Zen and the Tennisball Machine – Alone with Patience and Agility
tennis morning with a ball machine

Zen and the Tennisball Machine – Alone with Patience and Agility

Church on the court this morning was stunningly beautiful. A fantastic Austin day, crystal skies, light breeze, temp in the mid 60’s and the constant thump thump thump of the ball machine shooting out consistently low shots to my forehand and backhand randomly. This is one of my ultimate happy pictures and this morning I had more than an hour in my green field of joy.

Growing up the backboard was the only way to practice strokes without a partner or a coach. But the wall is an unresponsive and dull partner. Practicing serves was another by-myself past time, but also, after about 20 minutes, quite boring.

So my amazement at experiencing the ball machine down the street as a willing and patient “partner” was quite an awakening. Some mornings before work, evenings after dinner and instead of a lunch break, the ball machine was always ready to play, and always full of random tricks and good spirit.

As a high-level men’s tennis player there are several major weaknesses that are best addressed in practice rather than during match play. And finding a drill partner, though I have been successful in the past, is often a fruitless quest. So the ball machine and I have an understanding about what to work on and how to go about it.

Weakness number one is consistency. That’s an easy tennis term, but what I mean here is more about “patience” and “calm” rather than correctness of stroke. At my level (4.0+) hitting the shots is usually not the issue. The issue is breathing easy and hitting the shot back rather than trying to hit a winner. I would bet 60% of the points I lose are lost because I hit an “unforced” error, rather than my opponent striking a clear winner.

So what this means for me, is getting calm enough, even when pressed into the deep backhand corner, to hit a solid shot back rather than swatting wildly for a winner. More often than not, I will swing for the winner, either because I am tired and want to end the point or because I “think” the winner is the best option. This is where the unforced part of the error comes in.

This morning, as the ball machine thumped balls at me on both sides of the court, my task, my lesson, is to be calm and hit a solid shot rather than a winner. Even as I get tired, say by shot number 75, I try to concentrate on breathing into the shot and relaxing rather than tensing up and trying to hit an Andre Agassi passing shot. And as the time and simple rhythm wear on, the ball machine and I are locked in a meditation.

And if I can get into the flow all other thoughts and time slip away, and like Chevy Chase said in Caddyshack, “Be the ball. See your future.”

And now for weakness number two “going for the winner.”

One of the shots I practice with the ball machine is the backhand deep lob to the opponent’s backhand. Getting comfortable hitting this shot takes a lot of practice. And this way, when I am pressed deep into my backhand court, rather than swinging for the fence I can lean back and poke up a deep “offensive” lob.

But what it takes from back on the baseline is a moment of awareness: that I don’t have to hit a winner; that I am okay and still in the point, and that I have a great offensive backhand lob.

Thump, lob. Thump, lob. Thump, lob.

It sounds sort of like a heartbeat.

@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)

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John McElhenney
@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)

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