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  • Writer's pictureNeal Hagberg

Relax Your Grip

Have you ever seen someone grip something so hard you swear they are going to burst their muscles, tendons, and blood vessels all at the same time? I have. Over and over.

Many campers, particularly adults, appear to be on some sort of secret mission, for which an enemy agent will have to pry their cold, dead hands off their racket handle before getting them to release the evidence.

And so, perhaps, the single most effective teaching tool we use at Tennis & Life Camps are three simple words: “Relax your grip.”

When you say that, and the player does it, seemingly miraculous things happen. Try it once right now. Make a tight fist. As tight as you possibly can. Then release. The entire body relaxes, not just the arm. There is a physical transformation in the posture. Players hit the ball with more power. More authority. More accuracy (“How is that possible, since my arm is so loose????” they ask. “Magic”, I answer…).

And then they look up and say, “It doesn’t hurt!”, as if it should hurt to hit a stroke. I ask them, “Do you

want it to hurt? We can make it hurt again.” “No!!!!”

Then they say, “But it feels like I’m hardly working.” I ask them, “Do you want to feel like you’re working

hard, so your arm feels ready to fall off halfway through a match? We can make that reoccur if you want.” “No!!!!”

Then they say, “It feels so natural.” I ask them, “Do you want it to feel awkward and tight? We can make

that happen with just a snap of the fingers.” “No!!!!!!!”

“Ok, then, looks like we’re in agreement.” But they look doubtful. Dubious. Possibly duped. How can just relaxing the grip do all that? How can simpler and easier be more effective? How can letting go make our aim truer? The answer is, I don’t know how to explain it. I just know it works.

When a player relaxers her/his grip, I can see the tension melt away and the need to control give way to trusting that the body knows what it is doing. And the only thing that pops to bursting – as a player hits a fluid, powerful stroke right where they aimed it without aiming – are their eyeballs. “How did that happen???” “Magic,” I say.

But the fact is, we don’t want simple answers. We want complicated, sophisticated, technical jargon to explain things. Anything. It makes us feel smart. And important. And like what we are doing is worth doing. That we are in control. The harder we grip, the more control we think we have. But, in tennis and in life, the opposite is actually true. The tighter we grip, the more we lose power, accuracy, and stamina. And, eventually, we lose heart.

Relaxing the grip reverses all of this and re-energizes us.

Which is why my phrase for the coming year is (surprise!), “Relax your grip.” For my life.

I think of my three mentors in my life, and I hear their words. Steve Wilkinson, co-founder of TLC. “Focus on the things you can control, and let go of the rest.” Chuck Lofy, organizational change author and facilitator. “Your job is to do the work. You must be detached from the outcome.” And Dennis Johnson, former Gustavus president. “Hagberg. Lighten up.” (Everyone needs a mentor like this in their life).

All are saying the same thing: relax your grip.

Which is an amazing philosophy. Except, if you are like me, you sometimes think you can control everything. Not much to let go of, is there, when you believe you can control everything? I have gone through a number of situations in my life in the past year that have left me wanting to hold on tighter rather than let go. It is exhausting. And counter-productive.

Until someone – my spouse, usually – walks up to me and says, in effect, “You need to relax your grip on this situation that is eating away at you. You cannot control whether that other person is ever going to treat you with respect. And by trying to control their response, the only person you are hurting is yourself and those you love.”

Or, my daughter, who said, “What do you want to see happen?” when I wanted to hurt someone who had hurt me. Her simple question made me realize hurting someone back is not what I want to see in my life or in the world. And the simple question allowed me to relax my grip. Intentionally. It changes everything. How I see the world, how I see my opponent, how I see myself.

But it never happens overnight. No matter how old we get. It. Takes. Time. Patience. Practice. Failure. Starting again. Creating a new pattern. And repetition of the mantra, over and over, “Relax your grip.”

Try it. And watch your game and your life unfold in ways you cannot yet imagine.


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