Mar

10

My early pro career was playing hard for tournament T-shirts and trophies, plus perfection. The attitude hasn't changed over the increasing prize-money years, except I'm grateful not to hitchhike around the nation to senior tournaments.

Have my patience from these early excursions where, one sunny Nebraska day, I learned the granddaddy secret of all racquet sports and others using a stinking implement- horizontal fences and vertical telephone poles.

Gym bag in hand, and thumbing rides with the other, I peered at a rockpile alongside the road, and then up-and-down at a telephone pole behind a rail fence. I dropped everything to throw rocks with a mind's eye on sport. The basic throwing motions were sidearm, overhand, underhand, ¾ overhand and ¾ underhand. The conclusion was the most accurate, by far, for the telephone pole, was the overhand throw. Bam, Bam BAM the rocks struck the post.

Gathering more rocks, I eyed the horizontal fence rail. The sidearm throw produced a huge correlation with smash, Smash, SMASH.

Even with the off-left hand, the overhand pounded the vertical, and the sidearm the horizontal.

Take a moment to ponder, why, and what are the targets in tennis, squash, racquetball, badminton, baseball, football throw, soccer, even golf or a martial arts blow?

My expertise is racquetball and paddleball, where the horizontal and vertical targets are for killshots and down-line passes, respectively. Each target lies in a narrow horizontal (and vertical) plane that spreads from point of contact on the racquet forward.

In these sports, a 1'-high stripe or tape is applied to the front wall from sidewall-to-sidewall, like a squash tin, except with a different strategy. The real or imaginary 'tin' resounds from a killshot with a bang!. The most noise is generated on the forehand sidearm swings like a baseball bat, and on backhands like a Frisbee throw.

The down-line pass, oppositely, requires vertical accuracy to insure it within an upright alley along either sidewall. This shot is the second only to the killer in a racquetball arsenal, yet discover for yourself with anything you wish to hit, fling, pass or kick that vertical accuracy is honed with an overhand (or underhand softball pitch) action.

Winning is all about increasing your margin of stroke error.

A quick analog shows the work: A right-handed baseball batter swings at a fastball, and then at a change-up, that angle in sequence down the right and left sidelines. The batter's bat was 'late' on the first pitch (behind the ball), and 'early' on the second (ahead of the ball). You may also see this in every other racket sport, especially the zealous tennis vertical overhead early into the net.

However, in racquetball for horizontal kills, it really doesn't matter if you're late or early in the contact zone, because whether the ball angles right or left off the racquet is immaterial. It still hits the target tin. The advent of the speedy ball in many racket sports met with a deeper, crisper strike with a flattened face to allow nanoseconds extra set-up time, and using a lower grip to square the face with the front wall. Take a side swing for greater stroke forgiveness on kills, or tennis shots that brush the net, or squash nicks just over the tin.

Similarly, the margin of error for racquetball pass shots, tennis line serves and squash rail shots is better a looping vertical stroke that, if struck late or early, simply lifts higher or lower to hit the vertical target. Now, think of activities where an edge goes with selecting a three-quarter motion for dual horizontal and vertical accuracies. Examples are throwing a baseball to first base, archery, and avoiding an eagle in the pilot's seat. Edges repeated thousands of times spell a winning tide.

Now, leap to an understanding that the 'moment' of contact is a miniature unfolding of the full stroke. This small, time-measureable scenario of strings-on-ball recapitulates the larger stroke. The more proficient the player, the greater insight and longer the moment seems, yet all are assured the 'travel' of racket-on-sphere is longer and farther than you suspect.

Ergo, the interface is influential, I propose, more so than the stroke.

Having swung everything from my Complete Book of Racquetball, bleach bottle, 4'' mini-racket, and Converse shoe against Miss World, the premise is that the touted ideal stroke in any sport shrinks in import to the ensuing moment of contact. Precision is born during travel.

Instant replay: Run a mind's movie of the strings-on-ball during, say, a travel of half-second and two inches. Stop action: This few frames sequence determines the destiny in of the flying projectile. The more 'elastic' the moment, the fewer frames, and more difficult to control.

If during the interface the swing is level, despite being late or early, then horizontal accuracy propels the ball; or, if during travel the racquet angles up-to-down, or vice-versa, then vertical is mastered.

Years later, I presented the concept at a Florida clinic and asked the group why it was so that sidearms make better kills and vertical strokes better alley passes. A 12-year-old piped, "Because the contact stripes are in the same planes as the target stripes." There is no more succinct an explanation. I made it to the Colorado racquetball tourney, and beyond hitched and hoboed to hundreds more, all the while tossing stones, swatting flies, and ducking a few, that engineered a decade win streak after the original thrown rock.


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