April 29 Ramping Up
Last year, after several years away from the game due to two hip surgeries, I returned to Atlanta, my final year in the age group, and had two monster wins, losing in the finals to the best clay court player in the World in a close match. Again, the story I told myself that
“I have matured as a player in my time away from the game. I have greater perspective on winning and losing after losing Carol and my hip. I am more fit than my opponents because I have been saving my body and rebuilding for two years while they were playing and breaking down.”
The power of these stories never cease to amaze me.
I have found that the ultimate key to playing up to the high end of my talent and skill is not about how much I practice, nor what I add to my game. It is about what I eliminate. It is about getting rid of the ongoing mental static that interferes with playing in the wonderful state of flow. Stories that just don’t work to give me what I want.
This January I wrote about the tournament that I won in Florida, where I hit a brand new level mentally. I played free. Free of anguish, free of judgment, free of static. I played in total acceptance of who I am as a player. No overreaching and trying to be better than I am. I found a level of confidence that was based on knowing that if I am just Bob when I go on the court, I will do well. Win? Not always, although in that tournament I did. Winning is not always about score and when I am myself, playing as I can play, I win in a bigger way. Self satisfaction. Defeating the nasty and subtle thoughts that create internal tension that interferes with the simple act of hitting a ball inside the lines.
So I am eager to return to Atlanta once again. My story is clear.
“I love to compete. I love to hit up against adversity. I am fit. I am fast. Pressure is only a temporary distortion to me caused by my overthinking. I love the challenge of fighting against overthinking. I am patient. I accept outcomes. I find ways to play my best.”
I write my story and I am careful to make sure it is a good one because these stories, good or bad, are what will play out. Tell a bad story and I will find a way to make it happen. Tell a good story and the solutions of living it present themselves.
May 1 Final Practice Day
These were my working notes going into the tournament.
Whenever approaching a performance, whether it is a sport, work or just the day that is about to begin, it is helpful to know what you need to do to get effective results.
1. Work on the Federer toss. Serve within myself for higher first serve percentage as I don’t get that many free points on serve anyway. Save the ace to the forehand. Go at body more.
2. Step in on backhands. When pulled out wide hit more up the middle 3. Forehand out wide play a little more in the court with more height to recover. 4. Look for the return. Don’t wait for the return. 5. Hit more forehands on first ball. Don’t fall into backhand rally’s. 6. Use the short court for backhands. 7. Short approaches. Short volleys. 8. Look for the short ball and make my opponent uncomfortable with selection.
May 2 Opening Match
So much for being concerned with hot weather and humidity. It was cool and damp this morning. There was a slight drizzle and the courts were playing heavy and slowly.
My opponent was a pretty decent player from Florida who, at first, was unable to deal with my game. I was using my Federer toss which helped my first serve percentage. I was stepping in on backhands and I was attacking with my forehand. The first set was over in less than 15 minutes, 6-0. I lost a few points in the first couple of games and then went error free from the middle of the third game through the end of the set. I won the last 14 points in a row.
That was good but, amazingly, that managed to throw me off because I thought “wow, I can win all the points! I can be done in no time.” I promptly dropped the first game of the second set and was down game point in the next game. I had introduced that nasty state of “static in the brain.” I was no longer focused. I was looking all around,
watching other players, talking to myself, annoyed that I was not just rolling along. I had fallen into the lack of humility zone and stopped respecting my opponent. He was better than he had played and I didn’t give him credit. At 2-2 I steadied down my game but still did not get back into the focused zone. Despite winning the set 6-2 and moving forward in the tournament I was not happy with my mental game on this day.
Others looked at the 6-0, 6-2 score and thought I played great. But I know to never be fooled by the score. Score is only one way of judging performance. The other is to ask myself if I, mentally, was in the right place. This kind of mental play may win but, to me, it always feels like a loss. I want my wins to be earned by the right thinking and the right focus.
It is always helpful to know what the one thing is that I need to do to be most effective. There are many different things that help but there is always one thing, one thought, one attitude, one belief, one something that is the most important. For me that has always been to pay attention, to focus, point by point. This keeps my mind quiet. This keeps me tracked in.This leads me to do the right things while competing. That helps me enter the sweet sublime state of flow.
I am so glad this happened today and not later in the tournament when there will be players who will be able to take advantage if I lose sight on what is the most important space for me to enter.
Tomorrow certainly a tougher opponent and the first round of doubles. I will go into flow.
May 3 Finding Flow
I took some extra time this morning to identify what story I planned to live on the court today. I do this regularly with my days. It provides me with a path to follow and helps me, on those days that I succeed, to have a feeling of self satisfaction as I look back on my day. It is easy to do. It works. I have nothing to lose by doing it. It has taken consistent effort to make it a habit. It has been worth the effort.
I don’t need to tell myself the story of wanting to win as that is a given. Any athlete, when competing wants to win. I don’t need to create story of my game strategy as that is something that already is, from years of playing. I don’t need to remind myself to give effort for that is who I am every day.
I did, though, need to remind myself, after yesterday’s less than satisfying mental letdown, this story:
I bring my highest level of focus to the court, paying attention to each point, as if each is its own mini match. Before points begin I remind myself to “pay attention.” Once I do that I am able to go on autopilot as I begin to go into a state of flow.
I am a player who respects my opponents. Each person I play is capable of hitting effective shots and playing at a high level. I maintain humility when I play knowing that I am human and that, on any day, parts of my game may be less than my best. I am accepting of the my game while playing. That acceptance frees me up to find solutions. I am kind to myself, maintaining a judgement free attitude.
