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Archive for March, 2012

How To Create Better Performance In Sport And Life

Here is a secret I read about that is allowing me to execute new techniques in tennis that are improving my game. More importantly, this same strategy might also be applicable to all other aspects of our lives.

You know I am always attempting to improve my athletic performance, especially in tennis, but also squash, ping pong, skiing, shooting, hunting, archery, etc. etc. No matter how hard I try, it is incredibly difficult for me. But also for some professionals and strong amateurs.

As I watch tennis tournaments, I see certain pros making the same weak shots over and over, even if they are not winning consistently by using those shots. Roddick does his slow slice backhand. Schiavone does her slice shots on both sides. Llodra still plays serve and volley (and gets passed constantly). And I hear the announcers—often former pros themselves—saying that it’s almost impossible to change your style, your habits, even if they don’t lead to points and victory.

By the way, I see this among adults, when it comes to their careers. Even when some actions do not lead to success or positive results, they stick to what is familiar and hope that the outcomes will be different. It may be basic human nature that serious change can only be altered by a trauma or life-threatening or economic-survival confrontations.

I recently wrote about college squash players who see a new kind of shot (from overseas) that makes many easy points, but they are unable to incorporate those shots into their games. And three college squash coaches confirmed how hard or impossible it is for their team members to adopt those new shots and use them in their games.

This week I spoke to a prep school tennis coach who said his kids were great on ground strokes, but were incredibly resistant to practicing overheads, serves and net volleys. They stay with what they do well, practicing ground strokes for hours, even though they are are just young teenagers still in high school. Already too “old” to change? The coach can barely convince his students to practice the other parts of their game.

Now I am a much older guy (I will be 71 this week) who has only been playing tennis as an adult for five years. I read, take lessons, watch videos and TV and attempt as much as possible to improve my game. I have come to accept that in spite of my new knowledge or instruction, I often can’t implement the new advice or technique.

Some challenges are remarkably easy in concept: watch the ball when you serve. The least pressured shot in the game, I think. I am totally in control, no running required, no angles or spins to return. And yet I just haven’t been able to consistently prevent my brain and head from looking over the net at my opponent’s court BEFORE I HIT THE BALL to see where it is going. So frustrating!!!

I have told myself to “watch the ball.” I read a book that told me to “watch the seams.” I recently attempted to “Look for the brand” (the printed name of the manufacturer). Sometimes I can execute one of these three necessary instructions. But not most of the time. I see those slo-mo videos of Federer and others staring at the ball until it’s left the racket long ago. I strive to enter their skin, brain and body. I scream at myself to imitate the video. But I can’t. All I can do is laugh at my bad habit.

Then I read somewhere that it almost impossible to modify an existing, ingrained habit. That is why it is so important to learn skills correctly at a very young age. That is why so many tennis and other sports stars were taught the ideal way to play their games, when they were 5-10 years old! Start later than that with bad habits, and it almost impossible to break them, modify them, get rid of them. The neural circuits are too embedded.

So what do you do? Here is the simple answer: create brand new habits. Don’t even try to modify the old bad ones. Force your brain and muscle memory to make a new circuit, a brand new way of doing the old trick. In my next post, I will describe what happened last week?

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Ultrarunning Pioneer Micah True Has Disappeared

Micah True is known as Caballo Blanco (White Horse)

As I wrote earlier, I recently read the book Born to Run, and one of the main characters in author Christopher McDougall’s tale is Caballo Blanco, whose real name is Micah True. Two months after I first read about him, he is missing. I feel sad that this new “acquaintance” may not be running ever again.

Search teams intensified efforts Saturday to find renowned long-distance runner Micah True, who mysteriously vanished four days ago after heading out from a lodge for a morning run in the rugged wilderness near New Mexico’s Gila National Forest.

The 58-year-old True, whose extreme-distance running prowess is detailed in the book “Born to Run,” set out on what — for him — would have been a routine 12-mile run Tuesday from The Wilderness Lodge and Hot Springs, where he was staying. True, who left his dog behind at the lodge, never returned. A search began the next day.

Micah True often runs barefoot, like some Mexican Indians—notice his modest shoes

Lodge co-owner Dean Bruemmer, who helped with the search Saturday, said he last saw his friend at breakfast. He said True gave no indication of a specific route.

“That’s been part of the big problem with this. He didn’t really say where he was going from here. There are a lot of trailheads up the road. We don’t know which one he took,” said Bruemmer, whose lodge is situated about four miles from the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.

Though daytime temperatures in southwest New Mexico have been mild of late, temperatures have dipped into the mid-20s on recent nights. True was last seen wearing only shorts and a T-shirt and carrying a water bottle.

Fourteen search teams that were scouring the area Friday were supplemented with additional volunteer teams from across the state Saturday morning, state police spokesman Lt. Robert McDonald said. Teams were on horseback, using dogs and a helicopter and search plane were being used.

Still, as the days pass, the chances of a successful rescue diminish.

