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A Mental Approach and Process When Competing

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Ron Waite, USPTR

As I write this month's column, the Cincinnati tournament is in full swing. In a few days, the Connecticut Open will begin. These signal the end of the hard court season tournaments and are preludes to the last Grand Slam of the calendar year, the U.S. Open. Around the area where I live many clubs are holding their end of season championships. Inter-club matches abound and many of these involve junior aged players.
 
While watching one of these junior quarterfinals, I witnessed one young man totally self-destruct. The player in question was up a set and was tied 3 all in the second set. For reasons unknown, this player's forehand (his weapon) began to fail him. Increasingly, he became more and more frustrated and angry. At one point, he threw his racquet down as he went to sit between game changeovers. It was at this point that I knew he would lose. Indeed, the final score was 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 in favor of his opponent.
 
In my opinion, both players were talented. However, the young man who lost his temper was favored to win, and I could see that he possessed better weapons in his tennis arsenal. However, his opponent was patient, cool, clam and collected even during the first set which he lost.
 
Prompted in part by observing this junior's self-destruction, I decided to dedicate this month's column to the mental side of the game.
 
I recall that Yogi Berra (the famous baseball player) was once quoted as saying: "Baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical." Well despite Yogi's lack of Math prowess, I believe he is correct. So much of any sport is truly mental.
 
I suspect that many extremely talented players on both tours have the physical capabilities and talent to win a Grand Slam event. However, surviving seven matches and the mental stress that each match presents make the difference between the very good players and the champions.
 
Tennis is a unique game when playing singles. The individual player is out there on his or her own. There are no timeouts, and coaching (even when permitted) is limited. For better or worse, the singles player stands or falls on her or his own merits or lack thereof. For me, this is one of the most engaging and exciting aspects of this great game! It wasn't always that way for me.
 
Some years back, I wrote an e-book entitled, Perfect Tennis. It addressed the mental aspects of tennis and how I was able to raise the quality of my game by using and employing these techniques. I was blessed and sold over 1000 copies of the book. The e-mail questions and comments that I received affirmed that this aspect of the game is clearly of interest to most if not all players. I was flattered that so many of the purchasers of this book e-mailed me with their own success stories.
 
So, I am going to give a brief overview of one component of the information that I presented in this book. It is my hope that as seasons end north of the equator and begin south of the equator that the reader will take time and "work" on this important component in the complete tennis game package.
 
Control Your Thoughts On and Off the Court
 
Perception is reality!!! What you think affects what you feel, and what you feel affects what you think. The two are intimately interconnected. Ultimately, thoughts and feelings lead to the formation of perceptions. The old example of viewing a glass half empty or half full comes to mind when illustrating how different perspectives on a common reality can be.
 
It is difficult to control one's feelings. They come upon us quickly and seemingly spontaneously. Before we know it, they have taken control of our thoughts. Once thoughts and feelings are aligned and in sync, perceptions are formed. If a perception lingers with us long enough and is not changed, it eventually becomes a belief. Beliefs are very difficult to change. Negative beliefs lead to diminished performance and lowered self-esteem. Positive beliefs lead to confidence building, excitement and usually self-satisfaction.
 
Notice that I have not spoken at all about results! No one wins all of her or his matches. Indeed, 50% of all players lose their matches. We all want to win. This is normal in competition and should be a motivating factor. However, winning should not be a factor in determining perceptions. A player can lose a match and walk away with some very positive perceptions. A player can win a match and not have positive perceptions. I know this seems a strange statement, but consider the following.
 
I am sure that there are players who the reader could be reasonably certain of beating 90 to 95% of the time. If these were the only players you faced in your competitive tennis world, you would certainly have confidence. But, would you really be satisfied? Would you really enjoy the game? Would you have any sense of real accomplishment? Would you be forced to see how good your tennis game could become?
 
However, learning to control one's thoughts and feelings is risky. It may take time, and you may not be successful at all times. But, are you willing to take a risk on yourself?
 
You cannot control the ball, the point, or the match until you control yourself and your perceptions. It is easy to control your perceptions when you are "playing down" against lesser players. Playing against a Roger Federer or a Simone Halep would require a daunting perception to say the least... in effect, the tables would be turned.
 
I would argue that you cannot learn to control your thoughts and feelings on the court until you can control them off the court. Indeed, I would posit that practicing controlling thoughts and emotions off the court is actually good practice for on court control.
 
An important key to realizing self-control of thoughts and feelings is to realize that the conscious mind can only think of one thing at a time.
 
Whenever a negative thought or feeling enters your mind throughout the day try the following:

  1. Recognize and acknowledge that it is a negative thought.

  2. Tell yourself that the negative thought or feeling is temporary and that it can and will pass. (You may want to say this aloud when initially practicing this technique. In time, you will not need to say this aloud.)

  3. Think of any other thought or feeling that is not negative. (Simply distract your mind from the thought or feeling by replacing it with something else. It can be anything. For example, you might focus your attention on the color of an item of clothing that you or someone else is wearing. You could focus your mind on the sweep second hand of your watch and even count seconds as it moves. You could ask yourself a question like: "What would I really like for dinner tonight?") If you are dealing with a negative feeling, think of something that makes you happy. (For example, I love going to the beach. I feel relaxed and happy near the water. When I feel a negative feeling coming on such as fear, anger, resentment, etc., I simply close my eyes and think of being at the beach to change my conscious thinking.) Remember, thoughts and feelings are intimately interconnected.

  4. Move on to thoughts that are future tense oriented. Once the negative thought or feeling has been "neutralized," think about something new that needs to be done in the immediate future. If possible, take immediate action towards completing this future tense task.

