Those of you who regularly read my column and/or have purchased my book know that I believe the mental side of the game to be equally important to the physical side of tennis. I have heard people say, "Tennis is such a mental game." And indeed, they are correct.
When speaking about singles, a player is literally on the court all by herself/himself. The pressure is singular in nature, and certainly unceasing. In many ways, tennis players experience the kind of pressure that basketball players go through when shooting foul shots and baseball pitchers know when on the mound.
In doubles, the pressure is shared by a team. This can be a plus or a minus. It really depends on the "chemistry" that exists between team members.
In any successful performance, one is at one's best when there is what I like to term "flow" occurring. Flow occurs when the conscious mind is simply an observer and the non-conscious mind (where muscle memory is really located) is "trusted" to take this information and use it effectively. When this seamless cooperation is in place, any performance is enhanced. We do this naturally when we drive a car. Really, our conscious mind plays a primarily observational role as we drive from point A to point B. If you drive, I am sure that you have gone many miles where the "driving decisions" have really been made "automatically" by the non-conscious mind.
So, this wonderful game of ours is a performance activity, and benefits when there is genuine "flow." The hard part for most is getting the conscious mind to play its proper role.
As I view tennis players, I see three primary types. Type A is the "autopilot" who possesses significant tennis skills and weapons. Marat Safin is this type of player.
A Type B player is the "heady" or thinking player. His/her weapons may be less copious and/or developed, but the Type B player is always thinking of new ways to win points. Often times, the Type B player is out to help an opponent lose, while the Type A player is simply trying to win by dominating. When he was on the tour, Brad Gilbert would be an archetypal Type B player.
Type C players usually end up becoming the tennis greats. They start out as Type A prodigies, and eventually learn to think in the ways that a Type B player does when it comes to tactics. Roger Federer and Serena Williams are just a couple of the Type C players on the tours today. They clearly have skills, and they know how to adapt their game plans to win when necessary.
Andre Agassi in his teens was an incredibly talented Type A player. But, he moved up notches with coaches like Brad Gilbert and Darren Cahill. These coaches introduced Andre to the thoughtful side of the game. This added dimension enabled Andre to become the Type C player who won every grand slam event at one time or another.
Looking at the Bryan brothers play doubles, we see a pair of Type C players. Each has skills, but together, they are able to discuss, revise and craft winning strategies. When the "Woodies" played on the tour, they were a team with this type of chemistry.
Some of you who are reading this are probably natural Type B players. You may not possess any great weapons, but you find a way to win. You already know how to manage your conscious mind to provide analysis when needed. But once the point starts, your conscious mind shifts to being an "observer," and you simply play points according to a predetermined tactical plan.
I am certain that I have readers who are emerging or developed Type A players. You play your best when you are not thinking at all. You have your weapons, they are working, and you are able to dominate.
Type B players falter when they encounter a Type A player who is on her/his game. To beat the Type A player in these situations, the Type B player needs more "firepower." So, Type B players should always be looking to improve existing stroke execution, and more important, add new arrows to their quivers.
When things are not going well, Type A players frequently self-destruct at a rapid rate. Their conscious mind kicks in. First, the conscious mind rebukes the player for being imperfect. This often times is evidenced by screaming, racquet throwing, etc. It rarely, however, does what comes naturally to the Type B player: solving problems and devising new tactics.
Well in this month's column, I want to share with you my ideas on how to use the time in between points and the time taken during game changeovers to put your conscious mind to its best use. In brief, there are times to let the conscious mind analyze, ponder and generate ideas. Equally important, there are times when the conscious mind must be "put to rest" and simply provide data to our non-conscious mind.
It takes time, dedication and some specific techniques to achieve this dynamic fully. My complete approach to the mental side of the game is contained in my book. But, there are some things that each player can do immediately to begin this process, and these are what I wish to share with you this Holiday Season.
Emotions are tremendously influential factors in any human situation and tennis is no exception. Peace, calm, confidence and patience are positive emotions. Fist pumping and positive self-talk are also positive. On the negative side, we have fear, anger, pessimism and negative self-talk. Obviously, we want to maximize the positive energies and minimize the negative. But if you are a typical tennis player, both sets of emotions will enter into each match. The really important questions are how much of each set of these emotions will be present in a match, and for how long.
Some years back, I viewed a video which featured a segment by Dr. Allen Fox. In addition to having played on the tour and coaching successful collegiate teams, Dr. Fox is one of the first to truly explore the psychology associated with this wonderful game of ours. In this segment, Dr. Fox made a point with which I fully agree. If you allow yourself to celebrate the good moments in a match, you automatically must allow yourself to lament the errors and problems that invariably arise in a match. His point was to encourage a balanced emotional state regardless of the specific situations that present themselves.
I realize that many sports psychologists encourage fist pumping, etc. because these actions do physically result in a "positive" rush of adrenalin. I don't suggest that proponents of these actions are wrong or that their research is ill-founded. However, I believe for the most of us who play this game, opening the door to "celebration" is ultimately counterproductive. I lean in the direction of Dr. Fox's insights.
