Sunday, April 11, 2010

Tennis, Learning and Change

I am playing tennis again. It is flow disguised as exercise or vice versa. It involves focus, chasing the ball - like a dog chases a squirrel - and hitting the ball as hard as you'd like. About 30 minutes into play, my body warms up and feels flexible and adaptable - ready to respond.

Steve is teaching me a new way to serve. He is a sophisticated and strategic player and the serve has many elements and micro-movements. I have to unlearn how I used to serve and replace it with the new way. Racquet grip to the right, left foot pointed up, gangster lean back, toss the ball with hand on its side (vs. open palm facing up) to reduce spin on the ball, butterfly arms with only slight racket drop, add a slice to the ball on impact, and hammer it to the other side of the court, following through with your whole body.

After two practice sessions, it still feels really awkward. I forget a lot of steps and the results are nowhere near the serve box. Learning can be so difficult, I see why we would want to give up. I can hear voices saying, "This is dumb. I can't do it. Go back to the old way. I will never get it. Why am I wasting my time? Let's just play." With Steven patiently standing there and modeling the movements, I ignore the voices and keep doing it over and over again. Never really believing that I will improve but figuring I will humor him and hoping that my faith in developing neuron pathways will take over and save the day.

He has so much feedback - change the grip for the forehand and the backhand - and I can't imagine how or when I will get it, can't remember ever doing that (I have been playing on and off since I was seven). Then it happens. I find a micro-second hole in time when the ball is racing towards me and adjust my grip to the right on the forehand and left on the backhand and it makes my strokes more consistent and powerful. Little victories that motivate me to keep trying.

With tennis, my primitive reptilian brain takes over. No words, no thoughts, just instinct and action. It's a welcome break for my overloaded prefrontal cortex. My body gets to move and run and stretch instead of sitting for hours in front of a computer screen or text - endless text.

Thrown back into the role of learner, I understand the tension - the constant desire (anxiety and yearning) to reach competence and mastery - when the voices (internal critic) let up. With change guaranteed, we are all thrown into the role of life-long learners whether we love it or not, whether we choose to accept, resist or reject that stance. Rose Monteiro said we all need to learn how to grieve (because loss is inevitable). Buddhist psychology talks about impermanence and detachment. Just as we get used to this moment, it changes. Adopting, or accepting the stance of a beginner's mind, we step into the next moment with an open hand. Humbly wondering, what will the next moment teach me? How will I cope with the loss inherent in change and take advantage of the opportunity?

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