Curly (Jack Palance): Do
you know what the secret of life is?
Mitch (Billy Crystal): No,
Curly: One thing, just one
thing. You stick to that and everything else don't mean nothin.
Mitch: That's great, but
what's the one thing?
Curly: That's what you got
to figure out.
By Kim Shanley
The TennisONE Community
According to sports psychologists, discovering the one thing
is also the secret of athletic performance. In his book Peak
Performance, Dr. Charles Garfield declares, "Achieving peak
performance begins with the discovery, complete acceptance, and
development of skills to exercise consciously the power of volition.
This power makes itself known in a variety of ways: as an all-encompassing
desire for success, or in the feeling, 'I will do it.'"
Volition (the power of choosing or determining) is at the
heart of peak performance and becomes a means of understanding
Curly's admonition to figure out the one thing. Abraham
Maslow, famous for placing self-actualization as the highest
of man's needs, says this about peak performers: "Self-actualizing
people, those who have come to a high level of maturation, health,
and self-fulfillment, have so much to teach us that sometimes
they seem almost like a different breed of human beings."
This is where I believe we can truly learn something from
studying great athletes. Some rightful measure of admiration
will always be given to those among us who are "swifter,
higher, stronger" (Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius).
I want to distinguish between the great athletes who simply run
faster or jump higher, from those very special few who combine
athletic excellence with the ability to live swifter, higher,
and braver (classic definition of Fortius is "braver").
They may not have figured out all the secrets of life, but they
seemed to have figured out the one thing that makes them
Amor Fati ("To love one's fate")
My formula for greatness in a human being is amor
fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not
backward, not in all eternity. -Friedrich Nietzsche
Before he was diagnosed with a very aggressive and deadly
form of testicular cancer, Lance Armstrong enjoyed success as
a professional bike racer, but there was some part of him that
still resisted his life. In his first book, It's Not about
the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, Armstrong says, "I
had never embraced my life. I had made something of it, and fought
for it, but I had never particularly enjoyed it." I would
call this stage of spiritual development the "life-is-hard-enough,
I -don't-want-to-dig-deeper" stage. And it is hard. And
as long as we have a measure of success, we feel excused from
digging any deeper. But then one day you lose the most important
match or race of your life, or someone close to you has a terrible
car accident, or a doctor walks into a room and tells you have
a cancer that will probably kill you. Then the world somersaults:
choice vanishes, and you're forced to dig deeper than you ever
thought you would have to dig. Early in his struggle with cancer,
Armstrong receives a mysterious letter from a fellow cancer patient
who has heard of Armstrong's cancer diagnosis: "You don't
know it yet, but we're the lucky ones."
Armstrong had no way of understanding the meaning of this
letter while he was still being stripped of all his assumptions
about himself, including the fundamental fiction that he would
not live forever. Armstrong admits that before his cancer, he
wasn't cutting it as a man or as a champion cyclist: "I
raced with no respect. Absolutely none. I paraded, mouthed off,
shoved my fists in the air. I never backed down. The journalists
loved me; I was different. I made good copy, I was colorful.
But I was making enemies."
I see the same arc of development between Lance Armstrong
and Andre Agassi. I remember when Agassi ("Image is Everything")
was at the same stage as Armstrong. In 1989, three years after
he turned pro, Agassi, the rock-star/tennis wonderchild of the
streaming hair and day-glo outfits, faced off against the three-time
US Open champion Ivan Lendl in the US Open semi-final. Agassi,
the brilliant but impatient shot-maker, went for winner after
winner in the first set. Though he lost the first set in a tie-breaker,
he had wowed the crowd and could have undermined the confidence
of a less mature opponent. Lendl, the dour, gritty champion,
was unperturbed by this extraordinary set. He understood he couldn't
be beaten by an opponent who continuously went for such extraordinary
shots. Lendl proceeded to methodically dismantle Agassi in the
next three sets, and by the end, Agassi had obviously given up,
losing 1-6 in the final set. I remember the interviewer after
the match trying to get Lendl to acknowledge how brilliantly
Agassi played in the first set. Lendl wouldn't have any of it.
