Fuzzy Green Balls
Lately, I've had a hankering to play tennis again. It's been two years. Before that, I played a handful of times over a few years. Before that, I had taken a six-year hiatus dating back to my junior year in college. And before that, I played five to seven times a week from my 15th birthday through the season of my sophomore year in college. I wasn't great–a late-bloomer who hadn't had a lesson until my freshman year in high school–but I learned quickly. I had to in order to compete with the better players on the junior circuit, most of which had taken lessons since elementary school, if not earlier.
In my learning process, there were two things I did that helped me excel and make up for some of my "lost" time. First, I did a lot of visualization. When I showed up to tryouts my freshman year, I had a raw, flat serve. It was adequate, but gave me neither the power nor control I would need. My coach took me aside, had me rotate the grip, and then told me to "brush up the back of the ball" when I serve. He showed me what he intended and I had watched enough professional tennis to know what he meant. I visualized it. Thwack! My first attempt sent the ball flying over the back fence. Thud! Another one off the frame. And again. I think it scared my teammates, not to mention the birds. I visualized the result and kept trying. It didn't take more than a dozen attempts before I caught the ball just right. The serve didn't go in, but there was a feeling of control that sizzled in my mind because I knew I had found that sweet, tiny window of success. From there, I'd be able to dictate more effectively–giving myself the best possible start to each point and winning some free ones. I had everything I needed. Almost.
The second thing I did was surgically implant a magical device in my...okay, it wasn't. The second thing I did was practice. A lot. More than I've practiced at anything else in my life. I hit hundreds of balls every day–serves, volleys, groundstrokes, low slices, flatter winners, angled, dipping top-spin shots, drop shots, lobs, and often in combination, again and again, until it was dark or something else required me to leave.
Practice is hard work. It's regular, repetitive, and time-consuming. Tennis is no exception, but there were some immediate benefits that made the physical and (mostly) mental strain tolerable. The release of crushing a forehand winner. The satisfaction of carving the perfect wide serve. Surviving a lengthy rally with your coach who is more experienced and patient.
I wish everything I've undertaken in life was as easy to practice for as tennis. That's the challenge. Whether it's writing, switching professions, or learning a new skill, it's one thing to visualize the end-product, but it takes practice to actually get there. We might not get that "crushing forehand" feeling to encourage us along the way, but we can try to find satisfaction in the little victories–say, in blogging every day for a week en route to a life-long writing habit, a published book, a purchased screenplay, or something in between.