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Hocus... Focus

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Certainly, tennis is a wonderfully magical game! For most who even dabble with this great, international form of recreation/competition; there is an immediate "addiction." Truly, there is something unique about hitting a fuzzy, yellow ball over a net. Granted, it may seem irrational to those who do not partake in tennis, but for those of us who do, it is a joyful addiction.

Here we are in September. The summer is ending north of the equator, and spring is just beginning to emerge south of the equator. Regardless of your location, competition is probably something that will be in emphasis during this time.

End of year tournaments will be a culminating experience before the winter leagues, and cold month competitions begin. In the spring-like southern nations, the competitions will just be beginning to move forward in earnest. Yup, the Fall/Spring time of the tennis year is a period rich with contests.

So, it is not surprising that this month's column would address an area directly related to competition: focus! Without real focus during a match, players will never compete at their best levels. Of course when the pressure is on, it can be very difficult to establish and/or maintain focus. This is particularly true when one is playing in a tournament and advancing into later rounds.

Grand slams like the U.S. Open require incredible amounts of focus from those who are able to make it to final rounds. I suspect that we are, in part, engaged by these tournaments because we marvel at the physical, skill and mental prowess of those who are able to hold up a trophy at tournament's end.

Well, I have never competed at this level, but I do know something about focus. If you have practiced and played consistently through the last few months, and are about to enter some serious competition; you will definitely need to maintain focus to advance. If the arrival of spring marks the resurrection of your tennis gear, this may be the season to develop real game focus.

I suspect that this is one of the most fascinating aspects of this wonderful game. No matter what level at which you compete, there is a universal need for establishing and maintaining focus during matches.

For most of us, this is easier said than done. But, each of us can learn to do better in this important area. If we do develop greater focus skills, our match outcomes are undoubtedly going to be more desirable.

Having said this, let's begin.

Focus actually begins before a match is started! We all must realize and accept the fact that focus in tennis is a process. It is not a phenomenon that is simply turned on and off. This is a difficult reality for most players to accept, and begs the question, "Okay, what can I do to continue the focus process when I am not on the court?"

Well before I can answer this question, we must understand what focus in a match really involves: awareness, selective attention, quick "rest stops" and staying in the "now."

AWARENESS: Each player needs to develop several forms of awareness prior to competing. Usually, tennis players associate awareness with only what is happen as a match is unfolding. Certainly, we need this kind of awareness... but truthfully, we need to be attentive to other forms of awareness.

The first of these is a general awareness of how one feels. Am I tired or fatigued? Am I experiencing a stiffness of lack of mobility? Are there any injuries that are affecting me at this time?

It is imperative to assess your overall, physical condition well before striking the first ball. The answers to the questions above and your overall determination of your "physical" starting point will help you arrive at proper match preparations. For example, what you eat, how much you warm up in advance of competition, and even, what strategic approach should be adopted are all determined to a greater or lesser degree by your physical situation.

In my mind, tennis players generally do not give much attention to their overall physical state prior to competing. As a senior player, I have learned that my body dictates much in my game. I have been significantly injured over the last year, and the conditions associated with these injuries are not likely to disappear completely. As such, I realize that I must do even more stretching prior to play. I find that I need to significantly hydrate my body well before playing or I will end up cramping. I still like to play singles. However now, I am forced into crafting an overall strategy that minimizes how much running I will need to do during points and rallies. In warmer months, my body is ready to play more quickly than during colder months. So my pre-match, physical preparations are even more important during colder times.

Despite my physical limitations, I have enjoyed success during these summer months when playing sets. However, I am not capable of playing multiple matches as would be required in a tournament situation. Frankly, there are times when we all must realize that we are not ready physically to compete at a demanding level and/or for sustained periods of time.

If I play only one, best-of-three-set match per day, hit plenty of high, looping "moonballs" as I play, and bide my time until I have a good opportunity to hit a short ball for a clean winner; I have the best chance of being successful and winning. My physical state is in major measure dictating this game approach.

Tennis is a physically demanding sport. It demands of each of us that we fully understand our physical state of being. Failure to give much attention to this aspect of competition prior to beginning competition can often result in a loss that could have been avoided. Not every win or loss is completely dependent upon our stroke making ability.

Pros recognize that there is a need to warm-up long before the actual match warm-ups! At tournaments, the pros will come out a few hours before their scheduled match and hit for an hour or so with their coaches present. Part of this is simply designed to "boot up" the "stroke software." However, it is also likely that both player and coach are keenly aware of the player's stroke production efficacy during this warm up.

