The Trap Of The Big Point Theory

The Trap Of The Big Point Theory

The big point theory is an ideal that seems to make sense on a superficial level, and yet on closer examination, proves to be incongruent.  The concept that some points are more important than others is a popular one within the tennis community.  That it is popular, however, does not make it true.

Two perceptions can arise if one buys into the big point theory: one is that the player can become so nervous because he considers the point so huge that he cannot function loosely and freely.  The second is that an individual who loves to compete can be motivated by the challenge and thus be spurred to greater heights.

There are very few people who fall into the second category and even those that do must forget the importance of the point as the point begins; they simply use that idea for motivation, to prepare for the coming point.

Let us examine this popular concept, which is almost universally accepted as gospel. It is true that tennis is a game where one player can lose more points than he wins and yet win the match.  This leads to the seemingly logical conclusion that not all points are worth the same; consequently we have the birth of the big point theory.  However, as logical as this sounds, there are a couple of problems with the emphasis on the big point.

If one is going to play one’s best on a big point, the implication is that on other points one is doing less than their best.  Are we willing to accept that we play some points short of our best?  Are we comfortable telling juniors not to play every point as hard as they can?  How can players raise their game on the big point?  They cannot play better than their best, so if they play their best on the those points, then how are they playing the rest of the time?

Brad Gilbert defines a big point as any point that can win a game or any point that if won would lead to a game winning point.  This logic is untenable.  Imagine a four-rung ladder, from which an apple can be plucked from a tree.  The object is to pluck the apple.  From the fourth rung one can reach the apple, but unless one climbs the third rung they will not reach the fourth rung; similarly the third rung cannot be reached until one has already arrived at the second and so forth.  This metaphor illustrates that climbing each rung is equally important, because one leads to the next.  At the very least, we would have to call each point big.  Actually they are equally important or equally insignificant, with the emphasis on equal.

Another question, which arises, is how can there be twenty or thirty big points per match?  Commentators on television call at least one or two points of each game big.  By definition winning a big point should give you a huge opportunity to win the match and yet an individual can win many ‘big ‘points and still lose the match.

A point should be played on the basis of tangible factors.  The height, speed and spin of the ball, where on the court the ball bounces, as well as one’s ability to hit certain shots and the opponent’s susceptibilities to, or disdain for, certain shots are all factors that determine shot selection.

It seems absurd that numerous reputable coaches should advise students to play points based on something as abstract as the score and yet this theory is so accepted that it is considered blasphemy to question it.  Even if we are to buy into the fallacy of the big point theory, the problem arises how to play those points.

One theory suggests that on such points one should surprise one’s partner on the other side by doing something different.  How sensible is it to do something unusual, such as serving and volleying if you are a baseliner?  If it is a surprise to your opponent, it is going to be something that you have not tried too often during the match.  If you have not tried this particular tactic, it is probably because it is not something you consider your strength.  If you were not completely comfortable with this tactic, why would you want to try it on what you consider an important point?  Conversely, if you can be successful with this tactic, then it should be sprinkled throughout your match in an unpredictable manner.  Remember that an opponent can only be surprised once.  Or how about going for a big serve?  Does that mean going for a serve that is bigger than you normally hit?  Unlikely, because players are trying to hit a first serve as hard as they comfortably can and to hit harder could distort the technique or rhythm and render the chances of success too low.

Another theory suggests that one should play within oneself on such points and avoid giving away easy points; however, giving up opportunities to attack allows the opponent to gain the initiative.  Other theories abound, but all are similarly unconvincing.

Even if players themselves buy into the big point theory and are successful, my contention is that they are able to put that thought out of their mind when the point begins.  Invariably, those who are aware of the importance of a point while the point is in progress will struggle to reach peak performance and be mentally weak in competition.  At the very best, the big point theory reminds a player to be present focused, which he or she should be for every point, but once a point begins the player cannot afford the luxury of being aware of anything but the ball and the periphery information directly relevant to playing out the point.

For me, someone who plays the ‘big’ points well is someone who plays the point as well as they can, but not better than they play other points.  In other words, the least affected you are by the magnitude of the up-coming point, the more likely you will play the point to your potential.  If you are able to do that, I guarantee you will be considered a big point player.

So, the irony is that big point player reputations are made by players who refuse to recognize the big point and therefore play a normal, solid point or by their opponents who do recognize the big point theory and become nervous and play below their potential.

Facilitators are more and more looking into statistics to evaluate their players, but while statistics make good television copy, they are very limiting for evaluating players.  Each point is different and you can win a point in a variety of ways and yet regardless of how an individual point is won, it just shows up in the win column.

It is unhealthy for youngsters to buy into this theory because to do what is necessary to win will not necessarily help them to develop as tennis players.

If I play tentatively on match point and my opponent finally makes an error and I win the match, what have I won?  How have I become a better player?  What will happen when I play a stronger opponent and he does not make an error, but instead takes my tentatively hit ball and whacks it for a winner?  The point is if you get an attackable ball; attack, regardless if it is 15-15 or 15-40.  The physical situation you find yourself in should determine your response, not the score.

The more you tie into the big point theory, the less chance you will have of being a mentally tough competitor.  Instead, play each point with the same psychological mindset, in a state of relaxed intensity (intensity comes from a total commitment, 100 % effort, and the relaxation comes from detachment from the result), and in present focus, waiting to pounce on the first opportunity your opponent presents you.

