January tip of the month: concentration and focus

Most coaches and players would agree that players need both focus and concentration in order to be successful and that these qualities are as important as technique, fitness or tactical awareness if not more important.

However, before we can improve these qualities, we must first decipher what they are. Are the two words interchangeable? Do they mean the same thing? How are they different?

I want to discuss what these words actually mean. What are we trying to concentrate on? Where should our focus be?

Perhaps focus refers to the general goal of trying to win or play the match at hand. To keep one’s attention on the goal of playing tennis as opposed to becoming distracted by allowing various thoughts to pull us away. Thoughts like: ‘who is watching’, ‘how can I be losing’, I hope I don’t blow this lead and numerous other thoughts, which weaken our ability to focus on the matter at hand.

So what is concentration? If you ask players or coaches what the object of concentration should be, I think the answer would almost unanimously be the same: the ball!

Many players and coaches deem it absolutely necessary to develop the ‘skill’ to actually watch the ball, which seems to be incredibly difficult because most unforced errors are accompanied by the exclamation: ‘watch the ball!’ Obviously, the implication is that players are not watching the ball.

I would like to suggest that the problem is not that we are not watching the ball because how often does the ball go one way and the player move in the opposite direction? But asking yourself or others to watch the ball does seem to result in the ball being watched. Why not?

It seems to me, watching the ball is simply not enough because seeing the ball requires a subtle balance of watching and trust. To have one without the other is to be blind and will not result in clean contact.

Trust arises when we passively bring attention to our own body. When we bring attention to our own body, the attention is here and not out there. Of course if we are most concerned about what is happening out there, it will be extremely difficult to keep our attention right here, hence the necessity for trust!

So, what should we be concentrating on as we wait for the ball to come to us?

I would suggest that you experiment with concentrating on your hands as they immediately prepare to receive the ball. Bring your attention to the hands moving towards the side the ball is travelling to. You may also notice your legs move into position to hit the ball. All of these things and any more you may think of are passive observations as opposed to commands telling yourself what to do.

So yes, our eyes are on the ball, but our concentration is on ourselves. If we forget ourselves, we will struggle with making good contact or being in the right position.

There is a saying that people use that requires us to ‘be the ball’ or lose oneself in the ball, but perhaps the opposite is true.

Experiment with ‘finding yourself’ as you play by bringing attention to self in the midst of competition and see what happens.

Experiment, explore and enjoy!

December tip of the month: Why do you play tennis?

 

Wholistic tennis, in my ever-evolving understanding of the term, involves raising awareness of the individual playing the game and not just the game itself.

Who you are determines how you play. For example, if there is a desire for control within, as is the case for me, it will be reflected in technique and the way the game is played at every turn. To not address the root cause and still expect change will be difficult to do.

Great technique is not difficult; it is simply moving and doing things naturally. It seems to me, poor technique is what emerges during the struggle between the body and the mind or ego.

May I be so bold as to suggest that most of us are engaged in this struggle, some of us are aware of it and some of us may not be?

Although forehands and backhands may look the same, especially at the higher levels, closer examination will reveal subtle differences. Why? My understanding is, that these differences reflect the uniqueness of each person.

Having said that, how do we know when differences are personal statements of our individuality or faulty technique? How do we know when to honor our uniqueness, as opposed to copying others, and when to change something that is simply ‘wrong’?

I guess, the first thing to do is to simply ask yourself the question ’is this working?’ Now this question is not as simple as it sounds. What does ‘working’ mean? For me, working cannot just mean, does the ball stay in the court?

I could open my racket face and push every ball over the net pretty consistently, albeit without a lot of pace. For me, that would not be considered working!

Yes, a prerequisite is that the ball must stay in the court, but it cannot be limited to that. You must also feel comfortable. If you have a feeling of holding back, of not fully and boldly expressing yourself as you hit the ball then the criteria of working is not being met, in my opinion.

I know, many people will disagree with my definition of ‘working’. Many players are satisfied if the ball goes over the net and doubly so if the point is won, and I understand that and am not saying there is nothing wrong with that. If the goal is winning then yes this definition does make complete sense, however, if you are looking for something different then, yes, perhaps there is an alternative.

