Believe me, as I write this column, I am certainly feeling older! It was exactly 10 years ago, this month, that my first TurboTennis column was published by the Tennis Server. Over 120 columns later, I still find my passion for this game enduring. I still receive e-mails from across the world with questions, comments and topic suggestions. But, most importantly, I still find myself learning more about this wonderful game.
The first column was entitled See the Ball!!! This and all my past columns are available in the Turbo Tennis Archives (You will see a link in the upper left hand portion of any months column.) Should you be interested in reading this first effort on my part, here is the direct link: http://www.tennisserver.com/turbo/turbo_96_10.html.
Seeing the Ball is still, in my mind, one of the best columns that I have ever written. In fact, whenever I am off in my game, I return to the basics put forth in this column. Seeing the Ball is applicable to every player and every playing style. I think this is why so many of you over these 10 years have written me with kind words regarding its content.
Well, in an anniversary spirit, I am going to address another universally important topic: FOCUS!!!
How many times do players go into a match, win a set and ultimately lose? How many times do players start a match a little bit off in their games and never seem to get up to speed? How many times do you hear players telling themselves to focus, after hitting an errant shot?
I obviously cant give you exact numbers in answering these questions, but I am certain that you get the point. They occur more often than they should.
Frequently, sub quality tennis may be associated with a lack of focus during competition. Lack of focus may be even more likely in certain types of situations (e.g. long three set matches).
Regardless of your skill level, grips, age, movement capability or game style
every competitive tennis player can learn to focus better. Once in a rare while, we are blessed with an entirely focused match seemingly occurring without any effort. Most of the time, focus is a somewhat fleeting state of mind in competition.
Before I go any further, I must define what I mean by "focus." Focus is the state of mind where a player is aware and concentrating on seeing the ball, executing with as much precision as is possible, and attending to the decisions needed to win. Now, my August 2006 column Playing Not to Lose? is extremely relevant to the concept of focus. Focus is characterized by a relaxed, confident and contained state of mind and being. Demons, doubts, distractions, court conditions, less than honest line calls and simple bad luck can hinder, interrupt, and even, destroy focus.
Every player is going to lose her/his focus at some point in competition. After all, we are mere humans. Learning to minimize the disappearance of focus, and understanding what you need to do to recover loss focus is what this column hopes to help you discover. But, it is a discovery process, and it is a process that is, to some degree, unique for each player.
Sometimes players will say, "I was in the zone!" By this they imply that everything seemed easy and effortless. Frequently, they state they were on "auto pilot." In a sense, these are examples of perfect focus. When these "zone days" come around, be thankful. Unless you are a Roger Federer, they will be rare!
Hoping that focus has clearer meaning for you, we must address the real question: "How do I discover and develop focus?"
First, you need to learn to turn tennis on and off. If you live tennis 24 hours per day, it will do you no good. Life is more than tennis. You need to be a non-tennis person before you can be a successful tennis person. You cannot have your identity, importance as a human being and social position determined by tennis. Life and tennis need balance.
One of the major problems for pros on the tour is burn out. Each of these pros needs to know when not to play. For example, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal limited their hard court tournament schedule after two grueling grand slam events. Unfortunately, we who play more casually forget that this is not our being
it is a game.
Knowing this and accepting this will go a long way toward making you more focused when you do play.
However, when you are on the court
whether it is in practice or competition
you need to be able to turn on the focus. In his autumn years on the ATP tour, I had occasion to watch Jimmy Connors practice. In 45 minutes, he focused and achieved more than most could in hours. This was and is the genius of Jimmy Connors. He knows how to focus.
You are the player that you practice to be. If every time you are hitting on a court, you are attempting to focus on what you need to do, you are practicing focus. If you dont focus during practice, how can you focus during a match?
Yes, there are times when hitting balls is occurring simply to have fun. Even in these situations, your attention can be on the ball, the execution and where your balls are landing in the court. These are important parts of focus.
When I walk on a tennis court, my entire demeanor changes. I flip the switch to "on." I keep conversation and pleasantries to a minimum and I am attempting to be aware of the ball, my execution and where my shots land. When I am comfortable that these are "activated," I turn my attention to my opponent. But, I only turn my attention to my opponent in an observational way. I simply want to see what he does, how and when.
Allied with this, being a somewhat thinking-oriented player (my skills are limited), I only analyze these observations in between points and during changeovers. When in a point, I want my non-conscious mind and muscle memory to work as well as they can. Analytical thinking during a point, for most, is disastrous. How many times have you changed your mind mid-point about a shot
only to hit an error? It happens all the time. The conscious mind is getting in the way of what your non-conscious mind can do better. Assuming that you have practiced, competition should be as self-evaluation free as is possible. As Yogi Berra of baseball fame once said, "You cant think and play baseball at the same time."
