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Facing Your Most Daunting Opponent... Yourself!!!

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Ron Waite, USPTR

Has this ever happened to you?
You are in a match and seemingly things are going your way. You may have won the first set handily, and it seems that it is just a matter of time before you can place another "W" in your season record. Yet somehow... against all odds, you end up losing the match!
I can't imagine that there are many of you who are reading this that have not experienced this horrific scenario in some form or another. Truly, this wonderful game of ours presents challenges that span conditioning, movement, stroke skills and tennis strategies/tactics. But perhaps, the most daunting aspect of this great game is dealing with what Tim Gallway calls "The Inner Game."
If I may adapt an adage by the infamous Yogi Berra of baseball fame, "Tennis is 90% mental... and the other half is physical." Well despite the mathematical impossibility of this statement, the point is clear: Tennis is a game that clearly requires mental discipline and fortitude.
Most people who watch me play a match remark that they cannot tell if I am winning or losing. My demeanor is unchanged regardless of the score and irrespective of how well I may be playing. Believe me, this was not always the case. In my early experiences with this game of ours, I would be prone to fits of anger, frustration, and at times, I would simply give up the fight and tank the match.
I have spent many years exploring all the information that I could find on the mental side of playing tennis. Quite frankly, I found much of the information from the so called "experts" to be interesting, but not really useful. Still by exposing myself to the vast majority of material available (my library is full), I have been able to sift through the chaff and find the wheat... so to speak. Recognizing that there was a need for a "systematic" approach to this aspect of tennis competition, I wrote my book, Perfect Tennis.
Don't get me wrong. I do not win all my matches. I still like to get out with the young guys who play for the team at the College where I am a full-time professor. To date, I can still beat the one and two players more often than not. I am spotting them many years, and quite frankly, some of these players are quite gifted with respect to tennis skills. Certainly, their movement on the court and stamina are superior to mine. Yet, I usually find a way to win.
Tennis is really an enigma inside a puzzle packaged within a riddle. For me, this is part of what makes this sport of ours so appealing.
As we begin our training and matches this April, I am hoping that my column will be able to help you commit to a much more fruitful mental attitude... both on and off the court. As we who live north of the equator start the heart of our outdoor season, I would encourage the reader to make a new year's resolution of sorts. Hopefully, this month's column will provide some compelling rationale for "stabilizing" the mental aspects of your game, and present some concrete suggestions that may help you when your emotions during play are on the proverbial roller coaster.
Tennis is first and foremost a game of control. Yes, the power game is seen at many levels. But, power is never more important than ball placement and control.
There is so much in this game that we cannot control. If we are playing outside, we cannot control the elements of sun and wind. In truth, we usually cannot control our opponents. At best, we can understand what may be a weakness. Usually, we play our game and trust that it will be sufficient to win. Some of us may actually have a Plan B or even a Plan C, if our A game is not doing the job.
Regrettably, there are times during a match or even days when we seemingly cannot control our stroke production. Anyone who has played this game competitively has experienced the ups and downs that almost always occur during a match. Many of us may have experienced days when nothing seems to be clicking, and we seemingly have no control over our game.
Well, there is one aspect of this great game that you can always control... your reactions and overall demeanor. Yes, this may be easier said than done, but every player can remain calm and "in control" if she/he makes the commitment.
Essentially, I see the human mind working on two levels. There is the conscious mind and there is the non-conscious mind. Many of us tennisphiles work on our conscious mind and totally forget about the non-conscious mind.
The conscious mind is a constant "evaluator." It is always making judgments. The conscious mind is very egotistical and believes that it can solve any problem presented to it. This "elitist" conscious mind rarely places any trust in the non-conscious mind. These realities are the basis of almost all mental obstacles and problems.
Tennis is a performance activity. All performances have three phases: The preparation phase, the execution phase and the evaluation phase. Each of these three should be distinct from one another.
In the preparation phase, we tennis players strive to arrive at good conditioning, good movement, endurance... and of course... well executed strokes. Through rote activities such as cross training, on-court drills and practice sets; we seek to provide a foundation for competition. However, it should be noted that this foundation is really grounded in our non-conscious mind... not our conscious mind.
Muscle memory is really a non-conscious phenomenon. When we have prepared correctly and sufficiently, our muscle memory should be similar to how we breathe: totally involuntary.
The execution phase should be as mindless as is possible. This certainly can be difficult! Still, when we are playing our best tennis, it is seem less. By this, I mean that we are really on autopilot. We simply use our conscious mind to be an observer for our non-conscious mind. We watch the ball carefully, know where our opponent is on the court, and recognize our own position, as well. With this data, the non-conscious mind (if we have done our homework in the preparation phase) will more often than not bring about amazing results. If we really put our faith in the non-conscious mind's ability to execute well, we may find ourselves playing in the zone!
The conscious mind, however, is frequently too "vain" to allow the non-conscious mind the ability to take control. The conscious mind may be the best problem solver when it comes to a mathematical equation, but in the heat of a point, it simply can't do the job!
Now, don't get me wrong. There are times when we should be using the conscious mind to problem solve during a match. Certainly, game changeovers can be a time for reflective consideration of what is or is not working. Once these questions are answered, solutions can be devised by the conscious mind. To a lesser degree, we can become consciously analytical in between points. However, we should never think while playing a point. Rather, we should simply observe on a conscious level and respond on a non-conscious level. Of course, our conscious mind can have some difficulty in really allowing this to happen.
There is a time for true analysis and evaluation. This evaluation phase should never really be initiated until after the match has ended. Usually, it is best to allow time to pass after the match has ended before we really pick apart the strengths and weaknesses of out match performance. Why? Well, when we come off the court (having won or having lost), we are too emotional to be truly objective. Simply allowing an hour or two to pass before beginning the evaluation phase results in much better insights.
We do need to evaluate our tennis performances! Without such evaluation, we never really learn what we need to do to become better. The most common problem is that we are evaluating our performance while performing! As stated earlier, each of these three phases should be distinct and separate from the others.
So, this begs the question: "How do I stop my conscious mind from becoming too active during the execution phase?"
In the game of tennis there is rarely, if ever, a cookie cutter approach that works. Each of us needs to discover specific techniques that work. What works for one may not be successful for another.
The common denominator among all techniques is that the conscious mind must be calmed and/or distracted! In addition, the technique needs to be practiced!!! If possible, try to devise ways of practicing the specific technique both on and off the court.
Here are some common techniques that are used by players... even on the pro tours!

