Playing Ball: Brash Jim vs. Zen Tim

Wednesday, December 07, 2011 /by

Tennis-ball-rebound-1aLast week I wrote about the heretofore secret, and perhaps entirely imagined, connection between two of the most significant tennis phenomena of 1974: Jimmy Connors, and the Inner Game of Tennis, by Timothy Gallwey. At first glance, the two couldn’t be more different. In one corner, you have Jimbo, Mr. Blood and Guts, the sport’s foremost exemplar of strutting bellicosity; in the other corner, you have the Inner Game, one gentle man’s earnest journey away from selfishness and anger and into the Zen heart of sport.

The two are not so much different species as they are opposites sides of the same tennis coin. One may even have inspired the other. It was in part the rise of a figure like Connors, and the popularization of tennis in the early 70s that he symbolized, that made the Inner Game necessary. To the sport’s millions of new players, Gallwey’s instructional prescriptions—focus on the process rather than the result, and the result will take care of itself; think of your opponent as partner rather than enemy—helped them get a handle on this psychologically difficult game. What was interesting was that this advice, written by a Californian one-hundred years after tennis was born in England, basically restated the sport’s original ideals of sportsmanship and civilized competition, ideals that Jimbo was tearing to pieces with every grunting triumph.

Whatever their relationship, Connors and the Inner Game had staying power. For those of us who play the sport, they represent two competitive ideals: there’s the primal, no-excuses fighter who is motivated from within by a lust for conquest, and who thrives on making matches personal; and then there’s the thoughtful warrior who engages with his opponent in an abstract quest for excellence, whatever the result. The question is: Toward which of these two poles should the average hacker try to lean?

I read the Inner Game and a bio of Connors over the same week last August. Since then, I’ve sporadically kept both approaches in mind as I’ve played tennis and squash. Here’s what I’ve learned about the practical consequences of each.

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I liked the Inner Game’s conclusion. Gallwey, after many experiments and false starts, eventually decides that the key to success in tennis is to think of your opponent not as an enemy to be destroyed, but as an obstacle that you must clear. Your job is to bring out the best in your opponent by, paradoxically, trying your best to beat him or her. This focus on personal accomplishment, which you can control, rather than victory, which to some degree you can’t, will help you relax and do your best. The trick to winning is not to think about winning. The trick to beating your opponent is hoping and expecting that he’ll play well and force you to play even better.

These seemed like noble and maybe even plausible sentiments, so I tried to take Gallwey’s advice in my first match after reading his book. I tried, as weird as it may sound, to want my opponent to play well, so I could rise to the challenge. It should be noted right away that this was not an attitude that I had ever brought to a tennis court before. While I've never acted even remotely like Jimmy Connors, never thrown my index finger in the air after a winner or pumped my fists up and down like pistons, I've always been happy to have my opponent play poorly and give me a match. Deep down, winning, rather than the level of my own performance, was what gave me the most satisfaction. Most of the time, winning with average stuff feels better than playing well and losing.

Also like Connors, I often find myself personalizing a match. If I get the sense that my opponent actively wants to beat me, if it means something to him, I’ll begin to play with an edge of anger—it’s fight or flight when you’re challenged, and there’s nowhere to fly to on a tennis court.

Maybe because it went against my natural competitive tendencies, I enjoyed the novelty of the Gallwey system. I really was more relaxed, in mind and in body. My self-imposed high-minded attitude freed me of most of my usual anxiety and let me move and swing more easily. Rather than react with resentment and exasperation at my opponent’s good gets (“God, how can this be happening to me; how can he keep getting so lucky?” is my usual, highly rational inner mantra), I applauded them. Most important, this attitude helped me stay patient and think about the process of setting up a point, rather than going for it all with one shot.

The only problem was that, after all of those good feelings, I lost the first set to a player I normally beat. I was so relaxed and nerve-free that I had no edge. I hit some very nice shots, but I didn’t have the little hint of extra desire that you need to fight off a break point or come back from a late-set deficit or just win ugly. I moved and swung more easily, but I wasn’t necessarily faster or more accurate with my shots. Playing without thinking about winning felt like playing without a conscience. It was too easy to shrug off any mistake, and then repeat it.

Those early thoughts about not caring about whether I won or lost? They disappeared right around the time when losing began to seem like a real proposition. At one level, I didn’t care about the result; this was just a pick-up match with a friend, and we’d be playing again the next week whatever happened this time around. But at an involuntary level, I rebelled against the prospect of defeat. My anxiety and exasperation returned. My opponent’s good gets became “so lucky!” in my agitated mind again, and I began to imagine how annoyed I would feel having to shake his hand as the loser. I began to talk to myself again after errors. I also began to play better. I won the second set and we quit there. Disaster averted.

I’ve tried my best to channel Gallwey on about a half a dozen occasions since. I’ve found that it can work for me, but only when I don’t feel like my opponent particularly cares one way or another about winning or losing. Once it feels personal, I have to return to my angry roots to play my best.

Maybe I’m just too conditioned to using winning as a measuring stick to ever find another one that works. Maybe I’m just a bad loser. Or maybe I’m more Jim than Tim. Connors liked to say “it's a war out there.” Maybe the key is to emphasize the “out there” part as much as the “war” part, to go at it with all of your volatile competitive desire intact while you’re on the court, but leave it there when you walk off. (That's probably about as much maturity as I can hope for in this lifetime, anyway.)

For me, all I can say is that playing like Gallwey advises feels good, but playing like Jimbo is a rush. It's riskier and less pleasant, but it makes the blood run just a little bit quicker.

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