Why can’t I play AMAZING tennis?
I’m sure most people would agree that tennis, as a sport, is one of the toughest out there. Sure, you have to be strong physically to play at an elite level, however, it is the mental aspect which really separates the good from the extraordinary…or at least that’s how I see it.
As a tennis player, it is a constant challenge to try to perform well and execute on the match court. But it’s not a simple thing to do- otherwise we’d all be extraordinary tennis players. I believe that this hunger to perform and play well is present within every tennis player. It’s certainly present within me. It’s a constant inner battle to hit the ball sweetly and feel perfect on the court.
This inner battle to perform goes something like this:
On the practice court, you’re constantly being analytical and trying to make adjustments to shots that you’re just not hitting that well. You’re being judgmental and critical when you’re making mistakes which turns into frustration or anger and you lose the enjoyment of being out there playing. You end up thinking harder about new technical adjustments that will solve the problem to no apparent success. Then you get out onto the match court, with little confidence, and focus on hitting the ball well and hope that things just click into place. Instead of focusing on competing, you end up hoping that your opponent doesn’t play to the shot that is giving you problems and if he does, you’re hoping that you ‘magically’ hit it well. And of course, with this mindset and thought process you don’t perform to your capabilities, which leads you to get critical and judgmental on the match court. Guess what? That doesn’t help you compete and perform well either. We then get back on the practice court, low on confidence and desperate to play better and we end up going through the same process again. It’s a never-ending cycle and a very tricky one to break.
Since returning from a lengthy period out of the game after having shoulder surgery, these are the exact type of challenges that I’ve been facing. Or more accurately, this is the exact process which I’ve found myself trapped in for a number of months now. I placed upon myself a certain expectation- I told myself that I could pick up from where I left off before all the injury problems. I expected to hit the ball great and get results straight away. And when this didn’t happen, I found myself entering this endless inner battle that captures so many tennis players. And it’s so easy to do. That’s what makes our sport so damn tough!
So, how can we avoid slipping into this inner battle? Or, how can we get out of it if we’re currently caught up in this battle?
Firstly, it’s a challenging thing to do. When I think about a time that I’ve played my best tennis in the past, I recall that “it just happened”, “I was confident”, “I was playing freely and not thinking at all” and “I was just going for it”. This amazing tennis comes when we enter a mental state called ‘the zone’.
Timothy Gallway, author of The Inner-Game of Tennis, writes that when you’re in ‘the zone’, you don’t have many thoughts and feelings running through your head. You aren’t thinking about how to hit the ball correctly or doubting your shots. You aren’t getting angry or too pumped or thinking about the past or future. You’re just relaxed and ‘in the moment’. You’re aware of the ball, the court and your opponent, but you aren’t thinking about how to hit the ball well, how to correct mistakes or how to repeat what you just did.
To escape this endless battling with ourselves, what we really need to do is move from our over-analytical and highly-critical thought patterns into ‘the zone’. Only then will we stand a chance of performing to our capabilities, beating quality opponents and putting together some good results. This will ultimately allow us to break the cycle and gain some confidence.
So how exactly can we make this shift towards being in ‘the zone’ when we’re low on confidence, not happy with our game and so desperate to perform well?
Gallway, in his book, suggests several internal skills that will allow this transition to happen:
- Firstly, you must release all judgment- good or bad. No more thoughts like “that was a terrible shot”. See the event as it is and don’t add any feelings or emotions to the event.
- Visualise yourself performing well. Either recall a time that you were playing well and recreate the scenario in your mind or look ahead to a future practice or match and visualise playing well.
- Trust yourself to execute shots without thinking about them. He says that you need to ‘just let it happen’.
He gives one further piece of advice which I have found works wonders. And it’s a very simple piece of advice:
Watch the ball. Watch it very closely. Focus on the seams of the ball.
When you really focus closely on the ball, all these instructional tips that you’re giving yourself disappear. When your entire focus is on an external object, such as the seams of the ball, it allows your body to just let it happen and hit the ball freely. Simple, yet effective!
Possibly some of the best advice that I’ve been given, which hasn’t come out of a book, is to focus on the ‘contest’ you’re in rather than how well or not well you’re playing. When the match is a ‘contest’, you may or may not play well, but you’ll find ways to hurt your opponent. Shifting your focus onto the competition and specifically, what you are doing to your opponent rather than how well you’re playing or feeling the ball will help you compete better. And ironically, you’ll most probably hit the ball better when you have this mindset too. Framing it this way has certainly helped me recently.
In simple terms, we need to try not to fall into the trap of going onto the match court with a ‘practice mindset’. You go onto the match court to compete against your opponent and not to hit the ball well.
I’m not trying to say that you should ignore technical improvement and shot development- those are essential parts of developing as a player. However, on the practice court, I find that external cues such as watching the ball or hitting to a specific target are much more effective ways of helping you execute a shot than focusing on internal cues such as shortening your takeback or adjusting your footwork- especially if you’re a high performance player.
Thanks for reading, and I hope that my struggles and advice have enlightened you. Hopefully, reading this will help you or someone that you know overcome a similar challenge at some point.
Any questions or things that you have to add, please don’t hesitate to contact me through my contact page. I’ll reply promptly.