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?