How to be a smart tennis player

How to become a smart tennis player

Coaches and commentators often laud the qualities that make certain players smart and others not so.  However, what does it mean to be a smart tennis player?  Quite often it seems a smart player is someone who is adept at the tactical side of the game; but in what way?   Are smart players born or can they be trained?

Ironically, while the word smart seems to refer to an intellectual capacity rooted in the conscious mind, everything we know about the ‘zone’ state or peak athletic performance is about leaving the conscious mind behind.  It is about playing ‘out of one’s mind’.   In this state, too much knowledge or analysis is detrimental to peak athletic performance.  So how do we reconcile this mixed message that players have been receiving for years?  Is there thinking involved in playing our best tennis or not?


The ability to adapt to constantly changing circumstances is the key to being a smart player.  But what are the skills that allow us to adapt and how do we develop them is the really interesting part?

Let us first begin with trying to identify the skills necessary to be a smart player:

  1. The ability to assess an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses in this particular moment in these particular conditions.
  2. The ability to assess one’s own strengths and weaknesses in this particular moment in these particular conditions.
  3. The ability to develop a successful strategy.
  4. The ability to devise tactics to implement this strategy.
  5. The ability to recognize when to vary both strategy and tactics whenever the situation demands it during the course of a match.
  6. The ability to execute one’s strokes without fear or tension.

It would seem, at first glance, that most of these skills are of an intellectual nature; to be calculated by the conscious mind.  However, if we look a little beneath the surface, we will discover that these skills are not attained by knowledge, but by knowing.  Knowledge is a fixed static phenomenon based on past experience, while knowing is an ongoing dynamic process that can only be surmised in this present moment.

So are the skills required to play one’s best tennis based on static or dynamic information?   Do you hit every ball exactly the same way every time you step onto the court?  Does your opponent?  Obviously not!  You do not feel the same way physically (we know that bio-rhythms vary daily) and certainly you do not feel the same way emotionally every time you step on the court to play a match.  In addition, every ball is not hit from the same spot on the court or at the same height nor is each ball coming towards you with the same spin, direction or power.  Finally, your intention is another variable that fluctuates from ball to ball.

As a result, there is certainly some variety in the performance of every player on any given day.  There is variation of play from match to match as well from point to point.  The stark reality is that we are not robots that can simply be switched on and perform to par every time we step on the court.  Our human dimension ensures that our performance is in a constant state of flux.

In the same manner, the opponent is also a dynamic entity that hits the ball in different ways at different times and so cannot be grasped by the conscious mind.  A big booming forehand may be working at one moment in a match, but may crumble during the next and then come back at yet another point in the match.  Let us also not forget the emotional ebb and flow that players’ invariable go through.  Moments of supreme confidence, generously sprinkled with agonizing periods of doubt and fear or perhaps anger and frustration and the resulting variation in performance.  All these variables have to be observed and dealt with on a moment-to-moment basis.

Consequently, since performances on both sides of the court are constantly changing, strategy and tactics have also to be constantly changing.  In such a situation, once again the knowledge of the conscious mind (past) is of little help.  One must be aware of the present situation in order to continually be making the necessary adjustments, but the conscious mind is incapable of just watching.  It can interpret and judge what it thinks it sees, but this commentary has nothing to do with reality and it interferes with the ability to actually ‘see’.

Consequently, it is clear that the first 5 skills on our list, at least, cannot be assessed by the conscious mind because of their constantly changing nature.  So if it is not the conscious mind that helps us work this out, what can?


The tool of the conscious mind is thought and it works in the past or future, but is simply unavailable in the present.  And for a player to be smart, he or she must be present because it is in the present where all the information necessary to play our best tennis exists.

For use in the present we have the ‘instinctive mind’.  The tool of the ‘instinctive mind’ is observation: the power to witness or ‘see’.   In order to really ‘see’ all commentary on what we are ‘seeing’ has to be dropped.

All players look, but not all players are able to ‘see’.  Looking is what happens when the physical eyes focus on an object, but not all looking leads to ‘seeing’.

