Those of you who have followed this column for a while may remember that I wrote an e-book entitled, Perfect Tennis. For the last two years, I have spent a vast amount of my time researching every aspect of how the mind, attitude, self-talk and visualization affect how we perform. Note that I did not state the words win or lose!
Well, all of this research has resulted in a follow up book that I have titled, Perfect Tennis Perfected. At present, several publishers have expressed interest in this book and even made offers. However, the cost that they wish to impose upon the book and the amount of profit they wish to take are really distressing.
First, I am not looking to get rich off of my writing. This is not a likely reality. I also believe that the book industry (even with Kindle, Nook and other forms) charge too much for the information that I provide in my books. It is not that I don't value my work. Rather, tennis has become an expensive sport. Racquets, shoes, clothing, and at times, the fees associated with court time have made this sport less affordable in recent years. Those who seek knowledge from a book are doing so because they want to learn something or improve something.
So, this month's column is a holiday gift of sorts to my readers. Some of what I have written in my new book is contained in what follows. In addition, the manner in which I will try to communicate this information is via a real life experience with a "troubled" junior player.
I will call this player, "James." Very simply, James's father is an immigrant from an Eastern European nation. There, James's father (I will call him Tony) was a pro satellite player who became a teaching pro. So, it is not surprising that when Tony arrived in the United States, he was hired by a rather prestigious, Connecticut, country club to be their head pro. During the winter months Tony is affiliated with an indoor facility nearby. By all accounts, Tony is a superior player and an excellent coach.
James is a child prodigy. He literally was born with a tennis ball in his hands. He has played tennis in some form all of his life. As a junior player in the U.S., James was a highly ranked player in USTA New England. He has all the strokes, is a tall, young man with a powerful serve. He had an early career where he almost always dominated his opponents.
While playing for his high school team, James's game deteriorated. He won most of his high school matches, but in sectional competition he was descending with respect to his ranking. His father had high hopes for his son. The goal was to secure an NCAA Division I scholarship for James... or at least... this was Tony's goal for James.
Tony's response to the decline in James's game was to force James to work harder and longer on his strokes, conditioning, etc. These were not helping James improve. Tony was at a loss. Here his son was entering his final year in high school (the time when many colleges and universities would be scouting him), and James's game was going downhill. It is at this point that Tony asked me to intervene and see if I could help James.
Tony is a great teaching pro. He has a wonderful manner with his students and knows the game of tennis inside and out. He has helped me at times in the past by noticing subtle problems with my stroke production. So, I was more than willing to return a favor.
I worked with James for about seven and a half months. Ultimately by the time his spring season for high school competition came around, James was playing better than he ever had in the past. The story has a happy ending for Tony and James in that James was offered a full scholarship to a large, Division I university.
So, how did I help James? Well that is the subject of this month's column. I applied every bit of knowledge that I have been able to glean from my research into the non-physical and mental aspects of this wonderful game. Yes, James's problem was more mental than anything else. Getting James to turn his mindset around was not all that easy. But, I applied the techniques that I associate with my Perfect Tennis and eventually, his success returned.
In truth, his resurrection was not simply due to some mental "tricks" or "adjustments." James did indeed improve his strokes and strategies with the help of his father. A player can improve by employing specific mental and non-physical techniques, but these must be supported by traditional training and practice. One has to have the skills as well as the proper approach to competing in this great game of ours.
So, what follows is a brief summary of what actions I took to help James improve his performance. Again, notice I did not use the word, winning!
Hopefully, these briefly expressed accounts of my interaction with James will do two things: Help each of you improve your overall enjoyment of this exciting game, and selfishly, pique your interest in my revised edition of Perfect Tennis... when and how it is released.
WHY DO YOU PLAY TENNIS?
When posed this question, James had really one answer, "I want to be able to go to college on a tennis scholarship." Now, this is certainly a great reason to play tennis competitively, but it doesn't really answer why James plays tennis. Upon further probing, James indicated that he had played it all of his life. Therefore, it seemed normal to play tennis. This made perfect sense given his father's profession as a teaching pro. After more and more probing, James finally revealed that as a very young child, he loved playing tennis because it was fun to be alone and interacting with his father. He loved playing outdoors particularly on clay courts where he could get dirty without being in trouble. Like all children, James as a young kid wanted to "play and have fun." The only really good reason to play tennis is that it brings you joy or enables you to have fun!!!
