Monday, January 21, 2008

Big Goals, Little Promises

To my students,

We all have big places that we want to get to someday in tennis (and in life), but it’s often difficult to transform those goals into reality. The correct path isn’t always clear, and the goal can thus seem unattainable, too far off, and always out of reach. To keep us from getting lost and never finding our way, we need some structure – a map to connect our present to that desired future, to help us get from here to there. So let’s construct such a map to help you on your own path, shall we?

First, state your overall goal – where do you want to go, who do you want to be? Make it a simple sentence, like “I want to play varsity tennis,” or make a division II college team. Whatever goal it is, make it clear, and more or less definite. If you change your mind later you can always revise your plan, but if your statement is too ambiguous – like say, “to get really good,” it’s hard to proceed since you don’t know where you’re headed.

The second step is to outline the sort of skills and abilities that you need to accomplish your goal. Here, you need to think about the sort of attributes that a person possesses at the level you want to reach. You could divide this into specific categories like particular skills, consistency, quickness, endurance, mental toughness, competitive results, and more. This is up to you. The important thing is that each one of these aspects is a component of your stated goal.

After writing down your goal and listing out the skill and ability sets, you then break it down into what you have to do EVERY day to get there. Here you list the specific things, hours of practice per day (per week), what you work on during practice, time spent conditioning, studying, etc., that all help build toward your overall goal. It’s at this level, these mini-goals or little promises that you make to yourself – and keep day in and day out – where you can really see yourself change and grow. If you stick to your particular amount of time for practice or for physical training, it will become obvious it is paying off. When you reach a mini-goal, like hitting 50 balls in a row in the court, then you can raise the bar and push yourself still further.

I don’t write any of this to tell you what you should do, but to help you to get where YOU want to go. If something is truly important to you, then it is worth taking the time and energy to make a serious, focused effort to attain it, whether it be in tennis or anything else in your lives. I can’t, however, guarantee that just because you went after a certain goal that you’ll get there. But it is certain, that in following through on these little promises to yourself you will be transformed – and that is no small thing. Remember this is something you do because you enjoy it, and ultimately that should guide what kind of effort you are willing to put towards it.

So, write this up to the best of your ability. Take it seriously and bring it to our lesson. If you need help figuring out how to organize it, ask your parents or talk to me. Put some thought into this and see where it takes you. Your future is in your hands. – Nick Sousanis, January 2008


"I can't stand not trying." Michael Jordan.

This scenario is far too common: a person watches a ball pass by or dribble in front of him/her without exerting the slightest bit of effort to reach the ball. The action (or rather inaction) is usually followed by words about one's laziness, or that, "I just couldn't get there." The only way to really know that one can't get there, is to actually make the attempt. To sprint as hard as one can and then if you fall short, you'd know you couldn't get there. But now you know how close you can come and next time…. To the laziness comments, I respond: Laziness is a choice, not a condition. I am sure that no one has ever been diagnosed with an affliction of laziness. (Doctor to patient: "Well, the way I see it here, you're just plain lazy. I recommend standing around for the next few years.") One is lazy until he/she decides not to be. Reaching difficult shots happens as one begins to put forth the effort.

"Because it is there."

Granted some people aren't all that big on running by itself. Tennis though offers added incentive. The sight of a ball sitting in the air off in the distance triggers primal instincts of hunting and survival. One of my favorite memories from junior tennis is the sound of an opponent screaming at me after I had just run down ball after ball that he had thought he had hit for a winner. His voice called out, "Why don't you go out for track?" The frustration in his voice, and knowledge that I would not let him get the best of me brings a smile to my face to this day. Does his argument have merit? Why not track for those of us who like to run so much? I think straight running offers a test of wills against one's own body. Tennis on the other hand is a constant race against an opponent and the ball. Desperately clawing, burning rubber against the court surface in an attempt to just touch a ball unleashes an aspect of ourselves hidden while seated in the classroom or an office. I can't say why people decide to climb the tallest, most difficult mountains they can find, but I think anyone who has gotten to one more impossible shot can relate.