“We’re going to do everything possible to cover as much ground as possible, but it’s already been four days,” McDonald said. “By no means are we going to give up, but time is of the essence as always in a search and rescue effort.”

True, who has been friends with Bruemmer and his wife, Jane, for 10 years, would often visit their lodge while traveling between Mexico and his Boulder, Colo. home. As a result, Bruemmer said, True certainly knew the trail system well — which makes his disappearance all the more mystifying to everyone.

“I find it hard to believe that he’s lost. I think that something happened, some kind of medical thing or an injury or who knows. Micah is a very strong, competent guy. I can’t believe … if he got turned around, by now he would have come out,” Bruemmer said.

Michael Sandrock, a columnist who writes about running for The Daily Camera newspaper in Boulder, has known True for at least 20 years and has run with him. He called True a pioneer of the sport of ultrarunning, which involves running extreme distances, often on grueling terrain and many miles longer than a traditional 26-mile marathon.

True, he said, has a rebellious spirit but never sought to draw attention to himself even as he became legendary for his talents, which included “just going up and running for hours and hours at a time.”

“He’s just authentic and genuine … Micah is a guy who follows his bliss,” Sandrock said.

True is the race director of The Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, a 50-plus mile extreme race that took place in Urique, Mexico on March 4. He has been featured in articles in running magazines and was a central character — known by his nickname, “Caballo Blanco” — in Christopher McDougall’s nonfiction best-seller “Born to Run.”

“He’s such an integral part of the fabric of the ultra community,” Sandrock said. “He’s one of the stars …. the Caballo Blanco, he’s a legend.”

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Life After College Squash

Here is an article I wrote that was published online today at dailysquashreport.com . I sure do love this game. The photo by Michael T. Bello was taken during the finals of this year’s national individuals. Can you find me in the crowd? I wrote about the winner (on left) in an earlier post .

final match to determine who is champion—3/4/2012

Watching the top college male squash players compete defies any concept you had of what athletes can do. It makes all other sports look like they are in slow motion. You cannot believe these guys can move so fast, volley so instantly, and hit a ball with a racquet so precisely. It is an amazing game. I have been watching it for just six years. And what these young men do is often spectacular.

But in spite of their hours and years of practice–some started playing when they were six–their devotion and love of the game, their skill and excellence, their heart, courage and unfathomable drive to win, it is all largely unappreciated in the United States. Anyone can attend a game for free and usually find a seat. You can sit next to the players who are watching their teammates. You can listen to the coaches give players counsel between games, and you can enjoy an intimacy with the sport that is just not possible when you are one of thousands of fans 30 rows up at a more popular sporting event like football, hockey, basketball, tennis or baseball.

If we are drawn to the other sports because we played them as kids, or can watch them on TV or at local venues, it still doesn’t explain to me the sparse crowds and why I became addicted. Sometimes there are just 20 non-player spectators at a match, and most are parents. At major rivalries and national competitions, there may be 200. At one national singles championship, the semi-finals match may have been watched by 30 of us, the finals by 70…and these numbers include players and coaches who are screaming for those from their schools. We are a special crowd of enthusiasts. Probably a bit eccentric. But all of us love the game and its surprises, the sweat and endurance, the athleticism and cheering, the tension, suspense and anxiety.

Although there is a pro-league to graduate to, almost none of the top college athletes can make it. The level of professional play is just too high, and the pros are practicing six hours a day, not two. The kids participate at school for the thrill and satisfaction of competing and excelling, learning to be part of a team or training for the rigors of adulthood.

And then it is over. After years of striving and fighting, practicing, camaraderie, discipline and defeat, admiration and adulation…it is finished. They leave school and sometimes, these days, they have a job. Often they don’t have any plans. They are facing the emptiness of a sour economy. They are hoping one of the 60 or so resumes leads to an interview. If they are from overseas, they have only a year to find employment and sponsorship. And if they do not, some will go back to India, Mexico or Egypt.

When the matches are over, and the winners decided, I am thrilled for the victors. But I am also sad for the frustration and disappointment of those defeated. They have given so much to be the best. And yet it was just not possible at this time. There was a poignant moment for me at this year’s individual semi-finals, when I saw 20 people crowding around the winner of a close five-game match, and the loser—whom I know—was a few seats away, sweating, exhausted and totally alone. I was glad to be there and console him as best I could.

Either way, for victors and runners-up, what do you imagine it is like to be among the best in the nation in your sport, and then to be done with it? To never again achieve that level of athletic excellence. I have been at many seniors’ last college match of their lives. I doubt the impact of that finality had really hit them. They tell me they are looking forward to the new life, without pressure and practice and the huge responsibility of playing for their team and their coach’s respect. They have been living for up to four years with the weight of that commitment. We all need to take vacations. But the end of the line is much more than an interval. It is a life junction. It is a new path. It is a beginning that leaves behind the brief and limited fame and familiarity. Maybe it equals the letdown of the empty nested mother whose kids have moved out and on for good.

