Training The Competitive Mind-set
Most experts agree that the mental aspect is a huge part of competitive tennis and this becomes clearer the better a tennis player becomes. Consequently, most tennis teachers do not address this part of the game until tournament play becomes a reality.
However, my work and studies of competitive juniors and pros suggests that the root of their mental frailty appears early in their athletic life and would be more effectively dealt with if addressed earlier.
It is easy to see that players have physical skills to differing degrees. Speed can be measured as can eye-hand coordination and other physical skills such as height, flexibility and the ability to generate power. These physical attributes are relatively easy to recognize. However, what is not so easy to identify, but which exist nonetheless are the mental skills that play a huge role in determining how ‘successful’ a player will ultimately be. Certainly, we can recognize those players who are extremely mentally fragile, while there are others who seem to be able to muster up their best tennis at critical times and we call those players mentally tough.
To examine this question further we will have to come to some consensus as to what is the perfect mental state during competition. Most studies on the elusive and enigmatic ‘zone’ state in every sport seem to suggest that the perfect mental state is one where the conscious mind (that inner voice that is constantly judging and directing us) is completely silent. It is a state where one is energized, but also relaxed and calm. The problem is that this voice is our ego and to put that aside and play is the most difficult thing to do because the vast majority of players are motivated to play by the ego. If you would like to test your motivation for playing, try this simple test. Ask yourself (and one needs to be brutally honest), why are you playing?
In reality, there are only two categories of answers. The first, and if we are really honest this is the category that most of us fall into, we play for something we can gain from the playing. It doesn’t really matter what that ‘thing’ is, but if the value is extrinsic then we fall into this first category. Those in the second category are not playing for any extrinsic reward, but derive their reward simply from the playing itself. Many people may feel they are in the second category when actually there are in the first. If you are on the borderline, observe yourself when you win and then when you lose (exclude extenuating circumstances like losing to a player who ranks well above you and no one expected you to beat or beating a player everyone expected you to beat). Sometimes the focus is not on the winning and losing, but on how well one played and in that case the criterion rests on how you feel when you played well as opposed to when you played poorly. If those two states of being are exactly the same, then you have arrived! Very few will fall in that category, however the closer those two states of being are, the more mentally tough you are.
That having been said, there may be players who clearly fall into the first category and yet are considered mentally tough. These will be the players who have been blessed ‘naturally’ with mental skills that most mere mortals lack. These players want to win as much as anyone else and they want to win for all the ‘wrong’ reasons and yet come game time, they are able to put everything aside and quiet that inner voice and just play. For most players this will be very difficult, the desire to win motivated by ego is what feeds that inner voice and when fear and doubt come in that voice becomes louder and louder and peak performance becomes almost impossible. By the way, fear and doubt are never invited in, but come in through the back door while the desire to win and confidence come through the front door. The truth is that all desire is connected to fear, similarly, confidence and doubt are not two separate things. Trying to project confidence will inevitably lead to doubt, has to! Just look into your life and see.
The most successful players are those who have been gifted an abundance of the physical and mental skills by nature and are willing to work extremely hard.
However, the purpose of this article is to address those who do not have these natural mental qualities, but wish to acquire them. The answer is simple, they need to fall in love with the game again. Perhaps they were in love with simply hitting the ball at one time, but that is no longer the case now, cannot be, if an active mind is now keeping them from playing their best. It will be necessary to drop all expectations, aspirations and goals and play for no other reason then for joy. Is this an easy task? Absolutely not, but it is the only way. Everything else will be a struggle, which may yield results from time to time, but never for any length of time and the silence will disappear when you most need it.
It always amused me when the media and coaches berated Sampras for not playing with more emotion. The fact is that using emotion is a double-edged sword and will inevitably lead to ups and downs. Actually, Sampras was displaying classic signs of a mentally tough competitor, but very few observers were able to recognize this and he himself was given no paradigm, which affirmed that which he was ‘naturally’ feeling. It is a great tribute to him that in the face of all this criticism, he put more stock in himself then all the ‘experts’ out there most of the time (I think in the latter part of his career, this changed slightly, much to the delight of the media and ‘fans’).
Players themselves must continue to stay focused on having fun on the court and appreciating the joys of hitting, moving and competing and it is essential that parents and coaches help them with this when the players get wrapped up in the rankings and too focused on the winning and losing. The better a player becomes, whether he or she is a junior climbing the sectional or national rankings or a professional aspiring to be the best in the world, the more this applies. To take oneself and one’s goals too seriously is to create obstacles that will prevent players being the best they can possibly be. When one plays for ‘fun’ (please try and understand how I am using the word. I am not meaning hit and giggle), for intrinsic value, one can become totally absorbed in the activity itself and that is called being present and that can only happen when that inner voice we talked about earlier is completely silent. When this happens, peak performance is bound to follow!
