If there is one area of this great game of tennis that presents the greatest challenge, it has to be the difficulties players experience with respect to mental toughness. Clearly, this wonderful game requires strength, speed, agility, hand eye coordination and tactical/strategic knowledge. Proper stroke production is of paramount importance and every player continually strives to improve and perfect strokes.
Still, the "better" player does not always win matches. Indeed, there are those talented tennis players who can win on the practice court, but seem to lose frequently when playing in formal competition. Each of us has probably had a "nemesis" that we seem never capable of beating... even though we know we are capable of prevailing against this "foe."
Recently, I finished "coaching" a high school player through the spring season. His parents sought me out because this particular player had serious "mental" problems when in competition. He is blessed with some of the best groundstrokes that I have seen on any level. His serve was decent, and he had both a good flat and kick serve. He is a fit individual and moved well on the court. In practice sessions, this teenager was remarkable to a point where observers would stop and notice his form and power.
Yet, this very gifted player was almost always in tight matches, and would often times lose to "lesser" opponents. The problem was never in his strokes. The problem was in his mind.
Some years back, I wrote a book called Perfect Tennis in which I put forth my ideas on how to make oneself more mentally focused and solid when competing in tennis. I am pleased to say that this "e-book" sold very well for me and was only available through The Tennis Server. This teenager's father is a tennisphile, and purchased the book for himself. It is through this purchase that the lad's father knew of me, and enlisted my services.
The long and short of the story is that I am pleased to say that the young man had his best season ever! He moved from the number two singles position to number one via the "ladder" method. At the number one spot, he was able to win all but two matches, one of which was in the State Tournament. Perhaps the most rewarding moment for me was when he said to me, "I have finally found a way to calm the demons within me, and to enjoy the game again!"
At present, I am in the process of reworking my original, Perfect Tennis, adding additional insights and procedures that I have learned since my initial effort. I hope to have this new edition ready for "e-book" publication in the fall.
For now however, I want to share some of the principles of my mental approach to the game in the hope that each reader can benefit and become a bit stronger mentally. (Of course, this is also serving as a bit of a "tease" to invite interest in the new e-book.)
At some point, each of us was truly fascinated by the game of tennis. We simply loved going out and hitting the fuzzy ball over the net. In truth, tennis was fun activity at all times. The reason we played tennis was because it was fun!!!
Imagine that every time you go out to play this game of ours, you actually enjoyed yourself! Imagine that whether you win or lose, there is something worthwhile and fun in having played the match. Imagine that you never worried about winning or losing. Rather, you simply play your best, and are fascinated with the activity of hitting a fuzzy ball over a net. In reality, these are not impossible dreams!!!
Some years back, I wrote a column entitled, Why Do You Play Or Want To Play Tennis? I encourage the reader to review this previously published column and to answer the key questions posed in the article. It is imperative that every player is clear about why she/he is playing this exciting game. Without this clarity, there really is less likelihood that true mental toughness can be achieved.
Next, it is important that every tennis player recognizes that mental toughness is a process that must be practiced... on and off the court.
Implied in this statement is the fact that anyone can become more mentally focused and rugged, and that the process must be a continuous endeavor. One doesn't wake up one day, and all of a sudden, he or she is a fully functioning, mentally solid, tennis competitor. Some of us are more confident and competitive than others. But, none of us instantly becomes mentally strong.
So, this month's column will explore some of the things one can do to employ a positive process that will yield a better mental attitude and frame of mind. I know that these initial steps can bring positive results, and they serve as a good starting point for developing a comprehensive process of mental acumen and an unwavering positive attitude when competing.
PERCEPTION IS REALITY
I can think of no more true statement than: perception is reality. What we perceive and believe for all intents and purposes is what reality becomes... for us.
Simply saying, "I can win this match" is probably not enough to make this a reality. But when one goes into a match saying or believing "I am not likely to win this match" or "I can't beat this opponent," the chances of success diminish significantly.
What we perceive with respect to tennis is a product of our own inner feelings about our tennis prowess, the statements made about our skills and abilities made by others, and the "results" that we have experienced in the distant past and in the recent past.