I see the brightness in their eyes, their smooth and healthy skin, their wide, white smiles and the innocence of their demeanors. I know men from my high school days who five decades later still thrive mainly in those years long ago, regarding them as the best in their lives—when they caught touchdown passes, made winning baskets on the court, were ecstatic from the roar of the crowd.

I hope today’s young squash players do not pick their pasts over the present as the place to spend their futures. But the joy of their achievements is a peak period in all our lives that those who watched and created can remember forever.

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A Fourth Grader’s First Big Ski Jump

I heard about this viral video on the radio. What I thought I heard is that 9-year-old, 4th grader Zia, whose mother ski jumped 20 years ago has guided her daughter in the past to jump off of a 20-meter platform. Now the girl is taking on the next higher challenge, a 40-meter ski jump. She has a web cam on her helmet and is pretty scared before she goes, then decides it is just “a bigger 20.”

What an inspiration. And this was “so fun.”

I haven’t been able to confirm that this is her first 40-meter jump. All the stories describe this as Zia’s first ever ski jump. I will keep browsing…

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Injured, Panicked, Ashamed

This is a true confession. Last week I was walking towards the squash court for the fourth day in a row—two of them after 2+ hours of tennis—and my left knee started clicking or popping. No pain, just sounds. I hit squash balls that day and the next, but still just tightness. I have no recollection of any twisting or sudden jarring that would have done ANYTHING.

I spoke to a doctor who said I was describing bone to bone rubbing, a lack of fluid, and advised me to take glucosamine, which is over the counter. He said it could be the onset of arthritis, didn’t sound like a tear. I looked up some quad exercises that might help.

The clicking was intermittent, and over the next few days there was some serious soreness.

So I started worrying A LOT that maybe my super workout, 2-4 hour sports days might end. Maybe I had Lyme disease. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to play tennis into my nineties, or even my eighties. Damn! Just when I was improving. Could I have arthritis, a torn knee?

I’ve spoken to friends going crazy about not being able to exercise for weeks after leg breaks from skiing. I’ve talked to people who have had clicking joints for years and just took it and the pain in stride (“I don’t even feel it any more. I could never be a ninja and sneak up silently on anyone.”) Others tell me that they are always in pain from sports exertions and injuries. And I hear countless stories at the tennis club about players of all ages who have given up the game, because the risk of serious disability is too great for their hurting knees and shoulders.

Then I spoke to friends who have—or told me—about illnesses that are so serious that they might die. The fear and reality these people live with each day sounds terrible. They go to hospitals and see doctors weekly or monthly. I can’t imagine what that is like, even though I have spent months in a hospital recovering from hepatitis and jaundice in Korea, was flown back to the States on a stretcher, and took weeks of recuperation, before I could walk one block.

So now I feel great shame that I am upset over not playing tennis another 5-15 years. Of course Life is NOT fair. And we have to play with the cards that it dealt us. Some are poor, like bad genes. Others are crappy, like accidents that no one ever thought about or were one in a thousand or one in a million chances we would be hurt. Wrong place wrong time. Or OK place, but still wrong time.

How can I moan about it? But everything is relative.

I knew someone who was making over a million dollars a year many decades ago. I was making less than $35,000 then. Yet he was hanging around with tycoons acquiring over $50 million a year. He felt poor. He was frustrated. He felt inadequate.

A friend told me about an acquaintance who had inherited $600 million, but was depressed in 2009, when his fortune declined by a third. So he only had $400 million to his name. Laughable to me. Misery to the rich guy.

How do we resolve these attitudes? It’s like being caught in two or more worlds. Glad that I can play at all…have the time, don’t have to work every minute, have the health, live near a court. Others are sick, working like animals at my age, or are dead. I should be grateful for any level of play and decent life. Even if I can no longer run safely around the court.

But then there is the other world, where I want to keep going, improve, have the greater satisfaction that comes with prowess, cardio, health, more skill. It’s not enough just to be alive and healthy. I want to push and grow and accomplish. Greedy for more, lusting for continued success.

Maybe it is just built into our DNA. A human survival instinct. As long as we’re alive, it’s not enough to just watch TV on a couch or the ocean from the beach. We need the challenges and reaches, the competition and grasping for achievement. What do you think?

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Great Ping Pong Points From Joe Marshall

I love playing tennis with Joe Marshall, partly because he brings onto the court the spins and slices that he uses on the ping pong table. No one else at our club has his style. Here are Joe’s comments to the previous ping pong posts.

I see you have Marty Reisman interviews posted. I first read about Marty way back….how he hustled people in ping pong by beating them using books or garbage pail covers…..great self promoter….and player.

Like Marty, I enjoy the hard paddle (sandpaper or pips-up paddle) more than the sponge, because of the longer rallies. But i have to say, I do love the sponge game as well. It requires a monstrous amount of concentration in order to read the spins of the opponent, especially if they have different grades of rubber on each side of the paddle.