  5. Go back onto "autopilot." Most of the time, we are not using our conscious mind in a focused manner when negative thoughts or feelings begin to creep. For example, it is almost impossible to think negatively or feel down when reading a book (assuming you are truly reading). Why? Our conscious mind is totally occupied with what we are reading. However, much of the time, we are on autopilot when negative items find their way into our minds. For example when we drive a car, we are on autopilot. In truth, our non-conscious mind is driving the vehicle. It is during these "autopilot" times of day that our conscious mind is most susceptible to negative thoughts and feelings. (In tennis, we have those moments between point and during changeovers when our conscious mind has the opportunity to be "infiltrated" with negative thoughts and emotions.)

I know that on the surface that this process will seem too simplistic and probably somewhat foolish. But, I have successfully utilized it myself, and taught it to many junior players who have enjoyed success with it.
 
Throughout any given day, we have myriad thoughts and feelings that pop up which are negative in nature. Sometimes, we "naturally" overlook these thoughts or feelings and move onto other matters. Still, we probably have some negative thoughts or feelings that command more of our conscious mind's attention. Thus, we have myriad opportunities each day to practice this thought control process that I have described above.
 
So, the logical question at this point is: "Okay Ron, how do I use this when playing tennis?"
 
Let's take an example. Going back to the young man who lost his forehand stoke (his biggest weapon) in the match described above. After three or four errant forehands, anyone is going to begin to doubt matters and have negative thoughts and feelings. If this didn't occur, it would indicate that you have nothing vested in the match and that you really do not care.
 
First, this junior competitor should recognize that he is feeling doubt (a negative emotion) with respect to his forehand. Now, many players at this point will ask himself or herself, "Why is my forehand failing me?" This is not a good thought pattern. Our strokes should be executed mindlessly and with as little "effort" as is possible. Asking the question, "What is wrong?" invites the conscious mind to "solve the problem." More often than not this leads to what may be termed: paralysis by analysis.
 
Our strokes are executed by our non-conscious mind through what is known as muscle memory. Getting our conscious minds into the act prevents the non-conscious mind and its muscle memory from naturally correcting what needs to be corrected. As Yogi might say, "Don't think... just play the game."
 
Still, we need to acknowledge to ourselves that our forehand is off. But, at the same time we need not panic or conjure up negative feelings such as fear or anger. More often than not these negative feelings begin to creep into our mind... it is almost unavoidable. So now, we need to remind ourselves (maybe spoken aloud) "My forehand has only temporarily going awry and I KNOW that it is returning. There is nothing to worry about." (Notice the past and present tense words that are in italics.)
 
If you practiced these kinds of statements off court, you will probably notice that your body relaxes, your breathing slows down, and a sense of calm comes over you as you say these words to yourself when you use this technique on court.
 
Now, it is time to distract your mind with any thought that is not negative. The replacement thought can be "neutral" and need not be positive. The idea is to simply replace the negative thought. In this example, the player may focus upon straightening his strings... toweling off any sweat from his face and arms... examining the fuzz on the balls to determine which is most likely to be moving fastest through the air... looking for some mark on the court surface and deliberately walking in a manner where his right foot steps on the mark... turning his attention to the wind to determine its strength and direction... focusing upon his shirt and sleeves and adjusting them to feel more comfortable. There are 1000's of distracting thoughts that players can conjure up which will distract their minds. In this case, our young junior competitor wants to stop thinking about his "lost" forehand.
 
Next, the player wants to think forward... future tense. In this specific example, the player would probably start thinking about where to place his first serve or where to return serve depending. Beginning his normal rituals for serving or receiving serve would be the next step in this future tense facet. In effect, the player has "dismissed" any negative thoughts and feelings, and has started the process of moving forward. It is imperative to realize that what has happened in the past has no bearing on the future unless you allow it. In truth, the three or four errant forehands that our junior missed did not mean that the next forehand would go awry. However, this junior allowed his thoughts and feelings to perceive that he had lost his forehand entirely.
 
Lastly, we want to go back on "autopilot." Tennis is a game that is played best when we are truly letting our non-conscious mind govern our body's movements. We practice hours in order to develop the muscle memory to allow this to occur. Once the ball is tossed for the serve, we need to shut our conscious mind down entirely and simply let our senses and our non-conscious mind play out the point.
 
Learning to minimize, and hopefully, eliminate negative thoughts and feelings will put our conscious mind in the position to "trust" the non-conscious mind. If you think about it, we trust our lives to our non-conscious minds every time we drive a car. If we allowed our conscious mind to make the millions of decisions necessary when driving, we would certainly find our insurance rates increasing!
 
Removing the negativity promotes calmness, confidence, positive excitement, and trust. When these are in place, the conscious mind has no problems it needs to solve... and can finally take a rest.
 
I think Yogi Berra had it right about baseball, and I believe his words are even truer for tennis. You can't think and play tennis at the same time!!!
 
I am sure that if you practice controlling your thoughts and feelings off the court you can learn to better control them on the court. Tennis is a game. It should be fun to play. Winning is good, but it shouldn't be everything that brings you to this wonderful game of ours.
 
Learn to control your thoughts and feelings on the court, and I promise you that you will soon become a tennis overdog!
 
PS Some of my readers have asked where they can secure my book, Perfect Tennis. This month's article addresses only part of this book's content. It is only available directly from me at this point. If you want a copy, send me a message using my online contact form. I will tell you where you can make a Paypal payment ($10) and once I have received this payment I will forward to you a PDF copy of the e-book.
 
Good luck in your game!!!
 

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


 

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