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||EXPLORE THE TENNIS NET:
Winning...it's all in your mind
Ron Waite, USPTR
From time to time, I am asked how I was able to learn to play the game
of tennis in such a relatively short period of time. Truth be known, a
combination of factors came to play in accelerating my development.
First, I must confess that I was and am diligent about efficient
practice. Second, I stopped listening to the
conventional wisdom of the tennis pundits...frankly, most of it just
didn't work for me. So, I started to apply my scholarly skills of
observation, analysis and verification to develop my own guidelines.
However, one component in my development that I truly believe is
essential involves the mental skills and discipline to learn and compete
effectively. If you read Mental Equipment in Tennis Server each month,
you are presented with a thorough (and I believe well founded)
exploration of this part of the game. What follows is my own
advice on mental development. It is offered as a primer...not a complete
To begin, it amazes me how many players will hit thousands of balls every
day, yet avoid any deliberate efforts at improving their mental skills.
For me, this is similar to the body builder who only develops his/her
upper body. She/he is doomed to lose in competition! Everything we do
stems from the mind...which is really not a separate organ in our bodies. Rather, the mind reaches every cell in our bodies. Every thought we
have in some minor or major way impacts every millimeter of our bodies.
They are inseparable and deeply interconnected. To prove my point, try
Wad up 10 pieces of scrap paper and place a wastebasket about 10
to 15 feet from where you are standing. Take some practices tosses and attempt to
throw the balls of paper into the basket. Now close your eyes and imagine for a few moments
that you make every shot perfectly. Really imagine yourself throwing the balls...see them
travel through the air...and see them land perfectly in the basket. Now, open your eyes and
actually throw the 10 balls of paper. As you throw these, use your imagination to again see
every throw being "on target." After you have thrown all 10 balls of paper, count how
many actually made it into the basket. Now, go back to your original throwing spot and
again, close your eyes, this time imagine that each shot misses the basket. Repeat the above procedure and
throw each of the 10 balls of paper. During this second series of tosses, use your
imagination to see misses as you actually throw the balls of paper. Don't deliberately try and miss the
basket. Just think of missing while you throw the balls toward the basket. Again, count the number
of balls that actually land in the basket. I am fairly certain that the first series will have
fewer misses than the second does. In the second series of attempts, you were trying to make the shots but
were thinking negatively...very similar to the negative thoughts that creep into our minds while
trying to hit a shot...especially when trying to serve...no? Almost invariably, negative thoughts
yield negative consequences.
Whether or not this "experiment" was a clear illustration for you, I
assure you that your mental beliefs,
frame of mind and imagination exert major influences upon your
development, competitive performance, and most importantly, enjoyment of
the game. Given this, here are some things you can do to improve these
So, in concluding this month's column, I ask you to daydream, speak
kindly to yourself, learn to relax
and simply hit the ball. If comply with my requests, I am certain that
you'll soon become a tennis
- Daydream...deliberately...about perfect strokes, strategies and
performances! Remember how much you daydreamed as a child. You would actually see yourself being all
sorts of people...athletes...movie heroes...doctors...space travelers, etc. In your mind's eye, you
actually could see, hear and feel these experiences. When you watched a sporting event like basketball, you
often went out and played the sport with your friends...imagining that you were your favorite
player. You probably played your best... executing beyond your normal ability. Why?...because you imagined
yourself playing perfectly...and your body couldn't tell the difference. Well, the same can be true as an
adult playing tennis.
Throughout the day, I take little breaks from reality and daydream. I see myself
playing perfect tennis...winning every point...sometimes I see this in slow motion. If I am in my office
alone or at home, I might enhance the experience by closing my eyes during the daydream. These reveries
take no more than five minutes and sometimes last for far less time. But, they are an indispensable
part of my training regimen. The more you imagine yourself playing perfect tennis...actually seeing
it...hearing it...feeling it, the more likely it is that you will play perfect tennis.