If I were to choose the pro players whose demeanor I would most like to emulate, Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Chris Everett, Amelie Mauresmo, and of course, the "Ice Man," Bjorn Borg would be at the top of the list. Although each of these players have displayed positive and negative emotions during matches (after all, they are human), these displays are rare. When watching these players in between points and during changeovers, it is almost impossible to determine if they are winning or losing. Still, there is no "cookie cutter" approach to tennis that is universally applicable.
Before I make specific suggestions, I should put forth my thinking about anger as an emotion in tennis. For 99.9% of tennis players, it is my belief that anger is extremely destructive and counterproductive. At times, people will counter my position by citing the careers of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Both of these players have been known to get a bit heated during matches. But if you examine their anger, it is always "other directed." They are angry with line judges, chair umpires, opponents, and even at times, fans. Their anger fosters a feeling within them that they have been unjustly treated in some manner.
Most tennis players, however, display anger that is "self directed." They are angry with themselves for their errors, misjudgments, etc. Clearly, this type of anger is rarely, if ever, going to bring about a positive consequence. When Marat Safin would throw a racquet and break it, he was really angry at himself. I never saw him win a match when this type of anger was displayed.
So, the first emotion that must be controlled is anger. In my mind, no anger is the goal. But if anger arises within you that is directed at someone other than yourself, it may (albeit rarely) result in a positive outcome.
Fear is the most common emotion that tennis players experience. We are alone out there on the court, unless we are playing doubles. Before a match begins, we experience what every athlete experiences before a competition begins. But in our sport, it is easy to become fearful during the match. We fear we will lose. We fear we will embarrass ourselves. We fear what others may think of us.
Truthfully, tennis players often times panic over things that are absolutely minor and relatively inconsequential... unless we give them greater importance than they deserve. Once a player panics, muscles are no longer able to permit good movement and fluid strokes. The conscious mind kicks into high gear, and we immediately over analyze the situation. This results in what is often times referred to as "paralysis by analysis." Our "flow" is almost completely destroyed, and the conscious mind deviates from what is its primary role: simply providing information to the non-conscious mind where we store our muscle memory.
The times during matches, when we are most likely to experience negative emotions and overly analytical thinking, is in between points and during game changeovers. I wish that I could offer a "magic bullet" solution that would prevent negativity from enter your mind at these times. But alas, I cannot.
What I can offer is a direction that may lead to a process. This process, with practice and over time, will minimize the negative moments in matches regardless of score. When I practice with the Albertus Magnus College Men's Tennis Team, the players are always amazed that I am always appearing calm, never voice anger, and seem unflustered regardless of the score. Some have even remarked to me that they find my demeanor very intimidating. I wasn't always this calm, I assure you!
I spent time disciplining myself and coming up with rituals and processes that would provide me with the best possible chance of remaining in a mental position of being poised.
Ask yourself this question. If I were poised at all times during each of my matches, wouldn't I be more likely to win? Certainly, your answer will be at least "probably." But apart from winning or losing, remaining poised on the court means that the game becomes more fun... regardless of the situation. Wouldn't it be great to have fun every time you play a match?
Well, the first step in arriving at this consistent poise is to be aware of what you do off the court. Life is just plain stressful. No one gets a completely smooth ride in life. We all are presented with challenges and problems. If we learn to address our problems more calmly, trust ourselves to be capable of meeting challenges and focus on what can be done (not upon what can't be done), a major personality change automatically occurs.
To do this, one must learn to RELAX physically and emotionally. In the seminal book The Relaxation Response, by Harvard physician Herbert Benson, the importance of reducing stress is clearly and accurately described and addressed. It is great reading.
Every day, I do relaxation exercises that take a form that might be considered meditation. But apart from these, whenever I feel myself become anxious, nervous or stressed; I immediately stop, take a deep breath in from my nose, hold it a second and release the breath slowly from my mouth. As I am releasing this breath, I say the word "relax" to myself and make a conscious effort to relax every muscle in my body. At first, this may not seem to pay dividends, and may seem ineffective. However, I assure you that if you practice this faithfully everyday in your normal activities; you will learn how to significantly relax physically and emotionally... upon "command!"
At the end of every point in a tennis match, I turn my back to my opponent, take this deep breath and say (sometimes aloud) relax. I feel my muscles loosening, my breathing slowing down and a sense of calm comes over me.
Notice that my first step is not to analyze what happened in the last point! Rather, my first action is to relax my mind and body. The day-to-day training one does in normal life activities can really make this relaxation effect easy to generate during a tennis match. But, it does require practice!
Next, I immediately look to a "spot" (some imperfection) on each side of the court that I have noticed before beginning the match. I immediately go and literally step on this mark. Why? I want to distract my conscious mind from getting analytical. So, I give it a simple task. Find the spot on the court, walk to it and step on it.
Third, I retrieve any balls that are on my side. I make sure that I look at each ball carefully before placing them in my pocket (if I am serving) or sending the ball back to my opponent (if I am receiving). By the time the warm up for my match has ended, I have noticed some irregularity on each of the three balls. As I pick up a ball, I determine which of the three it is. Again, this keeps my conscious mind focused upon something innocuous and non-analytical.
