potential Killer Ira—8/1961

When I was in basic training in the army, they gave me a rifle with a bayonet, faced me off with a similarly armed buddy, and told me to stab at him. I thought it was dangerous, so I barely lunged. Then they made us all—perhaps 20 in one line facing 20 in another line—jab at the air about two feet from the other guy. Still pretty uneventful. Even though I was told to imagine the other guy as my enemy trying to harm me, I couldn’t get into it.

Next we were ordered to scream “KILL, KILL,” each time we lunged. I was laughing silently at how ludicrous it all was. And then about five minutes later, I really wanted to kill the soldier opposite me. I was totally involved, cocky, angry and only came out of this potentially deadly trance, when I suddenly realized what I was feeling and became scared I might actually impale him.

I have written before about how I lack the killer instinct. This is very bad in competitive sports, but I don’t know how to change it. Maybe if I yell “KILL, KILL,” out loud…or at least whisper it…I can be more determined to win at tennis. I will do it and report back to you.

I was playing someone this past week who almost always beats me. He hadn’t played in five months. This is usually my best chance to win. I lost the first set 4-6. I was ahead in the second set 4-0. When he was surprised to be so far behind (even though he has every excuse he could want), I told him that you never know how things will turn out.

Either I felt badly for him or I just plain lacked confidence in myself. The score went to 5-3, and then he won 5-7. Did I sabotage myself? I wasn’t aware of it.

Today I played a complete stranger and was ahead 4-2 and 40-love. I definitely felt sorry for him. I was completely aware of it. I guessed how awful and frustrated he might have felt. Suddenly the game was at 40-30, and I came to my senses and won. I finished the set ahead at 6-3, but then was behind 1-5 in the next set, when he had to leave. Did my sub-conscious make me play poorly, so that my opponent wouldn’t be miserable? I don’t know. But I clearly recognized my sympathy when I was ahead 40-love in that seventh game.

Then I played another man who has defeated me every time we have played during the last two years. I lost the first set 0-6. I wasn’t even embarrassed. Next set we were at 3-3, then 3-4, and I was serving and ahead at 40-15. I was already fantasizing about winning four games, which would be a rare achievement. I lost the game and then the set at 3-6. In this case I was not at all worried about upsetting my friend who has never lost a set to me. But something gets in the way of outstanding performance for me, when I am close to a victory with these superior players.

I watch the same evolution on TV, when professionals choke up and blow their leads near the finish. Some of the top talents are cool and calm, but mess up anyway. They just can’t close when the stakes are high. Like a woman I knew who was afraid to succeed and sabotaged herself repeatedly.

The other observation I made these last few days concerns hitting the ball hard. I don’t usually do that. My return is gentle, like me, and the “enemy” just clobbers it. Fed up with this crappy delivery, I practiced for 2.5 hours yesterday until I had my forehand perfected. I was hitting the ball solidly, deep, fast and in the sweet spot. I was also watching the ball.

Today in two matches, I only did that less than five times in over two hours. One friend thinks I may have a psychological problem. Why can’t I watch the ball, or follow though, or move my feet correctly? It’s all a fabulous challenge, failure does not have serious consequences, and I will keep on practicing until I can do it effortlessly and consistently. Looking forward to that glorious moment…