This is part one of a three part series exploring the value and significance of sports science in learning and teaching tennis. Sports science is a modern phenomenon, which has been instrumental in dispelling long-held myths and in validating the modern approach to hitting tennis balls. In this first section we exam the science behind sports and the feasibility of the ‘perfect’ swing.
Sports Science is increasingly becoming a major force in the sporting arena and tennis is no exception. While it is usually true that knowledge is power, the old adage, ‘paralysis by analysis’ is a constant reminder for coaches and players to temper the use of all this new information with effective methodologies for assimilation in the learning process.
Tennis professionals are being encouraged more and more to embrace the latest scientific knowledge or risk being labeled ‘unprofessional’ or old school. Certainly, there are teaching professionals who are old school, which means they are holding onto the ‘science’ of yesterday and these individuals need to drop their defensiveness and realize that their teaching myths have been exposed by superior technology.
However, as important as it is to keep abreast of the latest scientific findings and as exalted a position that science generally holds in modern day society, it would, perhaps, be wise to remain open and explore an alternative option. An option that, dare I say it, goes beyond science.
As intelligent as the best scientific minds are, I am suggesting that they are not quite as all knowing as the innate wisdom within our own body/mind/spirit organism.
Can we let go of all we know or don’t know and trust this innate wisdom? Simply, because this wisdom is not logical in the common understanding of that word, does not make it any less true. Is it possible to be fully aware of the latest sports science research and yet not avail of it, without being accused of being ignorant, out of touch or old fashioned?
Have we simply gone from one extreme (knowing very little) to the other (knowing too much, or at least, more than we need), without finding the middle path? What is a sincere, hard-working, well-intentioned tennis teaching professional or player to do? How much should we trust sports science? How much of learning and excelling at tennis is ‘nature’ and how much ‘nurture’?
In 1974, Timothy Gallwey set the teaching industry on fire with his book, The Inner Game of Tennis. Tim seemed to be arguing vehemently for the ‘nature’ side of the argument. Tim’s theories steadily lost favor with the mainstream teaching industry that is if they were ever really embraced. The present emphasis on sports science is born from a desire to get some kind of edge in the very competitive sporting environment that we live in. There are huge rewards at stake for both players and coaches. Is there an edge to be had and does sports science hold the key? These and other questions are worthy of a closer examination.
How does sports science work? Great forehands, backhands and serves have been around for a long time; they were not invented by sports science. Solid technique existed even before a more scientific approach to tennis allowed us to analyze and understand a little better how players were hitting the ball. In other words, apples fell downward from the branches of a tree before Newton proclaimed his theory of gravity. However, supporters of the ‘nurture’ camp argue that before sports science arrived on the scene, players and coaches were simply shooting in the dark and misinformation ran rampant, with only the very talented rising to the top of the sport. Now, it is argued, with the need to touch a much broader base of individuals playing the game, this information is crucial to expediting the learning process, not only for beginners and intermediates, but also for professionals. They also argue that in days gone by, the sport was not as competitive as it presently is and that now aspiring professionals or top juniors ignore the latest sports science research at their own risk.
So what can sports science teach us? There are two major considerations: the first is the issue of finding the ‘right’ way to hit a ball to maximize the desired combination of power, direction, spin, consistency and finesse through the study of biomechanics, if there is such a thing; and the second is to identify the relationship between this information and the learning process.
Is there such a thing as the ‘perfect’ swing? What does the perfect forehand look like? Is it open or closed? How big should the loop be? What about the follow-through where should that finish? Can we create the perfect bionic tennis player in a lab? These are difficult questions to answer; not because physics is not clear on the laws that govern power and spin. Not even because there is any dearth of information on the human anatomy and how the muscles and joints function, but because we are dealing with players who are individuals, situations which are unique and intentions that vary. These individuals have great similarities in their physiology and psychology, but also, distinct variables that make each individual wonderfully distinctive. In addition, an individual player may find him or her self in a variety of different situations, which may require varied responses. And finally, players have different intentions in different situations and at different times. Consequently, style of play and perhaps even choice of stroke mechanics arise in a diverse manner. Should every one hit the ball in the same way? Is there just one ‘right’ way to hit a ball? If not, on what basis do players choose how they will hit the ball? Do they actually choose, or do things happen at random or by some ‘divine’ guidance? Are these choices important? Does it really matter what grip a player hits with in the big picture? Is an effective stroke only possible with one type of grip? It should be obvious to the even the most conservative sports scientist that successful tennis players come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and hit balls in a variety of ways. Can a player be hugely successful and effective and still be ‘wrong’? What criteria are we going to use for ‘correct’ technique and will they come from the laboratory or the tennis court?