  1. Create elaborate and consistent rituals (e.g. adjusting strings, making certain to step on a mark that you have noticed on the court after every point, walking to the back fence and pausing a moment before returning to the baseline for the next point, bouncing the ball a precise number of times before serving, etc.). Rituals are ways in which the conscious mind becomes distracted in between points. The conscious mind can think of only one thing at a time. Having rituals forces the conscious mind to focus on completing the ritual... not on evaluating your performance. In addition, rituals provide a sense of "security" for many players. The more secure you feel, the less likely your conscious mind will feel compelled to analyze and evaluate.

  2. Keep your eyes inside the four lines of the court. I have watched many players who will deliberately look into the stands, or focus their concentration on things that are not within the tennis court. Although these distractions do provide some temporary respite from the "analysis" propensity of the conscious mind, they should be avoided. Why? Well as soon as you "come back" to "court awareness," the conscious mind wants to make an assessment of the situation. Quite frequently, this assessment mindset persists as the play resumes. Now, you are allowing the conscious mind to do something other than simply observe.

  3. Recite the alphabet backwards. If your conscious mind is truly racing in between points, try reciting the alphabet backwards to yourself. It isn't all that easy. The conscious mind will usually struggle to try and get the backwards order correct. In the process, it is distracted from evaluating the match/play situation.