Back in the 70′s, when the technology allowed for great diversity in the rubber over the latex foam, a Chinese athlete rose to be #2 int he world by using two different kinds of rubber and playing defensively, sending back shots with all kinds of different spins that would handcuff the opponent. He would actually flip the racket in his hand between strokes, so you didn’t know which kind of rubber he was returning with……For this reason, it became mandatory to have the two different colors we see today on the racket (usually red and black)…so the opponent could at least have a fighting chance of reading the different spins…..some rubbers are extremely sticky, and can create a lot of spin (but are difficult to control the other player’s spin with), and other rubbers are “DEAD”, take all the spin off the ball, and just dump it back.

Below are five videos (one is just a link) that show that all modern day rallies are not that short….by the way, it seems like nowadays they have switched from the 2-out-of-3, 21 point game format to the 3-out-of-5, 11 point format….at least on the ESPN shows…..I like it better this new way.

The last point in this next video is something.

and also……

how bout that Zhang Jike?

(Zhang Jike is the reigning World Champion and World Cup winner in singles. Should he win the Olympic gold medal in singles, he will be the fourth male player in the history of table tennis to achieve a career grand slam.)

Above is a long point in a match at a Mohegan Sun tournament. You don’t see many points like this at the highest international levels (I don’t know what level this is).

What makes it interesting is that it is shown form three different perspectives. The third being an angle from above. The third angle shows how the ball leaps off the table in any of three directions due to spin. You have to be able to read that spin, allow for it in your timing of the stroke, and COUNTERACT the spin because it will leap off your paddle in a crazy direction if you don’t! This is what makes the soft paddle game so intriguing.

The instructor I worked with from the USTTA said that you should try to take slam shots no higher than your shoulder….hence the jumping on the slams….for consistency and control.

Every once in a while they do this above……just for fun (in an exhibition game):

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Ping Pong Rhapsody By Sponge/Foam Paddle-Lover Steve Zeitlin

Champion and hustler Marty Reisman prefers hard bat at 82

I found a very thoughtful and descriptive story about Marty Reisman and hardbat vs sponge ping pong written in 2000 by Steve Zeitlin, WNYC’s ping pong correspondent. Here are some excerpts:

“In the world championship today,” Marty says, “the ball goes no more than three times across the net. In the old days, rallies would be 30 or 40 strokes. There was a dialogue between two players that even a child could understand.” The beautiful sound of”kerplock-plock, kerplock-plock” was reduced, according to table tennis writer Howard Jacobson, to “squelch-plock, squelch-plock.”

Steve continues: “I should prefer the old racket. But I love the sponge foam racket. That racket transformed the game from a miniature version of tennis to a far more complex game of finesse, touch, and subtle spins. As player Phil Perelman put it, “to see what Marty can do with that primitive racket is like watching Itzhak Perlman play a concert on a ukelele…”

“You see, Marty, the great shots come from the foam. The foam gave us the flawless chop, or slice. Perfectly executed, it makes no sound. Then there’s the chop slam. A slam is hard to hit back, but trying to hit back a chop slam is like trying to return a balloon with the air rushing out of it…

Ping pong players also talk to each other with their shots. Tuesday nights Stefan Kanfer and I hit backspin to top spin. His backspin reads as topspin on my side of the table. So defensively, a chop can be countered with a chop that negates the topspin. But I relish countering his chop with my loop. The loop starts at the knees and moves up to take the opponent’s spin and double it; when he chops it back, the spin quadruples. It’s as if we’re trading jokes with classic one-upsmanship. Marty would never approve…

Mihaly Csiszentmihalyi once asked why Americans enjoy activities that offer little or no material reward. He concluded that play provides a feeling characterized by an unself-conscious sense of absorption. In the full experience of play, we act within a dynamic that he called flow. “Action follows upon action according to an internal logic that seems to need no conscious intervention by the actor. He experiences it as a unified flowing from one moment to the next.”

Mastering the neurophysiological skills of a sport is not just learning the game. It’s attuning yourself to the inner life of the sport, to the poetry in motion. A player masters the game the way a thief opens a safe: ear to the combination lock, breaking into the inner chambers through the subtleties. Players become part of a community that knows what it feels like when the shot is hit right.

When I’m playing ping pong, I often feel that a particular spot on the other end of the table is in my hands. It’s as if I could stretch my arm seven feet across the table to touch the place where I know the ball will hit. That may be a bit the way Babe Ruth felt, when (according to legend) he pointed to the center-field wall before he hit a home run.”

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Ping Pong Champ Marty Reisman Entertains And Hustles With Hard Paddles

Marty Reisman is one of the last—and definitely the most colorful —of the old ping pong champions still around. At 82, he continues to play aggressively, says he is always learning and improving, and is a helluva character. He is the only American to ever win the British Open, and you can see him doing it in the video above, when he was 19. Notice how different the rally is—using the classic hard paddle of those days—compared to modern, sponge-racket play with more spins, slams and shorter rallies.

