Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Why touch is important in doubles

Today’s New York Times online has a lovely article about the importance of touch as a form of non-verbal communication that may enhance sports performance. In the accompanying picture appears a shot of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic giving each other a chest bump during the fund-raising event organized by Roger Federer as a prelude to the Australian Open.

As I read the article I found myself flung backwards along the traces of a painful memory of my first ever doubles tournament. I’ve talked about this event before and how it shaped my early avoidance of tennis competition. What was different today is that I got a fresh perspective on everything that was wrong with what happened that day, and perhaps why its negative effects for me were so lasting.

It was literally my first ever tennis tournament. My partner and I practiced and prepared hard. We did drills, we discussed possible game plans, and we watched Hingis and her partners for pointers. Since she was the stronger player, I agreed to follow her lead.

On the day of the tournament, our opponents won the toss and elected to serve. Opponent 1 served first and held. My partner served, and also held. Opponent 2 served and held. I served last, and lost my game. And for the rest of that match, my partner would not look at or speak to me. Her silence was cold and brutal.

On the other side of the court, the opponents were whooping it up and having a great time. They high-fived each other whenever they won a point. They laughed merrily, happily, with genuine pleasure and enjoyment.

On my side of the court, dead silence. No contact. No communication. Nothing. My game got worse and worse. My partner’s may have as well. I don’t know because by that point I was just too mired in self-blame to notice. But even at my most self-castigating and anxious, I knew that her behavior was wrong. And when at the end of the match, the Chair came over to her, pointed an angry finger in her face, and hissed, “You!! You have no excuse for losing that match!”, I knew that I was not the only one who had detected that her behavior had been problematic.

We did not speak to each other for some time. And then perhaps days or a couple of weeks later, she called to apologize. But it was one of those apologies that do more harm than good. She was apologizing for becoming so angry with herself. She said that she was so frustrated with her own game that she could not speak. She said that when she got angry with herself, she became silent. Right.

I remembered all this when I read today’s New York Times article on the importance of touching on people’s emotional functioning. To quote the writer: “Students who received a supportive touch on the back or arm from a teacher were nearly twice as likely to volunteer in class as those who did not, studies have found. A sympathetic touch from a doctor leaves people with the impression that the visit lasted twice as long, compared with estimates from people who were untouched. Research by Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute in Miami has found that a massage from a loved one can not only ease pain but also soothe depression and strengthen a relationship.”

But even more intriguing was the information on the use of touch in sports. Scientists at Berkeley have analyzed the use of touch among professional basketball players and noted that good teams tend to use more touch than bad teams. The LA Lakers and the Boston Celtics headed the list of touch-heavy teams. Bringing up the rear were such sad performers as Sacramento Kings and the Charlotte Bobcats.

Of course causation cannot be concluded from this type of correlational data. But the findings are intriguing, no? Now it makes sense why the dominant Bryan twins do their chest-bumping bit so often during a match. Or why Cara Black and Liezel Huber (in photo) almost always touch at the end of a rally.  The better doubles teams are constantly touching, communicating, encouraging. I have a painful memory that confirms that the outcome of a match may actually depend on this.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Agassi, Tiger, and the drama of control

Of course I watched the Tiger spectacle this morning. Every TV in the cafeteria had it on blast. Around me everyone had an opinion. But none had mine so I stayed silent. Part of it was because my opinion had everything to do with sex, and when you’re in as conservative a profession as mine, you just don’t bring up sex over lunch.

Which is not to say that the topic of sex was not indirectly discussed. Some women bashed Tiger’s whores. So too did some men. Others felt that this was between Tiger and Elin (it’s not, sorry) and that we should all butt out of their business (we can‘t, sorry). Some felt that it was all about the almighty dollar (which it is, of course), and that Tiger will soon be back selling us razor blades and running shoes. (He will).

I thought that it was about sex and the shaping of sexuality in a teenaged boy. And I also thought that Tiger’s story is about fathers who dominate their sons so completely, who participate so relentlessly in the shaping of their minds that the sons inevitably end up scarred, mutated, damaged. And these two issues are so indelibly intertwined that we cannot tease them apart.

This is merely my opinion of course. I don’t have Tiger’s millions to afford attorney fees. So let me make it clear that I am not operating on fact. I’m just giving you my opinion.

