Practice makes better
When the weather’s nice, I usually have a weekly (or sometimes twice-weekly) tennis session practice with a friend, which we started a couple of months ago (we play table tennis on rainy days). We met at the free badminton sessions last summer which the university holds. We would usually play together as regular attendees. With the summer season approaching again, she roped me into playing tennis though equally, I was keen to pick up a racket again since I hadn’t played since the PE lessons in school, which was a decade ago! It was another way to keep fit and I had also forgotten what it was like to play tennis. The first time we played, we spent more time retrieving the balls than we did actually having rallies since we would usually (and hopelessly) send them flying, neither of us quite knowing how to or being able to control the ball whenever we swung our rackets at it.
Over the course of the next few months, we both improved a bit but it was still very much hit-and-miss. The trajectory of our progress was up and down; we could get a rally going of a few shots and then the next run of play would see us miss a serve or send a return flying over the other’s head. The session we had a few weekends ago started off like it was going to be one of those days, except worse…….we could barely get a rally going at all for the first 10 minutes or so, either messing up our serves or sending our returns into the metal ‘net’. It looked like it was going to be an off day for both of us. Gradually though, no doubt aided by the regular practice we’ve had, we improved and could regularly get a rally of at least 5 or 6 shots going. Heck, I was even hitting consecutive backhands consistently. It was then that I started to feel ‘in the zone’ (or in the ‘flow’ state). I became mindful when striking the ball, fully focusing on the point of contact with the racket and concentrating to make sure it went where I wanted it to go, and also noticed a new found confidence. It felt like we were actually (finally) playing tennis. It was at this point, when I experienced the joy of progress, that I became more aware of my surroundings, tuning into the chatter of the kids playing on the neighbouring basketball court, the sound of police sirens going off from a nearby road and the subtle din of aeroplanes flying overhead. I also noticed the towering beauty of the trees, which surrounded 2 sides of the court, and a sense of gratitude for having a friendship with someone who both values exercising and enjoys playing racket-based sports as much as I do. Being able to practise my Cantonese with her was also a bonus.
Experiencing this state of centredness reminded me of what my former A-level psychology teacher used to drill into us to encourage us to practise our exam technique on past papers: “Practice makes better”. This was of course a modification of the well-known adage, “Practice makes perfect” but with a spin of critical realism to it. It made me reflect on the relative wisdom of the former saying. Frankly, who gets 100% on an exam anyway (ok, there may be the rare occasion that someone does…….but what does it matter)? We could practise for many more hours and still get nowhere near the level of top-level players like Roger Federer or Serena Williams for example. At our current level, I’m sure that if either of us started to put more power and/or direction into our shots, such that we weren’t directing the ball to places on the court which made it relatively easier for the other person to return it, rallies would go back to being non-existent. But it doesn’t matter. We are making progress in developing our tennis ability …...and practice wasn’t only making me better at tennis but also making me better as a person in the sense that it made me live in the moment and appreciate things which I might otherwise (and often do) take for granted. It was the same with yoga. In the first few sessions, I really struggled with doing the shoulder stand, wondering how some people could execute the pose with such ease and poise. After consistent and patient practice, I gradually found that elusive ease, a sign that my body was developing strength and flexibility. My initial frustration became replaced by a sense of being grounded in the moment. After all these years - well, 8 to be precise - my old psychology teacher is still right…...and not just about psychology exams, but also about life.