Certainly. There is something very challenging in competition that also helps us understand ourselves better. It is a battle for survival and as such it also highlights the struggle, which exists within all of us. This battle is more primal and I think we can all relate to it at some level. There is growth in exploring this also.

However, if you are curious about Life in general, who you are and your relationship to the world in particular, and other such issues, then playing tennis affords us many opportunities to indulge these questions through exploration of our inner process during both practice and competition.

Certainly, the journey towards doing anything boldly without fear is a difficult one. Not only because of the inherent challenges of the ‘game’ or activity itself, great as they be, but because one has to courageously explore oneself, one’s patterns of behaviour and tendencies, and see how they are being used to escape from that which is difficult for us to face.

If we can recognize and face these patterns, without any attempts to fix or solve them, which we will only be able to do if we don’t judge them, technique and more importantly, rhythm, can automatically change all by itself.

Direct attempts at changing technique if the cause of the poor technique is the body’s response to fear or uncertainty will ultimately fail. For example, so many club players do not accelerate through contact or have a full follow through. Why is that? Is it because they do not ‘know’ where the racket should finish? Or is it a lack of trust or a desire for control?

If it is the latter, then all the cajoling and instruction to ‘finish’ the swing will be fruitless; perhaps, not in practice, but certainly in competition.

Enjoy the journey,

November tip of the month: Exploration of timing continued

Last month we spoke about timing being an essential component in playing good tennis, even more important than technique, although it would obviously be better to have both!

But what is timing and can it be trained? To even consider improving timing we would first have to try and explore timing and identify the skills necessary involved in timing.

Last month, I suggested that stillness and the ability to wait are essential ingredients for great timing (actually these are not two things, just one!). This is because the hands can move faster than it takes for the ball to come across the net, regardless of how hard it is hit, consequently, it is necessary for the hands to wait for the ball to arrive.

This month I would like to suggest another necessary component of great timing and that is trust.

I wonder, is it a coincidence that the universe does not allow us to see contact? Regardless of the numerous proponents of ‘watching’ the ball and keeping one’s head down, the reality is that no one can see the ball touch the strings. Is this fact just an extraordinary oddity or is it an amazing communication by the universe to us?

If it is true that we cannot see the ball at contact (and science tells us it is!), then that means it is cannot be necessary, which in turn ‘must’ mean that trust alone is required to make contact.

‘We’ cannot make it happen!

This is fascinating because the ‘normal’ solution to poor contact or ‘unclean’ hitting is to try harder and focus more, while I am suggesting the opposite. Perhaps, the answer lies in trying less and trusting more!

Could it possibly be that easy?

Explore, experiment and discover for yourself!

 

October Tip of the month: exploring timing

Let me start by saying that I would like to explore timing, which means I am not saying I know what it is or that these are the definitive thoughts on the subject. I am just starting the discussion by sharing my experiences.

It seems to me that timing is the most essential quality in hitting a tennis ball. Would you agree?

Yes, technique is important, but you can have poor technique and yet succeed if your timing is good. However, regardless of your technique when timing falters, which it often does when we are tight or nervous, then good technique cannot help. Is that your experience?

Did you ever notice that when even top players get tight and they miss-hit balls they are often early and hardly ever late? Many shanked backhands from Fed come to mind immediately. Why is that? Is that simply the inability to wait?

For me, the key to timing and the hardest thing in tennis is the ability to wait and do nothing.

Our minds are active as all minds are. To wait requires some stillness. However, since this stillness is not available to us off the court, it will also be difficult to produce on the court, especially at key moments.

Is it possible to nurture this stillness?

The first thing to realize is that it has nothing to do with tennis per se. Of course, everything is ultimately integrated, but the ability to be still and just wait is not limited to the tennis court, consequently, it can be practiced and nurtured in everyday life.

In a world where multi tasking is considered a quality of the highest order and a prerequisite to achieving the success everyone seems so desperate to have, what I am suggesting is seemingly taking us in to the opposite direction.

And yet, it seems to me, success without this quality is impossible.

