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The Only Thing You Have To Fear Is Fear Itself!!!

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Ron Waite, USPTR

Forgive me for borrowing this month's column's title from the famous Franklin D. Roosevelt quote, but indeed, it is completely true when it comes to competing in tennis.
If there is only one thing that the struggling tennis player experiences, it probably involves fear. I would argue that fear is what prevents many a skilled or not so skilled player from reaching her/his own potential. Let's be honest. On any given day, the so called better player does not always win! Each of us have at one time or another lost a match to someone that we fully expected to beat. These situations are always humbling. Sometimes, losing a match can bring on a loss in confidence that leads to what may be labeled as a "slump."
I have read virtually every book dealing with the mental aspects of sports competition that I can find. Sports psychologists are a modern phenomenon, and they do bring benefits to those who avail themselves of these professional's insights and writings. I would not be at all surprised if the reader has at one time or another spent some time reading a book or two that addresses how to be "mentally tough" when competing in this wonderful game of ours.
I am often struck by the statement attributed to the great baseball "philosopher," Yogi Berra. He is quoted as, "Baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical." Well, Yogi may not be good at mathematics, but I think his statement applies to tennis as well as to baseball.
Tennis is a very unique sport! With the exception of doubles competition, each player is completely on "her/his own" when competing in a match. Granted, coaching is permitted on some levels of our game, but even when this is allowed, the game of singles tennis is a solitary experience. Let's face it. It can be a bit lonely and scary when a singles player is in competition!
Add to this the scoring system associated with tennis, and there is another component that can add to tension. The match is not determined by time. You cannot "run out the clock" in tennis. You can never have a score in this great game that is going to guarantee victory. In our sport, the match is not over until the last point is played. This translates into a reality that assures that you never can be assured of the outcome until every point is finished. Comebacks are always possible! Even if you win, there is no guarantee that you may end the match losing many points and games before finding a way to close out the match.
From a spectator's perspective, the scoring in tennis makes for a great, and frequently, thrilling event to watch. Everyone loves to watch a Grand Slam match that goes five sets and ends in a final set score that is close. This "drama" in tennis is what we all enjoy when we watch a match on TV or watch a match "live." If you wish to play this engaging sport of tennis competitively, you need to be resilient and capable of handling the "ups and downs" that all tennis players experience. Of course, this is easier said than done.
Apart from being a tennis teaching pro and coach, I am a full-time professor of Communications. In my role as a professor, I teach courses in public speaking. I always begin my classes by recognizing what most surveys about human fears state. Most people rate public speaking as their number one or two fear in life. Generally, death comes in around third or fourth!!! What this suggests is that people would rather die than go in front of a group of people and deliver any public speech. Still, I am happy to report that my students usually have made marked improvement with respect to any public speaking fears by the time they have completed my course. I am not suggesting that all of their fear is dissipated, but progress is usually made.
For me, most mental problems in tennis competition can be traced back to one common denominator... fear!!!
Yes, there are physical factors such as fatigue that can affect our mental approach and outlook during a match. Sometimes anger emerges within us (either at ourselves or at our opponent), and clearly this can impact how well we play. I grant the reader that we may simply not believe that we can win a match, and this will clearly have a major bearing on whether we do or do not prevail. However, I would argue that these are more often than not temporary in nature. Sometimes, these problems remedy themselves without any conscious effort on our part.
Still, there are times when players consistently lose, underperform, "breakdown" and even "tank" matches. To me, these are indications of some underlying fear(s). When you peel back the veneer, fear is almost always the fundamental cause.
So in this month's column, I want to address the topic of fear. I have no "magic bullet" that can immediately remove all fears that a player may harbor. However, I do have a process that when practiced can dramatically reduce, if not eliminate, fear. Imagine that you could play every match without any fear! In truth, I cannot promise that this will be the ultimate consequence of following the process that I will describe. Yet, you can overcome fear most of the time... if you really want to... and if you are willing to practice some techniques.
Although not wanting to come across as being too philosophical, I have to ask the reader to "know thyself!"
