Why do we watch televised sports? On a base level, it’s about competition played out as a public surrogate for blood sports. However, true aficionados of any sport also savor the subtleties of the interplay of differing styles that competitors bring to the arena. Watching athletes more gifted than ourselves try to solve the riddle of how to win using agreed upon rules provides endlessly interesting human drama.
Champions aren’t born; they are made by hours of unrelenting, purposeful practice. In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion that it takes about 10,000 hours to achieve expertise in many sports as well as for performing artists and musicians. Yet there is still considerable variance between the abilities of the best athletes in any sport or among musicians playing the same instrument. As David Epstein makes clear in The Sports Gene, some athletes and musicians achieve expertise in far fewer hours. They may have physical attributes that leverage their ability to perform at elite levels that others can never attain no matter how hard and long they practice.
It takes many years in most sports to attain true expertise. It is during this development process that athletes and musicians are most keenly aware of how much variation in levels is required to continue to improve. Performance in sports and music, as in almost all human activities, fluctuates. Players get better, and they can also get worse. The sport of tennis readily illustrates this principle. Junior Tour champions can take years to transition their games to the main tour. At the age of 14 Pete Sampras changed from a 2-handed backhand to a one hander and almost dropped out of the junior rankings before it became a weapon that later helped him win 14 major titles. And we have all seen many of our favorite athletes become just a step slower one year to the next, prompting their retirements.
Fluctuations in performance levels are not limited to juniors in development or those at the height of their physical prowess. We are all subject to the ravages of time, but even those who have played for decades are able to improve. They can get better primarily versus their own age cohort, and also on an absolute level. Part of absolute improvement for every player at any age is raising the technical aspects of their game, and part is mental. The higher the level, the more the mental aspects of the game play a part. In tennis, some players have such overwhelming physical/technical weapons that they play a dominant style. If their weapons are better than an opponent’s defense, they win. If not they lose.
Most players are not able to simply dominate. They employ an array of strategies, any or all of which can work at any level. These include defensive “don’t miss” styles and counter punching defensive to offensive players. It’s all about featuring your strengths against an opponent’s weaknesses. As a competitor playing cerebral tennis, you want to make the opponent feel like he’s just not playing well by not letting him set up for his favorite or best shots.
Like most tennis players Diogenes has always had a weaker backhand side. During a recent layoff for injuries, he decided to try to remake it into a weapon (again). There had been a multiyear attempt at learning a two-hander. It was steady but never had any real “pop”, and steady wasn’t good enough to raise his level. But knowledge in tennis, or any human pursuit, is never wasted. Diogenes still uses the 2-hander to block big serves and hit short angle shots from the forecourt.
In the current improvement effort, Diogenes has drilled his one handed topspin backhand for hours trying to change his contact point forward by about three to four inches. This small but fundamental technical change allows him to more often be moving forward on hitting his backhand, whereas the prior technique often resulted in weak hits off the back foot. The new stroke is both bigger and has more spin. The cross court shot has become dependable, and up the line backhands are a new option. The new backhand was good enough to add pressure to his everyday opponents, but playing tournaments is the true crucible for Diogenes. The pressure is immediate and unrelenting. At a national indoors event a couple of weeks ago, the new backhand broke down under increased pressure from better, harder hitting and more precise players.
Diogenes will continue to work on improving the new backhand because it could bring an ability to change his entire style of play. In the past, he was mostly an attacking forehand player who often employed serve and volley tactics to avoid baseline rallies that would expose his weak backhand. Transitioning his mental approach to that of a balanced forehand and backhand player would allow him to grind from the back of the court and stay in points longer waiting for better opportunities to attack. The return of serve can be made from further back and be both a higher percentage play and more offensive. This changes everything…maybe.