any single set. I defaulted at 1-5 in the first set because my hip had blown up, but we’d played mostly even until my hip started hollering. When the match was over, I’m pretty sure I overheard Gary say to a friend, “I played someone named Carl Frankel. He could beat me.”

Did I win or lose? You be the judge.

Turning words around and around, admiring them like the gems they are, is, for me, a personal-growth strategy — and a tennis-improvement strategy, too!

In fact, it’s a basic life hack.

Do you take conventional meanings for granted? Do you examine them, redefine them, refashion them to suit your purpose?

The orthodox approach to teaching tennis is antiquated and unsophisticated — it’s as if the entire industry got caught inside a circa-1955 time bubble.

My evidence is as follows, Your Honor.

First, none of the teaching pros I know routinely use video technology despite its being immensely helpful (although usually quite sobering).

Second, most health professionals require clients to fill out an intake form before they get started. Not tennis teachers, though, although it’s their job to make their students’ tennis game ‘healthier.’ The typical tennis teacher’s intake consists of, “Hi, I’m Joe. What would you like to work on today?” Useful and even vital information isn’t surfaced because of the utter absence of pre- lesson input:

  • Context. Why does the student want to take lessons? Do they want to work on just one stroke or get better across the board? Do they want to get a little better or a lot better? What’s their time window for seeing improvement?
  • Motivation. Why do they play the game? Is it for social reasons? To win a championship? Because they have a growth mindset and are playing a ‘long game’ to get better as a person?
  • Effective Teaching. What is their learning style? Is it kinesthetic? Verbal/metaphorical? Different learning styles call for different approaches to imparting information.

Similarly for post-lesson ‘post-play.’ Workshop teachers typically have their students fill out post-gathering evaluations. What worked and what didn’t? How do you feel about what you just experienced? Do you have feedback about how your learning process might be accelerated? This is all useful information, but it is rarely elicited — and it is never elicited, so far as I know, as part of a formal pedagogical process.

Put all these factors together and the current conventional approach to teaching tennis emerges as both simple and simplistic. It treats the game as physical (“Watch the ball! “Turn your shoulder!”) and tactical/strategic (“When you hit that shot, you should have followed it up to the net”) while ignoring the uniqueness of the student as well as the game’s inner dimension with its mental, emotional and spiritual components.

In sum, today’s shrunken tennis-teaching canvas falls short in two ways. It disregards the student’s individuality and unique needs, and it also fails to honor the fundamentally integral nature of the game. To excel at tennis, or even just to get better at it, people have to develop a stronger inner game in addition to improving technically and tactically. Unfortunately, the inner dimension is largely or totally disregarded by orthodox tennis teachers unless their niche requires them to help their charges get better at competing — high school coach, university coach, tennis mill employee, etc.

I understand the logic for this — “We tennis pros are jocks, not shrinks! We shouldn’t be getting out of our lane. We should be staying with what we know” — but the approach is old-fashioned and outdated. ‘Circa 1955,’ right? Which was before the explosion of introspection in the 1960s and 1970s that gave birth to Gallwey’s Inner Game, launched a thousand other personal-growth ships, and started us on the road toward fully integral thinking, which — to oversimplify immensely — builds both depth and growth into our model of the human psyche.

I’m really taken aback at how the critique I’ve laid out appears to be absent from the current tennis culture and community. Maybe it’s out there and I’m just not plugged into it. Still, from where I sit (and stand, and whack tennis balls), this strikes me as a massive tennis-culture blind spot.

What would an integral approach to teaching tennis look like? I started writing about this in an earlier post (“Tennis as a Secular Martial Art: A Curriculum”) and I’ll elaborate on the subjet in future meditations. For now, I’ll leave it at this: It would include everything that the current orthodox approach does, and build and expand around it.

Does the current approach to teaching tennis seem optimized to you? Have you ever wished for something different, something better? In the rest of your life, do you tend to accept orthodoxy or to challenge and re-vision it?

Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to hit for an hour with my friend John Tashiro. We’d met during our travels on the senior tennis circuit and gotten along well enough for him to give me a blurb for my book Tennis as a Wisdom Practice. John has had serious tennis training and it shows. His strokes are flawless, and his footspeed is impressive for a man his age. He’s ranked in the top ten nationally in the 50s.

