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The Martial Art of Tennis?

Now normally, when we think of sports as being related to martial arts, Tennis is not the first to leap to mind. Yet the other day, I had the opportunity to take a lesson from my uncle, Dick Wagner, who is a former Tennis pro. Pretty soon into the lesson, I started noticing similarities between things my uncle Dick said, and things that Soke talks about when we train in Japan, as well as aspects of learning tennis itself. And by taking a Tennis lesson, I was able to gain some insight into our martial arts training. So here are some thoughts on the connection between two seemingly unrelated activities.

Starting From Scratch

I have been studying Ninjutsu for almost a decade now. And when devoting yourself to something so long, you begin to forget what it felt like being a complete novice. So it can be very sobering to try something completely new and realizing that – well – it’s not easy. It makes you appreciate the time and effort to make something look effortless – to move “naturally”. It can be both a check to the ego, and make you appreciate how far you’ve come.

Ball on a String

Dick pulled out what he referred to as his most valuable teaching tool for learning how to swing a racket – a ball on a string. He uses this to teach how to flow and follow through with the swing while turning your body. Pretty much, it’s how we teach something called a “Kusari fundo” – a chain with a weight on each end. Like the Kusari, swinging a tennis racket is more about moving your body than just your arms. Who knew that all that Kusari training was teaching us how to play better tennis!

Old Habits

Getting good at something is often just as much about unlearning old habits as building new ones. I found it difficult to get the swing down because I kept wanting to protect my chest. This is because it was drilled into me that when you move you always want to protect your chest. Naturally, when swinging the tennis racket, keeping my left arm across my chest was interrupting my swing.

It used to be that you had to study another Martial Art before you could begin studying Ninjutsu (2 years I believe). This was changed to no previous experience because many teachers found that they had to break certain habits students had from the previous art. Apparently, breaking habits is true for things other than Martial Arts training.

Do Less – Sooner

This is where things got very interesting. Dick kept emphasizing “do less sooner – rather than more later” (The scene from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” where the lead character learns surfing immediately leaped to mind). As Dick explained in context of tennis, people have a tendency to chase the ball and compensate by using a lot of effort – working hard to get the ball back over the net. He proposed that you should move sooner to put yourself where you need to be – and do less to actually hit the ball. In fact, begin your swing early and move slowly rather than wait for the ball to be a foot in front of you and try to squeeze your swing in at the last second. Same set of actions – just less effort.

This of course rings true for martial arts. In the beginning, we tend to try to “force” a technique, relying on strength. We use that extra effort to compensate for the things we lack – timing, positioning, etc. – so that we can make things work. New students seem to have this thought pattern where “when in doubt, use more power.” This creates a habit of try to power through things (which of course only works if you’re stronger), and inhibits understanding the purpose of the technique.

We always talk about the “3 pound rule” in classes; to make a technique work, you should only need 3 pounds of pressure. If you place yourself where you need to be at the right time, no strength is required to make things work. Hence, “do less – sooner”.

Getting to Zero

In context of above, Dick kept saying it’s about getting to zero – or simply being in the moment. He explained that when you’re truly present things slow down and become effortless. It’s about becoming as efficient as possible in the moment. It’s that split second when everything comes together. Everything else is just getting to the ball.

Soke often talks about being in the moment and using zero effort in technique. In fact, it’s something all the Shihan in Japan talk about as well. What Soke, the Shihan and Dick were explaining was this feeling of being in the zone when you’re not trying to think things through. Instead, your brain shuts down and the body takes over. Both training in Japan and my lesson with Dick, I heard the phrase “focus on the feeling” or “the feeling is important”. Reason being is that the feeling is what will be replicated – both in a fight or a tennis match – not a set of arbitrary movements.

A Universal Truth…

Dick Wagner has been playing Tennis for about 50 years, and Soke Masaaki Hatsumi has been studying Martial Arts for over 60 years. It seems to me that when you devote yourself to perfecting your craft to that degree, you begin to uncover certain universal truths. It’s the same for watching athletes at the top of their game, and seeing the Shihan teach a class; everything starts to look effortless. It becomes less about mechanics and more about replicating a feeling, more about efficiency, more about the moment. Finally, it becomes less about the activity itself, rather than person doing it – whether it be tennis or Ninjutsu. It’s like that old saying in martial arts: “It’s the practitioner that makes the art, not the art that makes the practitioner.

Any sport or activity that you think shares a connection to Martial Arts? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Shikin Haramitsu Daikoumiyo

If you’ve ever taken a Martial Arts class at a Bujinkan Dojo, you’ve heard those three somewhat difficult Japanese words shouted at the beginning and end of class: Shiken Haramitsu Daikoumyo. These words have profound significance – but only if you understand what they mean (much less say them). Here we’re going to translate this Buddhist mantra, and the meaning behind one of the most often used phrases in Bujinkan training.

Shu-Ha-Ri: Phases of Training

Shuhari – “Preserve, Break, Transcend”
There are considered 3 phases of training in Bujinkan Ninjutsu (and most Japanese Martial Arts) – “Shu, Ha & Ri”. These phases focus on what the intention and the approach of the student should be towards their training at a particular level.

1 Comment

  1. Matthew Woodard

    Ballroom dancing is another activity that can teach a person the correct feeling. Perhaps that could be your next lesson?!? It would make for a great contrast article.

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