"As a body moves faster, it ages more slowly." Albert Einstein [Paraphrase]

The young run all about as quickly as they can. Just watch any small child or puppy. The delight and freedom in moving their limbs in such a fashion is unparalleled. When do we begin to slow down? When we're not allowed to run in the halls, when running will get our clothes dirty? When does it cease to be cool to let loose and just sprint because it feels good? This happens at a different point in each person's life. Those that retain it throughout a lifetime possess a quality one could only describe as youthfulness. When we open ourselves up to saying I can reach that next ball, we might transcend the age on our birth certificate. At full speed, the ball hangs in the air motionless, time stands still and the joy of childhood is upon us again. - Nick Sousanis (1998)

The Tennis Court Oath

You say you want a revolution. The Beatles.

An anxious multitude packed an indoor tennis court in Paris on June 20, 1789 to witness an historic event, yet no balls were hit. Barred from their assembly hall by order of King Louis XVI, the newly formed parliament of France, frustrated yet undaunted had commandeered this facility to discuss their next course of action. (History books fail to record the reaction of those whose play was interrupted - no doubt irate at losing their court time.) The assembled body vowed, in an act known as the Tennis Court Oath, to meet and work continuously until they had written a new constitution for France. Their steadfast resolve set wheels in motion for the French Revolution, which saw the people nearly bloodlessly wrest governmental control from the king. They established a brief era of egalitarian government before internal conflicts reduced the state to riotous turmoil. Napoleon's dictatorial takeover nullified both the positive and negative effects stemming from that day in June. Besides an interesting bit of tennis trivia, the successes and failures of the French revolution offer valuable lessons with which we can enhance our tennis game and our lives.

[Work is] something made greater by ourselves and in turn that makes us greater. Maya Angelou.

Those who took the Oath were attempting the unthinkable. Aspiring to better themselves, the French people challenged the traditional roles that had kept them under subjection by royalty and nobility. Wealth, power, and historical precedent were all against the people, yet they strove on. Their success is a testament to what we are all capable of with unyielding dedication and determination. On the tennis court, we face personal struggles like imposing opponents and the mastering of new strokes. These often appear to be insurmountable tasks, but we must persevere. Becoming a better tennis player is no easy task. By following their example of relentless hard work, we can find ourselves in places that once seemed unreachable.

"Success is a journey, not a destination."

With inexhaustible efforts, the French discarded the entire old order in search of the perfect state. Presuming to have found it, they stopped tolerating the questioning attitude that had guided them. Any voices out of synch with the current leadership were silenced (literally-decapitation via the guillotine.) What began as a quest for enlightened perfection, turned to unimaginable terror. The French Revolution's tragedy illustrates the perils that can befall us as well. A tennis player's personal pursuit of perfection is no exception. For many, perfection lies as a concrete end to their labors. This denies the value of the effort in reaching that end. With an image of perfection in mind, it is impossible not to condemn perceived inadequacies in one's present game. This constant belittling hinders realizing one's potential, while appreciation of the process aids improvement. A further danger awaits those who claim to have perfected their game. Their thinking is, "how can perfection be improved upon?" This mindset ignores the advice, work ethic and innovations that lead up to the current level of play. If one has truly reached perfection by becoming number one in his/her world, this position is tenuous at best. The pack is striving to find ways to improve and will surpass the player who stagnates. Perfection as an end, is a dead one. Measuring success by efforts, avoiding judgments, and continually asking, "How can I improve?" keep one's outlook fresh and enjoyment of the game perpetual.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

Charles Dickens wrote these words describing the highs and lows of the French Revolution. Could he not have been talking about your game? Brilliant play, frustrating errors. Glorious wins, humiliating losses. Tennis is all this. Make and renew your own Tennis Court Oath each time you step onto the court. Vow to pursue the process of bettering yourself with all your effort. Swear to value this process of hard work above your expectations. Remember to be kind to yourself as you strive in pursuit of your goals. Create your own personal revolution, for tomorrow's history is yet to be writ. - Nick Sousanis (1998)


One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other. Jane Austen
Participants in sports often find themselves subjected to questions over the worthwhile value and time spent on the activity. At times, we may even do this to ourselves. Tennis is no exception. While those earning either a living in the sport or a college scholarship are exempt from such interrogation, what of the rest of us? Lacking a monetary reward, how might we justify our devotion to whacking a small chartreuse ball around?

