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?

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