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Making Sense Out Of Your Tennis Game

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

In last month's column, I attempted to explain how important a mindset of "positive" thoughts is in playing your very best tennis on a consistent basis. Some of what I put forth last month was taken from my book, Perfect Tennis.
Probably the most common questions posed to me from readers deal with the mental and emotional side of competing. Let's be honest. This wonderful game of tennis is a challenge for all of us with respect to these factors.
My basic premise in writing Perfect Tennis is that the non-conscious mind, if given the proper information and left to its own resources, will permit the best possible strokes and court movement to emerge in player's game... regardless of skill level. In my thinking, the conscious mind and its belief that it can solve "any problem" is frequently an inhibiting force. As I have often stated, the "paralysis by analysis" phenomenon occurs because our conscious mind attempts to step in and "solve" what we need to do to play better and win.
There is definitely a role for the conscious mind in our tennis games. But, this role should primarily be as a source of information to the non-conscious mind. Yes, there are times when the conscious mind will logically help us craft a different strategy or make note of an opponent's preferences and weaknesses. However once a point begins, the non-conscious mind needs to be "trusted" to perform the myriad actions needed to hit the best possible shot.
Solid stroke production and proper court movement result from repetition. This is why on court practice (and proper practice) is so important. If we practice properly and sufficiently, our non-conscious mind, where we store muscle memory, will kick in during matches and provide the very best possible results.
If you are a true beginner, there is little likelihood that you will challenge many intermediate players. Intermediate players will not be able to take on premier players until the proper muscle memory has been instilled in the non-conscious mind.
There are no true shortcuts around this reality. Visualization and other techniques can speed up the implanting of these muscle memories, but there needs to be some time and dedication expended performing "rituals" during on court practice sessions.
In truth, I believe a holistic approach involving traditional training, and "mental" exercises provide the fastest way for any player to advance her/his game.
It is imperative that everyone who plays this great game of ours recognizes that on-court practice and match competition require information from three of our five senses.
Most players simply rely upon the sense of sight or vision. This is not surprising because sight is our primary sense. Still, the sense of "feeling" and the sense of "hearing" are critically important sources of information for our non-conscious minds.
So this month, I want to focus upon how to utilize all three of these senses in a deliberate and productive manner when practicing and when one competes in a match.
Improving your sense awareness and the information that you provide your non-conscious mind does involve the conscious mind. However, the role of the conscious mind in sense awareness is simply to "pay close attention" to a sense's data. The conscious mind should not attempt to analyze and evaluate this data. The conscious mind and our senses must simply be a conduit to the non-conscious mind. The non-conscious mind will be able to utilize this data to maximum efficiency IF the conscious mind does not usurp this function!
For me, this is one of the great "enigmas" associated with this wonderful game. The conscious mind must be attentive but not controlling when it comes to utilizing sense information.
When one is allowing the non-conscious mind to work on "autopilot," the best possible results will come forth. The results may not be "perfect" and the results may not produce a victory. But, I would argue that many a match has been lost because a player attempted to "think" his/her way to victory.
The conscious mind needs to be "quiet" while the non-conscious mind is allowed to "control" our movements. A player can actually "program" her/his conscious mind to observe carefully and only "ponder" in between points, games or during changeovers. It is during these times that the conscious mind may arrive at a useful insight. For example, a player's conscious mind may make note after a few games that the opponent's forehand is powerful and extremely accurate. Thus, fewer balls should be hit to this "stronger" wing.
It is virtually impossible not to have the conscious mind "think." But, one can give it a task while playing points that distracts it from being so analytical. Directing the conscious mind to paying close attention to one of our sense's incoming data is a good way to keep the conscious mind alert but not acting in an "interfering" manner. In addition, the non-conscious mind is still provided with accurate information.
As an analogy, I offer the following. When we walk, we do not allow the conscious mind to dictate "how" we walk. We simply do it. Our non-conscious mind and its muscle memory make walking a seamless function. Our conscious mind may make decisions on where we are to walk, how quickly we need to walk, and provides some important visual data to the non-conscious mind. However, we can be thinking about a million different things consciously while walking effortlessly.
Yes, humans can indeed walk and chew gum at the same time!!! We need to trust our non-conscious mind to provide many of the solutions to our tennis "problems!"
So assuming that you will entertain my theory, a logical question is, "Okay, what should our conscious mind focus upon when being "attentive" to sense data?" Well, we can only consciously think of one thing at a time. So, I would argue that we should pay attention to one sense at a time.
Our conscious mind easily becomes bored and wants something "new" upon which to focus. Our attention spans are limited to say the least.
So when you find yourself being bored with being consciously attentive to one sense (let's say vision), you redirect your conscious mind to be attentive to another sense's data (let's say feeling). In time (after a few points or a game or two) you may redirect your conscious mind's attention once again (let's say to hearing). This cycle of rotation regarding sense awareness and the conscious mind continues throughout a match.
To really be able to utilize this rotation in a match, however, a player needs to execute this same kind of rotation during practice sessions. Indeed, it has been my experience in coaching that when players do consciously focus upon sense information during practices, they generally find their strokes to be executed more perfectly. If a player is attempting to redefine a particular stroke and amend a previous stroke production, this conscious sense rotation can actually hasten the "re-learning" process!
With all this in mind, let's begin examining what the conscious mind should focus upon when "paying close attention to the sense of sight or vision."
In this great game of tennis, vision is our most important sense! Literally, you can't hit what you don't see. Seeing the ball is first and foremost in playing tennis. Below are some specific ways in which you can direct your conscious mind to "pay close attention" to seeing.

