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May 2005 Article

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Mortal Tennis By Greg Moran


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Taming That Voice Inside Our Heads

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Greg Moran

Did you know that the average person talks to himself, verbally or non-verbally, approximately 50,000 times per day? Using my limited math skills (and a calculator) that spreads out to a little over 2000 times per hour or thirty-four times per minute. Or, put another way, every two seconds of our lives we're telling ourselves something.

Not only are we talkative creatures, it seems we're also quite narcissistic and negative. Research shows that most of the messages we send ourselves are about ourselves and 80% of those are negative.

Let's apply that information to our tennis lives. During the average three set match (roughly 90 minutes) we send ourselves messages a little over 3000 times (3060 to be exact, says my calculator). Of those 3060 communications, 2,448 of them are negative.

How does that affect our level of play? Imagine practicing on a ball machine and the balls are being fed to you at a nice easy pace. Your strokes feel smooth, your mind and body comfortable.

Now speed the machine up. Just as you make contact with one ball there's another right on top of you and then another and another. Your smooth strokes soon become frantic swats and your feelings of comfort are replaced by pure panic. Ball after ball comes faster and faster until you eventually collapse under the pressure.

That's exactly what happens when we allow rapid fire negative thoughts to bombard our minds. After consistently telling ourselves that we "stink" and are "not good enough," we eventually believe it and our game collapses.

We miss a shot or two and the self-abuse begins. Bulging veins in the neck, a slap to the thigh, silent, or sometimes booming, obscenities and the occasional flying racket are all common behaviors of the self-abusing tennis player.

It happens all the time and for years, I was a guilty as anyone. As a junior player, I constantly waged a war of negativity between my ears. At the first error, or hint that I might be in danger of losing the match, my negative inner voice would pounce and often stay with me throughout the entire match.

After two or three sets of telling myself how bad I was, I usually proved myself correct and walked off the court a loser. How often does this happen to you? Probably more than you care to admit.

Why do we behave like this? Many experts feel that our inner voice is strongly shaped by those around us when we were growing up. If we were constantly subjected to negative comments, the voice inside our head becomes conditioned to send us negative messages. These messages, if repeated enough, can leave scars that never go away. Simply put, people who grew up around positive influences generally became positive people and vice versa.

There's an old saying that says "you are what you eat" but equally true is that we are what we think. Through our self-talk we create our own reality. If we consistently tell ourselves that we are useless we become useless.

Certainly, it is human nature for us to get nervous or lose confidence during the heat of a match. However, negativity will never get us back on track. So we need to learn how to push the bad thoughts aside and get back on a positive path.

I recently read a study where a sports psychologist studied the mental skills of the top 100 men and women tennis players and as well as those of the 100 leading business people in the world.

Not surprisingly, virtually every successful businessman and woman and top tennis player was regarded as an optimistic thinker. Rather than allowing negative thoughts to tear them down, they controlled their self-talk so that they would consistently build themselves up.

These people learned to use positive self-talk to build their confidence and help them reach their goals on and off the tennis court. You can too. Here are a few tips to help you turn your negatives into positives.

  1. Become aware of your thoughts. Pay attention to the messages you're sending yourself. Keep a small notebook with you and, over several days, write down all of your negative thoughts. You'll then be able to see how many times you put yourself down.

  2. Break the pattern. When you feel the negative thoughts creeping in take a deep breath and immediately say "No! I am not going to do this." It sounds simplistic and corny, but it works.

  3. Be positive. Stop the flow of negativity with a few positive, constructive, statements. For example: instead of telling yourself how slow or lazy you are try saying something like "Come on, you can get to those. Get up on your toes and run for every ball until it bounces twice." Or, after an unforced error remind yourself to "keep your eyes on the ball." Positive thoughts are vital because if you say it enough you will believe it.

  4. Observe your actions without judging them. This means being aware of what's happening on the court. For example, if you've hit your last three serves into the net, rather than getting upset, remind yourself that you have a tendency to drop your head as you serve. Make the correction, tell yourself that you've "got it now," and move on to the next point.

  5. Surround yourself with positive people. I recently read a great quote that addresses this. Here it is:

    "There are two types of people-anchors and motors. You want to lose the anchors and get with the motors because the motors are going somewhere and they're having more fun. The anchors will just drag you down."

    Truer words were never spoken.

A while back I hosted a PTR certification workshop at my club. The event was attended by teaching professionals from across the Northeast. During the day I happened to walk over to a group of pros that I'd known for a while that would definitely be considered "anchors."

They constantly complain about the clubs they work at, the long hours they teach and the obnoxious juniors they're forced to "baby sit." That day was no different. They complained about how long the workshop was taking and how much money they were losing in lost lessons by being there. I immediately began to feel the life being sucked out of me and the negative thoughts creeping into my mind.

I quickly walked away and ambled over to a group of pros who were definitely "motors." The entire atmosphere surrounding these pros was different. Bright-eyed, eager and truly excited about what they were doing, these pros were exchanging ideas and talking about the "challenges" of working with junior players.

They were excited to be at the workshop because they realized that, even though they may be losing money in the short term, the knowledge and contacts they would accumulate over the weekend would be a big plus to their career. Five minutes in the presence of these "motors" picked me up and got me excited.

We all have people in our lives that are "anchors." Just being in their presence brings us down. Whenever possible, stay away from the anchors and hitch a ride with the motors. They'll take you to where you want to go.

Changing the way you speak to yourself is, like any significant change, a long term process. It's no small task because you have to change something that you've been doing for years and become comfortable with. Yes, as ridiculous as it sounds, most negative people are comfortable with their negativity.

But it can be done through hard work and a firm resolve. Remember, attitude is a choice and while we can't always control what comes into our minds, we can dictate how long it stays there.

Gain control over your emotions and simply say "no more" to your negative tendencies. Just as you practice a new shot, new mental skills need to be repeated over and over until they replace the old behavior. The process of changing a tendency for negativity can take months or even years and the threat of negative self-talk will be forever present.

Just this morning I was hitting with my wife and among the thoughts volleyed about inside my head were the following:

"You've been playing for 35 years and you still can't hit a forehand."

"Move your feet you fat load."

"This is horrible. I've got to start playing more."

And these were just during the first fifteen minutes! Fortunately, I was able to push aside those thoughts, replace them with positive affirmations and enjoy the rest of our workout.

Here's a great exercise I found on the Internet from an unknown source. The next time you walk onto the court for a match, place forty paperclips in your right pocket. Each time you catch yourself making a negative comment to yourself, reach into your pocket and transfer one paperclip to the left pocket. At the end of the match see how many clips have gone to the left side. You might be shocked---and motivated to change.

Be patient. Work at it and I guarantee you that, slowly but surely, you'll see a change in the way you speak to yourself and in turn the way you feel about yourself. After a month or two try the paperclip experiment again and see how you've improved.

Have fun!

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Mortal Tennis/Circle Game Archive

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This column is copyrighted by Greg Moran, all rights reserved.

Greg Moran is the Head Professional at the Four Seasons Racquet Club in Wilton, Connecticut. He is a former ranked junior and college player and certified by both the USPTA and USPTR. Greg has written on a wide variety of tennis-related subjects for numerous newspapers and tennis publications including Tennis, Tennis Match and Court Time magazines. He is also a member of the FILA and WILSON Advisory Staffs.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Greg by using this form.


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