Most, if not all of us, were drawn to this excellent game called tennis, because there is indeed something fun about hitting a yellow, fuzzy ball back and forth over a net. We probably all struggled with being able to hit this ball consistently off of both sides, but somehow, we discovered the magic that we could. As our proficiencies developed, we generally want to see how well our skills are developed by testing them by playing matches. Win or lose, we are "addicted" to the game... and I mean this in the most positive sense.
At some point, we may decide to be competitive about our sport. We may seek to move up the ladder at our local club. We may decide to enter a tournament. We may seek to play competitively for a school (high school or college). Some of us may seek a USTA ranking. But somewhere amidst all of this, we may lose awareness of really why do we play this great game.
There must be something beyond the fascination of hitting a fuzzy, yellow ball if we are competing. Granted, there are friendly matches and friendly rivalries. This is a great way to enjoy our sport! But for many of us, there is a need for more.
Before anyone can really eliminate her/his fears associated with tennis, she/he needs to really have a clear understanding of her/his motives for playing the great game. There is no right answer to this question!!! Playing for exercise is just as valid a reason for being an avid tennis player as wanting to get a college scholarship for our tennis prowess.
For example, early on in my journey with tennis, my goal and purpose was to achieve a USTA Regional ranking in Men's 5.0. I ultimately achieved this goal through some hard work, and yes, luck. Now, my goal for being involved in this wonderful sport is to help others learn to enjoy the game and help others play at a higher level.
My point is twofold. There is no single, right reason for wanting to play tennis. And second, one's motive or reason for immersing oneself in tennis may change over time.
But, you never really play your best tennis and you can't really minimize any fears until you know exactly why you play this game called tennis.
In my personal experience and in coaching others, I can unequivocally state that self-image and self-esteem affect our actual playing capabilities and can be the source of some fear.
In my first year of playing competitive tennis in USTA tennis tournaments, I won exactly two sets out of around 22 matches. I was a rank beginner, and probably should have waited to try and compete. Believe me. There were many opponents who moved forward in the draw because they were lucky enough to have me as an opponent.
Needless to say, I was a bit downtrodden as a result of these lackluster performances! I began to evaluate my entire self worth by how well I played tennis, and by how rapidly I was improving. Out of frustration and mental fatigue, I finally realized that it didn't really matter that I wasn't as good as I wanted to be nor anywhere near as competent as my tournament opponents. I wish I could say that the New England players that I faced were kind and supportive. I actually had one opponent who was a collegiate player at a Division I school ask me, "What are you doing out here?" He didn't put this forth in a kind or gentle manner. Rather, he was mocking me. But ultimately, he did me a huge favor... albeit without intent.
I came home after that tournament loss with my "tail between my legs." I was feeling humiliated. I thought about giving up the game. As often has been the case in my life, the lowest points seem to be my turning points. I began to realize that whether I was a sufficiently accomplished player as this opponent, I deserved the opportunity to compete. I was practicing regularly. I was putting myself "on-the-line" exactly as was the case for every other player in the tournament. I had paid my entrance fee!!! This elitist idiot was really the weaker player. Why? Well instead of winning gracefully and encouraging me, he had to rebuke me. I thought about this. If the tables had been turned, I would have been supportive not critical of this "loser." After all, it is easy to win. It is a bit more difficult to lose.
Three years later, I was ranked 4 in Men's 5.0 by USTA New England. Had I let this opponent affect my self-worth as he seemingly wanted to do, I would have never achieved my goal. I learned from this player's comment. I may not be the best tennis player in the world, but this doesn't take anything away from my value as a person.
Life has a certain irony to it. As I improved, this opponent's game deteriorated. At one point, I watched him get destroyed by a "lesser" opponent in a tournament. His father (an area tennisphile) watched his son lose and lose badly. When he finally came off the court, this player's father was rather harsh with him about the loss. It became abundantly clear to me why this player was as rude to me as he was in our meeting years earlier.
Tennis is a game. Unless you make your livelihood off of this sport or are dependent upon this sport for a college scholarship, you really have nothing to lose but a game, a set and a match!!! If your "identity" as a person is overly invested in this great game, you are doomed to some rough times. No one wins every match. Indeed, 50% of all players at a given time lose their matches!!! Anyone who makes you feel bad about a loss is a person worth avoiding!!!
