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Turbo Tennis
July 2003 Article

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Messages on the Court

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Ron Waite, USPTR

I have received an unusual amount of reader e-mail dealing with some common problems and I have once again decided to deviate from my series of Integrated Tennis Stroke Series to address these questions.

Many of the recent e-mails have addressed the mental side of the game of tennis. I must begin by saying that virtually anything you would want to know about this area is best addressed in my colleague’s, John Murray, text entitled Smart Tennis. Those of you who read his column, Mental Equipment, know that he is on the cutting edge of what goes on psychologically in tennis and sports in general.

However, I want to address from a coach’s perspective what I believe to be a critical issue associated with winning tennis matches: "What Messages Players Send to Each Other During a Match."

Yogi Berra, my childhood hero, is quoted as saying that Baseball is 90% mental…the other half is physical. Well, despite the problem with the math associated with this statement, I couldn’t agree more. How we think, when we think, what we think and what messages we communicate to each other on the court are critical in the "dynamics" of any match.

If you happened to watch the match between Tommy Robredo and Albert Costa in the French Open, you witnessed a match that was really decided more mentally than as a result of any other factor. The youthful Robredo was up two sets and was in a position to advance in straight sets. However, as fate (if one believes in such a thing) would have it, Costa won in 5 sets. It was a great match to watch and one from which the average player can learn much.

As a professor of Communications, one of the areas that my discipline looks at is what is often times referred to as kinesics. Strictly speaking, the term refers to the way in which a person moves her/his body and the messages that these movements send. For example, some people send messages of fear when they walk in strange urban environments. This can make them more likely to be a victim of a crime. Why? Well, street-smart criminals can "read" this movement and realize that the person is more likely to be a less resistant victim.

I use the term, kinesics, to refer not only to body movement but to include: body language, gestures, and of course, facial expressions.

Those of you who read my column regularly know that I am the Type B player. One who tends to think his way through a match. I have a few weapons, but I generally prevail because I help my opponents to lose. I look for weaknesses in my opponent’s game, and I try to exploit them as much as is possible.

I tend to probe my opponent. I look to see what type of game my opponent may have. Which is my opponent's better wing? Does my opponent like to volley? Can my opponent move well? Is there a spin or ball height that my opponent does not like? What kind of patterns does my opponent bring to his or her game? All of these questions are other-directed. I simply probe until I find a strategy that enables me to frustrate my opponent. Once this is accomplished, I can usually find a way of capitalizing upon my strengths to become the more dominant player. It is not always the most efficient approach, and I may lose the first set in trying to discover what I need to do. But, this is the nature of the Type B player.

Type A players are simple hitters. They have skills, weapons and usually are limited to one game plan. If they are on or their opponent is weaker, they will prevail. They are almost mindless when things are going well. They can rapidly self-destruct when things are off, or an opponent has discovered cracks in their armor.

Knowing when to think is critical in any performance…and that is what tennis truly is. I try to think in between points and in between games. Analysis during points is, in my opinion, counter productive. When executing, simple "do it." Critique it after the point or game. For type B players, this "compartmentalizing" is not always an easy thing to learn. Sometimes, we fall victim to paralysis by analysis. However, it has been my experience that this is usually the case when we are self-directed rather than other-directed in our analysis.

When we start to analyze why our backhand is off or our volleys are going deep, we get in deep trouble. When we, however, focus on the opponent and her/his weaknesses (and all players have them), we tend to relax more and avoid over analysis. In fact, I rather enjoy the analytical process I bring to examining my opponents. It makes the game more cerebral for me. If I lose, I often times dismiss the loss to faulty analysis and take the pressure off myself as a player. I find that I can put losses behind me more quickly and learn more from these losses.

The goal in this game is to become a Type C player…the complete competitor. He/she is one who has Type A weapons and uses them effortlessly. However, the Type C player has added more analysis and variety to her/his game. These Type C players are gifted, but aware and flexible. Andre Agassi, in my mind, is a Type A player who learned to become a Type C player. John McEnroe, is to me, a Type B player who became a Type C player. Type C players become the consistent champions in this game.

Well, kinesics on the court are a critical dimension of the game. How an opponent is behaving, looking, moving, etc. can tell us lots about what is going on in her/his mind. Conversely, our own kinesics can encourage or discourage an opponent.

Bjorn Borg was often referred to as the "Ice Man." He was uniquely capable of appearing the same whether he was losing or winning. When it came to having a true "poker face" on the court, no one, to my knowledge, was as good at it as Borg. Truth be known, however, he admits that inside he was experiencing the roller coaster of emotions that we all find emerging at some time when we play this wonderful game.

So, the first piece of advice I have about sending messages is to become an "Ice Man." Now, I realize that many sports psychologists encourage players to demonstrate positive emotions such as pumping the fists when a great shot is made. I don’t disagree with this…especially, if one is a Type A player. However, there is a downside to this practice…If you show your positive emotion, you will probably show your negative emotion…even if it is only by the absence of fist pumping, etc.