I actually learned to hit
the overhead smash using this technique. I watched the pros hit overheads on television. Then, I spent many
daydreams seeing myself hitting the shot in an identical manner. Know what? The overhead went from my
least favorite and most difficult shot to one of my most favorite. At one time I actually feared having
to hit the overhead. Now, I salivate at the opportunity! Sure, practicing the shot on court was necessary,
but the improvement came at warp speed once I put my mind to it!
Sometimes when my schedule permits, I
will actually "meditate" for 15 to 30 minutes. I play an entire match in my mind...of course, I
win! If I have a tough tournament match coming up (aren't they all?) and if I know my opponent, I do
this kind of "match meditation" on the day of the actual contest. It actually helps me to relax when
I play and to believe that I can and will win. For some people, meditation is too severe and conjures up images
of monks wearing orange robes. Well, each of us have daydreamed. If meditating is too weird or
infeasible, try mini daydreams...they'll achieve the same result in time. Better yet, do both. Believe me, if
you can imagine doing it...you can do it!
- Avoid negative self-talk and start to compliment yourself! Imagine
you are playing doubles with a person whom you have just started dating. You really like him/her, and
there is the excitement of a new relationship. What kind of partner would you be? Hopefully, you
would be patient, supportive, forgiving. Winning wouldn't be the most important thing. You would do your best
to encourage this partner and would never chastise him/her. You would offer your best advice and
try to keep your team's confidence high. If you lost, you wouldn't blame her/him. You would probably
express how well she/he performed. You would probably express your confidence that next time, your team
would win. You certainly wouldn't get angry at her/him...call her/him names...throw your racquet in
disgust...nor give up and tank the match. You would fight to the end...no? Well, don't you think you deserve
the same when your partner is yourself?
I watch high school and college players compete all the
time. So many of them are self-abusive when they play. They yell at themselves, call themselves all sorts of
names, panic at every little mistake and sometimes they just give up. No wonder they end up losing or even
worse, find themselves not enjoying the game. If they were paired up with themselves in doubles, they would
probably walk off the court...stating something like: "I refuse to play with that maniac!" (By the way,
these histrionics are not limited to junior and college players)
Negative thoughts or verbal expressions
(self-talk) rarely if ever, improve a player's performance. It's natural to get a bit fearful or to lose
confidence in a shot, etc. However, negativity will never get you back on track! (Okay, you'll put McEnroe
forth as an example of a player who could use anger to his advantage. Maybe so...but do you think he
really enjoyed those matches? Besides, these tantrums won him matches by unsettling the
opponent...not by out playing the opponent. He never went crazy when he was winning! To me, this form of
"gamesmanship" is nothing more than cheating. What is really sad is the fact that he was rewarded with
millions of dollars for this behavior. Incredible!)
When you do sense that your thoughts are turning negative
or you find yourself saying negative things aloud, pause and say firmly to your self: "STOP!!!"
Then, try to relax your body and reverse the negativity with a positive statement. Throughout a match,
I must say the following statements a hundred times (silently or even aloud): stay tough, you can do it,
patience...hang in there, the stroke is there...just give it a chance, I'm getting tougher every point, next
time...I'll make it, I'm getting stronger, I'm feeling tougher. Self talk is so important! If you say it often
enough...you'll believe it. If you believe it is true...it usually becomes true.
Even when I am off court, I
practice positive self talk. I must say the following phrase a hundred times a day...every day: "My tennis
strokes, skills and strategies are improving every day!" I say it silently to myself...almost as an
unconscious chant. It may seem strange, but it really does work. Regardless of whether or not you'll practice
specific affirmations on a daily basis, I promise you that your game, and more importantly, your
enjoyment of the game will greatly improve once you stop the negativity. I know for many this is not any
easy task. However, like all good things in tennis...practice makes perfect.
- Teach your mind to relax your body! Living in the Northeast of the
United States, I am used to driving my car in snow. Years ago, my driver's education instructor conveyed
to me and my fellow students an invaluable insight on driving in snow...don't drive tense! As soon
as you tense up when driving a car, your body is no longer able to fluidly control the vehicle. Many
people are afraid to drive in the snow (I am not attempting to minimize the potential hazards and dangers).
