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December 2013 Article

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End The Year On A 'Positive' Note!

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

This wonderful game of tennis can bring out the best and the worst in each of us that compete. If you are a singles player, you know all too well the feeling of solitude when you are in a match and competing on a serious level. Let's be honest. When you are competing in singles, it can be a very lonely, and at times, frustrating experience. With team sports (including doubles competition), there are "others" to help solve problems, boost confidence and share the victory or defeat.
 
As a personal coach, I have parents of juniors who enlist my services to assist their children in developing fully their tennis potential. Most of these kids come to me with some serious skills already in their arsenal of weapons. Big forehands, big serves and two handed backhands that can crush the ball are not uncommon among these prodigies.
 
Yet, the most common area in which these younger players need "training" has nothing to do with their skill set, physical capabilities or even strategies. More often than not, these juniors experience mental breakdowns when things aren't going smoothly in a match.
 
Almost all players of this great game have had matches where they have not been able to overcome the "demons" within. At times, players experience a slump or period where they lose far more than they win. This latter situation can actually create a situation where the player has a very negative, overall, tennis "persona!"
 
When I wrote my book, Perfect Tennis, I put forth much of what I believe is necessary to establish, maintain and expand a positive mental outlook about tennis competition... even when one's game seems to be completely falling apart.
 
Tim Gallwey author of The Inner Game of Tennis and David Ranney author of How to Play Zen-sational Tennis have written some great material that provides useful insights toward helping a tennis player enhance the mental and emotional aspects associated with tennis competition.
 
This month, as we end the calendar year, I want to spend a little time on the whole concept of positive thinking and how important this kind of thinking can be to making your tennis experience more enjoyable and more successful.
 
You can hit a million balls in practice. You can study and improve stroke production. You can construct new strategies to be employed during matches. All of these can and will help your tennis win/loss record.
 
But in my mind, the single most important area of development that is neglected falls within the areas of the mental game, and specifically, the formation of an overall positive attitude regardless of match outcomes.
 
Positive thinking in my mind is making the most out of potential bad situations and attempting to view yourself, your tennis abilities and overall tennis prowess in a positive light.
 
Thinking positively means that you have optimism as you explain what may have gone wrong. Thinking positive involves recognizing that negative events and outcomes in matches are really temporary and are not typical. Positive thinking means that the tennis player seeks to commit to optimistic views and explanations regardless of the specifics involved. Positive thinking sees the glass not only as half full, but recognizes that the glass can actually be filled to its maximum capacity.
 
Abraham Lincoln once wrote: "Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be." Note that he used the words "as they make up their minds to be." This suggests that attitude is at least partially a matter of choice!
 
Each tennis player has this choice. He/she can get down, angry, depressed, frustrated, etc. when things are not going well... OR... the player can choose to remain optimistic, hopeful, dedicated and resilient.
 
I grant you that for many who are reading this, positive thinking can be a daunting and difficult task. Like most things in this game of ours, it takes practice to develop the overall mentality to weather the inevitable "storms" that we will face, and remain "up" when things seem to be constantly going down.
 
Generally, I have quite a bit of success in helping the racquet throwing, self abusive, angry young player in adopting a new "world view" about tennis. But, it does require some realizations, dedication and practice on the part of the junior that I seek to help. Some in truth never really "get it." Others, however, find that there is a whole new world of tennis joy awaiting them IF they make the commitment to positive thinking.
 
So, I hope to share with you this month some of the things that I implement and employ when I am helping a player "convert" to positivism.
 
First, each player should be truly thankful each time she/he is privileged to practice tennis or compete in tennis matches.
 
Due to injuries and health issues, I can no longer compete in tournaments. Indeed, I must be careful about how much tennis I actually play. Age, past sports-related injuries, and some unforeseen health issues have taken much of tennis away from me. I realize everyday how wonderful it is to play tennis. I never take it for granted. I recognize that I am blessed to be able to still engage in the aspects of this tremendous game that I do. I am most fortunate to be able to still teach, coach, write and photography tennis.
 
Most tennis players experience some sort of temporary injury or other situation that prevents her/him from engaging in as much tennis as she/he would like. It is usually during these forced hiatus' that the player realizes how lucky he/she is every time he/she steps onto the court.
 
Winning is certainly better than losing! BUT more important, being ABLE to play and compete should be cherished and fully appreciated.
 
Once you put the value of tennis where is should be... the fun and joy associated with hitting a yellow, fuzzy ball... the challenges, frustrations and losses that we ALL experience pale in importance and permanence!!!
 
