The Moment of Sheer Potentiality- Evolutionary Lessons From Tennis

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So the professional tennis grand slam circuit has finished for another year, with Novak Djokovic winning the US Open to cap "one of the best ever" years in tennis history. In celebration of Djokovic's year, his classic tilt with Roger Federer in the US Open semi-finals, and the sport in general, I thought I'd post a favorite passage of mine541361-novak-djokovic-us-open-tennis from the great Robert Harrison's radio show podcast Entitled Opinions (About Life and Literature).  Harrison is actually a tennis player himself, and his guest in this case is the legendary Stanford tennis coach Dick Gould (Episode 40, click here). In the course of the conversation the two begin to talk about the serve and volley style of tennis, one that Gould used to coach but one that has (sadly) largely gone out of the sport (for reasons they explore). I also grew up playing tennis, and still play the sport when possible, and I loved Harrison's description of what it's like to rush into the net during a point. It struck me that there might be a great metaphor there for engaging the personal journey of evolution and growth. Here's Harrison:

 “I also- used to be anyway- an aggressive serve and volleyer, probably because I didn’t have the ground strokes necessary to win on a consistent basis points from the baseline against people who were far more steady and consistent then I was. But also I think by temperament there’s something about the serve and volley game that makes the game of tennis much more exciting as a participant, because as you mentioned, when you make a decision to commit to go into the net you don’t know what’s going to happen, you’re there in no mans land, and I’m always fascinated by the literal split-step as well as what the split-step means metaphorically for other situations in life, where you’re rushing the net and you take that split-step before your opponent hits the ball so that you’re ready to go in any direction, you can go right, left, high or low, it’s that moment of sheer potentiality that hasn’t yet become a reality for a split second, and there’s something thrilling about it as a participant, but also as a spectator, because a person has put himself completely on the line and you can get passed and it can be very hard on your ego, and you can look ridiculous if it fails, but if you win more points at the net than you lose than I guess you’re doing alright. There’s something heroic about that style of play".

I agree and I also love coming to the net while playing tennis. In fact, you're supposed to either come in behind a big serve, or when you've hit a solid ground stroke that has your opponent on the defensive, but nonsense I constantly run in no matter what my shot is like, because it's just too damn much fun! There's that moment of the split-step, where you're running forward and then you leap onto your two feet, and now are ready to move in any direction, that's very exhilarating as Harrison describes. And what if we rushed the net in moments of transition in our lives- a new job, lover, opportunity, a new spiritual practice, diet, whatever- embracing the thrill of the "moment of sheer potentiality" instead of the inevitable doubt, anxiety and fear? Maybe that little explosive moment in tennis holds an important and potentially exciting lesson for the dusty clay courts of life.

Well, as strange as it sounds, I'm not the only one writing about tennis and evolution these days. Bruce Sanguin has just posted a piece at If Darwin Prayed called Taking A Lesson From Professional Tennis Players that's worth checking out. May we revel in the moment of potentiality in the next transition of our own evolutionary journey, and may we sometimes hit a lunging volley in mid stride. 


Update 1

It occurred to me yesterday that some folks reading this might not have a good visual sense of the serve and volley game, or the split-step moment when rushing the net. So I looked around the internet last night and found this beauty video of two of the greatest serve and volleyer's ever, John McEnroe and Stefan Edberg, in contest with one another. I started watching the video and was satisfied that it was a good example, and then I got totally mesmerized by the footage and had to watch all the way through. It's some pretty beautiful stuff, you really don't see this kind of thing in tennis anymore. Harrison's words about how often you can get totally burnt while playing this way really stood out for me; the ball blows by a lunging McEnroe on many an occassion. But Mac was a spirited player and won many a title himself. He was also a real magician on the court, few people in the history of modern tennis have had the creativity and finesse he had out there, as you can see in the viedo. Anyway, enjoy the clip!


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  • Comment Link Philip Corkill Saturday, 17 September 2011 23:06 posted by Philip Corkill

    Wow ZENnis! I find it so beautiful.

    It also reminds me of approaching a stranger you are attracted to after throwing some eye contact back and forth.

    Risk it and this could go anywhere. Including exhilaration and embarrassment.

