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'Sensible' Tennis

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

It is June and most likely each of my readers is actively engaged in playing and/or competing in this wonderful game of ours. I am confident that the cobwebs have been shaken out of each reader's game, and that she/he seeks to make that big step forward in improving her/his winning record.
Generally, instructional columns focus upon stroke production, tactics, and perhaps, the mental aspects associated with competition. I know because most of my columns fall into one or more of these categories.
Well this month, I seek to venture into a somewhat different perspective regarding how to improve your tennis game. This month's column may be a bit less lengthy than what is normally my word count, but the content of this month's column is really quite substantial.
In truth, this month's column will provide the reader with information that should result in almost immediate improvement in a player's game!!!
I realize that this is a pretty hefty claim. But over time, I have seen players improve almost overnight by focusing upon what I describe and propose in this month's column.
So with all of this stated, let's begin our discussion by attempting to address what I call sense focus. Sense focus involves how a player pays attention to sense data. The keys involve developing a focus process during practice sessions and to selectively carry out a somewhat different focus process when playing matches.
It is important that the reader understand what focus is! By focus, I mean the following: Our conscious mind can really only think of one thing at a time. We can literally focus on only one concept or thought at a time. I will grant you that our conscious mind can rapidly skip from one thought to the next, and our conscious mind is not always easy to control. Forgive the horrible metaphor, but our conscious mind indeed has a mind of its own.
When we pay attention to one of our senses as we practice or compete, we are engaged in sense focus.
It is very difficult for most people to direct and control their focus when they are under pressure or experiencing some sort of stress. Thus, it may be more difficult to use sense focus when competing than may be the case when involved in training and practice.
What I mean is that during practice sessions it is probably not an effort for a player to keep his/her focus on one or more of the three senses that provide our conscious and non-conscious minds with data. During a tight or important match, our focus may be intense, but not necessarily centered upon the right "thoughts." Certainly for many players, it may be very difficult to really concentrate upon sense data while in the midst of a match.
My point is simple. Sense focus is critically important in tennis. There is a proper focus needed for practice and a somewhat different focus necessary for competition. These at times are interchangeable, but most often, practice focus should not be the same as match focus.
When we are practicing, the conscious mind should be inquisitive and seek to experiment freely. Once the conscious mind has discovered the right way(s) to control the ball and execute shots, we simply need to repeat the process over and over again. This builds muscle memory which is really within the domain of the non-conscious mind. If we program the non-conscious mind with the right data to move and execute properly, we can actually play matches on "auto-pilot."
Experimenting with new techniques and ideas during practice sessions is an important part of the process of practicing. If we are aided in our experimentation by a coach or teaching pro, the process of experimentation can be enhanced. One way or another, we need to focus upon our senses in practice whether we simply want to solidify our existing tennis skills or if we are seeking to change and improve something in our game. During a match, our focus should be simply on attempting to perceive what is happening with the ball, with our opponent and where we are on the court. Our conscious mind needs to suspend its natural inclination to "solve problems" and be content to provide the non-conscious mind with the necessary data to move and execute effectively. This requires the conscious mind to be patient and to trust the non-conscious mind.
This intimate connection between the conscious and non-conscious mind within the tennis player is one of the true "mysteries" of the game!!! This connection is a conundrum for some players.
When our conscious mind is simply providing data to the non-conscious mind, we are most likely to move and execute at our highest possible level. Experimenting in a match situation is usually a last resort effort, and rarely does it yield positive results. If we practice correctly, the "anchors" are in our non-conscious mind's muscle memory. We really just need to get our conscious mind out of the way. As the baseball great, Yogi Berra, once stated: "You can't think and play baseball at the same time." He clearly understood the importance of allowing the non-conscious mind to govern our body actions.
Regarding sense focus, we all need to involve three of our five senses when playing this great game. We need to see, feel and even hear carefully and purposefully when practicing tennis. If we gently ask our conscious mind to pay attention to one these three senses, it will almost always do as we ask. This is where conscious mind comes into play with regard to sense focus. Practice is the time for our conscious minds to propose new ideas, "solutions" and improvements.
During practice sessions, we can examine, evaluate and experiment with our strokes, court movement, placement, spin and power. We use this process to refine our strokes, etc. Once we are doing things as we would like, we simply attempt to repeat the proper actions over and over again. Once in a while, we arrive at a new insight. Maybe, we feel that our grip is a little different when we strike a great put away winner. Maybe, we see the ball coming off our opponent's racquet more deliberately when we are anticipating well where our opponent's shots are going. Maybe, we notice a particular sound when we strike a flat serve that lands with both placement and power. Sometimes, we notice nothing that is new or enlightening. Instead, we simply do what we do well without any epiphanies.
During matches, we need to simply perceive carefully and attempt not to examine, evaluate and experiment with our strokes, court movement, placement, spin and power. Rather, we want to simply use our conscious minds to perceive holistically. By this I mean that we are letting our conscious mind go "blank" and encouraging our conscious mind to absorb all information from our three tennis senses in an integrated manner.
IF something is off in one's game during a match, initiating a process of selective sense focus will provide the non-conscious mind with the needed information and the non-conscious mind will automatically make the proper adjustments necessary to "correct" the problem. The player in this situation starts this process by paying more attention to seeing, then more attention to feeling and lastly more attention to hearing. The player moves from one sense to the next in terms of focus. The goal is not to arrive at a conscious solution. Instead, the goal is to selectively provide concentrated data to the non-conscious mind which is where we truly store our muscle memory. I assure the reader that if this process is employed without panic or fear, the "problems" will be short lived!!! This simply happens without any real conscious effort. But, you need to have practiced sense focus in your training sessions and you need to trust this process! I realize that when a tennis player is in a match situation, it is difficult not to panic or fall victim to "paralysis by analysis." I recognize that the reader is probably a bit skeptical about the effectiveness of the above. However, I assure you that it works!!! You need to ask yourself:"What do I have to lose by trying this?"
As humans, our primary sense is the ability to see. Our vision is our first source of "information" in virtually every facet of human existence. See my very first TurboTennis column (back in 1996) entitled "See the ball."
As I state in this column, there are some key things that one can "see" during the point.