On the web site for the company he co-founded, Table Tennis Nation, which sells paddles, tables and is affiliated with ping pong parlors, here is how he modestly describes himself:

“…a legend, a 23-time international and domestic champion, author, world-class hustler, performer, unmistakable colorful character and unarguably the most charismatic player to ever step onto the court.

Marty became mesmerized with the game at the age of 12— the kerplock of the ball across the table, the buzzing vibration of each shot up the wrist, the adrenaline, the drama—and has since devoted his life to the game. He has played (and won) against presidents and princes, CEOs and celebrities, sports stars and socialites, musicians and maharajas. He’s toured as the opening act for the Harlem Globetrotters and played in front of crowds of 75,000. His trademark forehand can clock a staggering 115 mph. He holds the title as the oldest person to ever win a national open title in a racket sport, an achievement he has held since 1997 where at the age of 67 he won the US Hardbat National Championship.”

He also played a lot of games for money and is still hustling kids when he can, according to a recent New York Times article .

Hardbat refers to classic dimpled and sandpaper rackets that were more popular until sponge took over in the 1950′s. Here are excerpts from an article by Scott Gordon of why he prefers hardbat:

“The sponge game uses an explosive, reactive instrument capable of applying such spin as to fly off the opponent’s bat many feet sideways with just a touch. One result is dominance by attacking styles. HardBat, by contrast, is a game in which defense is possible, and therefore used and necessary. It is more balanced in terms of offense and defense, the two essential elements in any sport. This yin/yang is missing in the sponge game. ”

(In this next video, you can really see how much longer and simpler the hardbat rallies can be, especially the 30-second rally beginning at 2:09.)

“With a hardbat, the player feels the shock of the ball hitting the wood, the energy transmitted directly to the hand. When a player cracks a solid slam, it is through the force of his/her swing, and nothing else. The power is unaided by any catapulting effect; all action by the player produces an equal/opposite reaction on the ball and a commensurate “whack” sound from the wood.

“Although it is more difficult to apply spin in hardbat, it is easier to “read” the spin applied by the opponent. One can generally tell what spin has been placed on the ball because the opponent would have had to use a full stroke to apply the spin. By contrast, in the modern (sponge) game, spin can be applied by very slight movements, or may be affected by differences in the rubber surfaces…sometimes even two different surfaces on the same bat. Since it is easier to read the hardbat spin, it is easier to keep the ball in play and rallies are usually longer. Mystery and deception are reduced.

“In the sponge game, you are always one loop-kill away from losing the point. There is little room for too much variety, too much personal style, too much relaxation. Death is always at hand. In the HardBat game, there are many ways to play successfully, and with greater chances to return the ball. Styles that would face instant death in the sponge world can survive in the hardbat world.”

Here Marty gives some tips on playing ping pong and demonstrates behind the back returns:

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Avoid Wars By Playing Ping Pong Instead

Obama and Cameron play ping pong—5/2011

I have heard recently that ping pong is the largest organized sport in the world, enjoyed by 300 million people. China alone has 100 million of them, and the sport is played in 200 countries. Maybe the world’s leaders should have ping pong matches instead of wars to solve sticky issues.

Prime Minister David Cameron of England is in the States enjoying a state dinner tonight with President Obama. So it seems the right moment to post these two photos taken in London last year.

Go Barack! Slam, slam slam—5/2011

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Mr. Table Tennis Moves To Ping Pong Heaven

Champion Sol Schiff in his prime in the 30's

A former world ping pong champion named Sol Schiff, but known as Mr. Table Tennis, died three weeks ago at 94. He won the US men’s singles championship at 16 and then the world’s singles title in 1937, and the doubles title in 1938.

Schiff beat back opponents with a ripping, no-spin forehand. “When he hit the ball, you could hardly tell the difference between the time it came off his racket and hit the other side of the table,” said Dean Johnson, who played with Schiff in exhibition matches in the 1950s and ’60s. “It was like one sound, unreturnable.”

Titles notwithstanding, Schiff could not earn a living playing the game. He started a business distributing table tennis equipment throughout the East Coast. He also stayed active in promoting the sport, leading to his election as president of the USATT in 1976. During his 10 years as president, table tennis becomes eligible to be in the Olympics.

It saddens me that an athlete can be the best in the world and not earn any money from this skill. Am I getting too commercial and crude? I remember Bobby Riggs had the same complaint in tennis that there was no money in it, when he was young, and now champions make millions routinely. I wonder if this is still true for ping pong. It still is for squash. No TV rights to sell, no bucks to the best.

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How To Dress When You Play Ping Pong

Champion ping pong player Marty Reisman has style that should not be missed…he always wears a hat, even when competing…and he has also won 23 national and international titles, including being the only American to ever win the English Open. Maybe clothes help make the man a champ.

pink shirt, blue paddle, orange ball, white hat—classy athlete

love those pants, Marty

Marty Reisman portrait—check out those kicks

cool and colorful

man in black

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Push Ups As Punishment?