  1. See the ball hit the strings of your opponent's racquet.
    Don't try to figure anything out by doing this. Simply see the contact. If you do, your non-conscious mind will quickly, and without any interference by you, begin to record things in its memory bank. Soon, you will begin to notice that you can anticipate without having to concentrate.

  2. As your opponent's shot crosses the net make a note of its spin... flat, top or slice.
    Again, don't try to figure anything out. Just notice the spin at this point of its flight. Eventually, your non-conscious mind will begin to give you cues on what to do.

  3. See the ball bounce on your side.
    If you see nothing else but this bounce your game will greatly improve. Why? First, you'll really know if the ball bounced in or out (How many times are you really uncertain?... too many!). Second, your body will automatically begin to move and position itself properly for your own stroke. Finally, it reduces the "surprise" response that funny bounces, etc. can create.

  4. See the blur of your arm(s) and racquet after you strike the ball.
    No one can actually see the moment of impact as she/he strikes the ball... especially on groundstrokes. But you can try!!!
    I pay extremely close attention to the ball when it is 2 or 3 feet before I make contact. Then I look to see the blur of my racquet after contact. This action forces me to keep my head still through the shot, and equally important, to freeze my head for a fraction of a second after the hit. Whether its a baseball hitter, a basketball shooter, a golfer or a tennis player... you must quiet the head!!!
    To illustrate my point, try this brief experiment:
    Using some wadded-up paper balls and a waste basket, shoot some free throws as if you were playing basketball. When you have found a distance, etc. that allows you to make at least 8 out of 10 shots into the basket, try some while nodding your head "yes" and then, while shaking your head "no." You probably have more misses out of every 10 throws, especially while shaking your head "no." Why? The more head movement the more likely the error. Shaking our head no usually involves more movement. But any head movement will decrease the likelihood that you will make baskets in this experiment. In tennis a "quiet" or "frozen" head can help establish consistency in your strokes... particularly when you are on the run. Finally, freezing your head through the impact enables you to make a more consistent finish. Modern tennis academies know how important having a consistent finish is to stroke production.
    In truth if you finish each stroke in a proper, full and consistent manner, the accuracy of your shots will improve immensely!

  5. See your shot bounce in the opponent's court.
    This completes the vision cycle. Just be careful about being too eager to see this. If you missed seeing this component it would not be critical. The danger in trying too hard is that you lift your head too soon and negate the goal of step 4 above. How many times have you missed a shot... groundstroke, volley or approach, because you were too eager to see where it was going?

