Here, we are in April. The buds are beginning to show of plants, and the birds are singing. Spring is in the air and the senses are keen. Of all the seasons, I think that spring is my favorite.
Recently, I reviewed a book by David Ranney entitled: Tennis: play the mental game and be "in the zone" every time you play. David is a devotee of Tim Gallwey, the famous author of The Inner Game of Tennis. I mention both of these books because they have at least one common denominator. To play our best tennis, we need to get our conscious mind out of our way. (If you havent read these books, I highly recommend them to you. David Ranney's book is not yet in print as of the publication date of this column. It is expected to be available sometime around the end of April 2006.)
Those of you who read my column regularly will know that I see three distinct types of tennis players. Type A is the player with great, natural strokes. He or she wants to just hit the ball
usually as hard as he/she can. Type B is the crafty player. She or he realizes that weapons are not in their arsenal. They approach the game in a much more heady and thoughtful way. Pushers fall into this B category. We all know how difficult they are to play. The ideal tennis player would be what I call, Type C. Andre Agassi is an archetype of this player. He started out a Type A, learned to play strategically from Brad Gilbert, and raised his game to an unbelievable level.
Regardless of what type of player you are, the last thing you want to do is "think" while executing. If you have prepared well, and trust your body, you can usually play your best tennis. The time to strategize is in between games. Type B players, however, often times are "thinking and asking questions" in between points.
Imagine for a moment if you consciously thought of every movement and decision you need to make every moment you are driving a car. My guess? You would never make it out of the driveway.
We are on autopilot when we drive a car. Hopefully, we learned the rote lessons of driving well during Drivers Education. If we have some experience driving, we are on autopilot most of the time we drive. Every so often, something will jar our non-conscious mind as being dangerous or of concern. At these moments, our conscious mind steps in and helps solve the problem.
In many ways, I believe the game of tennis is like driving. We need to learn the right skills from the very beginning. If we work on proper form from the outset, we create a foundation for true autopilot tennis.
Next, we need experience. We need to hone these skills through the fires of practice and competition. This experience base cannot be bypassed. It is just part of the process of becoming the best player we can be.
Third, we need to assess our game and develop strategic plans. We need to know when to change, how to change and why to change a strategic approach. This usually requires an outside party, good literature or videos, and again, the fires of practice and competition.
Having said all of this, I would certainly agree with Mr. Ranney and Mr. Gallwey that the conscious mind can be a real hindrance when we play this wonderful game. Paralysis by analysis is one of the symptoms of a conscious minds influence on our game.
Relaxation, calmness and trust are the ingredients that lead to "being in the zone." The problem is... how to quiet the conscious mind while playing points?
This is no easy feat. When the pressure is on and/or our game is off, we seem to naturally go to a state of conscious analysis. For most players, this is not a successful path.
I firmly believe that when the going gets rough and/or strokes seem to disappear, one needs to focus on seeing the ball well, and hitting it as sweetly as is possible. Once these two items are re-established, our game usually returns. Unfortunately, even if they do return, we are not likely to beat Andre.
In coaching a collegiate team, I see numerous examples of frustration, anger, exuberance and a host of other emotions. I have seen players literally throw matches away by thinking their way to a defeat.
When I play and compete, I rarely show any emotion. I dont pump my fists at winners, and I dont throw my racquet or curse when I miss a sitter. I realize that these things are bound to happen from time to time.
How many drivers can honestly say that they have never been given a ticket or had some sort of accident since they first received a license to drive? Guess what? Bad things happen to good tennis players, too. It is how we deal with them and how we "change" that determines how meaningful these "bad things" ultimately become.
My very first article for The Tennis Server was entitled "See the Ball." It was no accident that this was my first column contribution. Seeing the ball is critical to playing well.
In part, seeing the ball distracts our conscious mind. It allows all those hours we spend training our muscle memory to kick in, and do what we have worked so hard to develop.
Well, HEARING is extremely important in the game of tennis, as well!
Rarely, if ever, are we encouraged to develop this sense with respect to the game of tennis. Yet, our hearing can tell us much and help us distract our interfering conscious mind.