There are some specific things that one can do on and off the court that will enhance her/his own positive thinking associated with tennis. But, these do require deliberate and consistent practice!
 
As a professor, I teach courses in public speaking. Over time, I have actually trained myself to be able to speak extemporaneously without every introducing an "uh" or "um" into my presentation. Literally, I can "switch on" this mode of speaking at will. But, it took some time, patience, persistence and practice to acquire this speaking style.
 
Literally, I would spend (and still do) a minimum of five minutes per day where in some context (usually everyday conversations) I switch to an no "uh" and no "um" mode. Initially, five minutes of continuous "uh-free" and "um-free" speaking was impossible. I could probably do a minute or so, but certainly not five minutes. Now, I am able to deliver hour long lectures without ever having one of those pesky "uh's" or "um's" slip into my speech.
 
In a similar manner, I would ask the reader to try to think and speak only in positive ways, language, words, concepts, etc. for five minutes per day. This will require some deliberate effort on your part, but little by little, the length of time will increase and the level of difficulty will decrease.
 
If you can't think and speak positively when you are not playing tennis, you probably won't be able to play tennis without negative thoughts and self-talk.
 
Negative self-talk is one of the most debilitating mental frames of mind, period. In tennis, the result of negative self-talk is almost always poorer performance, a feeling of lost control, and an overall frustration that takes all joy away from playing this great game.
 
I hear juniors berate themselves on the court for missing a shot... for hitting to an opponent's strength... for not moving in a sufficiently quick manner... etc. The anger and frustration builds. Frequently, the junior will throw, or at least want to throw, his/her racquet. The negativity builds, and almost without fail, the junior will lose or struggle significantly if she/he does win the match.
 
Years ago while photographing Michael Chang at what was then the Volvo International Tennis Tournament, I listened carefully to his self-talk. Never once did I hear Michael berate himself or say anything negative. He would miss an easy shot and I would hear him say, "No problem, Michael. You will nail the next one." He would lose a long point, and he would say aloud to himself, "These points favor you, Michael. You will eventually wear him down."
 
In my opinion, this is one reason why Michael could never be counted out in a match regardless of the score!
 
Indeed, the only player that I have seen who seems to play better when being angry is John McEnroe. It should be noted, however, that he is always speaking negatively about lines people, chair umpires, fans in the stadium, etc. He never directs his negative language at himself!
 
Apart from controlling one's self-talk, I have listed below some of the positive thinking tips that I employ when coaching others. Most need to be practiced both on and off the court. But as is the case with everything in this wonderful game, a player needs to practice, practice, and practice!
 
Indeed, these may seem overly simple. But, I assure the reader that, if given deliberate attention and exercised daily on and off the court, they can have a profound impact.


  1. SMILE FOR NO REASON
     
    It is fairly difficult to be negative while smiling! Simple as this technique may seem, it does indeed work. When playing any match (winning or losing), the mind and the body seem to respond in more positive ways when we smile throughout the match. This is particularly true when a player makes an error. If the immediate response on the player's part is to smile, the negative effects of the errant shot are minimized. Still smiling for seemingly no reason should be a goal in one's tennis life and life in general.
     
    Smiling is one of the best ways I know to enhance positive thinking. Try smiling more each day as you do your normal daily activities. Smile more when on the tennis court. I can promise you that this will make for a definite positive change in your thinking.

  2. SING TO CALM AND DISTRACT THE CONSCIOUS MIND
     
    The conscious mind can be really quite counterproductive when competing in a tennis match. The old adage, "paralysis by analysis" can become a reality when we "think" too much during matches... and especially when we "think" at all during points. The goal should be to try and let our non-conscious mind (where our muscle memory is stored) to operate without interference from the conscious mind.
     
    When we drive an automobile, our conscious mind can be on virtually anything BUT the act of driving. We can be listening to a song on the radio. We may be having a conversation with a passenger. Somehow, we get safely from point A to point B seemingly without much conscious thought.
     
    The same can be true with your tennis game IF you can find ways of distracting your conscious mind. For me, I frequently would sing silently to myself even while playing points. The objective was simple. I just wanted to hit each ball as perfectly as possible and let myself go on "auto pilot." Some players I know will count numbers instead of singing. The goal is the same. The conscious mind believes that it can "solve" any problem... even when there is no problem.
     
    The time for conscious thought and reflection is in between points, or better yet, during changeovers.
     
    The famous American baseball player once said, "You can't play baseball and think at the same time." I believe his sage advice is applicable to our wonderful game of tennis as well.
     