Go figure?

How to do this we can discuss next month. But first and foremost we have to be on board with the value of stillness and waiting and it’s relevance to peak athletic performance.

 

 

 

Tip of the month: knowledge is not power, it is the illusion of control

What is a tennis lesson?

At it’s worst, it is simply a transference of information that accomplishes very little.

The student feels uncomfortable in the body, playing and competing and to avoid that experience she/he collects information in the mistaken ‘belief’ that this information will ‘fix’ the problem. Knowledge dissipates the feeling of helplessness for some time, but when competition and playing begins again, the same feelings return.

This pattern continues ad nauseaum. Can you relate?

The tennis pro doubts his/ her ability to change anything or really help anyone; consequently, that uncomfortable feeling and insecurity is covered up by accumulating as much knowledge as possible.   After all, people are coming to us because we are ‘experts’, because we ‘know’, but look deep into yourself, do you feel that you ‘know’?

Of course, you can convince yourself that you have helped some people and undoubtedly some people have improved under your watch, but was that luck or real knowing that produced those results? Have you also not felt complete failure? Focusing on the successes will help you cope through life better, while focusing on the failures will make you depressed. Is it small wonder that most people choose to forget about the failures?

How come we take credit for all our successes, but blame our failures on the students who just ‘don’t get it’ or have ‘limited’ athletic ability.

Is there any real difference between the two?

Can you relate?

Yesterday, I experienced watching a tennis lesson where a pro was trying to teach a beginner how to play.   The pro had played world-class tennis and was a great player. A lot of information was exchanged, but the student’s body remained very uncomfortable, despite the fact that he was a good athlete.

The pro, in his heart, cannot have felt good because he saw the results and surely it cannot be that easy to fool yourself (maybe it is!).

The student came off the court and told me that he had just had the most ‘amazing’ lesson of his life and what a great teacher this pro was.

I was shocked and started laughing out loud, inside. What the heck do I know?

If both parties of a business transaction are content is there space for a third opinion?

Only if you wish to appear as an ass-hole!

I kept silent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tip of the week: forgetting about the zone state!

The zone state is NOT the goal

For many years I perpetuated the myth that the zone state was the ideal performance state and I tried to help players achieve it.

How wrong I was and it is not surprising that I failed!

It now seems to be clear that the zone cannot be the ideal performance state because it is accidental and ‘unconscious’. We cannot make it happen because it comes and goes on its own accord with a will of its own. So what good is it if we are a victim to its whims?

However, as we bring more and more attention to our body both on the court and off, the mind becomes more and more quiet. As the mind becomes more silent, we experience time differently. It seems like we have more time, but the reality is the time is the same.

Our experience is measurably different. When we focus on things outside of ourselves, panic and anxiousness can often set in, but if we can keep the attention on ourselves, everything changes. Try it. The ‘goal’ is not to lose yourself in the activity, but find yourself in the activity. To remember the doer in all doing!

The way we are off the court cannot be any different to the way we are on the court. If the mind is super active off the court, we are going to struggle with the same symptom on the court also.

The irony is the more we work on ourselves off the court, the better our on court performance will become because we are addressing the root.

However, if we address only the symptom on court, nothing will change. How can change happen by playing with the shadow?

explore, experiment, enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tip of the week: The 3 F’s of Fundamental Tennis

The three F’s of hitting ground strokes:

Find:

Forget the old adage ‘watch the ball’; instead replace it with ‘find the ball with your hands’.   The racket moves immediately to the side of the oncoming ball and waits for the ball to arrive. Connect with that pause. The hands wait, while the legs move to the ball.

The hands find the ball.

Follow:

Once the finding is happening successfully and consistently, then move to swinging the racket in the direction of the ball. So, find the ball and then take the racket back and push it forward in the direction of the ball. Do this while moving further and further towards the baseline.

The arm and racket follow in the direction of the ball.

Finish:

When both finding and following are happening well enough so that you are hitting the ball cleanly and comfortably, the finish will happen automatically. The finish is an outcome of relaxation in the arm, it is not something to be ‘done’, it is something that happens when the arm is light as opposed to heavy. Throw the arm towards the ball.

