Thursday, October 13, 2016

Zennis: A Zen Approach to Tennis--and Life

Peter Spang played on the ATP Tour in the early 1980s--peaking at #302 in the world in singles--before embarking on a career as a tennis coach, writer and management consultant. In his 1998 book Zennis, Spang writes, "I am not trying to bring Zen into tennis. To me, Zen is in tennis already. There is no need to bring it. To experience silent and blissful moments while playing tennis is Zen, and to carry the flavor of these moments into ordinary life is an easy and natural consequence."

Spang explains how he incorporated a different kind of thinking into his tennis teaching (p.27):
More and more, I was able to see the limitations of the conventional teacher-student relationship with its accompanying belief system that there's only one right way to play tennis. The truth is there are many right ways--just like life.

I encouraged my students to understand that when the coach is silent, it doesn't mean he's not doing his job or that he's losing interest. Rather, the opposite is true: He's intentionally creating a space in which the student can explore, experiment, and play freely.
Spang's journey to a Zen mindset began with his realization that meditation is not a separate activity from day to day living (pp. 29-30):
A lot of people have the idea that meditation is separate from ordinary daily activity, something that you do by sitting down in a quiet room, crossing your legs in the lotus position, closing your eyes, and going inside...

The beauty of the Zen approach to meditation is that it is all-inclusive. It takes ordinary activities and turns them into opportunities for meditation, like drinking tea, washing rice, arranging flowers, sweeping the floor...or playing tennis. With any activity, you can be as silent and and as conscious as if you were sitting alone in a cave in the Himalayas.
Spang notes that in order to play tennis most effectively it is important to have the correct physical form, which he terms "being grounded." This form provides the maximum opportunity for an athlete to be agile and flexible. This concept is similar to what Julius "Dr. J" Erving called a "position of readiness" in his 1987 video "Dr. J's Basketball Stuff" and could also be described as a triple threat position for a basketball player: as Spang describes the form, it involves bending your knees slightly, relaxing your belly, having your shoulders/arms hanging loosely, placing the soles of your feet firmly on the ground and breathing through your chest into your belly. This correct physical form--which Spang calls "The Zennis Form"--is the basis for a number of tennis-specific exercises that Spang describes in chapter three.

In chapter four, Spang lists "seven unusual exercises for Zennis." These exercises are designed to enable a tennis player to transition toward the Zen state known as "No Mind," when a person is not distracted or plagued by continuous, conscious mental activity and is instead at one with his present activity (which could be not only tennis but any other activity as well).

One such exercise involves practicing tennis by hitting the ball while holding the racquet with one's non-dominant hand. Spang believes that this enables a player to relax and engage both sides of the brain in the process of playing tennis. Though it may seem paradoxical, Spang insists that players who spend time practicing with their non-dominant hand improve their ability to accurately hit the ball with their dominant hand more so than players who only practice hitting the ball with their dominant hand.

Another exercise is to have a practice partner throw or hit 10 tennis balls at you, one at a time. Instead of trying to hit the ball back, you intentionally just miss the ball with your racket. Spang believes that sometimes we can become so focused on outcomes that we lose track of process and of just having fun. He calls this "a Zen paradox: If you let go of results, you end up with the results you want" (p. 74). By realizing that it is not the end of the world to miss the ball, you can achieve a more relaxed state of mind on the tennis court.

The ability to effectively control/manage emotions is critically important not just in a tennis match but in life itself. Spang devotes two entire chapters to this subject. He notes that some players--particularly Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Boris Becker--are able to channel their anger to create energy that heightens their performance level. Of course, anger can easily have the opposite effect, whether you are processing your own anger or dealing with an opponent like Connors, McEnroe or Becker who is clearly using anger as fuel. Spang concludes that "emotional power...can drive or destroy your game" (p. 84).

Spang believes that if you do not recognize and deal with emotion on the tennis court then "the unexpressed energy is going to turn against you and eat you alive, sucking your vitality, making you collapse" (p. 87). He adds that this issue extends well beyond the tennis court: "Most people have had this kind of experience at some point in their lives, becoming so affected emotionally that they don't know what to say anymore. They become tongue-tied, as if all intelligence has left their brains, as if they no longer have a will of their own. They feel as if all energy has suddenly drained out of their bodies" (p. 87).

There is some value in going through such experiences, processing them and learning how to better manage them in the future--but an athlete does not have the luxury of taking such a long term view of personal development. As Spang puts it, "as a sporting warrior, looking back is rather like attending your own autopsy. As far as combat is concerned, your head has already been cut off" (p. 87). This is reminiscent of a line from Frank Herbert's Dune when Gurney Halleck is training young Paul Atreides in the art of combat. Atreides complained that he was not in the mood to spar that day and Halleck barked, "What has mood to do with it? You fight when the necessity arises--no matter the mood! Mood's a thing for cattle or making love or playing the baliset. It's not for fighting." Similarly, when you are battling on the tennis court--or in life--you have to be ready to manage your emotions at all times, not just when you are in the mood to do so.

Spang laments "there is very little guidance or training available to help players deal creatively with this important aspect of their game" (p. 88). Perhaps the most common method employed is the "mental toughness approach," which is based on the acceptance that "you cannot control your opponent, you cannot control the score, but you can control your own attitude, behavior and emotions" (pp. 88-89). An important, ongoing aspect of my life journey is understanding and accepting the limits of what I can control.

