Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The 2013 Chicago Marathon Registration Now Open: Lessons Tennis Players Can Learn from Marathon Runners


Chicago Marathon 2013 signups opened yesterday February 20, 2013. Based on past results, within the next 24-48 hours, it will be sold out. If you want to sign up, act now!
Naturally, the memories of my 5th hour ordeal from yesteryear came rushing back. I was punished severely for running without logging a single day of practice.  My lesson and experience epitomised the saying: “Youth is wasted on the young”. Childhood folly allows us to take shortcuts that become clear mistakes in the eyes of experience and wisdom.

I never did register. Closer to the date I searched around for a charity bib from entrants who could not run. I told a few people I might run just to psych myself into commitment. One of those was a group of kids under 10 who I enjoy coaching immensely. In their kind eyes, I am a combination of cool, funny, exciting, and wise; one step short of a superhero. It is an easy bill to fit, of course; contrary to their parents, and nannies, my performance is assessed over our weekly 2-hour tennis class which consists of a perfected routine of fun drills and games and delivered in recycled catch phrases and precontemplated, well-timed jokes. The routine always hits the desired effect, and the lessons are a breeze.  
My announcement to run the marathon was followed by a barrage of questions.
“Have you been practicing?”
“I average 12 hours of coaching daily in the summer and 5 of those playing with people who can actually hit. I will be alright,” I responded.
“How long do you think it will take you to finish, Coach D?” another asked.
“4 hours,” I responded confidently.
As I am handling this mini press conference with my eager audience, I notice one of the kids who is in the gifted program at his school, the equivalent of what in tennis we call high-performance tennis, scribbling away in the notebook I make everyone bring to class to take notes and write a half paragraph report of the previous lesson.  He raises his head as soon as he is done.
 “Coach D, this means you will have to run 4.666-minute miles. Can you do that?!”
“Of course I can,” I responded, both amused and impressed, not at the fact that he had gotten the calculations wrong, but that at 10 years old he felt compelled to calculate the pace I would have to hold in order to finish on time, and that he could do long division and correctly, respectively. Being held to such a high standard, I had to run!

A Tennis Career = A Marathon: 4 lessons Learnt Running a Marathon

1. Practice, practice, practice: This is clich√©, but rings true for life challenges that require even minimal professional performance to complete. The bottom line is I did not practice for the marathon at all! Yet, there is an ease in performance when execution is done by a well-practiced individual, especially in pressure situations as shown by my 5th hour performance of the race breakdown. 

With practice, one acquires confidence as well, and self-belief alone on a tennis court can decide matches even before they are played:

“The game is 50% mental, 45% physical, and 5% tennis” ~ Juan Carlos Ferrero, French Open Winner 2003.

Practice also helps increase accuracy (shot making skills). Few things are more fun in tennis than exposing an opponent’s weakness and mercilessly chipping away at it and watching them fall apart in their game as well as mentally! But you have to have the shot making skills to open and find the weakness repeatedly, on demand. Well trained players know how to hide their weakness and do so extremely well.

2.    Good form and technique goes a long way: I am not a runner, but from observing those around me during the marathon, it was clear that my form and technique was off. Long distance runners’ feet and arm movements look compact and precise, used as needed and no more. Likewise, the biomechanics of executing tennis strokes have been perfected in the modern game to closely complement our natural day-to-day body movements:

If it feels like you are working too hard to hit any shot, you probably are" ~ Coach D
This is why tennis players spend hours on the tennis court ingraining tennis strokes to muscle memory. Under pressure, well grooved form and technique is more easily summoned, as it is almost a part of you, by comparison to muscled form and technique. Good examples are seen in Sampras’s serve, Richard Gasquet and Stanslas Wawrinka’s backhands, Feliciano Lopez’s touch shots. The same reasoning and argument can be put forth between Rafael Nadal’s footwork versus Monfils and Federer’s. Although all athletes are exceptionally quick and display impressive athleticism, where Rafa seems to trudge across the court, the later athletes seem to glide above the surface almost. Over a career’s length comparison, there is a lot to be said about the “beating” their bodies take and how well they hold up to injury. It is safe to say an athlete whose body is punished more breaks down faster and comparatively speaking, conditioned athletes who experience little to no damaging impact have longer, healthier careers. This becomes increasingly clear when we compare across different sports.

3.    Staying Loose and having a Relaxed Body: My explosive efforts which required every ounce of muscle and effort were too taxing to hold up in the duration of the marathon. This is important in conserving energy. Nerves and counterproductive reflexes as a result of unrefined skill can cause us to tighten up. In doing so, we expend unnecessary energy into muscles that yield no direct contribution to the effort at hand. With a loose and relaxed body, we conservatively and efficiently concentrate our efforts towards the desired shot.
Pace yourself: If I had to put these lessons in order, this would be #1. I strongly feel if I had paced myself I would have hit better times.    

My body almost did shut down. After mile 18, there was little running in my walk! I have told a few friends that if I had stopped moving, or sat down for a second I would not have gotten back up. I was happy to finish the marathon! Funny because it is true--at some point, I was actually feeling cold and wishing I had a sweatshirt on! I was laughing at myself thinking who feels cold during a marathon?! I also could not help noticing the most senior of citizens, in their laboured jogs, whizzing past me at what seemed at the time Aston Martin speeds! Embarrassment, I would not say that much but running the marathon was a truly humbling and educating experience indeed!

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