Our growing softness, our increasing lack of physical fitness, is a menace to our security. John F. Kennedy

Since humanity's hunting and gathering days seem long past, sports have acted as a primary means towards the development of physical skills. Children no longer learn to throw a spear or run down a rabbit. They do however practice hitting forehands and optimal footwork. As modern lifestyles grow increasingly sedentary, exercise as a separate activity is becoming more important. Our work doesn't keep us fit and healthy, and exercise for the sake of exercise takes great determination. Running for a dropshot or scrambling for a lob is instinctual. We don't question the benefit of getting to the ball. The ball is there and we will focus every ounce of our being to get there. While the activity gained participating in a sport is vital, it also leads to off court workouts to enhance performance and improve overall health.

Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradles. Virginia Woolf

Along with physical skills and fitness, tennis serves in the development of one's self-image and confidence. Each time a player steps up to the line to compete, his/her everything is on that line. Like a performer in the spotlight, the pressure to perform in tight situations is a constant test of one's willpower. Will I buckle here, or will I rise above the situation? As the body moves, strategies are forming, decisions made. Discovering that one can compete on an even field in tennis is an empowering idea for an individual. The self-confidence derived from such tests of one's hard work and determination manifests itself throughout a person's non-tennis activities.

For many people tennis is a way to interact socially and enjoy the company of friends. People come together through tennis' common link. I travelled a great deal for tennis, which brought me in contact with diverse people from this country and others, both players and spectators. In this respect, tennis has been a vehicle for me to see and learn about the world, all the while being accepted as a member of a community united by a shared interest. This bond of tennis defies barriers that separate people.

Tennis is often a means of escape from one's daily routine. The working person whose day has provided nothing but frustration, can find some release on the tennis court. The stay-at-home parent, cooped-up with children all day, uses the time playing tennis to devote energy strictly for his/herself. These people relish their opportunities to play, for tennis restores a bit of joy in otherwise stifling circumstances.

Tennis is more than just a sport. It’s an art, like the ballet. Bill Tilden.

For these and many other reasons, tennis and participation in athletics have tremendous value in society. Underlying these reasons is a deeper attraction to tennis and other athletics for everyone from the professional athlete to the social enthusiast. Simply put - We love playing this game! It touches something within us that longs to be expressed. To run, strike a ball, interact with and anticipate a ball in flight is a feeling that transcends words. To those who have experienced it, no further justification is necessary. - Nick Sousanis (1998)


Although we spend the winter in the climate-controlled environment of the tennis house, spring’s arrival means outdoor tennis and dealing with the joys and frustrations the elements present. In case you’ve forgotten, let’s recall a typical day playing tennis in the springtime. Glimpses of sunshine keep the temperature comfortable. You are seeing the ball well and just feeling great to be running outside and playing your favorite sport. On a particular point you are setting up to hit a sweet put-away when the ball turns as if by magic right at you. You reflex - miraculously hitting the ball. Your shot seems headed in play when mysteriously it is whisked inches out. “Argh!” A stiff breeze disrupts the calm revealing the ethereal presence behind your misfortune - the wind! Perhaps it will stop. No. Exactly the opposite. The wind surges to gale force. Your service toss is all over the place and as for your lob - ha! Opponent’s shots you could have sworn were going nowhere near the court always blow in. “How can life be so unfair?” “What have I done to be so unjustly tortured in this accursed wind tunnel?” You are near the breaking point. You miss the indoors. You are just thankful any mosquitoes that would be biting you right now have been swept out to sea by this cyclone you are condemned to. You are cursing at the top of your lungs but no one can hear you above the wind’s roar. Moments later you can no longer even shout as a wind-borne dust devil drives sand into your open mouth. Eyes tearing from dust, the last remaining vestige of concentration you possessed withers away. Nature has shown you it is your better and you have been reduced to a quivering wreck.