And my theory is that from day one, Tiger was shaped into being a golf machine. In this he reminds me of Agassi who, in his gut-wrenching memoir, recounts the lengths that his father went to in his bid to shape a tennis champion. Earl Woods was an LTC in the Army and an expert in prisoner investigation. I’ve read that he used some of these mental techniques when training his son. Earl Woods has stated in interviews that he never treated Tiger like a child, but always as an equal. In life they were inseparable. When Earl died in 2006, Tiger was left on his own to navigate a world of freedom. And the methods that we use to navigate freedom is formed in the early years. You can see the adult in the child.

I have this image of the teenage Tiger secretly beating his wand in front of pictures of porn stars. I have this image of a sexuality formed in secretiveness, between the shadows of his mother’s reticence and his father’s larger-than-life presence. I can imagine the secret hidden pictures of the porn stars over whose faces he may have spilled his teenage seed. Look at the type of women he reportedly slept with. They all have the same look. They all emerged from the same mold - not particularly attractive faces, porn star bodies, big-breasted, blond, willing to give it up for a buck.

Agassi too did not emerge unscathed from under his father’s shadow. His memoir recounts his painful journey to independence, to a kind of emotional setting-free, to a place of honesty that allows him to admit today that he hates tennis. The good news is that Agassi’s father did not have to die, like Tiger’s, in order for the man to be set free. The better news is that Agassi has always been gifted with a capacity for self-reflection that allowed him to find true emotional freedom.

But I don’t think that Tiger is free. He seems to have no concept of what freedom entails. He is clueless how to navigate in a world in which he is not being told what to do, when to do it, how to read a script, when to pause meaningfully, when to make eye contact with the camera, when to sniff audibly, and when to seem to emote anger. This is a personality formed entirely by compliance, as Alice Miller so aptly described in “The Drama of the Gifted Child”. Andre Agassi however, has always found ways to rebel - and that may be what helped to save him.

Tiger, the narcissistic resident of Skinner’s Box, seems to have sought freedom between the legs of whores, reportedly in an Ambiem haze. There’s nothing free about being stuck in a fantasy, your sexuality so completely formed by the images you masturbated to that you have no sense of how to relate to a woman who is not built like the cartoon Jessica Rabbit.

The man who made that statement this morning is a man imprisoned. He’s a corporation. And he completely controls the world of golf. I can think of no other sport that is so completely tied to the fortunes of one man. When Michael Vick got jailed for illegal dog-fighting, the sport of football went on just fine without him. When Justine Henin retired from tennis as the # 1 player in the world, the sport played on blissfully without her. In any other sport when a top player retires, the world continues to move on its axis. In golf, everything came to a screeching halt. This is because golf is Tiger and Tiger is golf. And that too is part of his prison.

Serena Williams: Nail Technician?

Lord have mercy. That was my first reaction when into my in-box appeared a link to bossip.com with a picture of Serena doing somebody's feet. Apparently Serena has decided to purchase a nail salon and, like any good business woman, has perhaps elected to educate herself from the ground up. So there she was with an orange stick and somebody’s not-so-attractive feet, as she labored to get the job done.

Lord have mercy. It was all I could think to say. I know that it’s Lent and all but I don’t think that my comment reflected any kind of religious dedication. It had more to do with shock, and just a tinge of embarrassment, which may admittedly be unfair.

I am all for tennis players preparing for a life after tennis. After all, this is a sport that will not last forever, certainly not at the top levels when so much is demanded from players both mentally and physically. So in principle I have nothing against players making plans for their post-tennis hereafter.

For many players, life after tennis continues to involve tennis in some form or fashion. When Justine Henin quit for the first time, she and her coach opened a tennis coaching school. So did Juan Carlos Ferrero whose program in Spain has become renowned. Even LLeyton Hewitt has given notice in a fashion by announcing his commitment to an up-and-coming female protege. And Marat Safin has announced his intention to go into business.

Many tennis players go on to become tennis commentators, some with more success than others. I keep meaning to write an entry about the ghastly number of bad tennis commentators, headed by Tennis Channel's low-budget line-up. There’s so much to be said for folks going to school and actually studying journalism.

