Recently, my husband has been teaching me to play racquetball. He’s a really good instructor, my husband. He’s patient, knowledgeable, and fair. He offers praise when I’m doing well and little nudges when I’m not. And, he’s competitive, which makes me work harder. For example, there are times when he’s going easy on me, and I’ll start to get cocky and lazy – then, BAM! He’ll hit what seems like a 90 MPH kill shot right at the base of the front wall. Game over.
Since our first few times on the court together, I’ve started going to the gym alone to practice. I hit ball after ball against the wall, practicing my forehand and backhand, studying the way the ball caroms off the walls, and trying to learn how to use the back wall to my advantage (still can’t do that). But, the most important thing I work on is the very first lesson that my husband taught me: Get to the spot. He says that it’s not how hard you hit the ball or how many cool moves you have; it’s knowing where the ball will be and getting there. If you can’t get there, you lose.
Racquetball is fast, erratic, and lawless; it’s tennis on steroids. Much like life itself, there are rules, but not many; and, there is no out of bounds. Perhaps most similar to life, however, is the aforementioned point: getting there is the most important aspect of the game. This implies, then, that you also need to be flexible, light and quick on your feet, and ready for anything.
Since beginning this newly found hobby, I have contemplated the idea of getting there and what it means on its various levels. I always think first of my students. One of the biggest reasons students don’t pass my classes is that they don’t come; they just stop getting there. I explain to them early in the semester that 90% of their success, not only in my course but in life, is about the simple act of just SHOWING UP.
If they’ve mastered the showing up bit, there are still other aspects of getting there. Just as a racquetball player must not only know where the ball is but where it will end up, so, too, do my students have to make predictions and adjustments based on what is forthcoming, not necessarily what is happening at the moment. This difficult skill is one aspect of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, in which he advises his readers to trust in and make predictions based upon their instincts but ONLY when they have enough previous skill, knowledge, or experience to support those instincts. I see in my students the tendency to make unfounded judgments and/or poor predictions because they don’t have enough previous skill, knowledge, or experience to make those judgments or anticipations. They have a serious lack of critical thinking skills, and this gets in the way of their getting there.
On the flip side of this coin is a teacher’s ability to get there as well. To find fault only in our students’ inabilities to get there is overly simplistic and downright wrong. If the students are the racquetball, bouncing randomly and erratically from wall to wall, then we need to anticipate where they’re going to land and how best to meet them there so that we can keep them in play. We need to rein them in and guide them, like well-strung racquets, toward the front wall, or, more realistically, toward meeting their goals.
While the racquetball court, like a classroom, appears on the surface to be a cage full of randomness, it’s actually quite predictable after a while. There are certain moves that will spur success, and certain moves – namely not getting there – that end in defeat. However, if we only see the randomness, if we think we’re not in control, then we’re missing all of the patterns that would actually make our jobs, as racquetball players and/or teachers, easier.
No matter how much time I spend on the racquetball court, the ball continues to fool me. I still trip over my feet, still come unglued when I swing wildly at a ball that whizzes by me with no care at all for my effort. But, every time that ball bounces right when I thought it was going left is, for me, a lesson learned. It’s yet another image that I store in my priceless trove of experiences so that I know for the next time how and when to get there.