16 November 2014

As I was playing racquetball this morning, I was thinking about the concept of the second serve.  For those unfamiliar with the idea, probably most widely known in tennis, it is the rule by which the server gets two attempts to get a serve into play.  If there is a fault (a failure to get the ball into the region of the court deemed legal for the serve to start play) on the first serve, a second attempt is granted.  I believe the motivation in having such a rule is to allow for the server to be able to try their hardest for a serve that is exceptionally hard to handle.  By having a first attempt at a serve where they are free to try their best attempt at a difficult serve without risk, attempts at more impressive service are incented and the result is better service.  This leads to competition in which a difficult first serve is attempted without risk and if the first fails, a safer second serve is used.  It is an arguable position to say that this leads to a more exciting and interesting competition.

It is common in tennis among experienced players for a player to have a blisteringly fast first serve with a lower percentage of being put into play but once being successfully put into play having a much higher percentage of points won relative to the second serve that is usually slower and easier to handle for the opponent, resulting in a higher percentage of being successfully put into play, but a lower percentage of the server winning the point.  In thinking about this, I began to wonder about the utility of the conservative second serve.  I wondered if a player is really better off by taking something off the serve on the second attempt.  I wondered, statistically, how letting it rip and executing an unreserved first-serve-style rocket for a second serve would compare for results.  I decided I’d like to do a mathematical, probabilistic analysis of a famous player with well-kept statistics to see how the numbers shake out.  Upon thinking of it, I was certain such number-crunching has been done and on searching, I was not disappointed.  I found an excellent analysis of Roger Federer’s points won on his first serve vs. his second serve and the resulting optimization of how difficult a serve should be attempted on the second serve.  Unsurprisingly, the result is that Federer is pretty close to optimal in his actual performance of second serve by laying off and being more conservative than on the first.

There is one thing, though, that remains unacknowledged in this analysis: Confidence.  When one executes a second serve without reservation and with full faith of successfully executing the most difficult of maneuvers, it sends a message.  Yes, it sends a message to opponents and any spectators and there is utility in that in the psychological game that is central to the experience of any competition.  More importantly, though, it sends a message to self.  Believing that successful execution requires less than a full effort can be viewed in one of two ways: it’s either a pragmatic acceptance of reality or a cowardly succumbing to self-doubt  If the former, it’s simply an exercise in managing risk.  If the latter, it’s a counter-productive case of giving in on confidence, that mental state that is of the utmost importance to success.

I do not doubt that using a softer second serve is really just about risk for Roger Federer and other tennis professionals.  At the same time, the idea of throwing caution to the wind and telling the subconscious “I’ve got this” has to have power as well.  In addition, Steven Kotler points out in The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance that risk is one of the triggers to flow, the state of being and neurochemistry most conducive to performance.  His book details at length the degree to which extreme athletes have excelled in achievement in a short period of time beyond the curve of expected progress and attributes this to the danger inherent in things like extreme ski and surf and rock climbing without safety precautions.  The observation is that, for these athletes, mistakes often mean death.  Given this, focus is absolutely critical and more easily obtained.  Double-faulting away a point in a tennis match or racquetball game is not the same as risking life and limb at the ludicrous speeds achieved by daredevil extreme athletes, but the principle still holds:  With greater risk comes greater focus.

I have come to the conclusion that being more aggressive with one’s second serve is a statement of confidence and a seizing of life.  I have spent the majority of my life in safe activities and avoiding taking chances.  This is natural – the primacy of the response of the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls emotions, such as fear, is well-known.  The amygdala is often called things like “the lizard brain.”  The idea is that it is a lower-order part of the brain, evolutionarily speaking.  It is a primal part, involved in lower-order responses – automatic responses – things that don’t require intellect – things that just happen – things like fear.  The amygdala is fast and fear takes hold before logic and reason get a chance to enter the picture.  There is a reason for this and that reason is survival.  When confronted with a life-threatening situation, quick reactions and fear-based fight-or-flight responses are appropriate and give the best possibility of successful response.  Instinctive reactions to danger are useful in staying alive when survival is in question.  Our biology is set up to help us survive.  This is a good thing, but our biology isn’t very good at distinguishing in the modern world between truly life-threatening situations and job stress with production server outages and public speaking and having faulted a first serve and the stress modern humans face.

Survival is not at stake when exercising a second serve.  The soft second-serve is a fear-based action.  That said, I will grant that both of the following cliches have merit.

  • Look before you leap.
  • He who hesitates is lost.

Interesting that these contradictory sentiments are both so often cited and both have such wisdom of the ages seeping from their being.  Living a life without any caution is certainly a mistake and will probably lead to a short and painful existence.  Of course it makes sense to make careful choices and exercise judgment.  At the same time, though, fear based paralysis leads not only to the loss of opportunity, but it also results in much of your time and your greatness being lost, of settling for less than what one really wants because of playing it safe.  I have decided that safety is no longer my guiding principle.  I have decided that my manta is “Punch Fear in the F***ing face!”  I recommend reading two items – one a book short enough to be a long blog post and the other a blog post long enough to be a short book.  In The Flinch by Julien Smith (free ebook on Amazon) he points out that we are living in the safest time in human history and that it is suboptimal and silly to play it safe and that you should be taking risks.  To get Johnny B. Truant’s epic essay on breaking out of the metaphorical Matrix that is your ordinary life and doing something exceptional, you need to sign up for his mailing list and receive a pdf download link (at least, at the time I did it).  It’s well worth it and something you really need to read.

I’m not saying that Roger Federer is a coward and living in fear preventing him from being exceptional.  That would clearly be untrue.  I’m not saying that caution is bad or wrong.  I’m not even saying that you should not use a softer serve on the second than on the first.  I am, though, saying that fear is holding most of us back from being great and that we can do better by demonstrating a lot more confidence.  The point of the second serve syndrome is not that you need to be more aggressive on your second serve, but that you need to take some risks in your life if you want to really accomplish something.

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