When coaching, I have a simple rule. As the player comes off the court at the end of his/her match, I do not ask if he/she won or what the final score may have been. My first question is: What was working today and what do you think you did well? Sometimes, a player is a bit sullen or shell shocked after losing a match. If I sense that they are in this frame of mind, I may simply say, You played better than you may think at this moment.
Unfortunately, tennis (like many sports) can bring out the best or the worst in people. I encourage each reader to be kind to others who are out there competing, and of course, to be kind to yourself. Attitude is everything in life and in tennis. Always promote a positive attitude in others and in yourself.
Having played lots of team sports throughout my youth, the desire to win was naturally instilled within me. In team sports (and this can be the case when playing doubles), there are others to help "bring you up" when things may be going wrong. Certainly, football and baseball coaches can "inspire" players by their comments.
In tennis, it is sometimes easy to fall victim to "wanting not to lose" vs. "wanting to win." In the former, a player dwells on what shame or problems a loss would mean. In the latter, negative thinking is diminished and a true joy of victory motivates the player.
We all say that we want to win... and I believe each of us truly does. However, I have seen many players when competing exhibit a fear of losing instead of a true desire to win.
When you truly have a desire to win, you never really give up. At times, losing never even enters your mind. It is not a case of whether you will win; it becomes a situation of when and how you will win.
Attitude is everything in life and tennis. If you focus on wanting to win, your chances of winning are amplified. If you are really just afraid to lose, your chances of losing are amplified.
1. Thoughts Lead to Emotions and Beliefs
First and foremost, it is imperative that the reader fully understand what fear is. Okay, there is a physiological component to fear. However, fear is always connected to thoughts. Some fears are well founded. Totally irrational fears are known a "phobias." Regardless of what level of fear you may have or its foundation, there is a thought pattern associated with the fear. Change the thoughts and you can eliminate the fears.
I grant you that this is easier said than done. But, any thought can be changed.
To eliminate fear, a player needs to deliberately change both his/her conscious thoughts and his/her non-conscious beliefs. When a thought is repeated over and over, or if a thought for whatever reason is accepted as being well founded, our non-conscious mind accepts it as being a valid belief.
The first step in eliminating your fear on the tennis court is to practice eliminating negative... fear producing thoughts! This requires time and deliberate effort. This is a process that must remain constant throughout the player's tennis "life."
Fortunately, the conscious mind cannot think of two things at the same time!!! So if you notice a negative thought or fear producing thought entering your mind, simply think of anything else! It is that simple, but it is not easy. In essence, you are learning to control what you think.
Here is a practical example. Let's say I am in a match and I am fearful that my forehand is breaking down. This perception can lead to a cascading effect where my entire tennis game begins to deteriorate. What can I do? Well first, I clear my mind of this thought by thinking of anything else. Sometimes, I will count the number of steps it takes me to retrieve a ball and return to the baseline for the next point. I may deliberately start straightening the strings in my racquet and counting the total number of main strings that are in my racquet head. Sometimes I will employ the techniques suggested by Brad Gilbert and I will look for a particular mark on the court and I will step on it with my right foot. As I do this, I am counting the number of other marks that are in the general area.
For me, anything that involves counting is enough to distract my mind from the negative thought.
As a different example, let's say that I am facing an opponent who is highly ranked and highly regarded. Maybe this is a player to whom I have lost in the past. It is easy for me to become fearful of playing this individual. This thought process can begin hours of even days before the actual match. Every time this fear producing thought enters my mind I will visualize myself (using my imagination) hitting perfect serves and strokes. I pretend that I am practicing with a ball machine and every ball "thrown" in my direction, I hit perfectly to the target area in the opposite court. If I am sitting watching TV and this fear producing thought enters my mind, I close my eyes and take a few moments to visualize as described above.
Distracting thoughts and positive visualizations can and will stop fear producing thoughts from gaining hold. Yes, these fearful thoughts may re-enter my mind. But if I deliberately attempt to distract my mind or visualize something positive, they will eventually dissipate.