Unquestionably, laws of physics exist in the universe that seem impossible to violate without consequence, but in hitting a tennis ball, there are also unique individuals and situations involved in the equation and these are not so constant or easy to understand. If sports science is to play an important role in the development of tennis players, then there are numerous variables to be considered and these variables exist on physical, psychological, spiritual and situational levels. Is sports science able to consider all these factors? And if we can only garner partial information, can we temper our understanding with the possibility that we could be wrong or that other options exist at this particular moment in time, with this particular player in this particular situation? Knowing that we can be wrong is an important aspect of being a good coach or player because it leaves one open to at least the possibility of learning and growing more.
Mystics have been telling us for years that Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved, while scientists believe that everything is explainable and understandable and are committed to de-mystifying the mystery. Can these two schools of thought co-exist? Can we learn all we can and use this (constantly changing) information wisely; and in a manner that does not limit our possibilities? Can we know as much as we know and yet still know that we do not know it all?
Certainly, through the study of biomechanics we know many things such as that power equals mass multiplied by acceleration. This tells us that racket head speed is an essential component of power. In addition, we know that the body is like a kinetic chain and that efficient and total use of this kinetic chain can help us maximize racket head speed. In addition, we know many things about how spin is generated and how we can best use this spin in different situations for different purposes. There are numerous other such factors that are relevant to understanding the biomechanics involved, however, given the broad parameters outlined by this study there seems to be ample room for individuality to flourish. Certainly, general laws governing the physics of hitting a ball cannot be violated without detrimental consequence, but within such boundaries there seem to be numerous preferences or stylistic nuances that all seem to work.
Amazingly, individuals, especially talented athletes, seem to find efficient ways to hit the ball without studying biomechanics through being relaxed, but more on this later.
Another question to be considered is how important is technique in realizing one’s full potential as a tennis player? There are world-class players who have hit the ball in a variety of ways in the past 50 years; there have even been champions with major weaknesses in their games (Connors’ low forehand, Borg’s volleys, Sampras’ backhand, Graf’s topspin backhand, to name just a few!) It has clearly been illustrated that strokes that are less than picture-book perfect can still be effective enough to succeed in the overall picture of winning at the highest level. Consequently, how important is ‘ideal’ technique in the greater scheme of creating a tennis champion or even just a better tennis player? What are the other qualities that will ultimately determine how good a player can become and where does ‘perfect’ technique fit in overall importance in the greater scheme of things?
Additionally, it is interesting to consider if these players would have been as successful as they were without their weaknesses. Did their weaknesses force them to develop other aspects of their game to compensate? And was their success due to their superb strengths or their lack of weaknesses? Has any player been able to do it all? Even Federer, perhaps the most complete and well-rounded player of all time hardly ever serves and volleys and rarely comes into the net during a point. Would he be a better player if he could? Undoubtedly he would, but is it possible to be good at everything? The truth is that in the past most champions have had a distinct style of game and exceptional weapons upon which they have relied on heavily for their success. Perhaps, the better players in the future will be able to do it all and be equally proficient at every aspect of the game; certainly Federer is an example of a huge step in that direction.
Let us assume, for argument’s sake, that ideal technique does exist and is an essential part of success, the question then arises how do we achieve this ideal technique? The irony is that the more we give up the concept of ‘perfect’ technique and just relax and play, the more likely we will be to have players play with free swinging strokes that are biomechanically sound. And the more we try and teach specific movements through activating the mind, the more tension will be created in the body, which in turn will lead to poor technique. It may not sound very logical, but that’s the way it seems to be. So, how can we best use the information provided to us by sports science? Presently, sports scientists are studying the top players in the world and analyzing what they are doing and then offering this information for coaches and players to learn from. However, most of the players that are being analyzed came to what they are doing instinctively and very often were not ‘taught’ these very same things that they are now being used as models to teach. Sports science can bring us to the ballpark; it can provide some broad parameters within which each individual can develop their own feel through an open and playful exploration. But as far as an exact blueprint of where each leg or arm should be positioned at each juncture of the swing, it fails miserably as a teaching methodology.
Ironically, one of the most effective teaching aids, along with developing one’s own feel for the ball on the racket, are visual images: the ability to see players moving smoothly and gracefully and hitting the ball efficiently. Intellectual analysis through the mind does not seem to help players perform better, what seems to work best is simple observation, which creates intention, followed by the opportunity to go out and practice by hitting lots and lots of balls.
There is a huge difference in learning that takes place through the conscious mind and learning that takes place instinctively. When the conscious mind is involved in learning, the process is more labored, more mechanical. Also, the fact that it has come through the mind, the student feels that something has to be remembered and this desire to remember activates the mind and impedes free-flowing movement and relaxed swings at those very times when we need them most.
Conversely, when learning happens more instinctively, the movements are invariably graceful and fluid and the student has no sense of the need to remember anything at all because mind is not involved and memory is a function of the mind. He or she simply plays in a let-go.
