I'm basically in the field of software engineering. Perhaps unlike many people in the field I find it vaguely dissatisfying. I've always felt that programming trafficked in the arbitrary. I'll give a recent example.
I was trying to run some script in a Linux/Unix environment. For some reason, it wouldn't do anything. The explanation for the problem? In Windows, if you hit the return key while typing a document, it inserts two characters in the file: a carriage return and a linefeed. This is just the way Windows does things.
But in Linux, they've decided two characters is silly, and they use the single newline (the linefeed is really a newline). Linux itself is stupid. When it sees the carriage return, rather than ignore it, it panics and does nothing. I'm anthropomorphizing, of course, but that's the gist of what's going on. So, rather than Windows finally doing what Unix/Linux does, there's this mismatch that makes everyone aware of what a mess the two systems are.
Programming is full of arbitrary rules like this. People say Ruby is a language that follows POLS, that is, the principle of least surprise. Most programming environments are simply surprise after surprise with people following their own standards and thus creating a myriad of mess. Let's face it, I'm guilty of this too. Given my druthers, I'm unlikely to research what others have done, and make my own way, thus contributing to the mess. Sometimes I think software needs to go through an approval process and if it fails, you have to go back and fix it. And this approval process is external to the company. Given how secretive most companies are, we're doomed to mediocre, poorly written, idiosyncratic software.
This is perhaps why I like sports. The goals are often very simple, and yet the achievement very difficult because there is no one right answer, and yet, what's going on is fairly transparent.
In particular, my latest obsession has been the forehand in tennis.
If you've never played tennis, let me briefly tell you a little about it. First, I hope you know what a tennis court looks like and what a racquet look like. I want you to visualize yourself standing at the baseline. That's the line parallel to the net that the players stand at. It's probably 30 feet from the net. Your shoulders are parallel to the net which means you are facing the net.
Now put your hands straight down, your palms gripping the outside of your legs. Then, pull your palms away until it's maybe 2 feet from your body (on your side), where your hand is about waist height, your arms straight. Essentially your arms form an upside down V. Let you hands point basically down, your palm facing the net.
For sake of simplicity, let's assume you are right handed. Suppose someone tosses the ball to your right hand. You bat the ball with the palm so that it faces the net. That would be the forehand.
Now imagine someone tosses the ball to your left hand. Take your right hand and move it to where your left hand is as if you are clapping. This would likely mean you turning your shoulders left to make this clapping motion. When the ball is heading to your left hand, which is now covered by your right hand (as if you stopped at the motion of clapping), bat the ball with the back of your right hand toward the net. That's the backhand.
Most people find the forehand more natural, even though the backhand is simpler and mostly involves pushing away, while the forehand involves a more complex pulling motion.
In modern tennis, the forehand is king. If you're likely to hit a hard, powerful shot, it's going to be the forehand. There are many great forehands, very few great backhands. These days, many people hit their backhands with two hands, using their left hand and right hand in concert.
This style, almost unseen prior to the 1970s, has become the prevalent way to hit the backhand, a result of many youths learning to play when they are young, and that a two-handed shot can deal with more difficult shots (the high backhand) and be more accurate down-the-line. The one-handed backhand means you must learn at least two shots, the slice for when you lack the time to set up, and the topspin, which is the power shot.
To me, the backhand is a simpler shot, having less mechanics. I could be wrong.
Instead, I've obsessed over the forehand.
You think this is a trivial pursuit. The goal is indeed trivial, but the pursuit challenging. How do you hit a hard forehand? The thoughts have changed over the years.
Throughout the 1960s, tennis players had simplified the hitting motion as much as they could. They didn't believe in much spin, now a key component to the modern forehand. They didn't believe in a loop motion, where modern players carve out a C motion to increase racquet head speed.
Instead, the racquet was taken straight back so it pointed to the back fence and then, in a fairly straight motion, the racquet was brought forward until eventually the racquet pointed to the net about shoulder height, while the weight was transferred from the right foot to the left foot in a stepping motion. This weight transfer was the secret to power in the classic game.
The modern game has players typically standing with both feet side by side about shoulder width apart, parallel to the baseline. The player rotates at the waist to the right, then create angular momentum by twisting the waist so the torso moves from facing the right to facing the left. The body plays a role, but the way it gets involved is a twisting motion.
