Master and Professor

The guy hops around the court like a jujube on caffeine. Bearing a passing resemblance to Tintin (le coiffeur, anyway), he windmills his arms, darts his eyes from left to right, and talks a mile a microsecond. But I hang on every word, every wild gesture, because these fifteen minutes every Thursday have become the most valuable of my week.

Welcome to the classroom of Professor Musto. Joined by the calmer, quieter, but no less wiser Master Hughes (his distinctive white hair tied back with a bandana), these two terrific dons of squash have been turning the StreetSquash courts into a squash seminary for two hours every Thursday for the past few months. Thanks to the inspired idea of a few MSRA folk and the organization of Howe Cup Captains Sarah Odell and Marcia Salovitz, Musto and Hughes have been coaching the women playing in the Howe Cup this weekend. Don’t know what the Howe Cup is? Well, if you’re a guy, you’re out of luck, ‘cause you can’t play in it. And if you’re a woman, you should mark your calendar for next November and double circle it in red; you just don’t want to miss the most fun to be had since doing dope and dancing to Madonna in your best friend’s dorm room (I plead the 5th). Anyway, trust me.

But back to those fifteen minutes. Since I was never a good note-taker in school, and since I paid the seminary fees (reasonable as they were) and you didn’t, there’s no way I’m going to be able to impart all the amazing things I learned. That where you put your feet may actually be more important (initially) then where you put your racquet. Why the three wall boast from the back corner is not a great idea, but why you should compliment your opponent every time they do it. Which foot the ball should be near when striking for a volley, rail, boast, and cross-court. When to let/not let the ball go to the back wall. When and where to shoot. In some ways, it may have been too much for my brimming over brain to take in, but I found myself immensely grateful for every word and gesture that was flung my way. As a friend says, there’s always osmosis.

However, there was one lesson that was repeated again and again. And that, you lucky dogs, I will share with you. It happened like this. Everytime Professor Musto would demonstrate a shot – a boast or a drop or a volley or a serve, he’d critique it. Something like, ‘Should’ve been a little to the left. Am I going to just keep hitting the ball until it goes there?’ And then he’d shake his head as if he were a rabid dog jumping out of water. ‘No-o-o-o-o-o-o! I’m going to adjust my racquet, or my swing, or my feet, or all of the above until I get it where I want it.’ And then he’d try the shot again, demonstrating a small adjustment, and – bingo – the ball would go where he wanted it. No guesswork for the professor.

Adjustment. The first time this came up, it rang a little bell. I flashed back to all the countless hours of rails and drops and boasts I’d practiced with friends or by myself. Yes, I’d try to hit deeper or straighter or somethinger, but more often than not I was just getting the ball back. More often than not, there was no one to suggest a different technique, so it didn’t change much. It didn’t occur to me that I could tell myself to change my technique. Because, as a mostly unschooled player, what did I know? Well, more than I think — because if you do think there’s plenty you can do to change the outcome of a shot. As the professor continually bored into us, just hitting the ball again and again without any thought as to improvement was just dumb. The equivalent of staying back a grade, year after year. Drills aren’t there just to raise your heart rate; they’re there raise your grades.

Sometimes hitting by yourself helps you realize this. I used to find it incredibly boring, but when there’s no one else around to make fun of you, it’s a great time to fiddle with a shot and make a fool of yourself for a while. One of these days I’m going to pull out that behind the back and through the legs shot….although I still have a ways to go.

But thank god I’m not always left to my own devices. Up at StreetSquash, the professors break us up into groups to practice our lesson for the day. Three wall boasts or cross courts or putting some energy into a ball off the back wall. I try this last one again and again, fascinated by the little hop Professor Musto demonstrates to generate power. Later, Master Hughes glides onto our court and raises an eyebrow. When he takes a ball off the back wall, a gumby-like limb wraps a racquet around the ball and flicks it effortlessly toward the front. No jump necessary. Ah, well, I guess some of us have already made all the adjustments we need.

Howe Cup Training has come to an end. Six teams, thirty women, and two coaches are representing our fair city of New York. We wish them the best.

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