Thoughts and Feelings, In Tennis and in Life

It would be a challenge to improve on the tennis lesson I had yesterday.  The weather was exactly what makes tennis players salivate:  sunny, ideal temperature, and no annoying Oklahoma Plains pesky winds toying with my tennis precision.  It was endorphine-laced, invigorating fun.  I attribute much of the enjoyment factor to Coach Bob.  His teaching style is effective, and more importantly, the lessons are a blast.  The bonus is that at the end of each lesson, I walk away knowing unequivocally that I got a good workout as evidenced by my weak and shaky legs.  I appreciate Coach Bob, not just because my tennis stroke has improved, but also because I thoroughly enjoy bantering with him about the internal part of the game.  We get a chance to chat during the breaks where he kindly allows me to recover upon seeing my struggle with exertion-induced oxygen deprivation – a malady common amongst the out-of-shape and slightly overweight.

If you are familiar with the book The Inner Game of Tennis, then you know the kind of stuff we talk about.  It is a riveting topic for me because I am endlessly curious about how our mysterious human brains work and why we think and act the way we do, in life’s many scenarios.  I think tennis is a particularly brilliant vehicle for learning more about who you are and how you think.  The game is both very mental and very physical, so you are already stretched, and then the competition factor finishes you off, drawing all your “stuff” right to the surface, for all to see.

On a break during the lesson yesterday, we began talking about playing the game with thinking as the primary approach versus placing the focus on feeling.  Both are required, and it serves you extremely well if you know and understand the concept and can switch focus between the two, at will.  It’s fascinating to consider how this applies to life in the broader sense as well.

When you’re first learning tennis – or anything for that matter – you have to think.  You don’t have the experience to have developed a “feel” yet, so that is not available to you.  However, eventually you progress in the game far enough to start playing by feel , and that is required to reach any level of mastery.  During a high level game of tennis, there is no time for mental gyrations.   The Four Stages of Learning competence model demonstrates this nicely:

Unconscious Incompetence – You don’t know what you don’t know.

Conscious Incompetence – Tennis is now on your radar and you’re giving it a try, but you can’t keep the ball in the park, never mind the court.

Conscious Competence – You’re starting to get pretty good at the game, hitting a few good strokes, but you have to really think about it and it’s not happening naturally or consistently yet.

Unconscious Competence – You’re great at the game and you don’t have to think about it at the conscious level much any more.  You’re playing “out of your head”, and you know how to find “the zone”.

But a funny thing happens with some folks.  They resist letting go of the thinking part and unknowingly put a ceiling on their improvement.  They can’t quite shift from playing from their head to bringing their heart and gut, the feeling part, to the forefront, learning to trust their muscles and instincts rather than trying to control everything with their brain.  And, oh, what they are missing!

I have to admit, in my own tennis game, I haven’t been there, to the zone, anywhere near as often as I would like to go, but I have been there enough to know what it feels like.  It is euphoric!  It is truly a “sweet spot”.  I am even more reluctant to admit that, in the broader sense of life in general, I haven’t been to the zone anywhere near as often as I would like to go either, but I’m still reaching for unconscious competence in more ways, more often.

My theory is that learning the roles of thinking and feeling and getting truly adept at applying them skillfully aids tremendously in finding life’s sweet spot more consistently.  Your emotions, how you are feeling in the moment, is guidance for how effectively you are thinking, and thinking intentionally and purposefully helps you to attain desired emotions, which is necessary for enjoyment of life.

One example from my own life in the broader sense is my search for career satisfaction.  I have been trying to think through my career direction for decades, and it has been an exercise in acute futility.  That long-term frustration is painful.  Now I’m learning to bring my feelings into the mix and think AND feel my way there.  Good move on my part.  I’m making more progress with this in a few weeks than I have with thinking alone for decades.  I noticed the feeling of relief and encouragement and inspiration when I set that intention.  I THINK it FEELS good!

Learning to let go of operating solely from thinking, from your head, and learning to expand your modes of operation to include feeling your way to success, both on and off the court, pays huge dividends.

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