It is my belief that "feeling," or kinetic awareness, is the second most important sense when practicing tennis or competing. Many players never really pay much attention to this sense unless there is a clear reason to do so (e.g. pain or fatigue). Yet having the conscious mind pay close attention to this important sense can help improve stroke production and court movement. Here are some things upon which you can encourage your conscious mind to concentrate.

  1. Pay close attention to how your arm feels as you take back the racquet.
    Simply notice how your arm feels as you take perform a backswing. The arm should feel relaxed and each time you take the racquet back there should be a overall consistent feeling to the process. If you sense that this is not the case, do not try to correct the problem with conscious directives or actions. Simply note the phenomenon and let your non-conscious mind do what is necessary.

  2. Focus on your grip as you move the racquet forward to strike the ball.
    Again, just become aware of your grip tension and position as you move the racquet forward. Here again, the grip should be as relaxed as is possible. Having a "death grip" on the racquet handle is almost always counterproductive. If in giving your grip this conscious attention something doesn't feel right, simply make note of it. Let your non-conscious mind sort out what needs to be done.

  3. Feel the moment of impact as the ball makes contact with your racquet's strings.
    If you focus on your grip at the moment of impact, you will immediately know how "sweetly" you are striking the ball. The grip should momentarily tighten at the point of contact, but immediately relax after striking the ball. By relaxing the arm and grip all the way through a serve or groundstroke motion except for that fraction of a second when the ball actually strikes your strings, you will automatically increase racquet head speed. In a previous column, I put forth my theory on generating racquet head speed. The reader can access the column at The Need For Racquet Head Speed.
    In practice sessions, you can focus directly on timing your grip in such a manner as to achieve the above "flow." In matches, simply have your conscious mind note if you are making "sweet" contact on your serves and groundstrokes. If not, trust your non-conscious mind to re-establish what is necessary.
    With volleys, it is probably best to focus on the wrist and grip at the moment of impact. With volleys, one is not stroking the ball. Rather, a good volley is more a blocking and/or punching like motion that keeps the racquet head up above the wrist. Volleys require tighter grips and firm wrists. Have your conscious mind discover in practice sessions the right combination. In matches, rely upon your non-conscious mind to arrive at any necessary adjustments.

  4. Monitor your exhale as you make contact with the ball.
    It is amazing how many players will actually hold their breath when hitting a stroke. Ideally, the player exhales with a "ahhh" sound at the moment of impact. Exhaling at impact helps the body relax and remain stable. Having the conscious mind be aware of one's breathing during a match can be very helpful. This is one facet of the game where the conscious mind can step into the solution process. The conscious mind can deliberately force an exhale at impact. Once this is done a few times, this practice should be self-perpetuating.

  5. Focus upon your arm as you completely finish the stroke.
    As mentioned earlier, consistent finishes are critically important to consistent strokes. Having the conscious mind make note of where you finish strokes can be very insightful. Even a slight variation in how you finish your strokes can have a profound effect on their accuracy and power. Once the conscious mind notes a problem, it should defer to the non-conscious mind to remedy the situation.

  6. Feel the contact that your feet make with the ground as you move to the ball, make contact with the ball and recover after striking the ball.
    Tennis involves running! Proper court movement can make a big difference in your game. During practice sessions when you are striking the ball well, make conscious note of how your feet and legs feel. Note the lightness of your steps. Are you on your toes as you move? How big are your steps? Note the depth of your knee bend. These are just a few things that you can ask your conscious mind to remember about your feet and movement. During a match, ask your conscious mind to examine (observe) these factors. If something doesn't feel right, simply make note of it. As is most often the case, the solutions and corrections to any problems associated with movement lie in the non-conscious mind.

  7. In between points and during changeovers, feel your body relaxing.
    During game changeovers, the body needs to recover physically. The first priority should be to relax the body during changeovers and provide the body with the hydration that it needs to avoid cramping and fatigue. Practicing relaxation techniques in your off court life can help you deliberately and consciously relax your muscles when taking the changeover break. Consciously focusing upon relaxing the body also gives the conscious mind something to occupy its attention. If the conscious mind is trying to relax muscles, it won't have the time to begin "fretting" over lost points or errant shots. It won't have time to try and "analyze" solutions to stroke production problems.
    I do admit that there are times when the conscious mind wants to use changeovers to assess what strategic changes may be necessary. But, one doesn't want to have this be the "norm" during game changeovers. Why? Well once you permit the conscious mind to become analytical during a match, it can become a very slippery slope. The conscious mind may lose "trust" in the non-conscious mind and begin to try and be analytical during point play. Once the conscious mind starts becoming analytical, we almost always are on the road to certain death.