I loved every minute of it. We did some drills I was unfamiliar with and while he was more consistent than I, I managed to maintain a high enough level to keep it interesting for him. Seeing him hit the ball so beautifully and knowing that I was in the dance of tennis with him had a curious effect: I felt at his level — he lifted me up, so to speak.

Because John is one helluva tennis player, and I was sharing a court with him and, roughly speaking, at his level, I’d become one helluva tennis player, too.

I take an important message away from this. Our ego tells us we are separate, and in fact the ego is right. We are! But we’re also a lot more connected — a lot more intersected — than we realize. We feed off each other in countless ways. And we mirror each other, too.

We really are in this together, a lot more profoundly than our everyday self knows.

To what extent is your self-assessment as a tennis player about you and to what extent is it about the people who are on the court with you? Are you attuned, both on- and off-court, to how much we co-create together?

Tennis is a game of virtuous and vicious circles. I hit a great forehand and that emboldens me to hit another great one. I miss badly, that renders me insecure, and so I execute my next shot tentatively and screw up even worse.

Up the good ladder, down the bad one …

Today my practice partner hit a big topspin backhand deep into my backhand corner. I’m a one-handed backhand guy, so shots like that spell trouble for me. (It’s how Nadal beat Federer for years, so it’s not exactly an embarrassing confession.)

When I saw that big, heavy topspin coming at me, a neon “uh-oh” flashed through my mind.

(Okay, I’ll be honest: It was more like, “Oh, f–k.”)

It’s not an impossible shot for me to return, but it’s a tricky one. The timing is delicate and it’s really hard to get the weight shift right. And of course, the alarm bell going off in my mind made it worse. As if I didn’t have enough to worry about without being a little bit panicky!

There’s a fix for this, as there is for most mental issues on the court. Turn threats into a positive. Instead of “oh, f–k,” how about this for a replacement: “Oh boy, I get to try something really challenging!”

It’s a quite simple program, really: Replace fear with excitement. Replace anxiety with opportunity.

I’m reminded of a joke my dad used to tell me. A family has two boys. The parents are concerned that one is too pessimistic and the other is too optimistic, so they decide to give the pessimist boy a bicycle for Christmas and the optimistic boy a bag of horse manure.

The pessimist boy sees the bike and goes, “Oh no, now I’m going to fall off it and break my leg, and I’ll be crippled forever.”

The optimist boy sees the bag of horse manure and says, “Oh boy, oh boy, I got a horse, but it ran away!”

When you switch from fear to opportunity, you’re switching from pessimist to optimist. You’re turning your anxiety into eagerness.

There’s an entire school of psychology built around this. It‘s called ’positive psychology.’ It’s not about going into denial about what’s bad and frightening. It’s about consciously choosing to make the most out of what life hands you.

Practicing positive psychology has been shown to help enormously when it comes to getting into flow.

‘Flow’ as in, that state where things come easily and effortlessly, where you feel like you’re performing at your best.

Flow as in … the infamous zone.

And it starts with undoing that toxic “uh-oh.”

Do you manage your fear or do you let your fear manage you? Do you have an escape hatch when a vicious circle closes in?

In tennis, ‘transition game’ usually means shots from midcourt where you turn defense or neutrality into offense. You get a short ball and switch to the attack.

That’s not how I’m using the term here. I’m using it in this context: I’ve come to recognize a painful truth. I’m a very different player when I compete than when I practice:

  • I feel like a tennis player when I’m just hitting balls, working on my game, doing drills and such.
  • When I compete, I feel much more like a stumblebum. My feet tend not to end up where they’re supposed to and my strokes get tighter and less elegant.

If you were to ask me to give a number, I’d say my ‘compete game’ is about 60% of what my ‘practice game’ is.

It’s almost like I’m two different people out there. Dr. Jekyll, meet Mister Run-and-Hide-Under-a-Table-Somewhere-Because-Your-Performance-Is-So-Damn-Embarrassing …

The reasons for this discrepancy are pretty clear to me. They include things like anxiety about not being quick-footed enough to cover the whole court, having “don’t miss!” as my Prime Directive, and a chronic shortfall of cool, calm, and delight.