Is it possible to help players find ‘correct’ technique without an abundance of technical information? I think it is! Good technique is generally a function of being relaxed. The human body when relaxed moves in a certain way. Joints and muscles are remarkably similar in their functioning amongst most players. Certainly there are differences pertaining to strength, speed, flexibility, agility, stamina, eye-hand coordination, etc., but in general physiology, the similarity of joints and muscles and their functioning is remarkable. When an individual is relaxed, he or she will move gracefully and strike the ball efficiently. ‘Bad’ technique is almost always a function of tension; this is clearly illustrated with beginners and many club players. And once muscle memory has set in, as any experienced teaching professional knows, change is extremely difficult to facilitate, especially if tension persists.
Here are two examples of situational variables that may have played a factor in determining recent trends. Years ago most tennis (three of the four Grand Slams) was played on grass where the ball bounced very low; is it a coincidence that the vast majority of players at that time played with a continental forehand grip, a grip ideally suited for succeeding on that surface? It is not that all players were taught this grip, but the vast majority of players picked it up anyway. Later, synthetic hard courts came on the scene and more and more players instinctively began dealing with the higher bouncing balls with semi-western and western forehand grips. Grips, perhaps not coincidentally, ideally suited for hitting high balls.
Or perhaps the extreme grip change phenomena was initiated by players starting to play at a younger age when they were physically shorter and the grip change was the only option that allowed them to hit balls that bounced around their shoulders. Regardless, I am not aware of any conscious movement by the teaching industry to initiate this mass grip change movement (actually the opposite is true, many coaches opposed the extreme grips and struggled to understand the change that was happening right in front of their eyes) and yet it happened. This appears to be an example of a major trend, especially in tennis, of science following, not leading the ‘natural’ intelligence of the body.
It seems that science very rarely initiates change as a leader or pioneer, at least as far as tennis is concerned; instead, it simply observes the changes that have already been made and at the most brings some kind of explanation for this change to the masses. For example, open stance forehands have been around for a long time, although sports science and the teaching industry have only recently (7 or 8 years) begun talking about them. Even now their acceptance is less than total as older, traditionalist (old school), teaching professionals only begrudgingly concede that sometimes they can be used, but that turning to the side and stepping in are still the preferred method of execution when sufficient time is available. This despite the fact that almost all professionals hit open almost all the time and even when they do turn sideways, they almost always are open when the swing is finished, since there seems to be little doubt that hip rotation is essential for maximum power. The only exception seems to be the short balls, when players seem to reach in to hit, which, not coincidentally, are shots not hit with maximum power.
For me, the interesting thing is not that players are hitting open and had been for years before the mainstream teaching industry recognized this, but how these players learned how to hit open in an era when no one was teaching it? Not only was no one teaching it, but coaches were teaching something diametrically opposite. So how was it that players ‘instinctively’ found the most effective way to hit a ball? The truth is that players with continental forehand grips in the 1940s and 50s were hitting open. I suspect this was happening earlier also, although my personal library does not allow me to verify that.
Advocates of sports science may argue that this is a perfect case in point where if sports science had been more advanced earlier, this fallacy of turning to the side and stepping in would never have lasted so long. However, for me, what is interesting is that the wisdom within the human body was instinctively able to find the most efficient way to increase racket head speed and hit harder, without guidance from outside sources. The body found the most efficient way to hit the ball, all it needed was the intention; in this case, the intention was to hit harder or with more spin. Turning to the side and stepping in is fine if you want to simply keep balls in play and hit basically flat, which is primarily all you can do with a continental forehand grip, but if you want to move most efficiently and hit with topspin or maximum power, which requires greater racket head acceleration then you will have to hit more open. Great athletes discovered this all by themselves; no sports scientist had to tell them.
The serve is another concrete example of this pattern of science following the instinctive and innate wisdom of the human body. Before Vic Braden and Howard Brody armed with their high-tech cameras and slow-motion features discovered that the wrist actually pronated on the serve, every player I asked, from professional to beginner, had no idea what path the racket took on a serve. No one can be blamed for this; it is almost impossible for the human eye (the earlier tool of choice for science) to see pronation; almost all coaches and players believed that the arm simply came across the body. Again sports scientists would argue that is it not wonderful that now we have the technology and understanding to know exactly what the arm and wrist do during a serve so that we can teach it to others? Yes, it is obviously good to have this information, but yet again, what is more interesting is that almost every advanced player ‘instinctively’ pronated while serving in an effort to maximize spin and power; this despite the fact that they were not only not taught how to do this, but had no idea that they were doing it! The body instinctively knew what to do, before the mind even realized what it was doing. The intriguing consideration is: will players find it easier or harder to serve efficiently and effectively knowing what pronation is?
