On March 31, I wrote about the difficulty of changing bad habits. And how I read that it is better to create a totally new habit, which leads to new neural paths and doesn’t demand the near impossible re-routing of an existing muscle-memory routine.
So it was perfect that after months of frustration, during which I saw that my serve and ground strokes were not as powerful as many of the men I was playing with, I was prepared to give up what I had been doing and try something—ANYTHING—new. Here is how I learned about, and have begun using, a totally different way to play tennis that is working beyond my wildest dreams.
Rob Ober, a top tennis coach I know at the Kent School in Kent CT, asked me for the first time if I wanted to hit with him, to help him get back in shape for the beginning of his season. I said yes enthusiastically.
(I have known Rob for six years, when he coached my daughter on the varsity team. But when I asked him to give me lessons, he directed me to his #1 player. However he is now giving lessons and can be reached via email: email@example.com.)
We stopped after an hour, and Rob made some comments about my swings and stance: “You should keep your feet planted and use an open stance. Your chest should face the net on a forehand. You do pivot 90 degrees on a backhand, but bring the racket head back quicker by holding the throat of the racket with your left hand. And when your ball goes into the net, you know you are lurching forward, which is a mistake.”
Aha! I thought. I had originally learned the classic way to hit, by turning my body perpendicular to the net and raising my racket before swinging. I had no effective backhand. Then I was introduced by Frank Adams (a coach for 50 years) to a very unconventional way to swing that had me turning slightly away from the net and dropping the racket. There was no need to bend my knees, and that style gave me such an improved backhand, that I embraced it immediately. But I saw after a couple of years that both of my swings lacked power. Frank can execute it, but I didn’t generate the power he and others with more conventional swings did.
Now here is Rob, a top coach who roomed with Andre Agassi at Nick Bollittieri’s Florida Tennis Academy, offering me a third method. I jumped on it.
What a joke. The first time I tried it with a better player who always beats me, I won just ONE GAME in three sets. Usually I win two or three, and sometimes four in ONE set. But none? Or just one? Over 60% of my strokes went long. Terrible!!! This fellow told me that keeping my feet planted was a mistake. Maybe I missed one of Rob’s vital points.
I watched the pros on TV and saw that they pivoted their feet after the swing, so I tried that the next time, and had a better result. But still not great. Then I was playing at the school, and Rob came in with his students, and I barely had time to tell him the results. He said I had to also bend my knees and rise up, just like a basketball toss, so that I can transfer my weight into the ball. And keep the face of the racket facing the net—never the frame pointing at the other side—so that a top spin will be created.
The next day I tried that in a strong game in which I am one of the weaker players, and by god, I was a new man. I hit a much more powerful ball, it went in more than out, it had spin. I was ecstatic.
It turned out to be much easier to learn a completely new way to hit the ball than to keep on trying to slightly change the old way. I was creating new circuits and new muscle memories. Rob also told me to look at the ceiling after I served, rather than watch the ball or the seams. Finally I learned that when I bend my knees on the serve, I should be bending DOWN for more power and not leaning back on just my right leg. A major difference that I never appreciated. My serve is now also “more better.”
I can’t wait to play again this week and create more comfort with the new ways of hitting. And it was so easy to adopt a completely new way to swing. Now if only I can discover or be taught new ways to do things in the rest of my life. I guess that is where teachers, coaches and self-help books come in pret-ty handy.
Rob also said, “What people do not realize is that the first movement in any stroke usually determines the outcome and effectiveness of the stroke.” Maybe I can apply that to daily personal and business life as well.