We are almost always our own harshest critics. We are all too eager to chastise ourselves for our inadequacies, and rarely are we willing to celebrate our talents.
Unfortunately, there are many "tennis snobs" and "tennis critics" who are all too willing to identify and condemn a flaw, weakness or even a single, "bad day." Listening to these nay sayers necessarily brings negativity to your mind and to your tennis game.
We all want to win! The problem is that in every tennis match, 50% of the players lose! No matter how good you are, you are bound to lose at least some of the time. Wanting positive results is completely normal. Needing positive results connects the player to the win/loss record in a manner that is almost always counterproductive. Allied with this result-oriented thinking is the whole concept of self.
You are not, never have been and never will be... what your tennis game is!!!
Even pros, which make their livelihood off of tennis, are not what their tennis game is. Each of us is far more complex, diverse and valuable than what our tennis game success may be at any given time.
So, the first step in realizing true and persistent mental toughness is to recognize that tennis is just a game. Regardless of your goals and/or the importance you place upon tennis in your life, you are always more than your tennis game!!!
Thus, you certainly want to put tennis in a proper perspective in order to have a perception that is realistic and conducive to mental strength.
BE POSITIVE AT ALL TIMES AND IN ALL SITUATIONS
Okay, I realize that this is easier said than done. However, being positive off the court will help you be positive on the court. Really, everyone (tennis aside) needs to try and view glasses as "half full" rather than "half empty." In truth, you do have a choice in this. You can choose to be positive or you can allow yourself to become negative.
We all "fail!!!" We all have "easy" and "challenging" periods in all facets of our life. The key is to always be looking to see the "open door," "light at the end of the tunnel" or "lesson to be learned" from any of the challenging times. (Notice that I did not label these "bad" or "negative" times. They are nothing more than challenges... and as such... are capable of being met.) When you do fail... fail forward. But, notice your successes as well. Compliment yourself on your "triumphs" and put those unmet challenges into the "next time" category. By this, I mean learn from the challenge so that "next time" you will overcome.
If in every part of your daily life, you are "looking for the good," you will find it easier to be seeing the positives when you play this great game of tennis. Positivity begets more positive consequences. Negativity begets more negative consequences. So, it is important to learn but keep the past in the past.
I have a little mental exercise I use throughout every day. When I find myself entertaining a negative thought, I imagine in my mind that I am taking that thought and running it through a paper shredder. The idea is to remove the idea from my mind and not have it return. In truth, I sometimes have to run the same thought through this imaginary shredder multiple times before it is really "released" from me. I have a good "tennis buddy" who similarly dismisses and disposes of negative thoughts by simply saying the word, "cancel" while imagining a X being placed on the thought.
Each person can discover a "technique" that will work for him or her. It may result from trial and error, but there is a method that will work for you.
Conversely when I find myself having positive thoughts and feelings, I embrace them. I try throughout the day to recall the thought and reinforce it through repeated reflection.
When on the tennis court, I employ the same techniques. When I start to think negatively, I immediately use the "shredder" image. Then, I immediately turn my attention to a positive thought. This positive thought may have absolutely nothing to do with tennis. In reality, I sometimes think of pleasant places that I enjoy. I may think of my son whom I love. I may at times actually recall a joke that I have heard that I found amusing. I may simply look up at the clouds in the sky and notice the "faces" that I may see in some of these. The point is simple. I rid myself of the negative thought immediately, and replace it with something... anything... that I find positive.
With the young, teenage player whom I describe earlier in this column, this canceling and replacement technique was a major factor in his mental conditioning, and it paid immediate dividends!
REMAIN EMOTIONALLY STABLE
Thoughts can create emotions. But, emotions can create thoughts as well. In my mind, the two are inseparable. For me (partly because of my lack of math skills), there are only two emotions: good and bad.