Allow gravity to take the racket wherever it wants to go.  Your grip and the type of shot you hit will determine the finish, not the mind.

 

Tip of the week: stillness and silence

For me, the hardest thing in tennis is the waiting. The stillness and silence that is essential before hitting the ball. Timing is completely based on the ability to pause and be still so adjustments can happen before contact.

Why is it so difficult?

Nothing happens on a tennis court with a player that does not also happen outside the court as well.

Have you ever noticed how active your mind is throughout the day (and night!)? Regardless of the activity, the mind is constantly chattering.

The same thing is happening on the tennis court. The ball is hit towards you and there are dozens of comments or ‘feelings’ that arise in us related to our ability to hit this ball back in a particular way or in a particular direction.

In life, we don’t notice it so much because we can usually successfully achieve our mundane activities despite the chatter. However, in tennis or other highly skilled activities this chatter will prevent us from successfully playing and then it gets our attention.

So, what can we do?

By bringing our attention to the body, we get into ‘real’ time from where timing becomes much easier.

Our first reaction to the oncoming ball usually takes us away from ourselves and into the world of doubt and desire. However, if at that moment we can instead stay ‘here’ with ourselves, our whole experience can change.

One way to do that is to bring attention to the body, either by focusing on our preparation. When we do that, we will see that, all of a sudden, it seems like we have so much time.

In that waiting; in that stillness and silence great discomfort can also arise, but eventually, by facing this discomfort, without judgment or any attempt to escape from it, perhaps some comfort will emerge.

There are no short cuts to becoming still and being comfortable with silence and I do not wish to suggest there are, but something like this can perhaps give you a taste and then your journey will be driven by the depth of your desire to grow by facing the mysteries of life.

Enjoy the journey……………

Tip of the week: attitude to errors

What is your reaction to an error? How do you deal with adversity? What happens to you when things don’t go the way you want?

These are all interesting questions that each and everyone one of us needs to ask ourselves if we want to grow through self-awareness. The ONLY way to really know the answer to these questions is by watching ourselves as we are in those situations.

For some players, there are a lot of strong emotions arising from these situations. Why is that? Is it a choice? It just doesn’t look like fun. Why do we torture ourselves?

Surely no one would make this choice. If that is true then why do these strong emotional reactions occur?

One of the reasons could be that deep down there is a ‘feeling’ that I ‘should’ not have missed that ball.

The word ‘should’ implies control and a choice, but my feeling is that there is no control. When we swing freely there is some uncertainty in the outcome of the shot. It is important to acknowledge that uncertainty. That recognition that we don’t have total control of where the ball ends up can help us live with failure and adversity, but if we truly believe we have total control, then mistakes will certainly be very difficult to swallow.

It is no fun being a perfectionist!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tip of the week: what sort of competitor are you?

There seem to be two extreme types of competitors and it is important to understand yourself and know where along the continuum you lie. Once you know what you are comfortable with, then I would encourage you to explore the ‘dark’ side; the side you are least confident about, by putting yourself in the situation that is most uncomfortable.

I have coached a few players who loved to compete and felt very little nerves. No matter what the situation, they would be up for a challenge and the bigger the stage, the more excited they would become. I feel this condition is far less common among tennis players.

On the other side of the spectrum, there lies the vast majority of players. Most of these players feel at least a little threatened when competition happens.

The interesting thing is that the people who love to compete, struggle practicing. They are bored hitting the same ball over and over again, seemingly without purpose and with nothing to gain from it. They struggle with the discipline necessary to succeed.

Conversely, the players who struggle with competition, love to practice. Training and running is not threatening for them and so it is something they can put a lot of energy into. More energy than usual, because they feel a little guilty about getting tight and therefore try and compensate by putting greater effort into practice. However, this will not help them play fear-free.

We are all conditioned and have our ‘tendencies’, once we understand this, it will become obvious that our ‘choices’ are really not choices at all. Our ‘choices’ keep us in our comfort zone. For growth to happen, we will need to get outside our comfort zone by going against our ‘choices’.

How important is growth to you?