This story set me up for today’s quarterfinal match. I could feel the flow in the warmup. Although I sensed it I didn’t get ahead of myself. I just kept reminding myself to pay attention. Less than one hour later I had completed a 6-1, 6-0 win. As is often the case with playing a match in that special zone, when it is over, it is over. There is no ego to it. I moved on to my next activity. I had that wonderful feeling of just being present. A long shower. Lunch. Just being there.
In the afternoon I played doubles with a good buddy, three time World Doubles Champion, Neal Newman. He is great to play with as he is somebody who really gets what competition is about: fun, teamwork, support, fair play, respect for opponents, a good winner and good loser (though rare for him.) It is an honor to play with him. He is someone who has taught me so much about being a good person first and a good player second. We met and played against each other in my first every National tournament thirty years ago. We have played on Senior Davis Cup teams several times in exciting cities around the World. I love him despite him being an Ohio State guy.
We won 6-2, 6-1 and will play the top seeds tomorrow in the semis. It will, for sure, be a fun match. Singles will be first, followed by the doubles.
The weather forecast is terrible and there is a high probability that we will move indoors…and will play on hard-courts. Another wrinkle that will require a very good story on my part as I have not played a point on a hard court since my hip surgeries. I will need to let go of a BS (bad story) about how it is bad for my hip. I will work on that in the morning.
May 4 Semifinal Victory
It was a day that required some of the most basic spiritual qualities. Surrender. Acceptance. Non-judgment. The tournament committee held out hope all day that the
weather would break and we would be able to play outdoors. But it was not to be. Every hour, starting at 9:00AM, there was an announcement of a two hour rain delay. Deciding what to do, when to eat, to exercise, meditate or rest was challenging. My scheduled 10:30AM match was finally scheduled for a 6:00PM start.
I am glad that I, daily, practice being free from mental anguish. If I feel anguish I ask myself three questions: Am I in acceptance a situation that is or is there something that I am resisting? In this case am I resisting the isness of the weather? Am I free of judgement or is there someone I am judging, like the tournament committee for the way they are dealing with the players. Am I detached or attached to some idea that I think is right like “if I were running the event I would…”
When I ask these questions, I usually can get on the right side of them and end up in a calm, anguish free state. In this state I can always figure out the best way to deal with a situation. Easy, fun and productive,without fail.
So in this calm, accepting state I headed out for a one hour drive to a club to play my match on a hard court. (I haven’t stepped on one since before my hip surgery.) well, that was the isness of the situation. The roof was leaking, it was damp and chilly and matches before me were running slowly. More isness to accept. Over two hours later, at 8:15, we took our warmup shots.
Feeling the calmness from the mental work carried through the match, which ranks with one of the finest of my career. The 6-2, 6-1 score doesn’t represent how many difficult moments I had to get through. I played tough, continuing to pay attention point by point. My opponent, Hugh Thomson, a former World Champion, was the #1 ranked USA player going into the tournament. He was the second #1 I have defeated this season. When the new rankings come out end of May, I will have climbed to the top ranking. The number will be nice but the feeling of working my way back from the darkness of 2010 is indescribable. I remind myself over and over how lucky I am to be playing when the docs had suggested that I should stop competing.
Last point. I keep referencing storytelling and how important it is to be aware of those beliefs, thought, feelings and words that lead to actions that either get me farther or closer to what I want. My BS (bad story) about never being able to play on hard courts was not going to get me what I wanted. I heard it in my mind so I wrote a new and better one of how my shots are tougher on the hard courts and that I have the speed to run down any shot and that, even if my body hurt from it, I am one who recovers quickly. These were the beliefs and thoughts that I took to the court with me.
Tomorrow the biggest challenge. My dear friend, my oftentimes doubles partner and Senior Davis Cup teammate, the guy who sets the bar for our age group, Brian Cheney.
Psyched for the opportunity.
May 5 Finals
Oops. I missed a thought this morning and remembered it after Brian beat me 6-2, 6-4. I actually said to someone that regardless of how I do against Brian, this has been a great week for me. Can’t believe I didn’t hear what I was saying. I was slowing down near the finish line. I was already satisfied. The story I was telling myself was a BS (bad story.)
“It’s been a great week. I got through tough moments. I beat Hugh. I will have the top ranking. I slayed my mental dragon of the hard courts. Losing to Brian is acceptable because he really is the best guy in the age group.”
And because I didn’t process it, because I didn’t rewrite the BS. I didn’t bring my very best to the court. I let Brian dictate the match. I was reactive, trying to adjust to his well planned game plan. I shifted from trying to grind out points, to getting to the net to just smacking forehands. Without a good story, without the beliefs, thoughts and feelings that would get me to what I wanted, I was not the best Bob I could be.
I fought hard. I tried to the very end. I was fiercely competitive. All that was good. But without the good story, the beliefs, thoughts and feelings that needed to be within me, I was off. Just enough that my talent and skills were not enough against a player of Brian’s caliber.
Another great lesson that I can’t let the good matches of yesterday be enough to carry me through today’s matches. Each match requires the ritual of writing a good story. I am glad for the reminder because there will be bigger, more important matches in the future.
I won’t make this mistake again.
Thanks for following along and for your emails of support. Thanks to practice partners Jimmy Malhame, Corey Parr, Jeff Snow, Joel Greenblatt and Martin Wostenholm. You guys push me and make me better. Also thanks to Janet, Boyd and Dr. Croutch for working on my body over the last couple of weeks. I held up once again.