Here we find ourselves in March, and I am fairly certain that most of my readers are actively training or getting ready to train for this wonderful sport of ours.
Obviously, the nature of any competitive game is to win. Whether you are a recreational player who is matched up against another weekend warrior, or a serious competitor who is looking for ranking, a scholarship or even a future career on the pro tours; we all want to win!
The reality is that 50% of all people playing a tennis match are going to lose. If you are human, you are going to have some wins that come your way which were not expected, and you will lose some matches that you felt certain you should have won. The uncertainty of competition is what really makes any game worth playing. Winning all the time may sound inviting, but truthfully, there would be no challenge. Of course, losing all the time is a prospect that many of us fear deep down inside.
When I first took up this great game, I competed in about 22 tournaments. I lost every match!!! Indeed, I believe that I won only 2 sets out of all those matches. Okay, some of these tournaments, I should not have entered. My skill level was just too low to even think of competing against savvy, seasoned players. But still, 22 consecutive losses do not do much for one's level of self-confidence!
Fortunately, I had played other sports in my youth. For example, baseball is a sport that has many parallels to tennis. One of these is that as a batter, you may find yourself entering what is commonly referred to as a "slump." Despite being an adept batter, I had my fair share of slumps. They are not fun!!!
Well as we approach the beginning of the outdoor season in countries north of the equator, I want to address the concepts of confidence, how to avoid slumps, and how to make slumps "disappear" as rapidly as is possible. Hopefully, this outdoor season presents nothing but positive improvement in your game. But, it is possible that you may experience a "slump." If so, the real question will be: "How do I get out of this slump!!!"
Hopefully, this month's column will shed some light on the answer to this question.
We need to start by trying to define what a slump really is and isn't.
A slump is not simply a losing streak. We all lose matches, and at times we may be playing what we consider to be some of our best tennis! For instance, I could play my very best tennis but consistently lose to superior players like Roger Federer. Truthfully, I would be lucky to take a game or two. This would certainly not be a slump.
There are times, when for a variety of physical reasons, we are unable to play our best tennis. As an example, I have some knee problems that are at times periodically more severe than at other times. Indeed, I have started a match feeling great, and may move in a manner that places some strain upon my right knee. Once this type of strain occurs, my mobility on the court may be seriously affected. If I have really strained the knee badly, I may experience less than optimal mobility for a week or so. I may lose more matches than I win. Certainly, this is not a slump.
My point? One cannot simply look at the win/loss record to determine whether one is truly in a slump.
Some tennis players will perceive that they have "lost" a stroke. It could be that a collegiate player usually hits a big forehand groundstroke and expects that his/her forehand will result in winners... as it has in the past. Whether this player wins or loses matches, he/she perceives that he/she is experiencing a slump. But in reality, this cannot truly qualify as a slump... even if one only looks at the absence of proper execution in this player's forehand.
Really, slumps are a frame of mind! They are negative in nature. They can result from a variety of "causes," but they all have one common denominator: The tennis player perceives that she/he is in a slump. In truth, slumps are nothing more than self-perceived phenomena, albeit other people can be the catalyst for such self-perception. A coach may say to one of her/his players, "You seem to be in a slump." Simply making this statement to a player can begin the process of actually creating a real slump.
The fact that slumps are "mentally created and sustained" makes eliminating them most difficult! Once again, the mental aspects of this wonderful game can wreak havoc upon a player.
Beliefs may be well founded or based on erroneous/inaccurate data. But a belief is always perceived as being true and valid! I frequently say to those whom I coach that self-beliefs are probably the single most important aspect in competition. Put simply: if a person does not believe that she/he can beat an opponent, it is highly likely that she/he won't.
Now, don't get me wrong. Simply believing that I can beat Roger Federer is not sufficient to result in a victory. But, I stand no chance whatsoever if I don't have a belief that it is possible. Improbable as my victory over Roger would be, there is always a chance that it could happen... if only because he becomes injured and retires!
Many tennis players will equate a slump with a lack of confidence. It is not surprising that these two concepts would be connected. But, confidence (or more properly self-confidence) is really not the solution to remedying a slump.
Yes, self-confidence is a self-oriented perception/belief. Unfortunately, self-confidence is often intimately connected to "results." If we are getting the results that we seek in any endeavor, we find ourselves possessing confidence. However if the results are not what we seek or desire, our self-confidence can disappear in a flash. Once again, the mind and its beliefs determine our sense of self-confidence.
Some years back, I wrote a column entitled, Tennis as Performance. As a part of this article, I attempted to make the case for "mindless execution" when actually competing. As the famous baseball player, Yogi Berra, once said, "You can't think and play baseball at the same time." There is much wisdom in this statement.
If we have practiced and prepared well, we should allow our non-conscious mind to control our actions as we play points. The conscious mind, which is overly critical and analytical, will most likely interrupt the "flow" of our performance, which normally leads to less than peak performance. One of the principles that I attempt to make in the aforementioned article is that to play one's best tennis, a player needs to learn to "quiet" the conscious mind during points. The proper role for the conscious mind is to be an "observer" that provides the sense data necessary for our non-conscious mind to properly execute our movements and stroke production.