Some tennis players dedicate themselves to pursuits as far from tennis as possible. Yannick Noah put out a couple of earnest music Cds. Too bad for him that they made for painful listening. Gustavo Kuerten is not only a surfer dude but actually has plans to study drama at university. And isn't Carlos Moya something of a soap star? Not to mention Andre Agassi and Stefanie Graf who both became dedicated philanthropists.

But this may be the first time that a player has voluntarily enrolled in nail school. Serena Williams will be doing nails. Don’t take my word for it, let me let her speak for herself:

No one likes getting their nails done more than I do. As a matter of fact I go every 4 days to get a manicure and every 7 days for a pedicure. So, I had a brilliant idea to get certified to be a nail tech. Besides the fact that I am coming out with a nail collection from a company called HairTech, I thought "Serena this is a no brainer." Immediately after I came home from the Australian Open I researched some schools and enrolled in a course that allowed me to complete 240 hours (that's what u have to do to get certified at least in fla) at my own pace. 240 hours may seem like a lot, but I intend on completing it within the year. It normally takes 6 weeks!!!

The night before my class I made sure I had all my tools, books and gear organized. I went to the hello kitty store and bought plenty of containers as well as a backpack to keep my belongings. If I'm not the best, I sure do want to look like it. Not only do I plan on being the top student to graduate from my nail school, but I also intend on being the most fashionable! We have to wear blue scrubs. So I asked the administrator can I wear pink but she insisted on blue. I found the cutest blue scrub top (Grey's Anatomy should take note) and super cute cargo pants! Before bed, I stayed up studying for a few hours just so I could be ahead of the class.

Serena then goes on to gloat that on her very first day, she actually did a French pedicure! Time flew as she was having fun! She is even open to picking up a part-time job at the salon! Who knows, maybe next time I’m in town, I may actually allow her to practice on my feet. Lord have mercy. 

Sunday, February 14, 2010

28 down: Rival of McEnroe & Connors

I spent the week at a psychology conference, in a place that was supposed to be warm and tropical but ended up being cold, dreary, and inhospitable. And I’m not referring to the psychologists. We generally put on the coolest conferences. We are nice people to hang out with because we enjoy a good party.

On the way to non-paradise, I of course attempted to do the crossword puzzle in the airline magazine. I was doing swimmingly until I ran across 28 down. The clue read “rival of McEnroe and Connors”. And for the life of me I could not remember the answer.

I started thinking of the contemporaries of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Both of these men took up a lot of the oxygen in the 1970’s, their unique rivalry dominating tennis in the pre-Sampras era. Who else was there at the time? Bjorn Borg? Could be. But Borg was only four letters. And the clue for 27-across was “Ironic singer Morrisette”. Alanis. I was looking for the name of a contemporary of McEnroe and Connors whose name started with “L” and was five letters long.

The name was on the tip of my tongue. I could see him wearing the tight white short pants that men wore in an era when sexual orientation was not inferred by how short or how tight pants were. My level of frustration grew.

But so too did my curiosity about what determines which tennis players we automatically remember and which ones we forget with the passage of time. I’m thinking of players like Marcelo Rios. In his home country of Chile he will of course never be forgotten. But I can imagine that there may be American players who have no idea who he was or how awesome his tennis was. It probably didn’t help that at the time of his transcendence, Rios represented such a threat to the established tennis order that the American media seemed to go out of their way to denigrate him. His surly dismissive attitude didn’t help of course. Nor did it win him any PR points when he once snarled that “grass is for cows” in explanation of his disdain for Wimbledon. But I will personally never forget him.

Yet I have already forgotten Nicolas Escude. In fact, I only realized this when he popped up on my TV screen recently as the new captain of French Fed Cup. I was like “wow, wasn’t Natalie Tauziat available”? I couldn’t (and still can’t) remember a single thing that Escude accomplished in his career. I know that he had a career, and apparently it was good enough to get him such an important job. But for me, he is entirely forgettable.

So what determines that? What makes some players last forever in our memories while others drop out so completely that running into them later triggers a kind of shock? Of course their level of accomplishment plays a significant role. Even if you despise Roger Federer, you will probably never forget him.

The degree to which the player is successfully marketed will also influence the indelibility of the memory trace he lays down. On the way back from the airport last night, I was having a chuckle with a friend about Andy Roddick’s disastrous American Express campaign some years ago. The one in which he kept looking for his mojo. The ads backfired horribly. But the fact of his being advertised at all had the desired effect. Andy Roddick will probably be remembered far longer than players who have accomplished a whole lot more in their careers.