Maybe more parents, teachers or bosses should make their kids/students/employees do physical exercise every time they make a mistake or get a poor grade. That would be a big disincentive, but it would also result in a fitter society. Too severe? I guess so. So read this news report:

Abercrombie & Fitch may have another scandal on its hands. Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera has obtained internal emails from the preppy retailer’s Milan outpost that expose some rather draconian store policies—namely, punishing employees with push-ups and squats.

The Daily Telegraph has translated portions of the original article, which highlights an email sent last April in which the head of the store’s Loss Prevention department wrote:

“Now every time we make a mistake [...] we will do ten push-ups. Squats for women. This will bring about a great result: we will learn more from our mistakes.”

A former employee, who preferred to speak anonymously, confirmed to Corriere della Sera that he did do plenty of push-ups in his time at the Abercrombie in Milan. “That’s how it works there—you take it or leave it,” he said.

Abercrombie & Fitch has responded to this report with the following statement:

“We have conducted an internal investigation into this matter, and it appears that the reference to push-ups and squats was a clearly misguided attempt at team-building by an isolated Loss Prevention manager in one of our Flagship stores. Nevertheless, shortly after the Loss Prevention manager’s supervisor learned of this incident, it was stopped. Upon investigation, we believe that the claims were greatly exaggerated and manufactured by a disgruntled employee. Needless to say, using push-ups or any physical activity for discipline is not A&F policy. It never has been, and it never will be.”

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Federer as William Tell

Joe Marshall sent me this video above of Roger Federer imitating William Tell—both Swiss he points out. Just yesterday I saw a video with a similar trick on the ping pong table by Marty Reisman, also a champion who I will talk about shortly. When you see skill like this, it helps me understand how these top talents can place the ball so accurately.

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How Many Teaspoons Of Sugar In One Can Of Coke?

I recently heard that the average American eats 150 pounds of sugar a year, which is 22 teaspoons of sugar a day. In just one can of coke, there are NINE TEASPOONS OF SUGAR. And sugar is one of the major causes of obesity, which leads to diabetes. In fact more people globally are dying of diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes than from infectious diseases.

There have been quite a few articles and broadcasts recently about how harmful—even poisonous—sugar is for our bodies. I bumped into this article by Mark Bittman this week, and then heard him on the radio being interviewed along with Dr. Robert Lustig, an expert on causes of obesity who has been called the number one enemy of the sugar lobby. Lustig and others just published an article in Nature magazine that the media are picking up on. I can’t link to it, but you can read it by downloading it from this site . It’s titled Nature: the Toxic Truth About Sugar, and it is just above the video.

Anyway there is now talk of sugar being regulated like tobacco, alcohol and drugs. The illness from too much sugar is not only making people obese, it is also costing our societies billions of dollars in hospital and health care treatments. Watch the video above (seen by 3 1/2 million people) for startling facts about how even one-year-olds are being given soft drinks by uninformed parents.

The 15-minute video interview below of Lustig explains in very complex, medical jargon why people gain weight EVEN if they eat less and exercise more. Basically too much insulin promotes further food intake and converts sugar into fat. To reduce insulin, you have to have a low carb diet and one that avoids sugar AND JUICES as much as possible. If you go right to 13:30, you can understand a little of what Lustig is saying.

Here are excerpts from a webMD article :

Some people eat so much sugar that it adds up to half their daily calorie limit for maintaining weight.

A good first step for anyone trying to reduce sugar is to cut back on or cut out sugary drinks.

Models used to regulate alcohol and tobacco could work for sugar, Lustig says.

His suggestions:

* Tax sugary foods. (The soda tax is already being considered, he notes. To work, he says the tax must be hefty, such as a $1 tax on a $1 can of soda.)
* Limit availability. Licensing requirements on vending machines could be stricter.
* Set an age limit for the purchase of sugary drinks and foods.

Reminds me of seat belts, how the government has to help people save themselves from death and illness…otherwise society pays the costs. What do you think?

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Six Ferraris

A friend directed me to this exciting commercial of six Ferraris on different continents. How did they close those streets? Turn up the volume.

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Novak’s Abs Show Well After Win

Novak Djokovic bares his abs after winning the Australian Open—1/29/12

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Sports/Exercise Report for September Through February

Here is a summary of my physical activity for the last six months. I am proudest of doing some kind of daily exercise for 5-15 minutes every day, usually at night. Sometimes I gut out push ups, crunches or lift weights after midnight, even 2 am. And this is in addition to all the sports activities. As of yesterday, it has been 115 consecutive days, an extraordinary and first-time achievement for an undisciplined guy like me.

The longest day of activity was six hours of exhausting hunting on the difficult-to-walk Scottish moors and hills. Next longest was one day in December of continuous tennis for 4 1/4 hours and then driving to a fronton for 3/4 hour of jai alai.