This kind of awareness leads to discussions, and perhaps, "tweaking" those strokes that don't feel or look 100%. In addition, this time may be spent introducing or solidifying a particular series of strokes. Ostensibly, these combinations of strokes will be evident and used during the actual tournament match that is forthcoming. Many non-professional players do not do this major "pre-match" warm up. Simply showing up for your scheduled match and stretching are probably not sufficient. Of course, being to self-critical in this type of pre-match warm up is likely to be counterproductive as well.

The goal in this warm up is to do a first and foremost get the tennis software up and running. Any assessment of stroke production, etc. should be minimal and result in only minor corrects.

Pros will always know what the draw for the tournament is, and be aware of who a player may face in each round. This awareness may also impact overall match strategy. This is not to say that each player does not start with his or her, own, natural game plan. It is usually best to start any match by playing one's own game. But, different surfaces and different opponents may require modifications in a natural game approach.

Whenever possible, try to learn as much about whom you will be playing, and gather this information as soon as is possible. This awareness may go a long way toward helping you prepare in ways that will help assure your victory. Unfortunately, it may be that the draw is not available until the actual day of the contest. Most tournaments, however, determine the draw at least the night before competition begins. But, this is not always the case.

A final pre-match awareness that needs to be considered deals with the playing conditions. Wind, sun, temperature humidity, etc. can influence play significantly. Of course, indoor competitions take out many factors, but there is always the temperature to be considered.

My point with awareness is that there really is no such thing as being too aware. If there is such a thing as being too aware, it pales in comparison to not being sufficiently aware. Taking the time to assess the information that you clean from pre-match awareness also helps promote confidence. By knowing what you are facing both inside and without, you are best prepared to adjust appropriately.

SELECTIVE ATTENTION: Part of true focus involves knowing what to give attention to while in completion.

It is easy to be distracted while playing a competitive match. Movements on other courts or movements in the background are just a couple of the typical distractions. Even the pros hate to begin a point if there are spectators that are not seated.

Sometimes, annoying sounds can distract a player. It is hard to play next to a player who is constantly grunting out loud each time she or he makes a shot.

Really, there is only one thing in a tennis match to which a player must give attention: the ball!!!

Trite as this may seem, players who perform well always remark that they are seeing the ball well. In fact, my very first column for the Tennis Server back in 1996 was entitled: SEE the Ball!

The first thing a player can do to help foster proper selective attention is to warm up with a keen eye regarding the ball's trajectory and spin. I refer to this process as getting my eyes on. During pre-match warm ups, I will really try to focus my attention on the ball. I try to see each bounce, see the ball's spin and pay close attention to the moments when the ball is on my strings and my opponent's strings. By emphasizing this during the warm-up, I am much more likely to be giving the ball proper attention during a match.

Once I am on a court, I try not to allow my eyes to drift to anything outside my own court. I don't follow matches on adjacent courts. I won't allow my eyes to look at spectators. As a coach, I did not really like my players to be looking to me for help unless it was really necessary.

In between points, I look at my racquet strings if I am not picking up a ball (Most tournaments do not have ball kids.) During game changeovers, I will stare at a spot on the court as I think or I may bury my head in a towel. My actions are all designed to keep my eyes focused on what is going on within my own court and match, and to avoid drifting to things extraneous to my court.

Sure, things will distract me sometimes. I can't say that balls that roll onto my court from another court do not take my eyes away from what is going on in my own "world." However, I try to revert back to my "myopic" court sense as quickly as I can. Unless you have a coach and are allowed coaching during the match, there is no benefit to giving attention to anything or anyone outside what is within your own court.

As an aside, I have noted that at the end of sets, players are frequently more prone to allowing their eyes to deviate from their own court. In major measure, I believe that this phenomenon contributes to why the winner of one set may have a drop in play level at the beginning of the following set. In essence, the player's selective attention has been permitted the opportunity to lapse. It can sometimes take time to regain the proper focus of attention.

QUICK "REST STOPS": Despite our efforts at selective attention, no one can give full attention to anything for any great length of time. The important thing is to know when and how to allow for what I call quick rest stops.

In order to have good focus on the ball, a player needs to be able to divert her or his attention to something else. If any player was to truly look at the ball with full attention, and divert his or her attention periodically, we would become bored with the ball. It is just the nature of the human attention span. The key factors in these diversions are When should I refocus my attention? Upon what should I place my attention? And, for how long should I allow my attention to be diverted?

There really aren't any truly universal answers to these questions. But, I will give you my answers as a starting point for crafting your own answers.