Spang finds value in mental toughness but he also believes that at times mental toughness--or the supposed lack thereof--is used to explain results that can be better explained by faulty tennis technique. For instance, Spang suggests that Goran Ivanisevic's inability to ascend to the absolute highest level of tennis is not because of deficiencies in mental toughness but rather because of flaws in some of Ivanisevic's tennis fundamentals. Any player who lacks correct technique will be more apt to become frustrated and lose focus during a match. If you have a solid, broad base of fundamentals to rely upon then you are less likely to be swayed by the emotional ups and downs of a match; you will just see the ball and hit the ball.

Spang believes that emotions should not be ignored but instead they should be acknowledged and contained. All tennis professionals must deal with the reality that in a 128 player draw there will be one winner and 127 losers. This reality creates a lot of pressure to perform and that pressure is heightened as one's ranking increases, because it is a failure for a top ranked player to not at least advance several rounds. Spang proposes that to achieve maximum success/fulfillment, a tennis player must learn how to switch his focus from "the outer reality" (the score of the match, the possibility of losing) to "your inner reality" where you can simultaneously acknowledge emotions and yet be detached from those emotions. That was the point of the exercise during which you intentionally miss 10 tennis balls; the possibility of failure generates negative emotions but the reality is that even if you miss a ball (or lose a match) the world has not ended. This could also be described as "flow" or "being in the zone."

Spang suggests that through the practice of meditation we can learn how to recognize our emotions, acknowledge them and channel them into positive energy. In chapter six ("Transforming Emotional Energy") he describes a series of exercises and meditation techniques designed to bring out one's inner child. Children feel free to express their emotions as they feel them, while as adults we learn--or are forced--to suppress and deny our emotions. Spang states that when you identify with a particular emotion--such as anger--this emotion can consume you and rule you; this is why the societal convention is for adults to suppress such powerful feelings, but Spang proposes that a better approach is to feel the anger but let the emotion pass through you without letting it sweep you away. Again, a Dune quote comes to mind, specifically the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear: "I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain." What is true of fear is also true of anger, jealousy and other negative emotions that can be energy-draining if not properly channeled.

Chapter seven describes four mental pitfalls that must be avoided: Perfectionism, self-criticism, boredom and expectation. My favorite quote about perfectionism comes from five-time NFL champion Coach Vince Lombardi: "Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can ever attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence."

Regarding tennis perfectionism, Spang notes that the strategy for a five set match can be much different than the strategy for a three set match. Spang cites a 1996 French Open match pitting Pete Sampras against two-time French Open champion Sergei Bruguera. Spang believes that after Sampras took the lead in the fifth set he adopted a tactic of conserving energy during Burguera's service games in order to focus on closing out the match by holding his own serve. This was not tennis perfection but it was the right tactic when both players were tired and Sampras knew that his biggest advantage at that moment was his serve.

Spang adds that such a tactic would not be optimal in a three set match but that one must tailor one's tactics to fit the situation because the goal is to win the match, not to play some hypothetically perfect brand of tennis. What is most important is "your ability to respond intelligently to the challenge of the moment" (p. 123).

Self-criticism goes hand in hand with perfectionism. Spang's comments about self-criticism are balanced, if not contradictory. On the one hand, the ability to objectively evaluate one's performance is an essential tool for reaching one's goals. Successful people tend to be self-critical to some extent. On the other hand, too much self-criticism can be harmful and can rob one of the ability to feel any sense of joy/accomplishment. I would argue that a distinction should be made between objective self-criticism--which is necessary and good--and self-flagellation, which is bad. If you know that you did not perform up to your capabilities in a given situation then it is important to recognize this and have a plan to improve--but if you did as well as could be reasonably be expected under the circumstances then it is counterproductive and unhealthy to focus on the negative.

Spang says that boredom can be a sign of intelligence, because people are not machines who just mindlessly do the same things over and over. The key to conquering boredom is acknowledging its existence and then focusing on "the here and now, where boredom cannot exist" because you are so engaged in and energized by the task at hand.

Expectation is tricky. If you have no expectation and no goal then you are unlikely to achieve very much but if you become too focused on the expectation/goal instead of the process then you lose track of what you have to do in the moment.

The recurring theme of Zennis is that success is fostered by living in the moment and not being distracted by what has happened or what might happen. Of course, this is much easier said than done.

Chapter eight discusses fear. Spang cites specific examples when he believes fear negatively affected the play of Jana Novotna and Michael Stich. Fear is related to expectation, to letting others down (your fans, your country, your teammates if this is a team event like Davis Cup) and to the consequences of losing. Of course, expectations, the feelings of others and the consequences of losing are not productive things to think about in the heat of competition! The difficult task, as alluded to above, is to focus on the task at hand. Again, this is where technical mastery is important, because if your technique is good and you know it is good then you can become so absorbed in technique that you have no mental or emotional space left over for worries or fears.

In chapter nine, Spang offers "four jewels" that can help a player reach his full potential. One "jewel" in particular caught my attention: staying in the middle. Spang cites Pete Sampras as a great example of a player who does not get too high after wins or too low after defeats. In other sports, Tim Duncan and Bill Belichick are examples of this trait. Sampras, Duncan and Belichick never became media darlings, because they never supplied juicy quotes that make for great headlines--but Sampras, Duncan and Belichick won championships and sustained excellence for long periods of time because they did not overreact to wins or losses. They did not care if the media or fans considered them to be "boring."

Zennis was published nearly 20 years ago, so the specific examples that Spang cites are dated--but that does not matter, because the core content of the book is timeless and provides insight about how a person can gain mastery through introspection. I recommend this book to those who are seeking the ultimate understanding: understanding oneself.

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