Another obvious example of the incredibly innate intelligence of the human body revolves around the teaching cue, ‘take your racket back quickly’. For years this was the cornerstone of accepted teaching ‘wisdom’. Regardless, no ‘advanced’ players seem to do this (with some notable exceptions who undoubtedly pay a heavy price in terms of a lack of consistency). Amazingly, this cue is still heard today on courts around the world! How did this happen! How did players ‘know’ that to take the racket back slowly is more effective than to run to the ball with the racket back? Obviously, this knowing was not at the level of the logical mind because it makes sense to think that the quicker you take the racket back the more time you will have to hit the ball, but unfortunately Life is not logical! The point is that despite constant wrong instruction, the human body instinctively found the ‘right’ way to hit the ball. This is especially true of talented athletes who have a greater tendency to let-go and trust their own bodies than their non-athletic counter-parts, who will diligently follow instructions. The irony is that if you tell players nothing about how to get the racket back they will automatically and instinctively take it back slowly, but the incorrect cue of taking it back early has made this a more difficult sport to learn how to play.
I am not advocating an abolition of the entire sports science wing of the tennis fraternity; on the contrary, much of the information is important and helpful in ways that are not always easy to discern. This is especially true in reference to fitness and the workings of the human body under physical stress, conditions that take the body outside of its ‘natural’ comfort zone. Although even in this field, opinions differ amongst various ‘experts’ and ‘scientific facts’ are constantly getting updated and in some cases what was once thought advisable is now considered harmful. One example is the confusion around stretching methods and the role of dynamic as opposed to static stretching. However, truth be told, sports science has been very helpful in determining the cause of elbow, lower back and rotator cuff injuries that many players suffer from and has been instrumental in helping tennis players become stronger, fitter and more able to withstand the immense strain competition imposes on the human body.
Sports science can and does provide us useful information about the biomechanics of stroke production, but how we use this information to embellish the learning process is key. It is almost as if we, (as coaches) need to know all that sports science provides us, but then not allow this knowing to interfere with our facilitation of the learning process; if what we ‘know’ is correct then the human body will find it naturally all by itself. All coaches need to do is facilitate this natural process with a few gentle prods here and there. Just telling players all that we know does not seem to be the most successful teaching methodology; in fact, often it can create obstacles to the learning process.
Just a few short years ago; the purists (some of the most respected coaches in the world) hated and ridiculed the extreme grips that are the rage today. Those very same coaches are now singing an entirely different tune and the science of yesterday has been abandoned for the science of today, without missing a beat. None of the past experts have been held accountable and neither will the present ones, when something else comes along and another shift occurs.
 The body refers to the entire human organism: the body, mind and spirit; the whole!
 Loading and unloading as opposed to stepping into the ball.
 As a facilitator, where to begin is always dictated by the skills of the tennis lover. Finding where the tennis lover succeeds is always the point of commencement. The facilitator builds from there!
 I often help adults get a feel for hitting serves with a continental grip with a junior racket. A smaller than usual racket makes it much easier to feel the pronation for both adults and juniors.
BIO-MECHANICS FOR DUMMIES: NATURE OR
This is the conclusion of a three part series exploring the value and significance of sports science in learning and teaching tennis. In the first part we explored the ‘science’ of hitting balls, while in the second part we focused on the role of a coach in facilitating a player to reach his full potential.
A great deal of the new science serves to indicate that the old science was simply wrong and highlights the need to make changes. In this function, it is extremely helpful, but what I think would be interesting to see is how players would develop if we told them very little and instead allowed them to develop more naturally. How would players move if they were not taught open or closed? How would a player grip a racket? How would they take the racket back? Where would the follow-through finish? If we took away all ‘knowledge’ as such and stuck with the absolute basics, what would happen? All we would need to do is to create situations and intentions and then allow the body to ‘find’ the correct movements all by itself. Decisions would obviously still be made, but instead of these decisions coming from the conscious mind, they would come from ‘somewhere else’. My experience suggests that this ‘somewhere else’ that is accessed when the conscious mind is silent is of infinitely greater wisdom and that mistakes are impossible when life is lived from that space. Not coincidentally, one’s tennis will be the best it can be when played from this same state of being; this instinctive state of being is called the zone state; and when individuals describe this state as ‘playing out of my mind’, it is exactly that!
Certainly it is not necessary for players to know (with the mind) as much as coaches because this ‘knowing’ will interfere with their ability to feel. And here lies the real crux of the matter, knowledge can be helpful if it is used wisely, but it cannot be a substitute for the ‘knowing’ that comes from feel and a heightened personal awareness. If science is at odds with a player’s feel, personally, I always encourage the player to explore new things openly, but to ultimately trust one’s own feel above ‘scientific proof’ of what ‘should’ be done. My intention is not to eliminate the role of the facilitator; on the contrary, he or she has a crucial role to play in creating and isolating situations and intentions where learning can take place through heightened awareness. However, this role is about 20% of what it takes for a player to reach their potential. A crucial 20%, but 20% all the same!