Fourth, I adjust the strings on my racquet. I simply try to make them parallel which of course is never completely possible. But, my conscious mind is again preoccupied with a task.
Lastly, I visualize one of two things: where I want to place my serve or where I want to direct my return of serve.
Once the point begins, I do my very best to simply focus on the path of the ball paying particular attention to the moment the ball touches my opponent's strings. I try not to consciously think at all. Rather, I attempt to simply observe and let my non-conscious mind do whatever it believes is right and/or necessary. If I am successful, I am playing each point on "automatic pilot."
It is important to note several attributes inherent in executing the above steps. I am not judging myself, the previous point, the game score, my opponent or anything at all. Indeed, I am trying to keep my conscious mind at rest, as I try to physically relax my body.
Also, I never allow my eyes to see outside the boundaries of the court. All of my visual focus is upon elements that are part of or within the area that is my court. In fact, the only time I will allow my eyes to wander to another court is when I must return a ball to players on an adjacent court, should one or more of their balls roll into my court.
Third, I visualize what I want to do before beginning the actual point. I am not thinking three shots ahead. Rather, I am focusing upon one ball at a time.
Lastly, once the point has started, I have only one objective: seeing the ball!!!
All of the above is a ritual. Rituals are one of the important ways in which you can build genuine confidence and eradicate fear during a tennis match.
So, when do you strategize and analyze, Ron?
I use game changeovers for this purpose. During a game changeover, I first sit, relax my body, take in fluids and towel off any excess perspiration. Second, I repeat my deep breath and "relax" technique to calm my mind and body.
Then and only then will I allow my conscious mind to start thinking about score, what is going well, what is problematic and what solutions might be possible.
However, it is critically important for me to take on only ONE PROBLEM per game changeover. If my backhand is errant, I will ask myself why and try to come up with the solution. If I am being moved around the court by my opponent and he is controlling the points, I ask myself why and what can I do to prevent this. If my preliminary game plan is not working, I ask myself why and consider if it is time to go to plan B.
The important thing is to take on only one problem at a time when you do allow your conscious mind to start playing a role beyond observation. If seven things may be out of sync, it takes me seven game changeovers to address each one. You can only solve one problem at a time, I assure you.
Here again, I try not to be self-judgmental. I try to be as detached and as objective in my analysis and solutions as I can be. Frequently, I will have little mental conversations where I allow my conscious mind to have a dialog with a "separate" entity. My conscious mind is "Ron" and the player is "Ronnie." I try to have a dialog with myself exactly as I might with my doubles partner if I were in a doubles match.
As in between points, I never allow myself to let my eyes wander outside the four "walls" of my court. If I have friends or fans watching me, I couldn't even tell you where they are seated. I am that detached.
Once in a while, I take out the "strategy" notebook that I carry in my tennis bag. Over the years, I have made a compilation of simple "solutions" "corrections" and tactical changes. I have organized with tabs. Each tab has information about a particular aspect of the game. For example, I have tabs for backhands, serves, wind, sun, game plans, etc.
If I am really in a quandary as to what to do in a match, I reach for my notebook and quickly review the simple "cues" it contains. Here again, I am building confidence and avoiding any panic because I have this book with me at all times.
My procedures with respect to playing doubles are identical with a few modifications.
In between points, I will always say something positive to my partner before beginning a point. Whether we are serving or returning, I make certain that we both know where we want our first strike of the ball to be directed (serve or return of serve).
During game changeovers, I speak with my partner rather than having an internal dialog. I still never allow my eyes to wander outside my court's area, and I never use any negative language.
And, negative language is the last area I want to address in this month's column. I am Catholic and despite my religious upbringing, I would be known to say "Oh, my God," far too frequently. Recognizing that this was disrespectful to my deity, I have retrained myself to say things like, "Oh my gosh" or "Oh my goodness" instead. As a college professor, I disliked the number of times I would say "um" or "uh" during my lectures. I have trained myself to avoid using these terms to a level that I never dreamed possible.
Negative language brings negative feelings, and often times, negative results. Instead of saying, "I really mishit that backhand" or "How could I have missed that sitter?" I have revised my language to things like. "I can hit a better backhand if I..." "The next sitter will present itself and I will put it away properly."
I recognize the deficiencies, but I focus on the future more than the past. I always try to frame my words and my thoughts in positive ways. Having photographed many pros on both tours over many years, I can honestly say that Michael Chang was a master of this.
Being close to the players in photographers' row, I hear what they say. Michael would always say something positive to himself and actually say it aloud. Once, Michael hit a horrible backhand at the Volvo International. As he walked back to receive serve, I heard him say aloud to himself. "Michael, you know how to hit a backhand. Just put this one behind you." Now, that is positive self-talk to me!
So, what you do in between points and during game changeovers are of extreme importance. We spend hours hitting balls trying to improve strokes. But, do YOU spend any time really working on what rituals and processes work best for you during these "down times?"
I assure you that if you do you will in no time become a tennis overdog!