I realize that some of you may find this statement a bit bizarre. But everyday, millions of people drive cars in a "mindless" state. They may be listening to music or news on their car radios, conversing with passengers, or simply "daydreaming" about things not directly related to the act of driving a car. Somehow, these drivers make the myriad decisions necessary to navigate safely more often than not.
I use this example to prove that indeed many of us put our "conscious" mind in a state of suspension or distraction while performing a potentially life threatening performance... driving a car.
Okay Ron, what does all of this have to do with slumps?
Well slumps will disappear more quickly when we simply accept their existence and do NOT try to use our conscious mind to devise a method of eliminating or ending a slump.
In his seminal book, The Inner Game of Tennis, Tim Gallwey presents an almost "zen-like" approach to playing this great game of ours. I am not certain what edition this book may be in at the time of this writing, but it is still on the shelves of many bookstores, and still enjoys many sales. The lasting quality of this great book in my mind speaks to the value and validity of its content.
Somewhat inspired by this great work, I wrote a column entitled, Why Do You Play or Want to Play Tennis? At the end of his Inner Game of Tennis, Tim Gallwey explores some of the common answers to this critical question.
Tennis for most of us is nothing more than a game. Our livelihoods do not depend on tennis. Our family and friends do not judge us by how well we play tennis. There are no sportscasters waiting in the wings to ask us questions about our tennis performances.
Granted, there are tennis juniors and high school players who seek to use tennis as a means toward offsetting the cost of college. Still if one counts the number of tennis related scholarships granted to collegiate players in any given year, the result is a relatively low in number. The vast majority of junior, high school, and even, collegiate players are simply competing because they love this great game.
There are those of us who may compete for USTA ranking or for recognition by a club or league. In these situations, really the only thing at stake is "prestige" and/or status.
Still, many of us place far too much importance upon our "tennis identity!" Somehow, we deceive ourselves into believing that our "self-worth" is directly connected to our tennis prowess and success.
I am not suggesting that wanting to win a match is in any manner a counterproductive or an undesirable goal. After all, that is what sport competition for the vast majority of athletes of all stripes is all about. But once you invest your "identity" and "self worth" into any sport, you are on a very slippery slope... one that is more likely than not to lead to disappointment and frustration.
One of my favorite quotes attributed to the great Rod Laver goes something like this. "Tennis is just not that important. The worst thing that can happen to me is that I lose a bloody match." I think Mr. Laver had his priorities in proper place.
Slumps, in my mind, result from one simple cause: fear! Most common are: fear of losing, fear of being less than what we could or should be regarding skill and performance, and fear of losing peoples' respect and/or acceptance.
Once we put ourselves in the position of placing too much importance on tennis, we leave he door open for fears to enter and linger in our minds and beliefs.
Truly, part of what makes tennis such a compelling and fascinating game is the fact that it is full of oxymorons. The harder we try, the more difficult things seem to become. The more we fret, the less likely we are to find ourselves overcoming what is the cause of our stress. The harder we try to hit the ball, the harder it comes back at us. The more we try to think our way through a match, the less likely we are to gain or regain our rhythm and flow.
So, the secret to ending a slump is really accepting its existence. By accepting its existence, I simply mean that you make a heartfelt commitment to finding enjoyment in playing tennis regardless of what may or may not happen on the court.
At first, this may require that you role-play or "feign" indifference. You will certainly need to be aware of your "self-talk" and avoid any negative statements about yourself. You may need to really force yourself not to analyze your game. You may need to take a few steps back and play opponents who are less challenging, as Andre Agassi did when he played Challenger level matches after dropping significantly in the pro rankings.
Perhaps the single most important "solution" to a slump is to review why you play this great game. Maybe a re-evaluation of why you play will lead to a better understanding that it is the thrill of the game that really is important... not the wins/losses or the accolades that accompany successful performance.
In the final analysis... analysis is probably not the answer. Acceptance, trust in your non-conscious mind, quieting the conscious mind, relaxation and positive visualization are, in my mind, the best ways to quickly end a slump. After all, a slump is really just a state of mind. There is no necessary reason why one poor performance should or will affect the next performance... unless we allow this to occur.
Slumps are clearly frustrating! They do occur in every player's career at some point. The immediate reaction to panic is not uncommon. However, this is the most counterproductive posture to take... although its presence is understandable.
Most important is to take "pressure" off... not put pressure on... yourself!!!
Truly this great game of ours is paradoxical in nature. I believe that this is one of the reasons that we find it so fascinating. There are no "givens" in tennis! Each match presents its own host of challenges... but always more rewards... if you approach the game correctly.
Make tennis one of the most enjoyable parts of your life. Enjoy the thrill
and privilege that tennis provides if we first and foremost look at it as a game. We need to be childlike in our approach to tennis. When a child finishes a game (win or lose) she/he puts it behind herself/himself. The child immediately looks for the next moment of fun.
Slumps are inevitable. I am not a Mathematician, but I suspect the laws of probability would support this statement. They aren't fun to endure, but they end as quickly as they begin when you simply "let things be." Forsaking control in tennis is not an easy practice. But if you can simply "go with the flow," stay in the moment, and trust your non-conscious mind to make the necessary corrections, I assure you that slumps are on their way out!
Once you end a slump, you are well on the road to becoming a tennis overdog!!!