I have always held that it is better for a player to have no coach rather than poor guidance because having no help forces one to develop feel and an independence that is essential for success in competition, but for individuals whom we may consider ‘experts’ to give us ‘wrong’ information will make it much harder to find the flow. Ideally, it would be best to have a facilitator as opposed to a teacher, someone who can allow the natural learning process to happen through bringing in the ‘right’ intentions and creating the situations that will allow the individual to progress as a tennis player.
Ultimately, I think it is essential to remember that tennis is a game of feel and the ‘knowing’ has to happen at a cellular level, not an intellectual level. Look at the way we learned to walk. Bruno Bettleheim, a reputed child psychologist, said that if we could talk before we learned to walk; learning to walk would be the single most traumatic human experience. There would be books on how to walk, theories on the easiest and quickest way to walk; science would flex its collective muscle at finding the ‘right’ way to walk. And yet, look at how we learn to walk. It is a relatively pain-free exercise that we all go through and surprisingly enough look how similarly and effectively people walk. How did that happen? Without any instruction! Perhaps because, given our physiology, there is only a limited range of variations available, especially since we learn to walk at a time before the conscious mind is developed and therefore there is little fear, apprehension or tension. In other words, we were in a relaxed state when we learned how to walk and that afforded the process, not coincidentally, more than a modicum of grace and effortlessness.
If only learning to play tennis could be just as easy. Perhaps it can, but first we need to re-create a child-like state of fearlessness (as children the state came unconsciously, but as adults it has to come consciously). That can only happen if the mind is silent and relaxation can happen. The biggest obstacles to silence and relaxation are desire and fear. All fear is rooted in the mind; and so the ‘goal’ is to go beyond the mind, so that we can access the greater intelligence of the ‘being’ (for want of a better word).
Presently, most teaching consists of learning in a very haphazard manner. After every error most facilitators feel the need to say something, whether it is relevant or accurate seems to be immaterial. After a short period of time, the tennis lover expects a comment or explanation after each error, or sometimes the tennis lover is the one who demands to know why the ball was missed. This symptomatic type of teaching is a hoax, the tennis lover walks away with a great deal of information and a sense of getting his money’s worth and the facilitator feels he has earned his wage through the transference of all this information. But really, nothing has happened and the tennis lover is basically hitting the ball the same way he was before, he simply knows more. The real litmus test is; has improvement happened? Is the tennis lover’s body now capable of executing the shot that he or she was unable to do before? My experience is that biomechanical behavior simply does not change through verbal instructions unless you are working with excellent athletes who are capable of assimilating that information and transforming it into different actions and then simply letting it go. To have that much control over one’s own body as to change muscle memory immediately over a verbal instruction is rare, although some individuals are at times and in certain situations able to do it. For the vast majority of individuals trained (through years of repetition) behavior is extremely difficult to change and all the talking in the world will simply not have any affect.
We have to find a midpoint between ignoring science and trusting it totally. One of the problems is that the human psyche is always looking for easy solutions or short cuts. Too often, a player goes to a coach hoping he can wave a magic wand and make him a dramatically better player. Players think good biomechanics are this magic wand. That someone is going to tell them something that is going to completely transform their game with a minimum of effort. In the face of adversity, mental weakness will dictate a search for the Holy Grail, the magic wand, the quick and easy solution. There is no magic wand and there is certainly no easy short cut to being a good tennis player. All things being equal, players will improve primarily as a result of how hard they work and how much physical and mental skills they possess.
Obviously, there are many qualities an individual must possess to become a champion and my understanding is that technical perfection is a small component of the overall mixture. And it is given far too great an emphasis for a number of reasons. One major reason is that it is so easy to see; it is the most superficial layer of success. Some of the other qualities needed to excel are much more subtle. Qualities such as athletic ability (not every one has the same potential), physical skills, fitness, rhythm, timing and the mind and its ability to focus, be relaxed, centered and silent through the rigors of competition. It is natural for players and coaches to focus more on the obvious qualities that are relatively easy to change, rather than the more subtle, difficult to change, qualities that they know very little about.
The truth is that, for the most part, players largely develop naturally, with very little help from outside sources, as they always have done; this despite the attempts of coaches to convince others and themselves that they are responsible for all the success. Any successful academy or coach has players with both similarities, but also differences. Many great players develop with mediocre coaches. Often a coach can develop one great player, but not more. Why is that? I am not trying to simplify things by saying it’s a case of either or, but my understanding is that players develop largely because of their own talent and hard work (hitting lots and lots of balls!) and the coach has a limited role to play. A good coach can be a valuable facilitator, but he cannot create something that does not exist, although he can, at best, bring out what is already there! Having said that, there exist numerous players who do not realize their full potential and who could benefit from a competent facilitator.
