My friend John Tashiro, a wonderful tennis player who trained seriously as a junior, told me a story about his Japanese coach that has stayed with me. The guy had him do drills until he was totally exhausted — and then made him keep going. At some point, he told John, “I want you to be smiling throughout this.”

He wasn’t a sadist — he was a teacher. For one thing, when you act like you’re fine, it boosts you energetically. ‘Fake it till you make it’ has some truth in it. For another, it gives you a psychological edge over your opponent. “Geez, I’ve had the guy on a string for three hours and he’s still smiling?”

I was reminded of the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh who recommended consciously turning the corners of your lips into a smile. “It makes you happier,” he said, or something along those lines. “It gives you a more positive attitude.”

There’s science behind this as well as spirituality. From the website “Smiling stimulates our brain’s reward mechanisms in a way that even chocolate, a well-regarded pleasure-inducer, cannot match.”

Let a smile be your umbrella! And also your competitive advantage.

Do you wear a smile on the tennis court? Do you do it as a matter of principle, as a matter of commitment? Would you consider trying it? Do you think it might work off-court as well?

As more than one tennis great has noted, the game is played one point at a time. It’s a house that’s built stick by stick, stud by stud, nail by nail. And yet we all have an impulse — a compulsion, really — to come up with overarching narratives that tell us along the way how we’re doing and how the story will come out. Why a ‘compulsion?’ Because this is what we humans do — we make meaning — we script stories. It’s in our nature to be split — we’re both the performer in the arena and the color commentator high up in the peanut gallery.

These narratives can be congratulatory, critical or a combination of the two. “Damn, I’m good today!” can get in the way as much as “I can’t do anything right today.” Down one way lies showing off, phoning it in, and a host of other maladies — down the other path lies hopelessness and phoning it in, so to speak, from the other side of the fence.

Stories can be about performance (“I suck!”) and they can also be predictive (“There’s no way I can win!”). Both types of story undercut our ability to play our best. Whatever the particulars, our challenge is to climb down from the seats and be all-in on the action, down on the competitive floor. This is immensely difficult to do. Even the best players lose hope and faith — it’s only natural for a person’s spirit to be broken when they’re on the wrong side of a beatdown. But the challenge goes deeper than that. Our storytelling brains refuse to turn off — it’s got a job to do and it’s such a conscientious employee that it insists on doing so even while we sleep.

Story-cide isn’t the solution here. You can’t kill stories that don’t serve you — they’re like vampires — they refuse to die. The trick, instead, is to build a better story that doesn’t get in our way as much — or, even better, works in our favor — and to replace that bad boy with the more useful new one.

The process starts, of course, with noting that you’re imprisoned by a story. There’s no getting out of jail if you don’t notice that you’re in one.

From that moment on, the solution is tactical. Problematic stories emerge from an upmountain view in this sense: They stitch together performance over time. It takes a handful of bad shots (or a sequence of good shots by the opponent) for a person to get down on themself. The answer? Well, imagine a TV game show: “Hey, Competitor! Yeah, you! C’mon down from the peanut gallery!”
In other words: Create a new story that has at its heart this one message: Play it one point at a time.

I did this during a recent tournament match, and while it didn’t get me a win, it did a great job of helping me focus better. Here’s the instruction I gave myself before I went out onto the court: “Before every point begins, tell yourself this: Here is another opportunity to pursue excellence.”

This self-talk helped in multiple ways:

  • It neutralized any past poor play. It closed the door on how I’d done till then and launched me on a new beginning.
  • It focused me on the Now — on the next shot, the next point, the next moment.
  • It got me steering toward the light — every moment became a clearing in which I might achieve peak performance … excellence!
  • It fundamentally transformed the nature of the match experience. Instead of “you gotta win!,” it became, “You’re getting a hundred or more opportunities to achieve excellence!”

Remembering to replace a bad story with a better one is a very practical-psychology approach to subduing counter-productive narratives. There are other other ways to work on the problem, for instance, like depth psychology, which can translate into years of therapy. If you’re not inclined in that direction, the notion of mental rewrites on the fly provides a viable alternative: Tell yourself stories that drag you down from the peanut gallery and fully into the next point.

You could even say that that’s the point of tennis points — to immerse you in the here-and-now.

When you compete — hell, when you live! — do you get stuck inside stories that don’t serve you? How do you manage those voices in your head?

As I’ve written these daily meditations about tennis as a wisdom practice, it’s started to dawn on me that there’s something programmatic in all this — a curriculum. If someone — like, say, me — were to teach this material, what would it look like?

This isn’t just a theoretical question. I’m seriously considering taking up my racket (or my Zoom account) and teaching people how to integrate my meditation material into their game and their lives.

Let’s start with what to call it. This isn’t only a curriculum, after all. It could also be a book. The title is clear to me: Tennis as a Secular Martial Art.

Why does this title work so well? For two reasons, I think:

  1. As I understand it (and I’m no black belt!), the study of martial arts unfolds in an atmosphere of stillness. The quality of attention is emphasized, and it is this that ultimately determines a student’s progress. Dojos have a sacred quality because they all have a sign written on their walls in invisible ink: “You have to be present to win.” In The Inner Game of Tennis, Timothy Gallwey discovered what in hindsight is blaringly obvious: Tennis has an inner dimension. Conceived as a curriculum, Tennis as a Secular Martial Art takes this notion to a much more finely-hewn level of nuance.
  2. Martial arts is all about the form. You work on the form, you work on the form, you work on the form. Combat is at the far end of the journey if you ever get there at all. If you’re a practitioner of tai chi, all you work on is the form — it’s all about attention and awareness. After years of working on my tennis game, I’ve come to realize that my greatest joy comes not from competing but from doing my best to evolve my form. I’m trying to practice tennis tai chi inside a secular culture where the primary focus is on getting good enough to win matches. I believe one can achieve just as much ‘success’ by focusing on tennis as a form and then by bringing to competitive situations the skills developed in that practice such as technical acuity, mental clarity, and controlled attention.

In a very real if less than literal sense, Tennis as a Secular Martial Art takes our usual approach to tennis and turns it on its head.

In future meditations, I’ll drill down on what a Tennis as a Secular Martial Art curriculum might look like. For now, I’ll note that I’m currently envisioning four tracks:

  • Attention. This part would be technical and include ‘games’ like ‘Contact Point’ (noting where on the strings the racket meets the ball) and ‘Rhythm Method’ (dancing with the opponent, dancing to the ball).
  • Emotions. This track would focus on training our emotional responses so they work in our favor and not against us. We’d work on developing what I’ve come to think of as “pragmatic positivity.”
  • Narratives. We all translate our experiences into stories — it’s how our brains are wired. Narratives aren’t true — they’re subjective, by definition. The question thus arises: How can we rewrite them to our advantage? This is what this track would focus on.
  • Achieving Flow (Accessing the Zone). Ultimately, tennis is a means to an end — bringing more joy and happiness into your life. Underneath the companionship, ball-striking and the rest, something else is at work when you’re on the tennis court — you’re getting into flow, a mental/psychological peak-performance (and peak-happiness) state that’s created by the right combination of attention, attitude and neurochemicals. This track would teach people how to make that happen both on the court and off it.

Based on sheer numbers and probabilities, someone is probably already taking this approach to teaching tennis. I don’t know of anyone, though. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but at the risk of sounding (and being) grandiose, this seems like a new paradigm to me.

Does approaching tennis as a secular martial art appeal to you? Would you have any interest in online Zoom groups where people pursued this approach in community?