I recognize that sports psychology and the study of our bodies' chemical reactions indicate that there are two kinds of adrenalin: good and bad. Good adrenalin stimulates us. We become energized, excited, motivated and likely to perform at a peak level. Bad adrenalin is associated with fear and the fight/flight syndrome. With bad adrenalin, we become rigid and tentative in nature.
Emotionally, I tend to agree with Dr. Allen Fox in his seminal book, Think to Win: The Strategic Dimension of Tennis. Dr. Fox recognizes that when we allow ourselves to enjoy the thrill of doing something well (as might be the case with a fist pump after a winning shot) we automatically leave the door open for negative emotions to emerge (as might be the case when we lose an important point in a game).
For me, the ideal emotional frame of mind is similar to the heat gauge on our automobiles. When our car engine is running as it should, the heat gauge remains somewhere in the middle of its scale. When we are overheating, the gauge peaks to one end of the scale. When we are running too cool (as is the case in winter when we first start up our engines), we are asking the car to "run" in a manner that is not advantageous... and can be somewhat harmful. (My dad always would remind us to let the car warm up before moving it.)
Maintaining an emotional equilibrium is of key importance to having true mental fortitude. Yes, you will see Roger Federer pump a fist now and then, and yes, he will celebrate a well executed shot. But for the most part, one cannot tell by looking at Roger if he is winning or losing the match! On the other hand, a player like Gael Monfils, usually shows his emotions after every shot. For me, Monfils is putting himself on an emotional roller coaster which can only drain him of energy.
Perhaps, the archetype for stable emotions would be the historically great, Bjorn Borg. Having watched many of his matches that have been preserved on video, Borg truly was remarkable in maintaining composure. I am quite certain that inside, Bjorn was experiencing emotional ups and downs. But on the outside, one never knew what he was feeling. Of course, Borg was in stark contrast to another great, John McEnroe who had no problem expressing his emotions.
Both of these players are extremes, and I do not suggest that any player should emulate any extreme. However, I do believe that a successful tennis player is one who is able to maintain a relatively constant emotional posture regardless of the circumstances. I would postulate that finding a "middle" level of emotional intensity is what is desirable for the vast majority of players.
The aforementioned high school player was one who was very emotional when playing matches. However when he was practicing or playing practice sets, he was almost always a relatively placid individual. He was in control of his emotions when the "pressure" was off. Not surprisingly, he was almost impossible to "beat" during practice sessions. It took a bit of time and deliberate effort, but he did learn to bring his practice demeanor to the court when he in true competition. I encouraged him to monitor his emotions, and to not allow himself to get too intense in either direction... good or bad. The secret for him was to focus upon relaxing his muscles and slow his breathing after each point. I am not certain that this "diversionary focus" will work for all, but it is worth the try.
Most important, the "as if" concept comes into play with respect to emotions. If a player can "act" as though she/he is calm, confident and capable; the likelihood of these being the norm and being a reality is enhanced. Faking it until you can make it does apply to tennis. My belief is that by going through the motions of being emotionally in control, the mind eventually does become emotionally in control. Here again, perception is reality.
AFFIRMATIONS LEAD TO CONFIRMATIONS
Over the years, I have learned how critically important positive statements that are stated aloud can be. These statements are referred to as affirmations. Most sports psychologists use the term, "self talk" when referencing the verbal statements we make about ourselves. Unfortunately, not all of our "self talk" takes the form of affirmations. Regrettably, there are players who use "condemnations" when speaking about themselves.
Put very simply, we have our conscious mind and our non-conscious mind. The latter is where our "beliefs" and "deep perceptions" are stored. Our non-conscious mind is constantly "listening" and perceiving. The non-conscious mind is not critical or selective in nature. It pretty much accepts all that it "hears" as being true. Repeat a statement often enough, and the non-conscious mind will firmly adopt it and retain it. In essence, this is how the self fulfilling prophecy phenomenon operates.
Tennis players often times say (aloud or silently) the most heinous things about themselves. Take the time to go to a college, high school or junior tennis tournament. Take a pad and pen. Write down every statement that you hear uttered aloud on the court. My guess (and I am confident that I will not be wrong) is that the overwhelming majority of these phases are negative and self-condemning in nature.