There is a similar dilemma for tennis teaching professionals to embrace the magic-wand theory. How can we be considered experts in our field and yet admit that there are numerous things that we don’t know? How can we charge large fees while acknowledging that we cannot make players good, all we can do is to facilitate change by creating situations and intentions where players can learn all by themselves to the extent that they can? Make no mistake; this is an important and essential role, just not as big as coaches would like everyone to believe. To be at peace with our own limitations and all that we do NOT know is a sign of great wisdom. However, in mainstream society, not knowing is a sign of ignorance, failure and shortcomings. Small wonder then, that coaches are reluctant to allow things to happen naturally. Often, it is their interference that obstructs the natural learning process and makes progress difficult. The best coaches will find some balance between nature and nurture, while leaning heavily towards the awe-inspiring wisdom of nature!
Individuals are investing a great deal of time and energy in becoming successful athletes and most of them are suffering great emotional pain in terms of anger, frustration and fear. This misery has become so common that most players do not even recognize the pain they are putting themselves through and many consider it a ‘normal’ part of the competitive experience. This torture is self-inflicted and totally unnecessary; in my understanding, it can also become an enormous obstacle to the pursuit of excellence.
Instead, if players could just relax and allow the learning process to take place, to work hard as they possibly can (joyfully), without focusing on the result, they would be able to avoid the struggle that most athletes (it is the same in every profession!) fall prey to. Relaxation comes from being totally absorbed in the process and in understanding that there is no reward beyond the intrinsic joy that comes from being present. Tension and anguish arise when the mind is focused on the result, which arises from desire, which in turn comes from the fallacious belief that external rewards can some how enhance the quality of your Life. They cannot!
Coaches need to realize these very same things if they are to impact the lives of their players. If they have this understanding they can then steer their wards towards that very same direction. This can be done by knowing when to speak, but most importantly knowing when to keep silent and just continue hitting or feeding balls and thereby allow the player’s body to discover the best way to hit the ball, which it will! Yes, sometimes less is indeed more!
Developing a Healthy Attitude to Competition
There are many players, coaches, parents and sports psychologists who understand, to different degrees, the ideal mind-set athletes must develop in order to perform at their optimum level.
However, as in the case of bio-mechanics, the real issue is less ‘what’ and more ‘how’ do we transfer this information to the player, in a manner in which it can be digested so that both behavior and experience are impacted?
I hear many experts extolling the virtues of positive thinking and urging players to just show positive emotions or play with confidence. But how is it possible to be positive when I feel frustrated and angry or to play with confidence when I am full of doubt? Some how this fundamental question is largely left unaddressed; and when it is addressed, simple techniques are offered that may have some short-term benefits, but no long-term solutions.
In all these cases solutions are sought within the mind. Negative thoughts have to be replaced by positive thoughts; but thoughts still remain. The quandary is that as long as mind is active, ‘problems’ will persist. Traditional thinking looks for answers within the mind; wholistic tennis seeks to introduce you to an inner space beyond mind. Everything we know about the zone state seems to indicate that the ideal performance state does not happen to an individual whose conscious mind is active (thoughts).
Mind manipulation, pushing the mind in the direction you desire, may yield some success, but it will certainly not be sustained and perhaps more importantly, it will never lead to enjoying the process in a state of relaxed intensity.
Coaches and parents admonish their students for being angry on the court and then punish them for such behavior. While, I am not saying there is no room for punishment, certainly some types of behavior are so unsavory that they need to be stopped immediately by any means possible. However, punishment belies the fact that being angry is not a choice, just as punishment is not a solution. No one consciously chooses the pain that is anger and while forced consequences may require players to change outward behavior, they do nothing to transform the inner root that gives birth to such behavior.
So how do we nurture the silence and peacefulness (relaxed intensity) that is associated with peak athletic performance? Whenever this question is asked, it is inevitably answered with a list of corrective techniques that, in my opinion, do not help on any long-term level. The player may feel some immediate relief, but the symptoms will continue to return and often with greater force. The truth is that there are no simple solutions and all techniques are stop-gap measures, which do not go to the root of the issue.
So, what is the root? Ironically, the answer to the question lies not in adding something, but in taking things away. It lies, not in developing skills (coping), but in destroying the false beliefs and preconceived notions that are a part of our conditioning.
What is conditioning?
How are false beliefs created? How can we drop the preconceived notions that we have? We seem to ‘know’ certain things and yet in the heat of the moment we seem to ‘forget’ and our actions belie this ‘knowing’. How is it possible to forget? Did we really ‘know’ in the first place?
Intellectual knowledge is different from existential knowing. The former will not change behavior on the long-term, while the latter cannot help but totally transform you. How do we get to this state of existential knowing? Before we answer this question, let us understand the situation as it is, which I think everyone can agree upon.
All these false beliefs have been given to us by others or are the result of our misinterpretations. An accumulation of these false beliefs, all arising from the past, taken collectively are our conditioning.
Conditioning is the tinted glasses through which we look at life. From an early age and often in extremely subtle ways we are ‘taught’ what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ from those who have complete power over us and from whom we will do anything for and whose approval we desperately seek.
