For about a year I’ve been spending about an hour a week alone on the court with a ball machine. There’s no way around it: to make technique automatic, you need to hit a lot of balls– and a ball machine is cheaper (free at my club) than hiring a hitter or a pro.
Until recently, I used to see this self-imposed mandatory practice hour as somewhat of a chore. I’d spend about 30 minutes working on groundstrokes, then the remaining time hitting a lot of serves. The ritual felt sort of like going to the gym: I didn’t really look forward to it, but always felt great after I was done.
Today it’s one of my favorite hours of the week, thanks to inspiration from Guillermo Oropez— head pro at the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills (former site of the US Open).
I met Guillermo last fall during the USTA season and he invited me to come to a Saturday night “tennis party” he was organizing, complete with a potluck dinner and a big turnout. It was impossible to say no to Guillermo, an instantly likable guy with obvious passion for the game and for his students, so I went. I got assigned to a court with a very strong group of guys for a doubles match and immediately started getting tense: I was afraid of choking in front of new people, disappointing the partner I got matched with, etc… We were warming up and I was playing super tight, as I often do around new players, when suddenly the music went on. Yes, music– mainly 70s and 80s upbeat hits, beginning with “What I Like About You” by the Romantics. No one else had any reaction whatsoever (I was the only first-timer) but I chuckled and thought, “this is going to be interesting.”
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Immediately I felt the tension in my body easing away. We started the match and I played pretty loose the first couple games.
But then came time for me to serve. And then tightness gripped my body all over again.
I was feeling zero confidence in my serve because I’d been making some big changes that still hadn’t sunk in. I headed back to the baseline thinking, “OK don’t panic, just do your best” but my heart was racing. I stepped up to the line and thought (the worst thought you can think when serving) “Just don’t double fault.” Of course, I pushed the ball and did.
As I stepped up to the line to hit my next serve at 0-15, those famous first 5 notes of Earth Wind and Fire’s Boogie Wonderland blasted through the speakers. Hilarious and awesome, I thought. My soul smiled. A flood of positive memories entered my mind. One of them was of coach Tumeka Harris standing by my side at practice high-fiving me after a great serve, who was pushing me always to swing through every serve and never decelerate–especially on the second serve. I tossed the ball and timed it with the music so my impact would happen right at the downbeat of a great part of the song. An ace. From that point on, I listened to the music instead of the running soundtrack of self-doubting thoughts in my head. I can’t remember if we won or lost the match that night: all I know is I continued to play loose and had a great time.
The following week I went to my ball machine practice session with my iPod, loaded up with a playlist of favorite songs that get me pumped up before practice or matches. I hit “go” on both the machine and my iPod, and soon found myself hitting groundstrokes with a newfound sense of freedom. They say when you shut off one sense others are heightened– and that’s exactly what happened. Not able to hear the ball leave the machine or bounce, I saw the ball more sharply. I noticed what was happening a little more with my body. And it was seriously fun.
I turned off the machine and started serving. A song came on (too embarrassed to admit which one) with a driving beat that basically got my mind in “let’s hit this” mode. I started serving with a newfound confidence and power, which created a positive self-reinforcing loop. The music was helping with two key things I’ve found to be essential to making my serve work: rhythm and relaxation. And again, it transformed what had previously been somewhat of a stressful chore into an activity I really liked.
So now every week I look forward to that hour alone on the court. It’s still a time to work my tail off, but it’s also a time to let go and train my body and mind to loosen up more. The amazing thing is that this seems to really be helping in high-pressure situations and matches– especially on serve. Now, every time I head back to the line to serve I try to eliminate all the chatter in my head by activating a playlist in my head. I’ll mentally click down the list to find the right song for the right mood and occasion — one song might be good to pump me up when my energy is flagging, another might be good to help me breathe and chill out, another to help me regain my rhythm.
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