Most weekend players don't realize how much the body plays a role in power. People say momentum is mass times velocity. If you swing mostly with the arm, then you are using less mass. If you can coordinate your body so that your torso twists at the same time your arm moves, indeed, so your arm acts like a catapult where your body is the spring, then you will add more mass behind the shot, and thus create a more powerful shot.
Still, there are other factors involved. They involve the arm itself, how far away from the body to hit, whether the arm should be straight or have a bend, how the wrist is oriented, how you hold the racquet, what angle it forms.
If I were to show you a video of a top player, say Roger Federer, in slow motion, I could point out any of a number of things that he is doing. If you were to imitate Roger Federer, and believe me, it would only be an imitation, you would become increasingly aware of the most minute details.
How much of a role each of his idiosyncrasies plays in his overall power is unclear. To be sure, each professional has their own quirks, some of which may simply be comfort, an extraneous motion that has been added after years of hitting hundreds of thousands or millions of tennis balls.
Despite the variation, there are common aspects that great modern tennis players use, including how smooth the racquet moves, how the follow-through is achieved, how the racquet face is oriented as the racquet accelerates to the ball, how the weight is transferred. There is a core basic structure to the modern forehand, which doesn't resemble the forehand hit, say, by players in the 1930s, like Big Bill Tilden or Rene Lacoste, who had a different conception of how the forehand should be hit.
I realize, watching video, that I didn't know this core structure, and it took watching a lot of pro players, then watching myself on video, to realize how herky-jerky my motion was. Also, I needed someone to point out how stiff my body was, how tense it was.
Tennis, like many sports, is not without a sense of irony. While players like to think of the sport like bodybuilders think of lifting weights, with aggression, with muscle, the fact is that muscling the ball tends to slow down your shot, and that the secret is being relaxed and moving your body quickly, in concert, while being relaxed. The relaxation allows the muscles to move more quickly, not impeded by stiffness.
I picked Roger Federer mostly because he was number 1, and compared to current number 1, Rafael Nadal, his forehand motion is very simple. His motion isn't as simple as, say, Agassi, who was known for his compact setup, and serves as role model to many a player. The modern player has added a lengthier setup, including Federer and Murray, and often have a very large torso rotation starting the motion with the chest facing the right fence and ending up with the chest facing the left fence, thus a full 180 degree of rotation. Such drastic torso motion was uncommon in the 1950s, but has contributed to the modern forehand.
You would think a guy my age (40) would not care to learn a new forehand after having played the game this long, and yet I've always tinkered with my forehand over the years, trying to imitate this pro or that. Only recently have I realized I lacked the proper tools and the proper way to watch pros to make anything close to a realistic imitation.
With YouTube and dedicated fans, you can now get access to a whole host of videos of pros hitting in slow motion. That combined with your own camcorder has created a way for a player to analyze pro strokes and compare it to their own. Realize that we lack the fine motor control of a top professional and thus we can't even begin to approach the accuracy or the raw speed that they can generate.
Even so, you can get the basics right and that can help out your shot tremendously.
I find that I am fighting muscle memory. I want to hit the forehand a certain way, and the body wants to do something else, and I have to figure out how to trick the body to make it do what I want. It's not easy, indeed, I've spent months trying to get the motion right.
It requires constant re-checking. What is Roger Federer really doing? What am I really doing? Does a certain motion that he does really work for me or not? I have to give myself a chance to learn how to hit, and this involves hours spent at a tennis wall. The tennis wall isn't ideal as it doesn't replicate what a player does. It's a poor man's substitute, but it doesn't get impatient, and it is free. So it serves its purpose (a tennis wall is a wall that has a line painted so simulate a net).
Ultimately, the proof is the quality of ball hit, but I also feel that part of it is the swing path. Not only do I want to hit an effective forehand, but I believe an effective forehand comes about due to a nice pretty stroke. Thus, I want both. So I keep laboring, analyzing, tinkering, and hoping to achieve a goal of a nice forehand which I can eventually just ingrain and not think about much.
Always a work in progress.
corrections - - Chick Corea (note the spelling) was a member of Miles Davis' band. - Graham Chapman, the only Graham in the group, is the only deceased mem...
1 month ago