To play in present focus is to be open to the limitless opportunities each moment of play presents.  Connors was an excellent example of this.  He prided himself on playing his best every point, every match and every tournament, regardless of the situation.  Unfortunately, this attitude is not typical of all players and that is why they are not as mentally tough as Connors was.

When the Archer shoots for nothing

He has all his skill,

When he shoots for a brass buckle,

he’s already nervous.

When he shoots for a prize of gold,

he goes blind, sees two targets,

he’s out of his mind.

His skill has not changed, but the prize

divides him, he cares.

He thinks more of winning than of shooting

and the need to win drains him of power.

Chuang Tzu

The Panacea For All ills: Watching The Bal

“Watch the ball” is a phrase commonly mouthed by teaching professionals during most tennis lessons and dutifully repeated by players the world over as they play in recreational or tournament matches.  This can be as easily witnessed at such hallowed venues as Roland Garros and Wimbledon as well as at your local country club or public park facility.

Why is this?  How can players not be watching the ball?  How often does the ball rocket towards your forehand and you move to hit a backhand?  Surely this would be a common occurrence if we were really not watching the ball.  So what do players who admonish themselves such and teaching professionals mean when they say, “watch the ball”.

Obviously, the physical eyes are focused on the ball and yet somehow this does not appear to be sufficient to “see” the ball.  How is this possible?  This phenomenon becomes easier to digest when we understand that the biggest obstacle to seeing the ball clearly is our mind.  In order for us to truly understand and explore this statement, we need to briefly look into the nature of the conscious mind: its function and the manner of its operation.

The conscious mind functions in the past when it recalls that which has already occurred or in the future in the form of hopes, dreams, goals and ambitions.  Both time frames are not real, in that the past has already occurred and is over, while the future is simply a wish, a projection of what we think we want and need.

Consequently, if we are in this present moment, the conscious mind cannot be functioning and if the conscious mind is functioning, then we are not in the present moment.  Meanwhile, the ball is moving towards us or away from us in this present moment.  Therein lies the dilemma.  If the conscious mind is in any way active, if we are thinking about how or where to hit the ball, then it will be impossible to ‘see’ the ball clearly.

As the ball leaves the opponent’s racket and travels through the air we need to be present to that movement until we make contact with the ball.   Often, what happens is that the mind is silent and therefore we are able to watch the ball hit by our opponent (no anxiety is present during our opponents’ hit, only pure watching), but as the ball begins to make its way towards us tension often arises.  The source of this tension is invariably related to some desire we have connected to the outcome or result of our impending shot or to some fear or doubt related to our ability to hit this shot because of our past experiences.  Regardless, any thought will take us out of the present moment.  Simply stated the ball’s movement is in the present and for us to successfully play the ball we need to also be present.  Any activity of the conscious mind draws us out of the present and thus will create an obstacle to peak performance.

So peak performance occurs when one is in the present moment.  However, to be in the present moment is not a state of being that is easily attainable for most of us, which seems incredulous because the future has not yet arrived and the past is history; it would seem that there is no alternative to being in the here and now.

Being present is a state of being we cannot actively pursue or engage, but something that happens to us when we realize that this present moment is all there is and any value lies not in some goal out there, but right here right now.  Once this realization happens, then all our goals, desires, dreams, hopes ambitions and plans simply fall away and we are present.

To be contented and completely satisfied right now is a state of being, which most of us are uncomfortable with.  Many athletes and coaches feel that to hate to lose is a prerequisite for a winning attitude.  In addition, it is felt that growth can only happen when there is dissatisfaction because dissatisfaction provides motivation for improvement.  However, these types of ideas are simply false.  The pursuit of excellence need not be born from pain; it can also be stirred by passion and pure love, ‘art for art’s sake’.  A burning desire to win can motivate some players to great heights, but this type of motivation is a double-edged sword.   It can also fester doubt and fear and most athletes, including tennis players, suffer from these diseases.  It is almost impossible to play from a centeredness and ‘relaxed intensity’ when our motivations are fear-based.

Silence will fall onto a mind that has realized that “all that glitters is not gold”.  The attraction to things that build or enhance our ego will only fall away when we can see the ego for what it is, a mere shadow, but not the real thing.  Until that happens, the mind will remain active in order to devise ways to achieve and become in the misguided belief that these things have value.

This experience of silence has long been associated with peak performance in sports.  In studies of professional athletes who have experienced “the zone”, that state of being where peak performance happens, mention is continuously made of an effortlessness, of an almost unconsciousness, which ironically arises through an increased awareness.  Many athletes have spoken of how the ball slows down and appears to move in slow motion.  This happens at times when we are really “watching” the ball, with a completely silent mind.  When that happens we are in the zone.  It is not that the ball slows down, but that the activity of the mind, which blurs our ability to ‘see’, appears to speed up the ball.  In reality, the ball neither speeds up, nor slows down.  The ball is a constant, the variable is the player and more specifically the player’s mind, which creates both illusions.

Most unforced errors in tennis are, in my experience, mental errors, especially among advanced players.  When the mind is active we cannot be in the present, when we are not in the present it is extremely difficult to make clean contact with the ball.  Those players who think before points and after points, must, during points become silent.  It is in silence that we play our best tennis because it is only in silence that we can truly ‘see’ the ball and how can we play our best if we cannot ‘see’ the ball.

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