I remind the reader that this is an acquired skill... that involves a process (unique to each person in its specifics)... and constant practice on and off the court.
Eliminate the thoughts that cause fear, and you diminish the fear.
2. Words and Thoughts
Really, our minds can only think in two principle ways. We think in words (really having conversations with ourselves) and we think in images (real images from our memory bank or images that we create).
As I understand our non-conscious mind (I am not a psychologist), it is basically non-judgmental. By this, I mean that our non-conscious mind literally accepts every word we think or say aloud as being true.
Every book you will read on the mental game in tennis speaks to the importance of positive self-talk.
If you are using words like, "can't," "won't," "if only." etc., you are feeding your non-conscious mind negative statements which it accepts as being true. Similarly if you berate yourself after a point with something like "what a stupid shot that was," "what is wrong with me today?" or "I have no backhand," your non-conscious mind will believe you!
Every player needs to be positive with respect to her/his self-talk!!! It is that important. Statements like "not a problem," "next time," "I know that I can and will do better" are the kind of things that should be tossing around in your brain and being vocalized when you make an error or mess up somehow.
Michael Chang was the best at this in my opinion. He never would berate himself after even the most heinous error. He never would speak negatively about himself of show negative emotion after losing a set.
To really be able to change your self-talk during a match, you need to readjust your self-talk during practices and even when you are not on the court!
Again, this is simple but not easy. However, this is another process that can be incorporated into your tennis mind. Through constant practice, this process will become ingrained and always with you.
Motivational speakers realize how important self-talk is to human self perception and performance. Most people are amazed at how negatively they think and speak about themselves when they really start paying attention to their thoughts and words. Here again if you change the thoughts and words, you will eventually change the belief.
Positive self-talk diminishes fear.
3. Imagining Positively
I am an individual who has really learned the value of visualization. In every facet of my life, I deliberately try to conjure up positive images of what I want to be and what I want to happen. Don't get me wrong. Just because I can imagine beating Roger Federer doesn't mean that I will beat Roger Federer. But if I had to play Roger in a match, you can bet a major portion of my match preparation would include such seemingly "impossible" images. Why?
Well, I realize that if I can imagine something the chances of my achieving that something are greatly enhanced. In part, this is because the positive visualizations prevent my mind from generating negative images or negative thoughts and words.
While playing points in a match, I try to visualize in my mind exactly where I want each ball to land in my opponent's court. During changeovers and in between points, I imagine myself playing perfect points in my mind. If I am day dreaming (I do this a lot during meetings at work), I will imagine myself playing a point or two, and see myself hitting each stroke perfectly. Sometimes, I vary the perspective of these day dreams. I will imagine myself playing perfect tennis from my point of view on the court. Then, I will change to a perspective that would be the point of view that my opponent has, and see myself from his position hitting perfect strokes. I will even change my imagined points from color to black and white "movies" of me hitting perfect strokes.
Here again, it takes some deliberate effort and practice to really get comfortable with "visualizing." Still, it is one of the most powerful, mental tools that any athlete has in her/his arsenal!!!
You can literally visualize fear away!
4. Learning to Relax
Imagine how well you would play this great game of ours if you were always relaxed during any competition. Once any athlete becomes tense, he/she is less likely to perform at peak levels.
When playing football as a youth, I recall that the first play of the game would always help reduce some of the tension. That first contact or "hit" would calm down the demons within.
To learn how to relax on the court, you need to learn how to relax off the court... on command.
Right now, try the following: Close your eyes. Take three deep breaths... inhaling through your nose, holding the breath for a second, and then slowly releasing the air through your mouth. On the third exhale, make a deliberate and conscious effort to relax all the muscles in your body. My guess? You were able to feel a bit less tension and more physical relaxation.
When competing on the tennis court, every player needs to be aware of his/her level of tension vs. relaxation. Every tennis player needs to learn how to physically relax his or her body during competition. Invariably when the match gets "tight," the player who can remain calm and relaxed has the definite edge.
When practicing and when you are at work or home, you need to take moments and practice whatever physical relaxation technique works for you. Usually, deep breaths, closed eyes (or staring at a spot on the wall, court, etc) and deliberately using your mind to relax muscles is the formula for most people.
