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January 2005 Article

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Quieting the Demons

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Well, here we are facing another New Year. At this time, many of us make resolutions in our lives. For us tennisphiles, resolutions regarding our game are not out of order.

This year, I hope that many of you can resolve to calm the demons inside you, as you play this wonderful game. Now, I am not a psychologist. In fact, my colleague John Murray has written what I believe to be the definitive book on the mental aspects of tennis, Smart Tennis. If you have not read this book, you should! It is a comprehensive plan for improving this aspect of your game, and John knows of where he speaks.

As a collegiate tennis coach and a teaching pro, I have had many players cross my path who have been fighting battles inside as they compete in tennis. I think one of the challenges that makes tennis so intriguing is coming to terms with controlling one’s thoughts and emotions during a match.

Unlike many sports, tennis is (saving doubles) a solitary endeavor. There is no coaching and the player is literally on her/his own. No one can really share the emotions of the player as the match unfolds. Thus, it takes a special type of mindset to play this game competitively, yet joyously.

So, this New Year, I am going to share with you the advice that I give my players and students. They are tips that may or may not help you specifically. But more often than not, they do. This is by no means a comprehensive plan for improvement. However, I do believe that many of you can benefit from some, if not most, of these suggestions.

Let’s begin with a player’s eyes. I cannot begin to tell you how important vision is in this game. What you do with your eyes during points and in between points, is critical. Yet, we frequently never pay attention to these aspects of the game.

The very first article I wrote for this column was entitled SEE the ball!!! In many ways, this may have been the most profound article I have ever written.

I think Tim Gallway in his book, The Inner Game of Tennis, has it right when he says that we really need to focus our eyes and attention on the ball as we play points. Watching the ball closely enough to see the spinning seams is a great way to assure that you are paying close attention to the ball.

Whenever I begin to lose focus in a match or find myself beginning to "self-destruct," I immediately remind myself to watch the ball more carefully. Almost invariably, my game will come back. Why? Well, in part, it takes my mind off negative thoughts. A person can think of only one thing at a time. If your mind is on the ball, it can’t be thinking about what you are doing wrong.

In addition, this kind of mental focus allows the mind/body to go back to "autopilot." If you have prepared for the match through practice, you have a game. One of the keys to success is simply to stay out of your game’s way!

In between points, what you do with your vision is equally important. If you watch the pros, they never allow their vision to leave the court. They avoid looking at the crowd, and often times, they simply look at their strings. They will straighten the strings to help keep their mind within the four borders of the court.

Anytime you allow yourself to be distracted from what is going on inside the court, you are leaving yourself vulnerable for thoughts that do not advance your game. When you can put "blinders" on your eyes in between points, you greatly increase your ability to stay in the present.

The time to think and analyze is in between games. Here, you can sort out what is happening and why. You can devise or revise a strategy. But, you don’t want to carry this with you out on the court. I think the time for reflection is not in between points, but for some, this may not be true. Heady players will actually think about strategies as the point unfolds! This is not the case for most of us who play the game.

Frequently, you will read that tennis players should stay in the present, and I couldn’t agree more. Thinking about what has happened is usually not productive until you are in between games. If you make an errant shot, so be it. There is no rule that says you will make it again! Shake it off. Put it behind you. Realize that you must play not one point at a time, but one stroke at a time. This is what present-tense thinking is really all about.

Thinking into the future is equally undesirable. It is very difficult not to think about winning or losing a match while you are playing it. Still, this is necessary, if you truly want to compete. Once you allow yourself to start thinking about the win/loss aspect of the game, your focus is not in the present.

Listen to pros when they are interviewed. They rarely, if ever, want to think too far into the future. Everything in this game has to be taken one step at a time.

If you find your mind creeping into the past or future, you need only start straightening your strings. Some players do better by counting from 1 to 10, visualizing each number in their minds as they count. Still, others may benefit from singing the lyrics to a favorite song in their minds. Brad Gilbert recommends that you find a spot on the court and in between points make it a point to walk over and step on this spot.

All of these have one common denominator. You can’t think about two things at the same time. Thus, by thinking about innocuous matters in between points, you are distracting your mind from negative or false-positive thinking.

For me, I find that straightening my strings in between points and making a deliberate and conscious effort to relax my muscles, prevents the demons of past and future tense thinking from entering my mind. Of course, it takes some practice to learn how to relax your muscles in a deliberate manner.

Throughout my workdays as a professor, I will take a few moments to mentally relax my muscles. Having done this for years, the process has become second nature to me, and happens without any effort. Practice makes perfect with respect to learning how to relax. But, you do need to practice!!!

Not many players spend time learning how to relax their muscles on command. However, this skill can be acquired. Deep breathing, and conscious loosening of the muscles can be done in between points. The real time to practice this technique of relaxation is during practice sessions and when you are off the court.