But driving in snow requires your best driving reactions and skills. Both of these are substantially
reduced when you drive tensed!
Learn to relax while driving in the snow. How?...by using your mind
to deliberately relax the muscles of your body. The same holds true in tennis. When our body is calm and
relaxed, we are likely to play our best. When we are afraid, we tend to hit less fluidly and
frequently -- we commit errors. These errors cause more anxiety and we find ourselves becoming even more tense...a
How do you break this cycle?...through two specific techniques: controlled breathing
and mind induced muscle relaxation. Throughout a match, I monitor my breathing. I want slow, regular,
relaxed breathing. Whenever I find myself taking short, shallow breaths, I stop and force my breathing
to slow down. I inhale deeply through my nose and exhale slowly through my mouth. I force my
breathing rate to slow down. The by product of this controlled breathing is relaxation. You greatly
reduce tension, anxiety and stress when you breath slowly and deeply. It really works!
and points, I use my mind to relax those muscles that are particularly tense (for me, the
shoulders and neck get tight first). You can relax any muscle group with your mind's "commands." This is
especially true if you send these "signals" while breathing deeply. Try this experiment:
Sit in a chair comfortably. Take in a deep breath through your
nose. Fill your lungs with air to their capacity. Hold this breath for three seconds. Then,
exhale slowly through your mouth. As you exhale, say the word: R...E...L...A...X, and send
relaxing "signals" from your mind to every part of your body. Repeat this entire procedure
three times. Now, monitor how relaxed you body and mind are. I am certain that you feel more
comfortable and stress free than at the beginning.
You can do this little relaxation ritual between points...right before
beginning the serve ritual...in between
games, etc. Watch Mary Pierce. Here is a player who experiences stress
and anxiety on the court! To her
credit, she has learned to use breathing rituals to calm her mind and
body...resulting in improved performance.
If you did nothing more than learn how to relax your body 10% during a
match, your performance would soar!
- Play to play...not to win! Finally, some attention must be given to
why you play tennis. Let's face it... we all have too much ego invested in our games. The vast majority of
us are not going to make it into the top 100 players. Even if your goals include professional
competition and/or scholastic competition, you've got to keep the game in perspective. First, 50% of all people
playing a tennis match lose. Second, no one wins every match. Third, no one is perfect...why
should we expect to play perfect tennis? Fourth, if you play to win, you are in for a rollercoaster
ride of emotional victories and defeats. The best reason to play tennis?...simply to play it.
becomes a job, a statement of personal worth or a means of recognition...it becomes a burden. Once tennis
is a burden, it begins to lose its appeal. Goals that include winning or achieving a ranking, etc. aren't bad. But,
they shouldn't be the reason(s) you play the game. The joy of playing this wonderful sport...the
places it takes you...the people you meet...the insights about yourself you learn...the benefits to your
health and body...the satisfaction derived from training and working hard...the improvement in your play...these
are some of the best reasons to play tennis.
I have been fortunate. I have and am ranked by USTA
New England...I have coached winning teams...I have competed in USTA National Tournaments...I've
trained at some of the world's best facilities. I've won my fair share of matches and "suffered" 0
- 0 losses. I've met wonderful opponents and unfortunately, some very shallow, conceited players.
I've won matches and never really understood why, and I have lost matches and learned volumes. I
teach people to play this sport, and learn from every person I teach. I have lost matches that I was
expected to win and won matches that I was expected to lose. I have been complimented on my play, and I
have been ridiculed for losing. I have read libraries worth of tennis literature, and write this
column. In short, I have experienced much in my encounter with tennis. But the one thing that keeps me
going...particularly during the difficult times in this game...is that I simply love to
play...nothing more and nothing less. Each of us has experienced this unique pleasure. This is the thing
we need to keep in mind as we play, train and compete. Next time you find yourself losing or
playing poorly, remind yourself of the joy you can receive if you simply hit the ball. The joy we all
experienced the first time our ball went over the net and landed in. That's what it's really all about!
Good luck in your game and thanks for all the wonderful e-mail!
Turbo Tennis Archives:
1996 - 2002 | 2003 - Present
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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.