Today I was a case history twice on how to improve at sport. Maybe there is a message for non-athletic activities as well.

I played my best tennis ever for two hours in the morning, using the new techniques I’d learned from local coach Rob Ober, who’d roomed with Andre Agassi at their tennis camp. The open stance and serve pointers he gave me took a couple of weeks to adjust to, but I am now swinging and serving well enough to be more competitive with some strong players in the area. My ground strokes have more power and sometimes have top spin.

In the afternoon I played my best squash ever for an hour and a half and won eight games out of 12 against a player who beat me all five games the last time we played months ago. I was using the new swing, serve return placement and body position that I’d learned from local coach Bjorn Runquist, who had wisely taught me that “Practice does not make perfect, but PERFECT practice is what makes perfect.” A major distinction.

My tennis partner in the morning was a 4.0 player who has seen me play at least three or four times with months or years between viewings. When I first faced Phil Farmer four years ago, I wasn’t even at the level of the 75-93-year-olds with 50-75 years of experience I was playing with. I could out run the older guys, but they could place every shot so accurately that if the ball came near them, they earned a point. Drops and lobs were a key part of their strategy. At the end of our games back then, Phil gave me some wise advice that I really appreciated him mentioning. He said it seemed that I hadn’t identified his weaker side, forehand or backhand, and that my game would improve if I noticed things like that and adapted my game to each player. I was grateful for his suggestion.

A couple of years later, Phil saw me at his club, where I was a guest, and he commented that my game had improved. A real compliment. In the last year, I have been learning about doubles strategy from Joe Marshall and the books he and Rob Ober recommended. So today Phil praised my game a couple of times, noting that I was playing “good smart tennis.” My volleying at the net was also pretty good.

It’s very gratifying to work at something and make progress. To challenge yourself to grow or improve at a skill and then realize that objective. For now I just want to keep getting better. There is no end goal, like winning tournaments or becoming the best in the country or the county. I just want to play with stronger and more experienced players and be invited back into their games. I am enjoying the journey and not focused on any final destination.

I remember a friend telling me sadly that he had stopped playing tennis regularly, because so much activity had injured his body, and now his level of play was only going down, rather than up. It was too upsetting. But I am still on the upside of the curve, aiming for the highest point I can at this age.

Somewhere in the future, I will reach my peak performance, my level will start to flatten out or decline, and I will be back playing mostly with the 75-90-year-olds. I hope that happens, when I am almost 90 myself. I may have wistful moments about how good I was in my early 70’s, but at least I will still be alive, playing, enjoying some cardio, and having the thrill of making each winning sweet-spot-shot.

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