At the end of each point, I put my attention immediately upon retrieving any balls. If my opponent is retrieving a ball(s), I will focus on his efforts, and wait for him to send me what he has picked up. In diverting my attention in this manner, I still have my mind and my eyes "in the court."

Once the housekeeping with balls is finished, I will begin to look at my racquet strings and I will straighten any that are significantly bent. Most pros engage in this shift in focus. If there are any questions that have popped up in my mind, I will try to answer them. For example, I may note to myself that I seem to be back on my heels when hitting my groundstrokes. Why is this happening? Am I setting up improperly? Are my opponent's shots hit with excess pace and force me to be leaning back as I make my strokes?

Whatever my answers, I quickly force myself to visualize in my mind's eye the correction that may be necessary. If I am playing well, and errors are not my problem, I will repeat in my mind's imagination previously struck shots that were hit particularly well. By visualizing what I want to do, I either re-program my tennis software or reinforce the current software. Still my mind is in the match.

Lastly, I will walk to my serve or return of serve position for the next point. While making this "journey" I will note something on the surface of the court. I will note that there may be an imperfection in the painting of the lines. There may be a small leaf or particle on the court. Frequently, courts will have marks from shoes, ball contact or just from aging on the surface. Insignificant as all of these are, I will direct my mind's attention to the mark or surface irregularity. I don't really ponder this, I simply make note of the mark. This totally changes the nature of my thoughts to something that is "within the court," but not directly related to the game or point at hand.

In a short amount of time, I have in a controlled manner allowed my mind to take a bit of a vacation from paying such close attention to the ball and its movement. My mind as I begin the point is refreshed from this break, and I am better able to focus on the ball again. In essence, I have taken a little rest without being distracted by anything outside my court.

STAYING IN THE PRESENT: Of all the various aspects of focus, staying in the present (sometimes called staying in the "now") is the most difficult to effect.

Our mind tends to think ahead, or sometimes, dwell on what has passed. Either is devastating when competing in tennis.

If you are thinking forward, you are likely to let the concept of winning or losing enter your thoughts. Once thoughts of this type creep into your mind, I can assure you that a "tennis death" awaits you.

For example, how many times have you thought about the possibility of double faulting when serving, only to have it actually happen? How many times have you been ahead in a match and let the possibility of winning enter your thoughts. My guess is that as soon as you did, things began to change in your game.

Have you ever had a series of bad points and dwelled upon the fact that you are playing poorly? The net consequence is that you probably became angry. For virtually everyone but John McEnroe getting angry in a tennis match forces the player to play even more poorly.

So, how can you stay in the present? Well, it is much easier said than done to be sure. But, practicing both on and off the court can help.

Off the court, I will find myself drifting into some thought associated with the past or future. These thoughts are not always negative in nature. Still, I will catch myself and I will simply say silently for aloud to myself the word, "now." I immediately turn my attention to any object nearby and bring my thoughts into the present tense.

On the court, I do almost exactly the same thing. If I catch myself thinking forward or dwelling on something that has already happened, I again say the word, "now" to myself. Almost immediately, I find myself dismissing the forward or past tense thought. As soon as this happens, I immediately put my eyes on the tennis ball, wherever it may be... in my hand or in my opponent's hand... on the court waiting to be picked up... wherever.

I have heard of players who will count numbers to themselves, others who will sing the lyrics of a song to themselves, and still others who will simply focus on their breathing when thoughts of a future or past tense nature enter their minds.

Whatever works to stop these counterproductive thoughts and bring you back to the "now" is fine. It varies from player to player what may work best, but each of us has at least one technique that is likely to bring us back to the present.

Once you have discovered an effective technique, practice this technique on and off the court. Like everything in this wonderful game, the more you practice the better you become.

Developing consistent and productive "rituals" like these will help immeasurably with respect to maintaining or re-establishing focus. If you watch the pros, you will see that each has her or his own set of rituals which are designed to help keep the conscious mind free to do what it should be doing during points: simply watching the ball.

The pros on both tours are absolutely amazing when it comes to focus. On each tour, there are players who truly exemplify what it means to be focused. Many are truly not fazed by anything that comes their way during a match of a tournament: rain delays or interruptions, fan noise, bad calls, etc.

So whether your outdoor season is just beginning or culminating in club, division or regional finals; learn the "magic" of focus and put some "hocus focus in your game." If you do, you will be well on your way to becoming a tennis overdog!!!

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1996 - 2002 | 2003 - Present

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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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