Sound uncomfortably familiar? Of all the factors of the outdoor game, the wind can create the most frustration. But it needn’t be so. Along with swallowing my share of airborne sand, I have witnessed winds so strong that a lob hit over the opposite back fence curved back until it landed on my own side of the court. While I admit practicing strokes in turbulence is not my favorite pastime, I was fortunate to learn an extremely vital lesson at an early age. Master professional Gilbert Rincon explained, “you must treat the wind as your friend.” He was right. I never forgot his advice and was able to thrive in conditions that devastated my opponents. You must accept the fact that the wind is there to stay and treat it like any other factor in the game (i.e. the net height, court size, etc.) You are wondering though, “how can anything as unpredictable as the wind, be accounted for like those other things you mentioned?” The answer lies in your ability to observe and think.

Once you have acknowledged the wind’s presence, determining its direction is essential. In order to keep your own shots in the court you must aim with the wind in mind. This requires creating a mental image of the court shifted in accordance with the wind’s direction and speed. Perhaps you will have to aim far wide on one side and close to the middle on the other to put the ball in play. You launch balls as hard and high as you are able from one end (into the wind), while on the opposite, you must use heavy topspin or soft shots. Attention to the wind also allows you better understanding of your opponent’s shots. No longer will the wind-altered paths of incoming balls surprise you. You will find yourself exercising your mind in keeping track of these variables and engineering solutions to the challenges the wind dishes out.

The title “great equalizer” is bestowed upon the wind as a stronger player can be defeated by one of lesser ability who uses the wind wisely. I find this statement misleading. One who is able to remain patient and think through the wind can master it. This in no way excludes skilled players. It only bars those who refuse to accept their environment. I have found that the challenge of playing in the wind has allowed me to absolve my mind of distractions and focus solely on the ball in flight. My concentration reaches a new peak on such days. Seeing the wind as an aspect of one’s sport to use advantageously, rather than as an irritation, can be a fascinating mental challenge. If you can maintain this outlook, tennis in the wind ceases to be frustrating. Instead, the wind adds new dimensions of thinking and creativity that continually keep the game fresh. - Nick Sousanis (1998)

Net gains. Your loss. (or Caught in the net)

No one can argue that putting the ball in the court is the most important element for enjoyment and success in tennis. The biggest hurdle in accomplishing this is the NET. Why is this so? After all, it is only three feet high at its center, stretching to three and a half at its ends. Surely we must all recognize this fact and keep the ball away from it. But persistently balls end up trapped in its webbed clutches. Lured there by some power we have yet to comprehend. Like golf balls mysteriously drawn to a pond, so a tennis ball veers towards the net. To pierce the veil of its attractive influence let us look back at what is known of its origin. Batting a ball back and forth is likely nearly as old as the game of catch. A line in the sand separating two players' halves of a court seems a natural extension. Exactly when a cord stretched through the air dividing the court in two came about is unknown. It is known that this game of "tennis" over a cord was prevalent for a long time, inaugurating many of the complexities present in modern tennis. In the mid-eighteenth century a network of rope borrowed from the tools of fishermen gave the net both its structure and name. Now instead of scooping up fish, the net served to snag errant balls and impede their flight. That's where things stand today.