About 10 or 12 years ago, I had occasion to photograph a match being played by Michael Chang. As a credentialed photographer at the tournament, I was sitting near the side line and could hear every word that Michael said. (If you could hear the things that some players on both tours say when things go wrong, you might be a bit shocked.) No matter what, Michael always stated something positive about what was going on and did so audibly. If he made a good shot, Michael might say, "There is the form you have worked so hard to perfect." If there was an errant shot, Michael might say, "That was so close. I can make that a winner next time."
Take one day of your tennis life and dedicate it to saying nothing negative. Instead, try to say as many affirmations as you can. The key to affirmations is to say them aloud. Even a soft voice is fine.
The teenager that I have referenced in this column did exactly this for one early match. He slipped a couple of times, but for the most part, he did vocally and positively "speak" to himself throughout the match. At the end, I asked him for his reactions. Candidly, he stated that at first he was uncomfortable doing affirmations... especially aloud. But, he said that he knew his parents were compensating me for my coaching. So, he decided to go along with my "prescription." Ultimately, he admitted that he began to see the benefit of the constant, positive "self talk." He believed that it made him more relaxed, and he began to state "solutions" to stroke problems and tactical problems. All in all, he expressed that this experiment worked positively for him. Throughout the remaining matches of the season, he constantly was having positive conversations with himself.
A couple of comments need to be put forth with respect to affirmations. In addition to being stated aloud (perhaps at a level slightly louder than a whisper), the affirmations need to include the word "I." So, statements like "I am feeling stronger each stroke" is an example of a positive statement with the word "I" at the beginning. The second comment that I need write is that affirmations always need to be expressed in "present tense." So an affirmation such as "I am hitting solid forehands" is better than "I will hit solid forehands."
Invariably, the reader will ask, "What if I am not hitting solid forehands?" In these cases, the words, "I can" or "I choose to" are appropriate. So if your forehand is off, affirm it back into existence by saying "I can hit solid forehands" or "I choose to hit solid forehands."
The last factor that I will discuss in this abbreviated discussion of the "mental game of tennis" involves daydreams... Yes, daydreams.
Really, a daydream is nothing more than a brief "visualization" of something. Imagery is a powerful tool!!!
Throughout your day, you can actually play points in your mind. For example, let's say you are stuck at a red light driving to work. Well, try turning your imagination toward "playing a perfect point" in your mind. Visualize yourself on the court. You, for instance, serve a beautiful ace. Maybe, you envision yourself playing a brief groundstroke rally where you win the point with an outright winner.
These daydreams only take a matter of seconds. They can be done virtually anywhere and at any time. Here, the non-conscious mind is given an image to accept. For all intents and purposes, the non-conscious mind perceives the imagined point as a real activity. Envision yourself playing perfectly, and winning every point. Dream big! Imagine that you win points with authority. Try to "feel" the positives that would be felt if indeed you were playing this imaginary point.
There is not a day that goes by where I am not playing many tennis points in my mind.
Many people may read all of this and say, "Oh, this cannot work." I readily admit that I initially had major reservations about perceptions, striving for positivity in all facets of life, maintaining emotional stability during practices and matches, stating affirmations on and off the court, using imagery as a tool for improving performance.
Throughout my "tennis journey" I have learned that indeed these, and other tools, are critically important to adopt and use.
The key to any "performance" in my opinion is to "quiet" the conscious mind while performing, and to enhance positives within the non-conscious mind. This is not to suggest that simply imagining and speaking positively will enable you to hit a perfect backhand or remedy that horrific forehand volley. Hard work, action and on-court practice cannot be avoided... nor can actual competitive match play.
Still, it is my firm belief that there is a process that can be incorporated to one's tennis regimen that will greatly enhance mental focus and mental fortitude during matches. What I have attempted to provide this month is a bit of a primer on what may be components in this process. In my forthcoming book, there will be more to come.
I am certain that if the reader regularly incorporates these tools (on and off the court) that he/she will soon become a tennis overdog!