  4. Sing a song as you play points. I know this may sound crazy, but I actually had a conversation with a fairly high ranking pro on the men's tour. He admitted that when he is actually playing a point, he sings a song to himself in his mind. To get the lyrics correct, the conscious mind is distracted from evaluating the match/play. But, singing for this pro does not prevent the conscious mind from observing well. (Think about how you drive a car on "autopilot" as you listen to music. Your non-conscious mind is really doing the driving, while your conscious mind enjoys the music and observes the road ahead.

  5. Focus on your breathing. Whenever you are stressed or feeling pressure while competing, pay attention to your breathing. In all probability, you are taking quicker and shallower breaths. Use your conscious mind to slow down your breathing rate. Take deep breaths where you inhale slowly through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth. Apart from "occupying" your conscious mind's thinking, this slow, deep breathing will actually help relax your muscles.

  6. Focus on your favorite color. In between points, there is a player on the women's tour who literally closes her eyes and imagines her favorite color. In discussing this with her, she revealed to me that this technique calms her and prevents her mind from racing. She will at times vary the color space that she imagines to create different emotion and energy responses. For example when she is feeling tired, she thinks of the color red, which seems to energize her.

  7. Simply go Zen-like. I am by no means an expert in Eastern Philosophy or Religion. Still, I do meditate briefly each day. Sometimes, I do a sort of meditation that focuses upon visualizations or creative solutions to everyday problems. At other times, I simply meditate in a manner that attempts to keep my mind blank. This latter technique forms the basis of what is known as transcendental meditation. In this latter variety, the master yogi has progressed beyond the simple mindless state and is able to search within. Well, this mindless form of meditation is what I term Zen-like meditation. Quite frequently, I will attempt to go "mindless" in between points and even during game changeovers. For me, this technique allows me to remain at a very stabile, emotional level throughout a match. It is one of my most preferred techniques.

There are numerous other techniques that players use. Some of these I describe in my book. Still, each player must discover what works for him/her. Sometimes, the only way to discover the "right" technique is through trial and error.
Distracting the conscious mind during points and play usually results in a much more calm and consistent persona. Generally, these techniques keep us on a more even plain with respect to our emotions. We have all seen the racquet throwers, those who yell at themselves and/or curse.
Negative emotions almost always bring negative results!!! In my lifetime, I can think of only two professional players who actually benefitted from negative emotions: John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. In each case, anger was the negative emotion that could actually raise their level of play. Of course, the anger was never self-directed. Rather, the anger was directed at opponents, or more likely, officials. Their anger was a product of being "wronged" in some manner. In their minds, the anger was justified. (I must confess that I believe that Mr. McEnroe frequently looks for opportunities to be "wronged" as he plays on the senior tour.)
These two players are clearly the exception to the rule. For the overwhelming majority of us, anger, frustration, despair, fear, etc. result in negative results. If one thinks about these emotions, they almost always result from a "conscious" mind perception.
I know that many modern sports psychologists encourage players to pump fists, etc. to bring about "positive adrenalin." Though this is commonly seen on both pro tours, I do not encourage this type of "psyching up."
Rather, I subscribe to the theory put forth by Dr. Allen Fox. As he puts it in one of his videos (I paraphrase), "Once we allow ourselves to celebrate... we automatically must allow ourselves to experience negative emotions."
I think Dr. Fox has it right. I look at present players like Roger Federer and past performers like Bjorn Borg. Emotions are almost always on an even keel when one examines these players' matches. On the other hand, players like Marat Safin and Goran Ivanisevic were often times on emotional roller coasters. By allowing themselves to be "ecstatic," I believe they left the door open for "despair."
Tennis is really a mass of contradictions. The harder we try, the more difficult it is to perform well. The harder we hit, the less likely it is that we can control our shots. Truly, less is more in this wonderful game of ours.
Really, each of us should hope to face only one opponent when playing singles. Unfortunately, we often times find ourselves facing the most daunting opponent... ourselves.
So this season, I encourage the reader to make a commitment to discovering whatever technique(s) may be successful in squelching the conscious mind's insatiable desire to control. By distracting the conscious mind during play, one is likely to experience a more level emotional plane. When one is calm and unfazed on the court, it is almost impossible not to become a tennis overdog!!!

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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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