He shrugged and shook his head and said that he couldn't understand
how Agassi could gamble with his shot-making when there was so
much riding on the match. It was obvious he didn't respect Agassi
(earlier he said all Agassi needed was "a haircut and a
forehand"), just like Armstrong's competitors didn't respect
Through their losses, through their suffering, through their
courage, both Agassi and Armstrong do come to grips with the
one thing. The poisonous brew of chemo drugs he ingested
for 18 months kills Armstrong's cancer, but it also burns through
the wall of arrogance and fear he had erected to protect him
from those that had hurt him and a world that hadn't welcomed
him. With the doctors' permission to resume training, Armstrong
discovers the one thing after a series of lung-searing
training rides in the Appalachian Mountains: "I was restored.
I was a bike racer again. The rides were demanding and quiet,
and I rode with a pure love of the bike." Whereas in the
past he dreaded the cold, rainy days of competition in the Tour
de Fance, here's what Armstrong says when he wakens to a freezing
rain the day of an important mountain stage: "I hopped out
of bed and threw back the curtains, and I burst out laughing.
'Perfect,' I said. It was suffering weather, the kind that could
defeat a lot of guys as soon as they got up in the morning. I
announced to my teammates, 'This is a day at the beach. Bring
Agassi's transformation wasn't as dramatic, but he endured
a near-death experience as a top tennis player, losing a championship
match he was favored to win (US Open 1995) and dropping to number
141 in the player's ranking. At that low point, he was told his
mother and sister had cancer. What changed Agassi is hard to
say. No doubt Brad Gilbert's challenge played a part: "If
you want to re-dedicate yourself, I'm there with you. But if
you don't want to re-dedicate yourself, we're not doing each
other any good." As he rose from number 141 back to number
1 in the world, Agassi shed the rock-star, the wonderchild, the
Hollywood persona, leaving him just one thing. Today,
his lean body and all-black outfits convey his ascetic dedication
to that one thing, his shaven head symbolic of the non-attachment
of a Zen monk. Now the grand old man of the tour, listen to the
depth of Agassi's heart and purpose, even after losing to Ferrero
at this year's US Open semi-final:
"For me it's about challenging myself, pushing myself.
I can live without the competition, to be quite honest. I can
live without the hard work. But I can't live without knowing
what it feels like to try to accomplish something that I don't
believe, that I question if I can. I think that's what drives
me. Every time I'm on the court, it's, it feels to me like I
have to overcome, I have to overcome a lot. I enjoy pushing myself."
Myth of Sisyphus
Does something terrible have to happen for you to shed your
inauthentic shell and to experience Nietzsche's amor fati (love
of one's fate), becoming the one thing you are meant to do? It
doesn't appear to be true of great athletes like Jack Nicklaus
or Tiger Woods, who seemed to have the one thing hard-coded
in their genes and therefore could forgo the life-changing dramas
of an Armstrong or an Agassi.
But having said that, I'm afraid the counsel of the wisest
among us is that there are no short-cuts, no enlightenment-for-dummies
guidebook on this journey. One way of shedding some light on
this subject is to look at the meaning of myth, as myth encompasses
the physical and spiritual, as well as the psychological and
philosophical. I recalled the famous essay, The Myth of Sisyphus,
by Albert Camus, the French existential philosopher. Here's how
Camus ends his essay:
The struggle itself toward the heights is enough
to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
- The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus
Like Prometheus, who was punished for stealing fire from the
gods and giving it to man, Sisyphus was a rebel and a benefactor
of mankind. After he dies, he's given a brief reprieve to ascend
from Hades and return to earth. According to Camus, when Sisyphus
once again sees "the face of this world, enjoyed water and
sun, warm stones and the sea, he no longer wanted to go back
to the infernal darkness." Furious at his rebellion, the
gods snatch Sisyphus and return him to the underworld. There,
they sentence him to the most terribly frustrating task imaginable:
he must forever push a stone to the top of a hill. What's worse,
Sisyphus can never complete his task. The stone always rolls
down before he gets it to the top.