Frequently when I practice, I will simply focus, somewhat consciously, on what I hear. I listen to the sound the ball makes when it strikes my strings. I listen to the way it bounces on the court. I try to listen to my opponents strokes as carefully as I can.
Recently, I have been doing this during practice sessions with my team. I literally could not tell you the score in our practice sets
nor do I care! They will say to me: "Coach, you need to get your head in the game and keep track of the score." I respond with, "Not when I am trying to train my mind to shut down."
Invariably, this leads to a discussion of my philosophy on thinking during points. As Yogi Berra once put it: "You cant think and play baseball at the same time."
By paying attention to the sounds of the game, I learn much. I can tell what kind of spin I or my opponent is imparting. I can also evaluate how severe the spin is. If I am hitting a flat shot, I listen to hear the "pop" that this stroke will produce when executed properly.
When serving, I know how much spin or pace my serve will have simply by listening to the point of contact. I know before the ball passes the net how well I have executed my serve. This gives me an edge with respect to what reply to expect and whether I should or should not follow my serve to the net.
While listening, I never take my eye off the ball. I dont follow the ball with my head. Rather, I follow the ball with a motionless head and let my eyes do the moving. In this way, I can allow myself to pay attention to the sounds of tennis. I dont consciously analyze these sounds, but I do give them my conscious attention. There is a difference!
I can tell when I am hitting well without looking at where my ball goes or by keeping track of the score (I do recommend you do keep track when competing).
Frequently, the sounds I hear will give me clues to what is going wrong. I dont have to analyze anything. The years of hearing myself play have given me the insights I need to make the determination of cause without much real thought on my part.
There are other advantages to focusing your mind on listening. For example, if you are listening to the ball bounce and strings making contact with the ball, you wont be so distracted by extraneous sounds. How many times have you played a point, only to be distracted midpoint by some sound outside your court? What is the result? You guessed it. You invariably lose the point!!!
Faithful readers know that I firmly believe that moving the head during the moment of contact contributes to errant shots. I believe that every shot in this wonderful game requires a "quiet head." Listening to the ball come off my strings helps me keep a motionless head
at least for that fraction of a second that is the moment of contact.
Listening to your opponents footwork (and your own) can be very informative. Stephen Edberg played with the quietest feet I know. He literally could come to the net and you would never hear a footstep. Michael Stich was blessed with quiet feet, as well. In fact, Michael had the most beautiful strokes I have ever seen in the game. Fluid is a word that applies to both of these players.
Players with quiet feet are players who move well, and are generally not tired or fatigued. Once the feet become noticeably louder, it is a sure sign of fatigue. When I hear my own feet becoming louder, I do several things.
First, I try to relax every muscle in my body in between points. Relaxation of all my muscles helps my body recover from whatever strain I have experienced. As a result, I move better and I move more quietly.
Second, when starting a point, I will attempt to be on my toes. If I start on my toes, I am more likely to stay on my toes. If you are moving on your toes, you are moving gracefully and quietly.
Lastly, I try to slow down the pace and momentum of the match. I hit more lobs and try to force cross court rallies. Cross court rallies do not force me to run. Both of these make me expend less energy and allow my legs/body to recover.
Conversely, when I hear my opponents feet becoming louder, I am excited. It shows me that he is fatiguing or beginning to breakdown. So, I will usually try to kick the game up a notch. I will go for more aggressive points that force the opponent to run coast to coast. I start hitting shots with severe angles and I will try to really angle my volleys, if I can get to the net. I may lose some points, but I know that I am wearing my opponent down.
A tired opponent who is being pressed frequently will make more errors, sometimes he will execute foolish shots, and if I am lucky, he may even lose his spirit to fight. As you might expect, hearing a change for the louder in my opponents footwork inspires me with confidence. Who among us couldnt benefit from more confidence?
Opponents can hide fatigue in many ways. However, keeping their feet quiet will never be one of these. The louder the footwork is, the less effective the movement.
So, learning to hear and listen on the court during practice and during matches can be very, very helpful to your game!
Who knows? Truly "see" the ball, listen to the sounds of the game, and move with quiet feet, and I assure you that you will become a tennis overdog!