Although it is not the most critically important of our five senses when playing this fabulous game of tennis, sounds can give us useful information.

  1. Listen to how loud your feet are as you move around the court.
    Listen to your feet! Good players make little to no sound as they move around the court. During practice sessions, try to consciously "lighten" the way you move. During matches, make note of how "quiet" your feet are. If you normally move in a noiseless manner and you are making noise with your feet during a match, chances are you are fatigued and/or not anticipating shots well.
    Solving these types of problems during a match is not easy. However, I would suggest that the real solutions lie in relaxation and better vision or seeing. Even the lack of proper hydration can deteriorate good footwork.
    Generally, the conscious mind cannot resolve these problems. More often than not, the non-conscious mind if given the directive to "move more quietly" will do what is necessary to remedy this situation.
    In truth, the best solutions are found before a match is played. If a player is in good aerobic and anaerobic shape, has good flexibility and has "practiced" proper footwork during training sessions, the non-conscious mind has the "essentials in place" that it needs to remedy footwork and movement problems.

  2. Hear the ball as it bounces off your court and you prepare to hit your stroke.
    This conscious sense awareness can actually help one's timing. If you really "listen" for the bounce of the ball as it strikes the surface of your side of the court, the non-conscious mind will almost certainly make the tiny adjustments that will result in better timing as you strike each shot.

  3. Pay close attention to the sound that the ball is making as your racquet strings make contact with the ball.
    Listening to the ball come off your strings will help you determine how "sweetly" you are striking the ball. There is a distinctive sound when we make good contact with the ball. If we are attempting to impart excessive slice or topspin, this sound is altered a bit. As is usually the case if the conscious mind notes that a sound is "off," a player should trust his/her non-conscious mind to remedy the situation.

  4. Listen to the sound of your breathing as you move around the court.
    Paying close attention to the sound of your breathing will give you a much better idea of how fatigued you may be. If you are breathing hard on most points, something is wrong. Here, the conscious mind can be of direct use. Asking yourself, "Why am I breathing so hard?" will invite analysis. Usually, the answer lies within the realm of the conscious mind. The solutions are frequently strategic in nature... something that is within the realm of the conscious mind.

  5. Pay close attention to the sounds that your opponent makes as she/he moves and makes contact with the ball.
    Paying close attention to the sounds that your opponent makes (sound of ball making impact, sounds associated with your opponent's feet, the loudness of her/his breathing) will give you an indication of her/his state. You cannot change your opponent's sounds, but you can learn from them. Here is one of the areas where the conscious mind's analytical nature does come in handy. If you sense that an opponent's feet are making noise, you can assume that she/he is not moving as well as she/he should. This may result in the tactical decision to run your opponent as much as is possible during points to increase this weakness.

The temptation is to always try and interpret on a conscious level what each bit of sense data means. It is imperative that this is delayed at least until those times when there is no active play (in between points, in between games, during game changeovers).
If you simply "trust" your non-conscious mind with your tennis game (as you do when you let the non-conscious mind control our movements associated with driving a car), the non-conscious mind will usually make the right adjustments.
Don't get me wrong. What I have described in this month's column is not a complete panacea for stroke improvement! Good strokes are only born from practice, visualizing perfect stroke production, and positive self-talk. But, quieting the conscious mind by directing it to simply "pay close attention" will go a long way toward helping you generate the best possible strokes possible.
Better strokes usually result in winning more points. When you win more points, you become more confident, and frequently, you win games. Winning more games definitely results in winning more sets and matches.
So as we begin 2014, try to make "sense" out of your tennis game. I assure you that if you do, you will become a tennis overdog!
P.S. I wish each of you all the best in your game in 2014. Let me know how this sense rotation works out for you.

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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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