An almost universal problem that competitive players experience is the tension and fear that arises during competition, making peak athletic performance exceedingly difficult. More and more the sporting fraternity is recognizing the value of the mental side of sports and psychologists are being sought out for help by many advanced players, especially professionals. Is it possible to teach players the ideal competitive state? A state of mind, in which, players are so totally absorbed in the playing that they are completely unaware of everything except the ball. This is a difficult question to answer; some argue yes people can change, while others observe that change is exceedingly difficult despite monumental efforts.
I do not wish to address this particular issue at this juncture, but few will disagree with me that it makes little sense to nurture mental weakness at an early stage of development and then try and correct it later when it becomes too obvious to ignore. I believe we are doing this. At the early stages of development coaches and parents are obviously very concerned with laying a solid technical foundation to their ward’s game. And too soon after this comes the emphasis on strategy, which is the forerunner to the emphasis on winning and competing. These things maybe necessary and I am not arguing that they should be ignored. What I am saying, however, is that I think we are making a mistake in not being sufficiently concerned about how this foundation is laid and how the game is taught at this early stage.
Later when players become advanced, it becomes obvious that the real obstacle to progress is not technique, strategy or even fitness (although this is, too often, a neglected area as well), but actually mental. When we address the mental side at this stage, in many cases it is too late, and even if it is not, facilitating change becomes a major struggle. How much easier and better would it be to avoid the false perspective on competition and winning, which I believe is at the very root of mental weakness, right from the beginning, as opposed to teaching something which is false and then helping players to unlearn it later when they hit a wall after having mastered the technical aspects of the game.
Traditional methods of teaching and understanding of the competitive experience reinforce a perspective that lays the foundation for this fragility. Methods which focus on results and winning and feeling good about oneself because one is ‘better’ than the other. We need to nurture an intrinsic love for the game, a love of hitting the ball, moving gracefully and being able to do wondrous things on the court with a beauty, grace and effortlessness that just plain ‘feels’ good.
In my opinion, one of the major problems in developing a healthy competitive attitude is the early introduction of competition for beginning and intermediate players. Muscles need to be developed and strengthened before we tax them and similarly players need to develop sound fundamentals before they are introduced to the ‘rigors’ of competition.
Consequently, beginners should spend time developing solid fundamentals in stroke production before coming anywhere near competition. They need to develop a swing they can trust and feel comfortable with, without regard to where the ball is going. An over emphasis on the outcome of a swing restricts the free flowing movement that comes from the care freeness that is so necessary for good technique. Too often, average club players become overly concerned with results too soon, consequently their strokes become awkward and choppy. Competition takes us outward, while developing fundamentals keeps us longer with ourselves and is all about learning smooth, graceful and therefore technically sound movements.
There exist today too many beginners and intermediates who did not take the time to follow the progression I am suggesting and the brush with competition too early has left them with awkward strokes that will limit their ability to improve while also leaving them more susceptible to many injuries resulting from faulty mechanics. Most of these players will be unwilling to start the learning process from scratch, so there is little we can do about that now, but we can ensure that this trend does not continue and instrumental to that end, in my opinion, is to follow the progression outlined here.
Beginners need to develop fluid and graceful strokes and the only way that can happen is if they are freed from the burden of getting every ball into the court. Freedom from focusing too much on the outcome of their swing will allow them to develop the feel necessary to develop solid and free-flowing swings.
Once these smooth, free-flowing swings have become grooved, these players move into the ranks of advanced beginners or intermediates and it is at this point that an awareness of the other side of the court and the net need to be introduced, not before! At this next stage, intermediates need to hit thousands of balls in a fun and non-threatening environment (and yes, competition is threatening for most individuals), before actually competing in matches that ‘count’. I encourage intermediates (ideally, an intermediate, by definition has solid strokes, if not, then he or she should be classified as a beginner as far as a particular stroke is concerned and follow the procedure for beginners) to engage in ‘cooperation’ drills for a significant period of time before sanctioning competition for them. These drills include various games involving hitting forehands and backhands at first and later serves, volleys and overheads that focus only on consistency and cooperation with their ‘partner’ on the other side of the net.
For example, intermediates and advanced beginners need to spend hours engaging in cooperation drills, hitting the ball back to their partners high over the net and down the center of the court. In addition to grooving the stroke, players will be learning to play more silently because their mind is not engaged in various thoughts all designed to win the point. In cooperative drills the mind has little activity to be engaged in and this will make players, not only more sensitive to the feel of the ball on their strings, but also more comfortable with silence and this ability to remain silent will transform both their tennis game and their Life beyond recognition.
Only when some mastery of this has been gained should the concept of trying to win a point by hitting away from the partner be introduced. Similarly, a certain proficiency of serving with a smooth and graceful swing needs to be attained before allowing players to serve under the ‘pressures’ of match-play.
These cooperative drills are not only fun, but also an essential part of the learning process. Usually advanced beginners can only play with professional coaches because they lack the control to play amongst themselves, but by emphasizing these control-type drills players will be able to go out and play with their peers without incurring cost. This is important because presently tennis is an expensive sport to learn how to play and becoming a ‘good’ tennis player too costly a proposition and beyond the reach of too many people.
In this way, hitting the ball takes on an intrinsic value, which can be transformed into an art form and it is that change of perspective of tennis as an art form instead of a war that is one of the keys to being mentally stable during competition.
What is the connection between mentally tough players and learning to play in this way? In my understanding the root of all mental vulnerability in sports is an over emphasis on results, which in turn inevitably results in an active mind (full of thoughts). If players can learn to develop a purer love of the game through an emphasis on the process and joy of simply hitting the ball, they will be able to diffuse the ‘illusion’ of ‘stress’ in competition that presently tortures so many people.