JAK'S MONTHLY ESSAY SERIES: Achieving Your Personal Best
The "Maintaining" One's Game as One Ages Fallacy
I've often heard older players, some with high NTRP ratings, discuss this not very effective notion. Although well intentioned, and certainly at least a recognition of athletic aging and its potential negative effect on level of play, yet in principle it's seeking to only preserve one's game status quo, not a workable option for the desired result of remaining competitive on your tour.
Leif Shiras, a premier Tennis Channel announcer and former top player, recently stated during a pro tour broadcast, "If you're not improving, you're getting worse." Although remarked in reference to the professional level that day, it nonetheless resonates down to clubland as well.
If you know who Roy Emerson is you've become slower, less flexible, more injury prone, visually less acute, and often plagued with slower recovery time. I know I have.
As a heads-up to even the most gifted athletic players: Athleticism has its limits. And, with regard to the less naturally athletic among us, especially beware if you're naively thinking standing pat will keep you in the long term mix.
To offset those realities you can become a better, more efficient, effective player until you finally pass into the next dimension, or are ultimately left with no physical choice but to embrace the shuffleboard courts.
That's improvement, not actively seeking that equals being at a downward spiraling standstill, i.e. maintaining.
Hall of Famer Pete Sampras said after his retirement, "Honestly, I think the best tennis I played was when I was older (when he won one last major). I was ten times the player as I got older than when I was really dominating (when he won thirteen)." Pete just finally succumbed to the exceedingly demanding rigors of the tour on both his body and his motivation.
Another stellar example of continued improvement, that can serve to encourage the possibilities of becoming better when well past your physical prime, is Jimmy Connors. In 1998 while headlining the Senior Tour, seven years after his last hurrah at the '91 U.S. Open at age 39, he said, "I think I can strike the ball better now than I could fifteen years ago (at age 31). And I think I anticipate better than I did in the past" (further development of his shot reading skills).
It follows that an older 3.0 can indeed become a 3.5. That a 3.5 can become a 4.0 without having to surrender to Father Time. And yes, even a 4.0 can become a 4.5 too - actually the least demanding learning curve of the three. It's all doable. It happens. Making even small improvements in ball striking, court defending tactics, mental toughness skills, ball tracking, agility training, and in visualization tools along with actually practicing - versus playing endless, mindless match after match after match after match sadly paired with the game undermining warm-up habits exhibited by so many - can indeed more than compensate for normal physical deterioration and get you to another level.
Believing that just maintaining your game's status quo, in the face of the physical realities of growing older, without working on your game, is not going to achieve the desired result. In fact, it's absolutely just a matter of time before your 3.5 game becomes a 3.0 game, et cetera, if that's your strategy!
I witness that all too frequently. Is that what you want? I think not.
This is not wishful thinking, fake news, or the alternative facts that now occupy much of our current discourse, but, instead, universally accepted by those in the know in all sports, both at the professional and recreational level.
As an example, baseball pitching shares mechanical components with tennis serving. Jim Kaat, a master pitching guru on the recent severe muscle tear to New York Mets injury prone fire balling ace, Noah Syndergaard, noted that his misguided obsession with an off-season of heavy weight training - aimed at maintaining his blinding 98+ mph fastball average, versus, instead, specificity throwing training to enhance arm flexibility along with accompanying endurance - was, to Kaat, a predictable disaster in the making.
"I want to set goals, not necessarily throwing harder, but just making the game [physically] easier," he said in spring training, "Just never become complacent and try to maintain anything, because once you start maintaining, you ultimately lose."
In tennis this "make the game easier" approach can become reality by making the effort to become increasingly more efficient by further developing both your above and below the neck on-court skills. Efficiency versus inefficiency. And, yes, this can be achieved without making wholesale, start over changes to your game.
Knowledge is power.
It's all about core fundamentals. It's the little things - the nuanced tweaks - that can make the big differences, particularly with long term players.
Go ahead and book an improvement session or two with your pro of choice because you will not be able to do it on your own. The tour pros get input every single day from their coaches. Why wouldn't you on occasion or periodically?
There's practice hitting with a friend. Getting on the ball machine. Drop-hitting. Going to the outdoor 3-wall racquetball courts at SW Florida State College which serve as perfect tennis backboards - old school and still productive. And, at the very minimum, practicing your serve on a regular basis – 2 to 3 times a week for 15-20 minutes only with 12 new or relatively new balls.
With the help of an experienced pro you can shore up that sketchy backhand. Actually learn how to hit an effective second serve with spin that's not a liability, learn shot making spacing – especially longitudinally, and, even learn to watch the ball better. Yes, that's a skill too.
And what better time to improve your game than in the SWFL summer months when league play is diminished, tournaments are few are far between, and many of your snowbird playing partners have flown the coup.
I've never yet encountered, in over 50 years teaching and coaching the game, an older dog who couldn't learn some new tricks and become a stronger player. Qualifier: That is only if you're motivated to aspire higher and haven't thrown in the towel on your game and yourself, regrettably resigned to a declining dynamic.
Okay, starting right now, you now have 5 months to raise your level in order to have a more successful, enjoyable 2017-18 season! Isn't funny how only the more skillful players seem to always get the lucky breaks.
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