What to do about this ? What can I do to infiltrate my black-sheep compete game with my pride-of-the-family practice game? How can I perform a sort of corporate tennis takeover so that the two become merged in a good way?

This is where my notion of ‘transition game’ comes in.

I learned to swim in the following way. I was equipped with an inflatable vest, and as I progressed, air was taken out of it until eventually I was swimming entirely on my own. It was a sort of “learn to swim” sneak attack. I was taken into what seemed like a danger zone in a way that made it not seem dangerous.

I’m visualizing a similar ‘transition game’ to support my learning to compete as well as I practice. The progression would look like this for me:

  • Warm up, just hitting practice balls in the usual way.
  • Play points without keeping score — feed the ball from the hand, third ball in play, take it from there.
  • Play points while keeping score, starting off by feeding the ball from the hand. No serving (yet)!
  • The first to ten points wins.

My aim would be to do this until I can play points — meaningless points, the next thing to competition-free points — with as much freedom and clear focus as when I’m just rallying.

Next, transition to ten-pointers starting with the serve.

At this point, we’re not playing real matches, but we’re tiptoeing in that direction. The air’s coming out of the life vest.

From there, move on to the final destination — standard sets, in other words, the game structure that’s embedded in our brains under the adrenaline-inducing heading: “Now this is real competition!”

Baby steps, people — that’s the key. Letting the air out of the life vest bit by bit.

I’m going to give this approach a try over the next days and weeks ahead. I’m cautiously optimistic that it’ll help me overcome my fear of drowning when I compete.

Is your ‘compete game’ dramatically different from your ‘practice game?’ Do you perform better or worse when things get real?

You probably know the expression, ‘Less is more.’ It applies to tennis and much more. Today I asked myself: In what ways is this true for tennis? Because we can probably agree that the game is like the proverbial onion that you can keep peeling, layer after layer. Beneath all that, though, it ultimately reduces to ‘less is more:’

  • Simple technique is better than complex technique. The less convoluted your mechanics are, the less likely they are to get screwed up.
  • A relatively empty, ‘less is more’ mind is better than a jampacked one. To be clear, the counsel “don‘t think when you‘re playing a point” isn‘t realistic, if by “don‘t think” you mean, “Have a completely empty mind.” If you’re not visualizing a target when you‘re playing a point, you’re not thinking enough. You need to apply tactics, court awareness and technical corrections on the fly (or lope, or stagger), so don’t listen to those folks who say, “Don‘t think when you play.” “Think less” does make sense, though — and so does, “Don‘t think mechanically.”
  • It sometimes helps to take time off. I’m a bit compulsive about my game. If I’m working on something and I feel like I’m making progress, I want to keep at it until I believe I’ve got it down. This compulsiveness can be counter-productive. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve taken a couple of days off, and during that time I integrated the changes I was working on faster than if I’d kept plugging away. Down time is learning time, too. In our puritanical work-ethic culture, it can be easy to forget this.

There is endless complexity within tennis’s different aspects — technique, strategy, the inner game. It’s important to remember that at the end of the rainbow, things can get luminously clear, straightforward and simple to execute.

There‘s a term for when you get there. It‘s The Zone.

I suspect that our profoundest sages experience life as a permanent Zone state — as less beneath the endless more, as simple and straightforward beneath everything.

Do you get stuck inside complexity? In what ways can you simplify your tennis game — and your life?

Although I’ve taken a break from focusing on tournaments, I continue to work hard at improving my technique. Yesterday I identified a sort of trick — not quite the right word, more like a piece of mental sleight-of-hand — that helped immediately.

I made a conscious effort not to watch the ball.

That’s right — I made a conscious effort not to watch the ball.

I know this sounds certifiable, so let me hasten to add: This does not mean what you think it means.

To explain: When I hit a shot, I am hoping, even as I hit it, that it will be successful, and so I track the ball from the moment it leaves the racket. I see the ball make contact and then I follow the ball with my eyes as it heads toward and hopefully over the net.Perennially hopeful, perennially fearful — that’s who I am even when I’m swinging. And I suspect it’s you as well.