Simply, closing your eyes and taking a deep, slow breath can help to immediately relax your body. Try it…you’ll like it.

Another aspect of the mental game that you can change, if necessary, is your on-court self-talk. Negative statements bring out negative feelings and thoughts. If you are chastising yourself on the court for making a mistake, your whole body reacts negatively. Instead of saying "You idiot. How could you miss that?" Try something like "Wow. Next time I will be sure to make this shot." The latter is a positive response to a negative situation. This is what all tennis players need to learn to do.

How can one learn to do this? Well again, it takes practice. You must stop yourself every time you find yourself beginning to say a negative statement. This has to be done on the court and off the court. It is especially important while practicing. Learn to convert your thoughts into positive statements like "No problem. I will get it next time."

This sounds too simplistic, but it is really a matter of deliberate behavioral change. I have had racquet throwing juniors learn to control their emotions. I have seen them go from yellers and screamers to calm, positive oriented competitors. But, it takes time, energy and effort to make these changes. If you are determined and practice positive self-talk both on and off the court, it will soon become a natural part of your game.

Believe me. Positive self-talk makes the game of tennis much more enjoyable…especially, when you lose!

In my mind, too many tennis players worry about wins and losses. I try to view the game of tennis as a continual process. Like the waves on the ocean, I am going to have up and I am going to have down periods. But, like the waves from the ocean slowly wear down the rocks on the shore, I will improve.

The goal should be improvement…not winning and losing. Granted, sometimes we will take one step back. But, over time, we can follow this with two steps forward. Progress over time is the really sensible goal.

Winning and losing is a roller coaster. You will win some you shouldn’t, and lose some you shouldn’t. If all you are worried about is the win/loss record, you are going to find that you need antacids for the inevitable ulcers you will develop.

You need to understand why you are playing the game of tennis. In fact, you will find here in the Turbo Tennis archives an article with this title that I wrote some time ago. There is no single reason to play tennis. Over time, your reasons for playing the game can change. This is normal and is appropriate. But, you need to know why you are out on the court.

Too many players forget that tennis is a game. Okay. For the pros, it is a livelihood. If you truly believe that you can make it on the pro tour, go for it. But for most of us, the best that tennis can be is a game. Games should be fun. If you are not having fun playing tennis, you need to ask yourself why? More often than not, the response is "because I continue to lose!"

In some ways, tennis is a game of riddles. The more emphasis you place on the winning and losing…the harder the winning becomes. When you compete, if you simply find joy in performing at your best, you will discover that your win column takes care of itself, over time.

Tennis players frequently put their whole self-identity in the game. This is just plain crazy. Even pros have diversions. Pros have goals for themselves after their time on the pro circuit has ended. Recreational and amateur players cannot afford to allow themselves to be judged by their tennis game. Anyone who values you or does not value you based on your tennis performance is not a person worth worrying about.

Once you free yourself from having to win, you will find that winning takes on a whole different dimension. The joy of the win is the icing on the cake. The cake is simply playing your best.

Truthfully, I have, at times, had more fun losing than winning. I have dominated some players and found no satisfaction in the win. I have lost to some players, yet found that I enjoyed the battle. Once the battle ended, I put the loss behind me. In any war, you are going to lose some battles. However, you win the war when you simply play your best.

Rod Laver is quoted as saying that he always would remind himself of this reality: The worse thing that could happen is that he would lose a game of tennis. In the total spectrum of life situations, tennis is certainly not that significant.

All of this leads me to a final suggestion. Take tennis vacations!!! No one can play tennis 24 hours per day, seven days per week, and 365 days per year!!! Just as in our work lives, we need vacations. So it is with tennis.

I play and practice year-round. However the months of December, January and February, I train very differently. I decrease the amount of tennis I play, and increase the amount of cross-training that I do. I find that this lull in my tennis regimen allows me a vacation. I do not compete during this period, nor do I allow myself to give lessons. I simply slow it all down.

Why? Well, for me, this lull allows my desire to play the game to resurrect itself in March. I find myself eager to play more. I find myself wanting to improve specific aspects of my game. I find myself longing to play sets and compete.

Without this respite in my tennis regimen, I would certainly "burnout."

The pro circuits are grueling. The amount of downtime that the pros get per year is far too brief in my mind. I think the Williams sisters have it right. Win or lose, a person must take breaks in her/his competitive schedule. Okay, some will criticize them for their hiatus’s. But, I bet you that they will be in the game years longer than their contemporaries. Pacing yourself is important.

So, this New Year spend some time on the mental side of your game. Begin a resolution to improve what you do with your eyes, revise your self-talk, discover and evaluate your reasons for playing tennis, and take time for diversions from tennis. I assure you that if you do, 2005 will be the year that you 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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