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 not 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!