One of my favorite things to do in the whole-wide-world is to play tennis. On the court, I run, jump, hit the ball, yell, laugh, and scream. We give our partners and opponents high-fives and even sometimes pat each other on the butt. I’m a kid at recess.

However, part of the game has bedeviled me for years: the serve. Despite years of lessons by determined teachers, I just haven’t been able do it consistently. And not being able to serve reliably in tennis is a big problem.

But now I have a teacher that has helped me figure out this challenge. The key to our success has been simple: we gave it a new name. We don’t call it a serve. Instead, I begin the point (when it’s my turn to you-know-what) with a starting shot.

Just Like Throwing a Ball

A tennis serve is like throwing a ball, but instead a player throws her racquet at the tennis ball that she has tossed into the air. They say if you can throw a ball, then you can serve. But what if you can’t throw a ball?

As a kid, I participated in a lot of sports, most of them ball-free. When I was little, I loved gymnastics, which eventually evolved into swim team and then running. I was the 5th grade jump rope champion at my school. I played kickball and four square at recess. But nothing I did required throwing a ball, like baseball.

When I started playing tennis about 15 years ago, if I wanted to learn how to serve, I needed to learn how to throw. I bought a football and started tossing it in the backyard. It wasn’t pretty, but gradually I became a decent ball thrower. In fact, recently I was throwing a ball for my dog at the dog park and another dog owner complimented my throwing ability. Given where I had started, this compliment was a minor miracle. Unfortunately, this skill hasn’t directly translated into being able to serve because I have emotional baggage.

Haunted by the Past

When hitting a tennis serve, you absolutely need a loose wrist in order for the ball to land in the box on the other side of the net. If I’m tense or worried about getting the serve in, it’s impossible to be loose. Therefore, I don’t get the ball in, which leads to double faults, lost points and less confidence.

My serve has been weak for so long, that I’ve had countless experiences of not being able to get it in, especially when under pressure in tournaments. It’s horrifying to double fault repeatedly and give your opponents point after point, as my doubles partner smiles thinly and assures me that it’s alright. I know this is a game, but it’s no fun (and embarrassing) to play when one can’t get the point started.

A Starting Shot

Last week, I was taking a tennis lesson from my beloved teacher, Dan. In a couple of months, he’s moving to China to start tennis programs in private, K-12 schools. I want to learn as much as I can from him before he leaves the country.

He knows me well and understands my serving issues, both technical and psychological. We started working on a certain shot (the volley). Then he said that today we’re not going to work on the serve. You’re just going to spin in a starting shot, so we can get the point going and work on volleying. He told me to hit the ball from its lower left corner to its upper right hand corner. This would produce spin, get the ball in and start the point.

I don’t have to serve, we can just start playing? All of the good and none of the bad? That’s my kind of tennis. And I began spinning in my starting shot, shot after shot, for a very long time. They gracefully arced over the net and dropped in. Not a single ball landed in the net.

There’s a relaxed, loose wrist!

Eventually, I started to understand what was going on. He was calling it a starting shot to take away the psychological pressure that I associated with serving. We laughed and laughed about how this simple renaming of the serve led to completely different results.

So now I no longer hit a tennis serve. Instead, I begin points with a starting shot. I don’t do it all the time, but I’m improving. And if I tense up and hit a couple of tight wristed, errant serves, I bring myself back to the “it’s a starting shot” idea.

By renaming it, we reframe it. I wonder: what else in my life could be renamed? This idea has a lot of potential. It can turn something that has been a nemesis into a friend. I love it!

(Thank you to my tennis teacher, Dan, for your insight, humor and devotion to teaching. May China treat you well.)

Dan and me. Thanks to him, I won this a couple of years ago.