  1. See the ball come off your opponent's strings.
  2. Look at the ball's spin as it crosses over the net.
  3. Pay close attention to the ball as it bounces.
  4. Try to actually see the moment of contact. In reality, this is impossible to do. However, attempting to see this moment will help freeze your head's movement at the moment of impact. Having a "quiet" head at this moment greatly improves the quality of the stroke you are making.
  5. Watch the ball carefully and attentively as it bounces on your opponent's side of the court.

Apart from seeing the ball, you want to know where your opponent is on the court and where you are on the court at all times. Here is where peripheral vision comes into play. You can improve your peripheral vision during practice sessions. I have found that the moment of impact can be very important. If you are attempting to see the moment of impact (I remind you that this is truly impossible.) your head will be quiet. This is the moment when peripheral vision can provide you with the court positions for your opponent and for you. You can literally train your mind to pay attention to the ball, the opponent and your own court position at this moment of impact! Once you learn to do this in practice sessions, it will become an automatic action during matches.
The second most important sense in our wonderful game is the sense of feeling. Generally, these are the things which you want to focus upon when you are paying close attention to this sense in practice sessions.
  1. Your grip... its position and its tightness.
  2. The tension in your arm as you move the racquet back.
  3. The length of your backswing.
  4. The tension in your arm as you move the racquet to make contact with the ball.
  5. The "feel" of making contact with the ball... this is critically important.
  6. The position of your racquet when you finish your follow through completely.

Apart from the above, you want to also pay attention to your overall body position, balance and breathing... particularly at the moment of impact. Here again, the moment impact provides a "pause" of sorts that allows you to register all three of these at the same time. It may seem impossible, but I assure the reader that these multiple bits of data can be compiled simultaneously!
The last sense that we use in our fabulous game is hearing. It is less significant, but can, at times, provide very useful information to the non-conscious mind. The key sounds to which you should give close attention include:
  1. The sound of your feet as you move to the ball. (If you are making lots of noise, your footwork is not where it needs to be.)
  2. The sound of the ball as it bounces on your side of the net.
  3. The sound of the ball coming off your racquet strings.
  4. The sound of the ball as it bounces on your opponent's side of the net.
  5. The sound of your opponent's feet as she/he moves to the ball.
  6. The sound of the ball off as it comes off your opponent's strings.