To bring back some of the fun involved in his tennis training and competition, I instructed Tony to conduct shorter practice sessions. I also told Tony to allow James to dictate what HE wanted to do in some practice sessions. Eventually, Tony and James were playing games that they had shared when James was a child. Games like "King of the Court," "Volley Only Tennis" and "Half Court Tennis" among others became a regular part of James's training. It was quite apparent initially that neither Tony nor James felt comfortable playing these "childhood" games. Soon however, they were playing them and laughing at the results. It didn't really matter who won or lost. Yes, each was trying to win, but the real purpose of these games was to enjoy hitting a tennis ball and having fun with each other.
Whenever you think about winning or losing when playing tennis, it is death! I borrow this phrase from my friend David Ranney in his book, Zen-sational Tennis. I couldn't agree more!
Really, any performance activity (dance, singing, piano recitals, sports, etc.) require three separate and distinct phases: preparation, execution and evaluation. Problems occur when we prepare too little or too much. Each player must discover the right balance of training methods and time spent training. Jimmy Connors could do a complete workout in 45 minutes and be prepared to play a match later the same day. This is all he needed. In preparing to play tennis (practice and training), more is not necessarily better. As Arthur Ashe is quoted, "Perfect practice makes perfect."
By reducing the number of practice sessions, their length and allowing James to contribute to the structure and nature of these sessions; Tony enabled James to discover just the right amount and kind of practice that was ideal... for him. Every player is different. But, it is not simply how much you practice, it is how you practice. Once you discover your own balance, you are preparing as well as you possibly can for competitive play.
The conscious mind needs to be quiet and disengaged while executing in any performance. Whether it is a dance presentation or a tennis match, the conscious mind should remain a simple observer that provides the necessary data for the non-conscious mind to execute what has been ingrained through preparation. Dancers rehearse. When the performance is to be given, they shift to an automatic pilot mode. All the moves and muscle memory are stored in the non-conscious mind. The role of the conscious mind is to simply provide data.
The conscious mind is analytical and judgmental by nature. The last thing a tennis player wants to do is to "think" her or his way through a match. I will grant you that there are those players who are "heady" by nature and seem to play well when they are "sorting things out" in their conscious mind. Meaning no malice, "pushers" are the archetypal example of this sort of player. Pushers win lots of matches, but they rarely make it to the top. However, they do have fun on the court. They take enjoyment out frustrating their opponents and relishing a victory over a superior opponent.
Letting the conscious mind enter into a match is leaving the door open for "paralysis by analysis." James needed to learn techniques that would distract his conscious mind. After many trial and error methods, the technique that worked best for James is when he would literally sing, albeit silently, the words and melody to his favorite songs... while in the midst of play and in between points. For James, the only time his conscious mind was permitted enter into the match was during game changeovers. James limited how much he would allow his conscious mind to analyze during these changeovers. Quite frequently, he would literally clear his mind and simply focus on relaxing all the muscles in his body.
The time for evaluation is after practice or a match. One cannot improve unless she/he understands what is being executed well and what is not. The problem for most players is that they are constantly evaluating what they do. This occurs in practices sessions, during match play and after competitions. I had to instruct Tony NOT to make comments or suggestions during practice sessions. Rather, I suggested Tony sit with James after one of their training sessions and discuss what seemed to work (always discuss the positive aspect first) and what needed to be improved. Being a teaching pro, this was very hard for Tony. After all, who pays for lessons from a pro who says nothing while he/she feeds you balls or hits with you?
This discussion/evaluation technique worked so well for James and Tony, that Tony saves most of his student comments for after the lesson... not during the lesson!
The eyes provide "focus." Sight is the most significant of our five senses. What you do with your eyes while playing a tennis match is critically important. The most important thing to "see" is the ball. If you are focusing your sight correctly, you will see the ball spinning in the air, bouncing off the court and experience the illusion of seeing the ball come off your strings. (Scientific research shows that we never really see this moment of contact, but we can sense that we are seeing this moment.) When you are not engaged in a point, your eyes should remain within the four boundaries of the court. Looking at anything or anyone outside the court is opening the door for visual distraction and a lack of visual focus. In James's case, he was very good while playing points and could really see the ball well... especially when volleying. However in between points, James's eyes would wander everywhere. I noticed that this occurred more frequently when James was down with respect to the score or having a bad outing. During some practice sessions, I would watch James as he trained and insist that his eyes never leave the area within the court. He could look at his strings, his shoes, a mark on the court, the net and any other part of the court. But, he could not look outside the court. This restriction was difficult for James. However, he began to believe in its value and made a deliberate effort to remain visually focused. After several weeks, Tony began to notice that James was always keeping his eyes and mind within the court. Tony also began to realize that James was hitting more and more winners in practice matches. It takes some discipline at first, but any player can learn to keep visual focus within the four lines of the court.
