So my friend’s 15-year-old, deaf, blind yap dog won’t eat out of his usual bowl. Who knows why? Eventually we threw some pellets on the floor to get him to eat, and he did. Now we put his food on a plate…and he eats it…sometimes. And he still avoids his bowl.

I remember hearing that it’s almost impossible to break old habits, especially in sports. You have to develop new habits that accomplish your ever-distant, unattainable goal. Make new circuits in your brain and muscle memory, rather than rewiring the old, entrenched pathways.

On the tennis court, I am the old dog trying to learn a new trick. And about a month ago, I finally learned how to hit a good forehand. It’s so good that I am staying in cross court, base line rallies with some of the best guys in my doubles games. In the past I would have no hope of not making the unforced error within a swing or two, so I would charge the net right away and attempt to make a winning volley. But two strong partners started complaining that I should stay back in the base line rally for 3-5 strokes, that I WAS holding my own and should keep doing it, until they could intercept the opponent’s shot with a winning net volley. Were they actually talking about ME? I hadn’t even realized I was doing so well.

I still have trouble watching the ball, but I finally started doing it better and turning to the right AND KEEPING MY LEFT HAND ON THE THROAT OF THE RACKET. In the many many former days, I would stay facing the net and just bring my right arm out to my side without turning. WRONG! The ball went into the net or too far and out. One day it just clicked. I actually realized what I was doing wrong and began noticing that my left hand MUST hold the racket until I was turned. It’s unimaginably easy now to turn.

Now I think this same scenario plays out in life off the court all the time. We keep doing the same thing over and over that causes mistakes (unforced errors) and failure. Of course there is no one standing at our shoulder correcting us…or telling us that we are being insensitive to others…or informing us how to earn money or get the girl…etc etc. But even if we were aware, we have to change the old way with a new approach. Damn hard. Almost impossible…without a trauma, like a serious accident, illness (heart attack) or near-death experience. Jeez! I just read a sad story about a girl who almost died in a car crash and wasn’t wearing a seat belt. You think next car ride she will do that again? Probably not. But she has known about wearing seat belts for years. Maybe decades. Why didn’t she do it? Hard to change old habits.

I laugh out loud, when I am told to watch the toss and where the server’s racket hits the ball, so I will know what to expect. Or to hit down the middle, if both opponents are back. I have to remind my well-meaning partners that I am simply trying to get the ball back and over the net most of the time, and that I am not at their level. But they keep advising anyway…as if just telling me will lead to their desired result. Not quite hopeless. Better than nothing. Executing good advice is just a whole other challenge.

But maybe someday I will be at that level. Today one of those better players showed me that I have to change my grip for a spin serve. Three earlier coaches never suggested that new trick. Maybe now I will have a real spin serve…once I can remember to do it. Why not? I figured out a new way to turn my body for a forehand…