If you can physically relax your body on command... even just a little bit... you automatically will reduce the tension and fear in your mind. Less tension means fewer negative thoughts. Fewer negative thoughts mean fewer fears.
5. The "As If" Persona
Many of you who are reading this may have heard of the Self -Fulfilling Prophecy phenomenon. Simply put, we become what we expect to become to a greater or lesser degree.
Part of changing one's expectations is what I will call the "As If" Persona. In modern terms, I have heard people say, "Fake it until you make it." This is indeed sage advice.
By pretending to be calm, you actually become calmer. By pretending to being playing better tennis, you actually play better tennis. By pretending that things are going really well in a match, they actually are more likely to go the way you wish them to go.
During matches, during practice and off the court; you always want to have that "as if" manner about yourself. Let no one or any circumstance change this posture!!! The more you adopt the "persona" of a winner the more it will become "part of you." Eventually, you will find yourself not having to fake it... because indeed you will be making it.
Your fear level goes down significantly when you "fake it until you make it."
6. Finding the Fun
There is really only one good reason to play tennis... to have fun!!! Okay, Rafael Nadal has another very good reason to play tennis... money! But, I would argue that no one plays his/her best tennis if he/she is not having fun.
Some of us love competition... win or lose. Some of us will never love competition because we value winning too much and/or fear losing too much.
Regardless of which of these may describe you, you need to find a way to have fun playing tennis even when you are losing!!!
For me, it is a pretty simple task to rejuvenate players who have lost their enthusiasm for competition. I simply ask them, "Imagine that you won every game that you played forever. Would you find the game more exciting?" I usually follow up with another question. "Imagine that you could never play tennis again. Would you miss the game itself?"
We who play this game (win or lose) are truly blessed!!At its most basic level, tennis is fun because there is something truly amazing about hitting a fuzzy yellow ball over a net and seeing it bounce!
No one who plays tennis well is superior as a person to anyone who struggles with her/his strokes! The really important things that should determine a person's "value" are not related to winning or losing. Rather, they are related to how one accepts victory and defeat.
It is always good to set goals for oneself. Rankings, etc. encourage us to become better... but they are not the real goal. Always striving to improve, being the best player that you can be, being willing to work hard to achieve a tennis goal, being dedicated to the "code of tennis"... these are all laudable.
But in the end, we really only play this wonderful game because it brings us joy, and it is fun. If you are not having fun playing tennis, you need ask yourself "why?" If you want to rekindle your enthusiasm for this great sport, simply enjoy the beauty of being able to hit a fuzzy yellow ball over a net.
You won't be fearful if you are having fun!!!
7. Learn from Your Successes
I have heard the saying a million times: "Learn from your mistakes." Although this is a well founded piece of advice, I would add to it an equally important axiom. "Learn from your successes!!!"
If you have a flaw in your game, recognize it, analyze it and correct it. But never forget about all the "good things" you bring to the court when you play tennis.
Learn to accept and like your tennis game, at least some of the time!!!
You can't play better tennis by dwelling on the negatives. Unfortunately, many players simply dwell on their inadequacies. Do not get me wrong. It is healthy to always want to improve. But in this quest, a player needs to keep in his/her mind the things that he/she does well.
Give yourself a bit of credit, and your fears will automatically begin to dissipate.
8. You Can't Be "Defeated" If You Never Stop "Competing."
The scoring system in tennis is such that a match is never really determined until the last point has been played. I grant you that at times the scores are such that odds are for your winning or against your winning.
In my mind, you can lose a match but never be defeated. In my mind, you can win a match and ultimately have been defeated.
If you play every point to win... if you never throw in the towel until the match has truly been decided... if you are always competing... you will never be defeated.
This is a mindset that automatically keeps fear to a minimum!!!
In reading this month's column, I hope to have opened up your mind to what fear is and how it can be managed. I cannot promise that you will never experience fear on the court again. But, I assure the reader that, if she/he faithfully follows the suggestions in this month's column, she/he will experience less and less fear... and have more and more fun.
Less fear and more fun will always make you 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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