Personally, I don’t want my opponent to have any insights with respect to my emotional or physical frame of mind. However, I do want to learn everything I can from my opponent’s kinesics.

The only messages that I want my opponent to receive from me are the following:

  1. I will go after every ball…even when it is not likely that I will make a decent play on the shot.
  2. I will not be distracted by anything on or off the court. Crowd noise, lets cause by balls moving from adjacent courts, movement around the court complex, fire engines with sirens blaring, windy gusts, etc…none of these are going to distract me or frustrate me. (Now, in reality, they do…but I fake my lack of annoyance very well.)
  3. Bad line calls will not discourage me. In fact, I take some encouragement from those who are consistent "hookers." Why? Well, in my mind, it shows that they are mentally weak and not really confident in their ability to beat me. Sure, I have lost some matches to people who are willing to cheat. But, unless there is a linesperson available (as may be the case in a tournament) I have to live with the calls that my opponent makes. I have found that, when I don’t react at all to a ball I know to be in but is called out by my opponent, it actually weakens my opponent. My opponent knows it was in and that I know it was in…but I don’t show any emotion. It tells my opponent that I am willing to play and win even if he or she resorts to cheating.
  4. Injuries and fatigue will not weaken me. When I have been injured during a match, or when a match has gone on for an inordinately long period of time, I make certain that I move forward without any noticeable difference in my kinesics. I grant you that some injuries do not permit this, but if I can play, I am not going to show that I am weakened.

Conversely, I am always "reading" my opponent’s messages. Is my opponent rushing to win? Is my opponent frustrated and angered when I make a good shot? Does my opponent feel that every shot he or she hits should be a winner? Does my opponent challenge my line calls? Is my opponent playing shots that are low percentage such as drop shots? Does my opponent expect to win points off his serve or return of serve? Does my opponent get frustrated when the point is long? Are my opponent's eyes outside the court…looking at friends, family or coaches? Is my opponent one who is an excessive "fist pumper?" Does my opponent talk to him or herself? Does my opponent berate him or herself? Is my opponent beginning to hit harder than is necessary? Is my opponent struggling to avoid having me hit to a weakness? What are my opponent's facial expressions like…especially his or her eyes?

All of the above suggest to me that my opponent is struggling inside. Now, when this happens, I try to slow things down. I want my opponent to think more about what is bothering him or her. I want to make my opponent play points that are longer points. I am looking to wear my opponent down physically and mentally, as much as I can. Why?

Well, I realize that the mental frame of mind will make the competent player choke. The weaker player will often times just self-destruct. The truly mentally weak player will often times tank the match…it is easier to say that you gave the match away than to admit that it was taken from you.

By paying attention to my opponent’s messages, and by keeping my messages to a minimum…I am controlling one of the most important aspects of the game.

Notice that all of the above is "other-directed." This approach takes pressure off of me. I simply have to find a way to monitor and adjust to what the opponent is doing.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is no way that I am beating Pete Sampras with this approach. However, I can have a more pleasurable contest with Mr. Sampras, especially, if I can help him become a little tentative. My thinking would be this: He is the pro. I am the nobody. All pressure is on him, not me. Granted his serve is formidable. However, I have come to realize that any serve perceptually slows down a bit after a set or so. Pete doesn’t like the higher bouncing balls…especially when they are hit to his backhand. My goal? Hit moonballs to his backhand that keep him near the baseline. My point is simple. Even against this paramount champion, I am trying to find ways of being patient with myself and exploiting his weaknesses (granted they are not significant). Now, my mind is not on whether I win or lose. Instead, I am focusing on what I need to do to win. Like it or not, I am sending him a message: I am not afraid.

Now, in reality, Pete rolls over Ron…probably 6-0, 6-0. But, I will give him the best contest that I can.

You see the real thrill of this game is in the competition. The winning, when it happens, is the gravy. I am not afraid to lose…believe me, I have lost matches. However, I love to compete. Notice that I did not say that I have to win or say that I hate to lose. I certainly strive to win…until the very last point is over.

No person who was really important to me has ever loved me more or less because I have won or lost a tennis match. Everyone who has ever beaten me has commented to me that I am a fierce competitor. To me, this is the most significant compliment that can be given to me.

As a basically Type B player, I am constantly looking to improve my skills on the court. By working in this direction, I can come closer to becoming a Type C player. The great thing about tennis is that I have the rest of my life to achieve Type C status. In the interim, I have the joy of competing. That’s why I play tennis.

Whether you are Type A or Type B, I assure you that minimizing negative messages to your opponent and recognizing your opponent’s negative messages will go a long way toward helping you win a match. Win more matches, and you will soon become a tennis overdog!

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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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