Stress Inoculation Training
To Play Your Best Tennis
by Michael Grace
As a professional law enforcement instructor and avid tennis player, I am intrigued by the philosophies and ideas in technique and tactical law enforcement training that apply to the sport of tennis. Much of what I have learned as a law enforcement instructor has also made me a better tennis player. Recently, I had the good fortune to attend a lecture by Lt. Colonel (Ret.) Dave Grossman and to read a draft manuscript of a book he is writing.1 Both the lecture and the book inspired me to share some thoughts about stress inoculation training that can help you play your best tennis.
When an individual is playing a sport and having a personal best performance, it is usually referred to as being "in the zone." A search of Amazon.com for books about peak performance and being in the zone reveals an extensive list on the topic. After all, there is even a zone diet. In tennis, the zone is a state of clarity between your thoughts and your actions. The strokes flow seamlessly, the ball appears larger than life, time stands still allowing you to see the point unfold before it occurs, and shots are made with pinpoint accuracy. A classic example of this Zen-like state of mind and body happened to Kim Clijsters at the 2003 year end WTA event. She stated after winning the championship match 6-2, 6-0, "I saw the ball like a football (soccer ball)... That's a nice feeling knowing you can do whatever you want with the ball, when you go down the line or even when you aren't in the right position."2 In the law enforcement community, many cops have experienced similar perceptual distortions as those described by athletes in the zone.
In fact, it is very common for a police officer who has been in a deadly force gunfight with an assailant to experience auditory, visual, and/or motion time distortions during the deadly force event. For example; in an experience similar to Clijsters seeing the tennis ball the size of a soccer ball, an officer in a gunfight thought beer cans were being tossed past him during a shootout.3 It wasn't until after the event that he realized the beer cans were actually ejected shell casings from his service pistol. One theory attributes this surreal type of experience to a hormonally induced survival instinct where it greatly benefits the recipient to have extreme focus, and rapid thought processes, as if time is standing still. However, for the poorly trained person, the performance of motor skills that require eye hand coordination and timing, i.e. hitting a tennis ball or accurately shooting a pistol, diminish substantially under high stress levels.
Thankfully, law enforcement instructors have learned methods to better prepare police for extremely stressful situations like those encountered in a shootout. The advent of paint ball type force-on-force training has enabled police to increase their accuracy in real shootouts to 90 percent when compared with the 20-30 percent accuracy achieved by officers who trained using range silhouettes with no interaction.4 How does this relate to tennis? Answer this simple question: Do you want to improve your tennis accuracy to 90 percent under extreme stress? Excellent performance under stress is unlikely unless you previously have experienced and been successful under similar stress conditions. Prior success under stressful conditions acclimatizes you to similar situations and promotes future success. Dave Grossman refers to this acclimatization process as "stress inoculation."
Tennis players have the luxury, unlike police in deadly force shootouts, of gaining their stress inoculation in real events. In tennis, this is sometimes referred to as developing "match toughness." Unfortunately, becoming match tough through tournament play can also lead to some tough losses and reinforce poor performance rather than success. However, stress inoculation in tennis, just as in law enforcement, can easily be accomplished in training. Simulated stress in training should be as realistic as possible to achieve maximum benefit for the real event. It is worth pointing out that a person's heart rate does have some correlation to his or her stress level but systolic blood pressure is a much better indicator of stress.5 A key element for successful stress inoculation is to have training which uses mental stress to produce hormonally induced heart rate and blood pressure increases rather than using exercise induced stress to mimic those physiologic responses. It is a mistake to believe that exercise induced heart rate or blood pressure increases will create a zone experience or optimum performance.6
After Andre Agassi's mid-career plummet from the vanguard of tennis, he used satellite tournaments to play lesser skilled players and received a much needed "booster" stress inoculation that built confidence and competence, and ultimately sparked his resurgence to the top ranks of the ATP main tour. Those of us who lack Agassi's resources can simply play competitive practice matches with a hitting partner prior to a tournament. Competitive practice matches usually will provide the necessary stressors for the inoculation to occur. The beauty of practice matches is that during the event, with your hitting partner's permission, you can replay poorly played important points until you achieve the desired outcome, a well played point. Others may require more than pride or practice match bragging rights to bring out the necessary stressors that raise heart rate and blood pressure. An alternative that is particularly useful for the weekend warrior preparing for a tournament with limited practice time is to play tiebreakers where the consequences of the outcome are important enough to cause significant stress. For example: the losing player must do sit-ups, pay his or her practice partner's court fees, or maybe even wash his or her car.
In the end, there is no guarantee stress inoculation will make you a champion like Agassi, however, it will allow you to play the big points to the best of your abilities rather than dumping the ball in the net because of stress. It may even facilitate the mystical zone experience. Inoculate yourself before your next tournament; the worst that can happen is your practice partner offers to drive you to the tournament in a clean car.
1. Dave Grossman is widely known in the law enforcement and military community. His research, writing, and passion are on a subject seemingly unrelated to tennis, the study of killing. He had a book nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and has appeared on television shows such as Larry King Live and Politically Incorrect. http://killology.com/bio.htm
3. Grossman, Dave, Lecture at FLETC, Oct 2003
5. FLETC Journal, Stress and Performance, Vol 1, Issue 2, Fall Edition, Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, Glynco GA
Michael Grace can often be found playing tennis at the Jekyll Island Tennis Center in the Golden Isles of Georgia. He works at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) as a Branch Chief for Basic Training in the Physical Techniques Division. The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, the Department of Homeland Security, or the United States Government. Michael is obliged to express his gratitude to the firefighters, police, and armed forces men and women who willingly chose a profession in which they move towards danger so others will be safe. They risk without hesitation their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness so their fellow citizens may pursue those tenets of democracy and are to be commended for their actions.
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