Sisyphus' story is so bleak that the most hopeless, frustrating
task imaginable bears his name. So how can Camus say that we
must think of Sisyphus as happy? No way he's happy, I
said when I first read this in my twenties in college. Nice
try, Albert. I know you believed in man's free choice and man's
heroic nature, but this is asking too much.
Perhaps at this moment, you share my former position. Yet
I now admit I was wrong. The startling epiphany that I had been
wrong-headed all these years about Camus' claim of happiness
for Sisyphus didn't fully hit me until I had read Lance Armstrong's
two books: It's Not About the Bike, My Journey Back to Life,
and Every Second Counts.
Armstrong, like Sisyphus, loved life too much. At twenty-five
years old, he was a world champion cyclist and a millionaire
bachelor with the whole world at his feet. He tells his mother
at his twenty-fifth birthday party, "I'm the happiest man
in the world." The punishment for loving life too much was
swift and terrible. The next morning after his birthday party
he's told a virulent cancer is racing through his body.
Then Armstrong begins his Sisyphean task of enduring an 18
month regimen of surgeries and chemotherapy, where the odds are
very low that Armstrong will ever push his stone to the top of
the hill and be declared healthy. Yet the suffering burns through
his superficial ego and what's left is a new man who loves his
fate. "Cancer made me want to do more than just live: it
made me want to live in a certain way. The near-death experience
stripped something away. Illness had left me with a clear view
of the difference between real fear and mere disquiet, and of
everything worth having, and doing."
Let me be clear: I am not saying everyone should look
forward to their doctor telling them they have cancer or any
other potentially terminal disease. And God forbid that anyone
you know suffers a terrible accident so that you can get a shot
at enlightenment. But I am saying that there is no shortcut to
finding the one thing. This is one of the meanings of
the cross, the ultimate symbol of suffering. It's also the meaning
of "the hill" in the lives of the superb athletes who,
as Armstrong says, "redefine what's humanly possible."
I now agree with Camus. When we visualize an Andre Agassi,
a Lance Armstrong, or the mythic figure of Sisyphus struggling
up the hill, we must see them embracing their suffering and destiny
to be the one thing they were set on earth to be. Yes,
they must give up attachment to the comforts and comforting thoughts
most of us cling to (including the ongoing myth we'll never die).
But in return they are given the hard happiness and the power
of the one thing. The myth of giving up one's life to
be worthy of another is central to myth and religion, and helps
explains Jesus' paradoxical statement, "For whosoever will
save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life
for my sake shall find it."
Death turned to life, loss to joy, being many things to being
one thing. Armstrong sums it up best, "But near-death
cleared the decks, and what came after was a bright, sparkling
awareness: time is limited, so I better wake up every morning
fresh and know that I have just one chance to live this particular
day right, and to string my days together into a life of action,
Yes, one must imagine Sisyphus happy.
As always, I would love to hear your views on the subjects
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"Advancing to the Next Level!" by Dave Smith
Perhaps more than any other sport, tennis produces two distinct
classes of players: those who progressively improve and those
who stagnate at the lower levels. Dave Smith presents a blue
print for success but it's not easy. You must be willing to discard
comfortable but ineffective stroke patterns. Are you ready for
First Things First: Dead Hands," by Jim McLennan
You are on the baseline, waiting in an excellent ready position.
and now you see the ball coming to the backhand side. Your first
move is a simple, economical turn, but what do you do with your
hands? Jim McLennan has a surprising yet obvious answer - nothing
at all! Find out why in this insightful article.
and Win: The Slice," by Tom March
At the top levels of tennis, the game has gotten bigger. Bigger,
stronger athletes hitting bigger serves and groundstrokes. Mary
Carillo calls it "First Strike" tennis. It's a winning
formula, yet Tom March thinks there is something missing in the
arsenal of many aspiring players: the slice. The irony is the
bigger and more aggressive the game, the more the slice shot
Exclusively on TennisONE
Daniela Hantuchova - Groundstrokes
Hantuchova exploded on to the tennis scene at Indian Wells
when she became the lowest seed to win a tier one event. Since
then she's garnered more notoriety for her weight, or lack of
it, then anything she's accomplished on the court. Still, her
groundstrokes are solid and she can hit with power and touch.
A good model to learn from.