Hitting and witnessing are two distinct activities, yet I glob them together when I swing. My basic error lies in this: I look to the future while I’m executing in the present.

When I tease the two activities apart, I do better immediately:

  • As I’m preparing to serve, if I tell myself, “Make a point of not seeing the ball for a moment — don’t pick up its trajectory until you’ve finished your swing and it’s well on the way toward the net” — the actual arc and direction is invariably closer to what I was visualizing than if I ‘cheat’ and track the ball from the moment it leaves the racket. My head and neck stay stable — I don’t get rushed and herky-jerky.
  • Similarly on my groundstrokes When I finish my swing and only then look to see how I’m doing, I’m creating a container that doesn’t leak — and that helps me perform better.
    Postponing the future until it’s actually arrived makes me more technically solid — and isn’t a well-behaved tennis ball a beautiful thing?

Here’s what I’ll be telling myself every time I go out on the tennis court for the next few sessions: Let the present be the present and the future be the future. Let one frame finish before the next one begins. Of course I want to know how the movie comes out! But it’s not like the future is going anywhere. It’ll show up soon enough.

Does the future intrude on the present in ways that undermine your tennis game? How about in the rest of your life?

After I lost my quarter-final match at the New England Slam a couple of weeks ago, I headed off to a nearby cafe and treated myself to a modest repast of two pecan squares, a piece of raspberry-crumble coffee cake, and an iced latte with no restrictions on the sugar other than its being Sugar in the Raw, a bow to virtue that was basically my little bargain with the god of diabetes.

Yum, yum, yum, this little piggy said, as he drove all the way home …

I didn’t — and don’t — feel an ounce of guilt about what I did. I enjoyed those treats, I knew my self-indulgence wouldn’t last beyond those brief stinging hours post-defeat — and, most importantly of all, I felt as if I’d earned all those yummy calories.

Now that a couple of weeks have passed, I’ve come to see that those pecan squares and that raspberry-crumble cake were talking to me. “You may not have admitted it to yourself,” they were saying, “but for the last two weeks or so, you were building your life around this tournament. You were trying to peak your game — you were keeping an eagle eye on your diet — the tournament was the center of your life. And now, my friend, it’s over. It’s time to celebrate and move on!”

With that dive into self-indulgence, I was honoring the fact that I’d been really intent on doing myself proud at the tournament. I’d been soft-pedaling that reality to myself, but beneath the superficial ‘Aw shucks, it’s just a l’il ol’ supersenior tournament’ attitude I’d adopted, I was taking the event very seriously.

I’d fallen short of my goal, but that wasn’t why I went hog-wild. I did it because I’d been much more invested in success than I was letting on to myself. “Carl,” all those sweet things were telling me, “you’re not the cool cat you pretend to be.”

I’ve been watching the Netflix series Break Point about world-class tennis players. They don’t pretend to be cool — they want to win, they want to be the best, and they want it badly. They are, in this sense, out of the closet. Not infrequently, they leave the court weeping when they lose.

I wouldn’t let myself do that. It doesn’t seem seemly. The competitions are too small-time for that — and besides that, I think of myself as a philosopher, and philosophers should transcend, right? Right??? But Mr. Pecan Square and Ms. Raspberry-Crumble Coffee Cake were telling me something different. They were telling me, “You really, really wanted it, pal.”

And they were also telling me: “And now, my friend, you are free.”

Do you play it cool? Do you really own and embrace your desires? How willing are you to want something passionately, knowing that failure, despite what the gurus tell you, actually is an option?

A core psychological issue keeps me from being my most uninhibited self on the tennis court. It revolves around fear of rejection by the group. It’s a deep and ancient issue for me — call it my personal demon.

If I could excise it — or, since we’re talking demons, exorcise it — that would open me to being all I can be on the tennis court. And that, for me, would be a beautiful thing.

But how to do it? How to exorcise the beast? And then I came up with an answer — and it was, of all things, a tennis answer. I resolved to visualize the tennis ball coming at me as the demon racing toward me with a ferocious face and its hair on fire.

Today, I gave it a try — and it worked!


Read more