When I toss the ball to serve or see my opponent toss to serve, I turn off my conscious mind. It cant help me during the point. In between points and during game changeovers, I may want or need to turn on my conscious mind
but never during a point. I believe Jimmy Connors knew how to do this better than most.
So, seeing the ball, trying to hit each shot sweetly and observing the results of your efforts should be the only kind of focus you have during points. If you wonder why I left out "knowing where your opponent is on the court," there is a reason. This awareness fosters conscious-type thinking. When you are playing your best, this awareness of the opponents position will come on its own. Trying to force yourself to be aware of your opponent during a point is, more often than not, a path leading to errors for most of us who play this wonderful game.
Still, there are other things to add to the focus discovery and formation process.
Rituals help foster focus. Each of us, who play, has some rituals that we follow.
For example, if you watch most players before they serve, they have a regular and non-varying number of times they will bounce the ball before beginning the service motion. This is an example of a ritual. For me, I always bounce the ball 3 times. In fact, if for some reason I am interrupted in my bouncing (e.g. a ball on another court may be rolling in my direction. I begin the entire motion of bouncing, again.
Watch players after a warm up. Many will re-tie their shoes. Did they really loosen or become untied during the warm up? I think not. This is more of a ritual.
Look at Maria Sharapova. Before beginning any point she walks to her backcourt with her back to the net/opponent. She pauses, looks at her strings while adjusting them. Then and only then, will she turn to begin the point. It is a ritual.
In his book, Winning Ugly: Mental Warfare in Tennis-Lessons from a Master, Brad Gilbert makes reference to a ritual to use between points and serves. He suggests that you find a mark on the court and step on it before beginning a point. It is a ritual.
Why are rituals so important? They provide the non-conscious mind with a set of cues that help elicit proper actions from our body. Presuming that our conscious mind doesnt get in the way, these rituals can truly help consistency in performance.
Each player needs to discover for herself/himself rituals that are comfortable and stick to them faithfully. Eventually, they become so "second nature" that no memory is required.
When competing, I will begin before even arriving at the site with a series of rituals. When I arrive, I have another set of rituals. During play, I have my competition rituals. Some may see this as superstition. It really is not. It is simply a means of helping to bring your non-conscious mind into gear.
The added benefit of "security" that one derives from rituals (since they are familiar and controllable actions) usually enhances the relaxation process.
Again, you are how you practice. So, practice these rituals in your training sessions!
Relaxation fosters focus. If there is one part of the game of tennis with which most players struggle it is probably learning how to relax their body during competition.
Lets be frank. We are all emotional creatures. Even the "Ice Man," Bjorn Borg admitted to fear, anxiety, etc. during his competitive years on the tour. Sometimes, we are simply going to be nervous and tight. It cannot be totally avoided. But, it can be minimized.
Breathing deeply and slowly is one important way to relax the body. In through the nose and out through the mouth
this is the proper way to breath in between points and games. It automatically helps reduce (maybe not eliminate) nervous tension.
Distracting the conscious mind in between points and changeovers can be a way to help the body relax. If you are unaware consciously of the score or the importance of a game/point, you are probably not going to be a nervous. Some will do this by simply counting to themselves, singing to themselves, imaging relaxing environment or places, etc.
Each player needs to discover what will successfully distract the conscious mind for him/her during these tense periods of competition. If nothing else, a trial-error approach will allow you to make this discovery.
Finally, each player should learn to close her/his eyes and simply relax the muscles in her/his body. This sounds difficult, but it really isnt all that difficult, if one attempts it with the eyes closed.
As a test, close your eyes. Take a deep breath and see if you can consciously relax your body and its muscles. My guess? You can. And with practice, you can do it more effectively.
Keep your eyes and mind within the court. This simple piece of advice is so important. Unless you are being coached, and are allowed the coach to speak with you at times
it is best, in my mind, to never let your attention go outside the court. Now, if there is an imaginary place that you "go to" during changeovers
that is fine. But, during the play, I dont want to know about other courts, other players, outside activities, friends or family, etc. I keep my eyes in the court in order to keep my mind in the game.
I believe this is why so many pros will be seen adjusting strings after each point. It is one way to help assure that your mind is not drifting to the crowd.
Some pros do turn to their coaches and players for support during a match. As is the case with almost any human endeavor, there are exceptions to every rule. Still, I would argue that for most of us developing an "eye set" and mindset that keeps all our conscious attention within our own court facilitates focus.
Here again, proper rituals can help foster this goal!
So, on this tenth year anniversary, I hope to have written an article that is as successful as my first.
I thank my publisher, Cliff Kurtzman, for the privilege to communicate with each of you, and I thank my loyal readers for their support and e-mails. It has been a wonderful decade for me. I hope that I can have another successful decade.
Why? Because you and I love this game
and inside each of us, is a tennis overdog wanting to be released.