A simple, but extremely powerful example is the circumstances under which we praise youngsters. This seems like a pretty innocuous activity; a child succeeds at something we generously offer praise. However, this innocent interaction can and does have far-reaching effects on the child. Youngsters want, need and are often constantly seeking the approval of authority figures in order to validate their own sense of being at a time when their sense of self is weak.
Sometimes praise is consciously used by coaches and parents to reinforce a particular type of behavior. Just as circus trainers may use treats to ‘train’
animals, we use praise to manipulate the child into doing what we want. I am not questioning the intentions of the authority figures doing this, but simply suggesting that although immediate goals may be met in changing outward behavior in this way, deeper inner issues are being created, which will affect the youngsters as their move into adolescence and even beyond into adulthood.
At other times, praise is a ‘natural’ expression of joy and pride the parent or coach feels when their ward excels at something. This feeling is simply their own egos being stroked through the success of ‘their’ students or children.
Praise is sometimes given generously in the mistaken belief that this will make the child feel good about him or her self. This may be true on the short-term, but the long-term ramifications are something diametrically opposite. Success cannot be the source of feeling good about oneself because success will not always happen, but one needs to feel good about oneself at all times under all conditions.
Regardless of the motivation, the effect of praise remains the same. Before the child has found his own center, he wants and needs the approval of his loved ones. Praise is equated with love and it is learned at an early age that love comes with success. In this way, youngsters identify success with being loved and getting approval. Conversely, when failure or not doing well is greeted with a reaction different from the first, this feeling is reinforced.
The truth is that the fear of losing is coming from somewhere much deeper within the human psyche; it is coming from our unconscious mind. We associate winning and losing with our self-worth. The ‘happiness’ and ‘celebration’ of our successes, regardless of how small, by all those around us from an early age became associated in our mind with our fundamental need to be loved and accepted. That is why this fear is not so easy to dismiss, even after identifying the crippling way in it affects our performance.
The best thing coaches and parents can do to avoid this is to give praise only for effort and attitude, since these are the only two things that any of us have any control over anyway. In addition, praise and love can be given generously at any time, except after an achievement so the chances of confusion arising are less.
Praise for success arises from the coach’s or parent’s own value system. This can only change when we understand that youngsters should only engage in these activities for themselves and any intrinsic joy they may derive from them. By interjecting too much praise or interest in how they do (compared to others), their motivation becomes distorted and now the focus becomes more the approval it elicits rather than the activity itself. We all have different abilities in different areas and the value in the outer activities is less about excelling and more about the inner qualities these activities can help nurture.
The child needs to know that love and acceptance from those closest to her is unconditional and certainly not dependent on how well she does in school or in the sports arena. Obviously, this is not the conscious intention of the parent or coach, but it is amazing how many young individuals interpret it in this way.
So conditioning is acting unconsciously. It is repeating past behavior and being unable to see the present situation as unique requiring a unique response. The antidote to conditioned reactions is to be more conscious and to respond to each situation on merit as if seeing it for the first time without bringing in any preconceived ideas or values from the past. It is about taking off the tinted glasses and seeing exactly what is. This is freedom.
Conditioning is a type of mental slavery because unconsciously we are doing things for the wrong reasons. Fulfilling basic physical, emotional and spiritual needs are the very foundation of the human experience. All basic drive and ambition is rooted in fulfilling these needs. On the outer level it seems we design goals for one reason, but unconsciously everything we seek on the outer, all our goals, ambitions and dreams are really an attempt to fulfill inner needs. Unfortunately, the outer accomplishments can never fill the inner void, consequently no amount of achieving or becoming will bring the peace of mind we ultimately seek.
It is said that 90% of the mind is unconscious and only 10% conscious and that is why it is so difficult to change behavior because much of our behavior arises from an area we have ‘no control’ over. If this is true, then do we really have choice? Part of the frustration coaches and parents feel with their youngsters is that they always feel players have a choice to behave the way they do, but is that true? Can an unconscious person be free to choose?
Moving from unconsciousness to consciousness
If our actions are mostly arising from our unconscious mind, what can we do to extricate ourselves from this prison which is not of our making, but yet our responsibility? How can we become more conscious and therefore more in control of our outer situation? We, as tennis players can see the value of being more conscious as we play because that is in fact the zone state from where peak athletic performance happens. However, the irony is that experiencing this emotional state has nothing at all to do with tennis.
What I am saying is that the biggest obstacle to being the best tennis player you can be has nothing at all to do with tennis. It has to do with the mind. It has got to do with being more conscious as you play. The physical movements can and actually have to be become unconscious (automatic: this is what is commonly referred to as muscle memory), but the inner experience has to be conscious. Being conscious means being process-oriented, it means being present, it means being in the here and now and playing each point one at a time in a relaxed frame of mind.