So why could I not remember the name of the tennis player that started with “L”? This continued to niggle, even as the plane taxied to its berth. It couldn’t be Laver. He came before anyone. Pat Cash? That’s seven letters. Courier? Too long and never much of a rival outside of clay. I gave up and replaced the magazine. I started organizing my bags for deplaning. I waited my turn to exit. And then it hit me. “Lendl”. Of course. How could I possibly have forgotten him?

Monday, February 1, 2010

El Gordo y El Flaco diss Federer

Everything ran late this morning because of an ice-storm over the weekend. My first two patients had already called in late so there was no rush. I started getting ready for work at a leisurely pace. So I’m flicking the remote control between the various ESPN alternatives, hoping of course for some more celebration of Roger’s win yesterday. Instead I ran across Mike and Mike, one of whom was laying down a serious diss on Federer. I immediately paid attention.

It’s not everyday that two irritating talking heads who get paid to opine on football, take time out from noisily flapping their gums to comment on tennis. And I admit that I don’t normally pay attention to these two. They scream too much for a start, and the Skinny One comes across as an irritating know-it-all nerd. I know that one of them is called Greeny and the other Golic, but because I don’t know which is which (and also, don’t care), I’ve taken to calling them El Gordo y El Flaco (the Fat One and the Skinny One).

Those who watch Spanish-language TV in the US would know that these nicknames are patterned after a delightful entertainment show called “El Gordo y La Flaca”. Imagine E’s Ryan Seacrest and Giuliana Rancic, except that this Ryan is probably close to 300 pounds and Giuliana is far more demure and ten times more intelligent. (No diss intended on Giuliana, or to the original show.)

So this morning El Gordo off-handedly says to El Flaco something along the lines of, whoa did you catch that story about Roger Federer this weekend. And El Flaco proceeds to diss Federer. He insinuated that Federer's accomplishment is questionable because of his losing record against Nadal. Except that El Flaco did not quite come out and say it that clearly. He posed it as a hypothetical.

El Gordo did not seem immediately to understand the point that his partner was trying to make. He observed that Federer has won more Slams than anybody. El Flaco then made an analogy to football and again asked how could Federer be considered the best when at the time that he played, someone else routinely beat him? He noted that he wasn’t comparing Federer to Rod Laver or any other of the greats that preceded him. He was only asking if, whether in Federer's lifetime he could be considered the best when there was an opponent he could not beat. He invoked Sampras and Agassi and asked if Sampras would have been considered the best if Agassi routinely beat him?

El Gordo finally seemed to comprehend. He acknowledged that he did not follow tennis as closely as El Flaco so he didn’t know. But he saw his point.

So did I. The Nadal period. It remains a stain on the Federer record. Even footballers who could give a crap about tennis could see the problem. Nadal has a winning record against Federer. Does this detract from Federer’s accomplishments? Can Federer be considered The Greatest in spite of this? Who gets to decide?

Well in a sense, I do. And so do you. I think that Federer will be better appreciated after he is gone. Heroes are rarely acknowledged in their lifetimes. We take Federer's greatness for granted because he makes it look so easy. In my opinion, he is the greatest tennis player on the tour. And I am choosing to appreciate him now and not wait until I can tell my grandchildren about him. But part of Federer's greatness is because of the existence of Nadal. Between them they have created a rivalry that is riveting. I will tell my grandchildren about that as well.

For those who disagree, there is actually a very simple solution. Nadal needs to rehab every inch of his body and then return to the tour, and win ten more Slams. Easy peasy. That would give him 17, one more than Federer. And then I will promptly pass the baton and call him The Greatest Ever.

Of course the problem is that Nadal has played a heavy price for his tennis wins. Whereas Federer’s style of play has thus far allowed him to have a relatively injury-free career, Nadal’s style of grinding has been very destructive to his body. He has acknowledged that he no longer runs as much as he used to. He has admitted to trying to change up his game. Which is why I wanted to call up El Gordo and El Flaco and tell them to stick to talking about football. Because the new conservative, body-protective Nadal is not going to erase Federer’s record any time soon. You know that I’m right.