Once again I find myself attempting to modify my tennis performance and seeing analogous challenges and obstacles off the court in my daily life. It shouldn’t be so hard to make changes in both worlds…but it is. I think I understand why. But I can’t accept it.

For example I watch tennis coach videos and take lessons in which I have been told for years to “keep eye on ball” and follow through. I struggle with both instructions. I look to see where the ball is going more than 65% of the time before I hit it, EVEN WHEN SERVING! And right from the beginning I was taught to complete my forehand with the racket touching my left shoulder…but it often ends up pointing over the net three feet in front of my body.

Ridiculous. But the facts.

Now I can blame improper muscle memory, ADD, eagerness to see the results, lack of concentration. I can say I started playing too late in life, haven’t practiced each stroke 10,000 times, or had a messed up childhood. A neuroscientist on the radio the other day said that if you lacked certain “normal” parts of your upbringing, the circuits in your brain don’t wire up so stably that you will function successfully as a late teen. If, for example, you were raised by a single parent, there is a greater likelihood of depression and suicide.

Other less traumatic early experiences certainly influence how we turn out as adults. However I believe we can overcome those childhood neural wirings. How to do that more easily and faster is the challenge I am facing.

Hitting a better forehand is not in the same league as suicide. Nor is my difficulty in resisting sugar. Others smoke, take harmful drugs, drink excessively, blurt out words they regret, abuse people though they know it is wrong. We learn what we “should” do. So why can’t we stop ourselves from taking actions that are bad for us or harmful to others.

There is a whole school of thought suggesting that the mind and body are connected. If you are having trouble with the former, affect it by focusing on the latter. For example if you are anxious, you can go to a shrink. But alternatively you can plunk your body on the floor, breathe slowly and meditate. That might also calm you down.

My forehand problem is already a body problem, and I see that the mental input is having almost no lasting effect. Changing old ingrained habits is way too difficult. Creating a new muscle memory pattern is a better approach, but it also needs to be accompanied by thousands of repetitions. I don’t see that the brain can change the body’s motions with only a new idea. I wish it could.

One coach says you have to take tiny steps that are more like progressive drills. Practice a bit of the stroke…then another fragment…still a third piece and then put them all together in a smooth motion.

Stopping smoking or drinking or eating too much food by going cold turkey (just ceasing all of the habit suddenly) is generally thought too difficult. Winding down the undesired action by cutting back gradually is a common approach. However I continue to read that people who lose weight generally put it back on. It’s too hard to give up those overlarge portions over time.

Why is that? Do we really as a culture eat excessively, because we want to be heavy, sick, unable to move comfortably and eager to shorten our lives with bad diets? We dull our senses to remove ourselves from the pain of the world…But those drinks relax us as well, make life more pleasant and less anxious. Some drugs actually enhance our senses.

So just hearing the words…even knowing and believing that you should change your actions… doesn’t seem like enough to easily do the trick. On the other hand, with education and media attention, some people have stopped smoking…or smoking as much…and others have changed their diets to become healthier. Millions haven’t.

The conclusion is that verbal advice usually doesn’t alter the recipient’s behavior permanently, even if change is a serious goal. It doesn’t happen in life and it is proving abysmally hard in tennis. If I can find the magic connection in which words and thoughts can modify my tennis actions, I will have a real edge in improving my behavior off the court.

For now I know to keep trying, believe that it is possible, practice small drills to create new muscle memory, cheer the few successes, never give up and accept that it takes years to do anything right. Then I will have a great tennis stroke and can start working on the rest of my life.

Now if I live to 100, everything will be perfect. Or I will die before I am perfect, but proud that I kept making the effort.

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