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.