  • Comment Link Andrew Baxter Tuesday, 20 September 2011 23:32 posted by Andrew Baxter

    I love the analogy..."And what if we rushed the net in moments of transition in our lives- a new job, lover, opportunity, a new spiritual practice, diet, whatever- embracing the thrill of the "moment of sheer potentiality" instead of the inevitable doubt, anxiety and fear? Maybe that little explosive moment in tennis holds an important and potentially exciting lesson for the dusty clay courts of life."

    How true. What if...? Sport indeed has a lot to teach us.

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Wednesday, 21 September 2011 05:15 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Call me an evolutionary, but I like this post a lot. It reminds me of some things we've spoken about in the past - assault the ambush, and 'leaning forward, slightly off balance'.

    Assaulting the ambush is a term I first heard (from you I think) in regards to the article linked below. I'm assuming it's a military phrase, but has come to mean 'meeting a challenge head on'. In this case, the challenge - any challenge, even one of life and death - is met so fully that you literally run toward it guns blazing! How's that for a 'moment of sheer potentiality"! Like in tennis, this could be your greatest moment, or your last.

    "Leaning forward, slightly off balance" is a phrase I've heard Andrew Cohen use to describe spiritual practice. If I understand it, he means to say that 'leaning forward' is an expression of interest in the unknown. 'Being off balance' indicates that you're leaning forward so far that you're in uncharted territory. Leaning into uncharted territory is where the magic of spiritual practice happens and it's this posture, or relationship, to spiritual practice that allows the practitioner to continue going deeper. A bit like charging the net of your own True self. And interestingly, the great sages all tell us that Awakening is as scary as dying. So even in this instance, as we charge the net of Truth, we're again faced with a life or death situation. Again we see the dual pull between unlimited potential and total annihilation. Tennis indeed!

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Wednesday, 21 September 2011 21:22 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Thanks Phil, great coinage!

    Andrew, I'm glad you pushed for us incorporating sports here at Beams, and for laying down the first big beam with your essay 'Ode to Sport'. I am and always have been a fan of sports (spectator and participant), but for some reason I often shove that to the side in a context like this, where we can often (over) focus on topics like politics, religion, ideas etc. However, I've found that opening up the sports spigot has released a whole new sphere of creativity for me; sports is loaded with useful metaphors and lessons for life. So good on ya's for opening up the sports component at Beams, I'm finding it very fruitful.

    Berg, thanks for the addition. I'm glad to hear you and Phil are finding your own places/spaces/life context's that the metaphor applies (as my wife did too when she first read the piece). There's obviously something both fundamental and transferable in this core tennis moment. cheers all.

  • Comment Link Philip Corkill Thursday, 22 September 2011 17:27 posted by Philip Corkill

    Yay! I really like this too.

    I couldn't agree more, with all three of you actually, "sport is loaded with useful metaphors and lessons for life", "has a lot to teach us" and "leaning in slightly off balance" is often where the learning happens. Yes, yes and yes.

    Letting you in on me a little more - why I'm so into this: Basketball was almost a religion to me as a youth. Then I kind of turned my back on it, very disillusioned by the "one man wins, a thousand men loose" dominant ambitious narrative in the culture. Some time later, I dedicated my life to meditation with much the same zest.

    Before my health stopped me a few years ago, I came back to basketball and everything looked and felt quite different. Rich with new dimensions and possible contexts within which to play and coach the sport and sports in general. Many people have had similar experiences. I shared a small fraction of this in my comments on Andrew's Ode to Sport and Trevor's Jordan piece. There is so much more to this. I hope that my health will allow me to bring more of this to life, in practice. I totally welcome Beams and Struts inquiry into Sport. To a future of integral sports and beyond!

    A few areas for exploration I'm interested in: The collective intelligence aspect of team sports. The glimpses of peak experiences of consciousness and coordination often induced by sport. I believe this can be trained. The lessons for life aspect of it (that's a universe of potential in itself). The joys of inhabiting a physical human body and the necessity to really be present to that body that sport demands. The clear mirror that sport can provide for where where at inside ourselves with regard to anything from spiritual insight, through emotional reactivity, to our ability to connect, focus and concentrate.

    Back to tennis. I believe ZENnis originated at the ashram in Poona, now a meditation resort. Although various people seem to lay claims to it. Whatever the source, it certainly already seems to be a practiced and fruitful discipline to get into.

    Evolutionary Zennis might be the next step and more up your street guys?

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