Sunday, December 27, 2009

Old Dog/New Tricks

In an effort to help me improve my serve, Laura the Tennis Pro recently offered some suggestions and advice. First, she said, “I have an analogy for you…” and proceeded to spin a tale about an archer and his bow and arrow. She drew the necessary parallels between the two activities – serving a tennis ball and shooting an arrow – and then stood behind me, satisfied that this analogy would transform my wimpy serve into one of power and authority.

Laura knows I love analogies. So, I didn’t tell her at the time that, although she presented the information as an “analogy,” it was still, fundamentally, “physics.” And, as I’ve mentioned, physics is Greek to me.

When my serve didn’t improve immediately upon receipt of the analogy, Laura decided to take a more active role. “You’re bringing your back foot up too early,” she said. “It can’t leave the ground until you’ve hit the ball.”

This was solid, concrete information that I could work with, so I served again – and again and again – trying mightily to keep my foot on the ground longer. It was harder than I expected. Finally, Laura brought over a Teaching Aid. She has these little plastic cones – like miniature traffic cones – and she lay one down at my back foot and instructed me to put my foot inside it. “That will keep you from moving your foot,” she said. And she was right.

The mini cone anchored my foot, it was true, but it also anchored my mind (and not in a good way). All I could think of was the image of a dog recovering from surgery, his head wrapped in on of those white plastic cones. I remember Paula Poundstone doing a joke about them once: “Why do they put cones over the animals’ heads? Is humiliation part of the healing process?”

It is no doubt part of the learning process. Maybe not humiliation per se, but that state of being aware of what you’re doing wrong, what you should be doing instead, and the sheer helplessness of feeling that you can’t make yourself behave in new ways. I am reminded that so much of the way we live is just comfortable habit. We get in the habit of being late, or worried or unhappy and it feels so impossible to change. But we can actually change so much about our lives by just breaking old habits and forging new ones. Which makes it all seem so easy, right?

Except when you realize that sometimes the simplest little changes require suffering the indignation of a cone – that big plastic reminder that things need to be uncomfortable for a little bit while you find your new way.

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