Let's look a moment at the advantages the net has brought tennis. With just a cord, a ball could pass below leaving a judgment call on the part of the players. ("Went under." "Did not." "Did too." And so on.) Also the possibility of being hit, "below the net" as it were, was greatly reduced. Why was the cord not draped with an opaque material, rather than see-through netting? This monumental decision is at the heart of our difficulties with the net. The beauty of a fisherman's net, is in its near intangibility and difficulty in being seen. While water and small fish pass through as though it wasn't there, the right (or rather wrong) sized prey fail to see it and are hopelessly trapped. This property of the fishing net, affects us in the same way. It presents us with a tangible structure to stop the balls, but we can easily see the other side of the court and oncoming balls. The next time you are on the court, notice that from the baseline you can not see the other side of the court without looking through the net. Now, make your way towards the net until you find you are able to see the opposite baseline by looking over the net. (For me, this spot occurs right around the service line.) Wherever your particular spot lies, this is the first time your eyes had an angle to look down into the other court (and only the back at that). The fact that you can see the other side of the court before is misleading. Like the fish, we fail to notice the trap between us and freedom. If this is true for your eyes, let's imagine the perspective of the ball. Since most balls are hit from around waist high, the ball can never see the other side of the court. What can be done to address this situation?

Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. Robert Frost.

While taking the net down, might solve some of our problems, the chaotic game it would create, would be far from the game we know. To deal with the net effectively, we must change the vantage point of the ball, improve the "ball's eye view" if you will. Put it in a position to see the entire court unobstructed by the net. This can be achieved in a number of ways. First, taking balls from a higher spot in the air means that the ball's view may already be above the net. A line drive shot from this point will keep the ball above the net. Moving closer to the net also increases the angles the ball can see into the court, but of course it must still make it above the net. A third option is to hit the ball upward so that it can reach a height from which it can look down upon the court. Much in the same way a basketball, shot with arc, increase one's chance of scoring. If you center the top of the arc directly over the net, no matter how high the ball is hit, you are assured that the shot will land in the court. Though not absolutely essential, the ability to hit with topspin allows one to clear the net with a fair margin for error, put the ball into the court and do it all with tremendous pace. Learn to appreciate the challenge the net provides. Don't be fooled. The net might not look like much, but it has snared its share of big fish in its day. A healthy respect and understanding of the net's power can make one a better player and tennis more enjoyable. - Nick Sousanis (1998)


"Of all the cants which are canted in this canting world…the cant of criticism is the most tormenting!" Laurence Sterne

While I hope we have all rid ourselves of the phrase, "I can't," criticism greatly impedes our progress as tennis players. It is only harmful when we do this to ourselves. However, you say, "Should I ignore my mistakes?" "Should I not care when I err?" No, in fact I would suggest the opposite. Tennis is a difficult sport. Errors are unavoidable consequences of playing. We must learn to gain an honest, critical eye towards our game. That is we must evaluate objectively, as opposed to simply finding faults in ourselves. While embracing errors can be a positive experience, negative criticism can make one's development in tennis a slow, torturous process or worse.

"Your problem is you bring in the critical factor before the lyric factor has had a chance to express itself." Joseph Campbell.

Although written to combat writer's block, this statement holds true for tennis. Criticizing ideas before they have made it to paper prevents one from ever starting. One must get their ideas out first before returning with a critical eye. I often hear in a lesson, "Oh, I'll never do this," or "I always screw that up." These criticisms are roadblocks towards improvement. You must allow yourself to make mistakes in order to improve. Mistakes are valuable learning experiences if one can only view them as such. Constant pressure of failure restricts growth. Improvement will come when one goes out and gives his/her all, noting mistakes, but discarding the negative view towards them. After assessing the reasons and possible solutions to the errors, it is time to head back out for more.

"Sometimes you wake up. Sometimes the fall kills you. And sometimes when you fall you fly." Neil Gaiman (on the fear of falling in dreams.)

Criticism can lead to similar options to one's tennis development. A person can bring such a great deal of criticism to his/her game that playing ceases to be a pleasure. This often ends in the player quitting tennis, forgetting whatever dream that had attracted him/her to the game in the first place. A second state sees a player falling short of his/her aspiration, due to continual criticism. This person still plays, but is dead to enjoyment and improvement with tennis. The third state is a player whom has let go of self-criticism. This person has learned to evaluate errors as important, even enjoyable learning experiences. This leads to constant renewed interest and love for the game as one improves. I believe we are all capable of flying. Be kind to yourselves.