    The non-conscious mind is neither positive or negative in its "thinking." Rather when given the chance, the non-conscious mind can produce incredible positive results in your game. The more that goes right with your game, the more positive thinking will occur in your conscious thoughts.

  3. "CANCEL" NEGATIVE THOUGHTS
     
    No matter how mentally tough you may be, there will be negative thoughts that creep into your mind from time to time. Indeed in our daily lives, negativity can find its way into our minds.
     
    Some years ago, I read an article on positive thinking. One technique suggested in this article was to simply do the following when a person notices that her/his thoughts are going negative. It is as follows.
     
    Close your eyes. Take a deep, slow breath. As you exhale simply say the word "cancel" and attempt to think about something positive.
     
    I began to integrate this technique in my tennis and my personal lives. In each, I found that the more I practiced this technique, the easier it became to totally eradicate negative thoughts and feelings.
     
    I have done this so often (really daily) that I simply need to say the word "cancel" either silently or aloud, and my entire demeanor changes from negative to either neutral... or perhaps... positive.
     
    I strongly encourage each reader to commit to this technique and practice it daily. I am quite confident that it will pay dividends when you are competing and a negative thought or feeling finds its way into your thought processes.
     
    If you eliminate negative thoughts from your mind, the only thoughts that can remain are either neutral in a nature or positive in nature. Both of these can lead to positive thinking and results.

  4. IMAGINE AND VISUALIZE POSITIVE ACTIONS AND RESULTS
     
    I am a firm believer in visualization! Almost daily, I will try to find 15 to 20 minutes where I guide myself into a deep state of relaxation and begin to visualize whatever performance results I seek.
     
    When I have sufficient time, I have played entire matches in my imagination while in this state of deep relaxation. Of course, I see myself winning points as I visualize the match play.
     
    If your schedule does not permit formal relaxation/visualization, you can always daydream throughout the day. Taking a moment to daydream and see yourself playing a perfect point can help these muses into becoming realities.
     
    While on the court, I will use visualization to help me "target" the location of my shots. I simply imagine where I want the ball to land in my opponent's court while setting up for the shot and making ball contact. I actually will freeze my head movement at the moment of impact with the ball for a fraction of a second. I trust that my imagined trajectory and court placement of my shot will be as I envision them. More often than not, I am rewarded. When practicing with hitting targets (e.g. empty tennis ball containers), I am more likely to knock over cans when I am visualizing my shots in this manner than when I am not.
     
    Visualizing in these positive ways ultimately will help you to achieve positive outcomes.

  5. BREATHE YOUR WAY TO RELAXATION
     
    Imagine that your body and mind are relaxed every time you play this great game of ours! Learning to use breathing while playing points (exhaling when making contact with the ball) and using deep, slow breaths to calm the body in between points and games can definitely improve your overall mental and physical states. The more relaxed you are when you compete, the more likely it is that you will be positive in mind. The more positive your thoughts are, the more positive feelings you will experience. Positive thoughts and feelings translate into confidence. When a player is confident, he/she is never truly out of any match.

In addition to these, try to surround yourself with "positive" people wherever you may be. Positive people bring out positive thoughts and feelings in those around them. If your hitting partner, doubles partner or teacher/coach is negative in nature... find new and more positive people to replace them. Apart from tennis, seek out positive thinking people in your everyday life. Sometimes those with whom we must interact are not positive in nature. We can't avoid them entirely, but we can try to minimize our encounters with and exposures to these negative influencers.
 
Don't allow yourself to think of yourself as a "victim." Take full responsibility for all that happens in your tennis game and life. Sure, there are times when the elements (sun and wind) are to blame. Yes, there are times when you will get a bad call. But, a positive thinking person recognizes that these are NORMAL and in the long run even themselves out.
 
Frequently, tennis players can come up with millions of reasons and excuses why they lost a match. These same players put forth only one reason when they win a match... they played well and deserved to win... they were better than their opponent. Be a gracious winner and you will soon learn to be a "honest" loser. Usually, whatever happens in a tennis match is to a greater or lesser degree a result of our own actions and decisions.
 
Recognize that the past has no influence on the present or future UNLESS you let it. The fact that you missed your favorite forehand winner does not mean you will miss the next one UNLESS you believe it will. The ball, the racquet, the court... none of these has a memory. Every point is a "new" point. Try to stay in the present. The past cannot be changed. Who knows what the future will bring? The only thing that you can affect is what is happening NOW.
 
Hopefully, 2014 will be a positive year for each of you reading this column. Your positive tennis year begins with an overall positive view of life and its challenges.
 
If you spend time on and off the court this year developing positive thinking, I assure you that you will soon 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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