My record for doing major physical activity in a month was 25 days in November 2009. Beginning this past September, I was active the following number of days per month (and I AM counting just push ups or some crunches): 22, 19, 26, 31, 31, 29.

My record number of tennis-playing days is 18 in June 2010. Recent results are: 13, 11, 8, 11, 9, 14.
My record for playing tennis in a month is 42.75 hours. I just did: 30, 24.5, 18, 27.75, 22.5, 36.
I only played squash in January and February: 5 times (5.25 hrs), and 4 (3.5)
I only went skiing in January: 4 times for 7.75 hrs.
In October I went cross-country skiing (1 hr) and shoveled snow (2 hrs).
I went hunting in September, October and December: 1 time (6 hrs), 2 (8), and 1 (2).
I stocked pheasants once in December.
I went skeet shooting once in September.
I went fishing once in September for six hrs.
I completed two huge swimming laps in North America’s largest pool.
I played jai alai twice, in October (1 hr) and December (3/4).
I went to a gym in September and October, one time each month. Also did weights and machines three times in a friend’s home gym in January during a ski trip.
I did exercises at home. Push ups were done as follows: 3 times, 4, 11, 14, 7, 5. When I reached a record of 202 in late January (48 continuous plus 27 sets—mostly 5 each time—over 18 minutes), I pulled back. This was a big improvement from the total of 55 in one session over the previous six months. There is a six-week system for reaching 100 non-stop that I have tackled, but can’t get past the third day of the third week.
Bicycle crunches for abs were done over the six months too: 3, 0, 11, 13, 9, 3. My max in late February was 350 non-stop, but was only able to touch both elbows to both knees 220 times.
I have two recorded abs routines, a DVD and a tape. I did these as follows: 2, 0, 0, 0, 5, 7. These are non-stop, quick-exhausting programs.
I did bent over rows for lats: 0, 0, 2, 4, 6, 4.
I started work on quads for skiing and squash bending by doing squats, lunges and wall sits: 0, 0, 0, 0, 4, 4. My longest wall sit was just 175 seconds, considerably less than the 360 seconds (6 minutes) I reached prior to my ski trip in 2011.
I also just started bent over barbell lifts to build lats: 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 4.

The Difficulty Of Thinking And Acting Outside the Box

Ali Farag (left) and Ramit Tandon in the college finals

You hear it all the time: to be a success in business, you have to think outside the box. Also in America, the squeaky wheel gets the grease…though in Japan the nail that sticks up too high gets hammered down. So some cultures encourage individuality, while others promote conformity and not rocking the boat.

In sport however—and maybe war—it pays to be different, to surprise your opponents, to be able to deceive and do the unexpected. That is why it was so unbelievably thrilling this past three-day weekend at the college squash individual nationals to see the country’s top players competing to be the best, the first, the number one talent. But in addition to the joy of watching outstanding sport, there was an incredible lesson learned that I still can’t digest easily. And it has to do with culture, mentality, and the inhibitions of group behavior.

A happy champion kisses his father, Amr

The first place trophy went to Ali Farag, a Harvard sophomore who grew up playing squash in Egypt. Three of the top five professional players in the world (and 7 of the top 16) are all from Egypt. Even in 2007, the Wall Street Journal was writing about how the Egyptians had “Cornered the Squash Racket.” So Ali grew up in a society that is squash-centric, where some say squash is the first or second most popular sport (along with tennis), and where young players at 15 or 16 are so good they become professionals. In fact Ali won the world Juniors and became the 66th ranked professional, before he transferred to Harvard and can compete as a student. He is only 20.

Watching him play is like art: fluid, deft, surprising, precise. But most impressive is that he has shots that I have hardly ever—or never—seen others use. Granted I am not so experienced in watching, but I have attended dozens of matches involving top college players, and this weekend and two weeks earlier at the team finals, I saw Ali making shots the others don’t even attempt. Shots that win him points, games and matches.

Ali (ctr) with mother, Mona, and best friend Mohamed Abdelmaksoud

I sat next to a college squash coach at one match and heard that Ali is certainly gifted, “and his mind works so fast that he is considering five different shots in the time that others are just planning to use one. He chooses instinctively…It happens so fast that even Ali doesn’t have time to think about it.”

Why don’t the other players just copy Ali’s shots I asked a second college coach? “Because they are used to just doing what they have grown up doing.” That wasn’t very satisfying.

So I asked Ali himself after one match. “Where I grew up, everyone plays like this,” he explained. “I just followed what I saw all around me.”

Why don’t the other players do the shots that you do? I asked him. “I don’t know. Ask them” he advised me.

So I asked a third coach, one I have known for a few years, why don’t Ali’s competitors adapt? They see a new shot, a winning shot, at the beginning of the season. Why don’t they learn how to do it, practice until they do it perfectly themselves? “It’s too late for the seniors,” I was told. “Maybe the juniors can try to integrate some of the shots into their game. But it’s very hard if you haven’t grown up doing it. You can’t easily change your style of playing.”