There is a difference between passion and pressure. In a most prominent way, James's difficulties were related to the pressure he was experiencing. First, he had the pressure of being the son of a well known teaching pro. Second, he had been somewhat of a child prodigy and was expected to do great things. Lastly, he put lots of pressure upon himself to be able to secure a Division I scholarship. James realized the expense of a college education and truly wanted to spare his parents this financial burden. In addition, he didn't want to accumulate significant student loans to attend college. As his senior year of competition became imminent, all of these pressures began to reach a crescendo.
I had to discover what other interests James had. We talked about virtually everything but tennis. At long last, I discovered that he wanted to major in Mathematics during his undergraduate years. I asked him why Math, as it is often times a discipline students avoid. He responded that he liked the order, consistency and clarity of math. With math, the answer is either right or wrong. There are always 360 degrees in a circle. 5 x 12 is always 60. However, he also mentioned in his discussions with me that he liked the fact that the way one might arrive at the right answer in Math may vary!
Eventually, I was able to have James express that indeed tennis had similar qualities. A ball that lands in bounds is always in bounds. A shot that is a winner is a winner. An ace is an ace. However, how one executes to arrive at these results varies greatly. We discussed how many different ways James could strike a ball. Believe me. He could hit every shot in the book... some in more than one way!
Shortly after our discussions, Tony told me that James was experimenting during practice sessions. James had become "curious" once again. Once he hit a kick serve using an eastern forehand grip that bounced extremely high. The eastern forehand grip is not the preferred grip for this serve. Tony stated that James had a huge smile on his face after hitting this shot... one which Tony returned but not landing in bounds. James was rediscovering his passion.
Passion is a positive feeling. Pressure is a negative feeling. Once a player is no longer fascinated by this great game, the possibility for pressure to creep into her/his mind increases dramatically. Once James let go and felt free to do whatever he wanted without any reservation, his passion for the sport of tennis began to reappear. He no longer was afraid to lose! He simply wanted to win! He didn't always know how he would win but his passion for playing the sport enabled him to win more matches. He no longer put his entire "identity" into winning or losing. Rather, he began to have fun. Having fun brought back his passion. Having his passion back, enable James to have faith. Having faith in himself again, James was able to stay in the "now." He began to play one ball at a time because each ball was of interest to him. Having trained his conscious mind to be at rest during practice and matches, James executed seamlessly. Things just happened as they should.
The ultimate consequence of this journey was that James developed "conviction." Conviction is a concept that goes beyond belief. Conviction eliminates all doubt because one is committed to achieving something.
James began to win again. However, he no longer worried about winning. If it happened, so be it. If it didn't happen, it was in the past. James began to realize that the past doesn't have to repeat itself... unless you let it. Losing a match is not the end of the world. Winning is fun. The game of tennis became just that again... a game!!!
I receive many e-mails from players around the world. One of the most common problems expressed in these missives is that a player lacks confidence in his/her game. This is particularly true if the player has experienced a series of losses to players perceived as lesser competitors.
There are many mysteries in this wonderful game of tennis. There are many ways to win and many ways to lose. The better player doesn't always win. Indeed, 50% of all tennis players lose when playing a match.
Competitive tennis does require work... but the work need not be hard work.
Competitive tennis can and should be fun.
Learn to rediscover the joy you experienced the first time you started hitting balls over the net with control and authority. Recognize that, as Rod Laver put it, "The worst thing that happens in a tennis match is that I might lose!"
Commit to the game of tennis but don't let it "define" your self-worth. Regardless of how good you are there is always someone better. Be eager to play this better player. All that really can happen is that you improve... even if you lose.
Know why you play tennis. Set clear goals for yourself. The goals could be a ranking, winning a particular tournament or simply beating that opponent who always seems to beat you.
Let go of your doubts!!! Develop a sense of conviction regarding your goals.
Realize that winning is a result of many factors... some of which you can control and some you cannot.
Realize that every time you step onto a court to play that you are winning!!! Be grateful for the privilege to play this fascinating game of ours.
Recognize that you cannot change the past. The past does not have to influence the present unless you let it. "Stay in the moment." The future is not yet seen. You can influence the future, but you cannot control it.
The only thing you can truly control in this world is yourself. You can look at the glass as being half empty, or you can see it as half full.
Perception becomes reality. Change your perceptions and your realities will change. Don't worry about the "how." Rather enjoy the "now" and embrace what is to come... whatever that may be.
As we approach this Holiday Season and the New Year, give yourself the best gift you can... become a