Apart from the above, it is important to pay attention to the sound of your opponent's breathing and your own breathing will provide useful information to the non-conscious mind.
I remind the reader that the conscious mind should be allowed to interpret and tinker with things that come to "mind" during practice sessions. The meaning of sense data and the "alterations" that may be attempted (even if only by trial and error) can often times yield valuable insights and changes. In practice, either the conscious mind or the non-conscious mind may initiate these possible insights or changes.
However during a match, the conscious mind is usually not capable of giving useful insights or suggestions. Indeed, a simple forehand stroke when analyzed consciously involves myriad factors to consider!
If you have practiced sufficiently, and given some attention to your sense focuses when you practice; the non-conscious mind will almost always come up with the proper "answer" or "solution" to any stroke, movement, placement, spin or power related "problems" or irregularities.
Maybe you are content with your game as it is, or are in the middle of a tournament cycle. It may be that you don't want to make any changes at the moment. If you are having a good practice session and everything is as it should be, you don't need to experiment. Rather, you can simply "reprint" your existing "software" (muscle memory) in your non-conscious mind. If, however, you are looking to improve something in your game, the sense focus process can often times be the fastest and best way to discover what needs to be altered.
One of the great benefits to enhancing your sense focus is that it can be employed to keep the conscious mind "busy" when you are experiencing big problems during a match.
If you read most literature on the mental side of our game, the authors will recommend that you distract the conscious mind from negative thinking when you are struggling during a match. Many times, these authors do not provide you with a viable way of truly keeping these "demons" at bay. I assure the reader that applying this sense focus process can really be the answer to avoiding falling down the slippery slope of negative thinking.
Some years back, I had a collegiate player who really committed to this sense focus process... both in practice and in matches. His practice sessions were always outstanding. He may start out a bit off, but he soon was hitting his well developed strokes with authority every session. Literally one season, he wanted to improve the power with respect to his one-handed backhand. He started with focusing upon his sense of sight... it didn't yield any real improvement. He went to the sense of "touch" next. Here he discovered that he needed to slightly change his grip to a more severe backhand grip to hit the ball more firmly. He finally noticed that when he hit these backhand drives well that there was a particular "popping" sound generated by his strings making contact with the ball. In one experimenting practice session, he discovered all the sense related "cues" and "anchors" to add significant power to his backhand. In about a week's worth of practice sessions, he had firmly implanted this data into his muscle memory. He now "owned" a powerful, backhand drive.
If he had trouble in matches with this stroke, he would simply start paying close attention to each of the three senses... one at a time. He never tried to consciously analyze what needed to be done to regain this stroke. Rather, his non-conscious mind usually made the adjustments necessary automatically after three or four "input strokes."
This player did not win every one of his matches. However, I never saw him panic. As a collegiate coach, I was allowed to literally speak with him during changeovers. If he was having a tactical problem, I would bring this to his attention. If his strokes were failing him, he would tell me not to worry. He had confidence that the sense focus process would provide the needed answers to remedy any problems. In truth, the process always did... sometimes, he just was competing against a better player.
So in concluding, I remind you.
Spend some time during practice focusing upon each of the three key senses. If you are looking to improve or change something, don't be afraid to "tinker" with different things. Let your conscious mind be inquisitive and observant. If you experiment enough, you probably will arrive at an insight that is going to help improve whatever you wish to improve.
If you are seeking to solidify your game during practice sessions, do pay attention to these three important senses. Don't analyze. Simply be aware and when things see, feel and sound right... repeat the strokes, movement, etc. over and over again.
During matches, suspend the conscious mind's natural analytical inclination. Rather, let the conscious mind pay attention to sense data... particularly in a holistic manner. If you are really off in your game, simply focus upon one sense at a time while playing points. Don't analyze. Be patient. Sooner or later (hopefully sooner), your non-conscious mind will make the necessary adjustments.
This process really can and does work! I assure the reader that if you adopt it, you will find yourself making marked strides in either improving and/or solidifying your game.
Adding this kind of "sensibility" to your game (practice and match play) will almost certainly enable you 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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