Well I am crushed. This is too upsetting. You have to adapt in life to survive or succeed. And I am being told that in squash—and maybe other sports…and maybe in other life pursuits—once you learn how to do something, you can’t change easily…or at all? That is terrible. If your career meets a roadblock, is it hopeless to surmount it? That’s not what I was taught. If your profession becomes obsolete, are you supposed to go on welfare? Not what I have been taught. If you play football, and an opposing team comes up with an original play or defense, can’t you learn it? I thought so. If serve and volley tennis strategy was losing in an age of new rackets to base line play, shouldn’t you change your tennis game? I know that is what the newer pros have done. Couldn’t the older guys?

But in squash, three coaches told me it just isn’t so easy…so Ali and others with his skills might just dominate the game for a while. Very exciting to watch. It was like a professional outmaneuvering an amateur in some of the matches. Brilliant. Unexpected. Masterful. He just does his thing, barely breaks a sweat. He is from another world, and the new culture he is visiting can’t respond effectively, so he wins. He never lost a game in the 15 he played in the tournament this weekend. No one won more than 7 points in 12 of those games, and no more than 5 in 9 of those games.

In the final against Ramit Tandon from India of Columbia University, Ali gave up 10 and 8 points the first two games, but just 4 to win the match. Quite a talent. I still think there is a bigger lesson here to be learned about life…

After showing this story above to Ali’s father Amr, he wrote the following comment:

“We read the article and we were both very impressed. We liked the flow of ideas, the very descriptive words and definitely above all the philosophical part linking learning to life in general. However, I might have some explanation. I think it is easier to learn things when we are younger and definitely things we acquire during childhood become part of our system. It is like you sometimes find a kid 6 or 7 years old who can speak 4 different languages because his parents come from different parts of the world and yet live in another country. That would be more difficult for a teenager for example. Yet, I also believe in your words that this should not be an excuse for us to stop learning and always trying to acquire new skills to get us where we want.”

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Peaceful Joys Of Cross Country Skiing

My American friend from Sweden may be one of the cross country skiers in this race

Fifteen thousand skiers start the 88th Vasaloppet cross-country marathon in Mora, Sweden, one of the oldest, longest and biggest ski races in the world.

Photo taken 3/4/2012 by Jonathan Nackstrand

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Practice Does NOT Make Perfect

As I have said many times, you can tell a great deal about a person by how he or she handles the challenges and frustrations of competitive sports. Sport can also teach one a great deal about philosophy and how to live a life. Well here are some examples of why sport and life are so frustrating.

I wrote earlier that after watching a weekend of college squash (the team nationals), I wanted to upgrade my game. But too few contests and too little practice made me unable to return serves well or at all. I lose half my points or more by not returning the serve.

So I asked Bjorn Runquist, a squash coach at nearby Kent School, to hit me a few hundred serves. Practice Makes Perfect. Right? Wrong! Prior to the lesson, I imagined I would just hit ball after ball and improve my eye-hand coordination. Build up muscle memory and confidence. But after less than 10 returns, things changed. My expectations were not to be realized. I had new frustrations, because Bjorn told me I was stroking the ball incorrectly. I was following through like a tennis player. And that is partly why I either couldn’t hit the ball or returned it so weakly that my opponent won a simple point. So the coach made me practice the back hand stroke instead. Along the rail (wall), cross court, deep into the other side. And then came his startling insight: “Practice does NOT make you perfect. PERFECT practice is what makes you perfect.”

It’s about time I discovered the difference. Even though I have only been playing squash infrequently over 2 1/2 years, I have been watching hours of it live by following some of the best college players in America. But I never noticed the correct back hand swing, and that poor technique has been dooming my returns. Maybe this week I can go to the nearby court and practice “perfectly” to become a better player.

This frustration on the squash court reminds me of a madness on the tennis court. Originally I was taught by a coach who fed me 60-75 balls one after another out of a wire basket. I’d seen other coaches with supermarket baskets full of balls. My second coach used just three! After I’d hit one ball, he’d come forward and talk to me about my shot. He’d ask what I thought about it, how it felt, if I noticed that I did anything incorrectly or why I did what I did? Then he’d feed me another ball…and we’d talk about that shot. After the third ball, he and I would go pick up the three balls. I wanted to practice swings by the thousands. This coach would drive me crazy (at first) with the frustrating talk and minimal hits.

But like the squash coach last week, this tennis pro also believed that practicing the wrong swing over and over was not beneficial. In fact it was totally detrimental to build incorrect muscle memory. It took me a long time to accept this unconventional approach to teaching tennis…or any physical skill. But I became calm…eventually…after incredible lessons of how to deal with expectations, frustration and relaxing on the court, like a Zen Buddhist monk. Can you see my virtual robes? I have to avoid tripping over them. I also had to learn how to become more aggressive—a killer in fact—so that I could win more of my games.

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