Can we understand this distinction?

This inability to ‘see’ exists at the highest level of professional tennis, but affects players of all levels and for varying lengths of time.  I have worked with players who, in the heat of competition, have been unable to ‘see’ the most basic of things transpire during the course of a match.  In rare cases, some players have not noticed that they were playing a left-handed opponent.  More frequently however, there is little awareness of how points are being won or lost, just that they are being won and lost.

When a player is present, many things become clearer.  Being present is often described as a silent mind, yet this silence is not an emptiness; on the contrary, it is a fullness.

When you are present there is a heightened awareness of all that is happening at this very moment; both on the outer and on the inner.  If we are able to shut down our conscious mind long enough to ‘see’, we will observe that there is a great deal happening in each and every moment.  A player who is present will become very sensitive to his surroundings (outer) and to his own body (inner).  He will become aware of his opponent’s emotional state; he will become aware of his opponent’s shot-making capabilities at this very moment, his use of strategy and tactics and there will be a heightened awareness of many more things concerning the opponent, himself, the court, the conditions, and most important of all the ball.

It would seem logical that ‘seeing’ would lead to an analysis from the conscious mind in order to determine the course of action.  But does this really happen and do we want it to happen?

The truth is yes, it does happen all too frequently and no we do not want it to.  We miss a backhand down the line we observe that we were too early or too late and then judge that ‘I cannot hit this shot’ or ‘ my backhand is lousy’ or I suck’, etc., ad infinitum.  The next time we have the opportunity to hit this very same shot the preceding commentary will make it difficult for us to ‘see’ the ball and guess what, the chances are extremely high that we will make another error.

The ‘instinctive mind’ observes and then the conscious mind processes what it sees and a judgmental, fear-based, commentary follows.  When the conscious mind processes this information, the ‘zone’ state, that inner space which allows us to play so fluidly without fear, becomes impossible to attain.

However, if we can observe without allowing the conscious mind to process that information; if we can observe in total silence, then our ‘instinctive mind’ will kick in automatically and complex decisions will be made spontaneously and effortlessly and they will almost always be ‘right’ (within the frame work of what we know and our level of ability).    It is under these conditions that peak athletic performance is experienced by players as being instinctive and apparently without thought.

The type of observation I am suggesting happens with the body, on a cellular level.  If the player is in the body, he or she will feel the error or the winner in the body without any kind of inner dialogue.  Any dialogue, either positive or negative will draw the player away from the present moment.  It is the body that needs to process the information, not the mind and this is how feel is developed.


Finally, the last quality necessary to be a smart player is the ability to implement one’s plan without fear, tension or doubt, at the level of individual shot execution.  Execution is all about seeing the ball clearly, which is the only way to have good timing and make clean contact with the ball.

Execution is the absolute key to success in match-play. Too often, players and coaches are so consumed by focusing on tactical play that they fail to realize that the outcome of the match was determined not by any tactical error, but by the simple inability to execute makeable shots.

Timing is the fundamental factor in execution.  Perfect timing does not occur from knowing facts or from any knowledge accumulated in the past; it happens from being present to this very moment; by being connected to one’s body and aware of the on-coming ball.  Of course, through experience we have some idea of how the ball bounces and we have a certain subtle expectation of how the ball is going to come off the court, but this merely brings us into the ballpark.  For timing to be perfect we have to ‘see’ the ball clearly as it comes off our opponent’s racket and onto ours.

All timing problems occur when the conscious mind begins to process information instead of the ‘instinctive mind’.  Often I hear coaches and therefore players (no coincidence) complain about being too early or too late in shot execution; their tone often transforms the observation into a judgment.  The reason a player is early or late is because he or she is not present.  So the ‘correction’ is simply to drop everything and be present to the next ball.  By trying to calculate why we were too early or too late or what needs to be done to ‘fix’ this, we are moving into the conscious mind and further away from the ‘instinctive mind’ where peak athletic performance happens.


If there is an inner dialogue while looking, ‘seeing’ will not happen.  For example, a high ball is coming towards your one-handed backhand and as you are looking at the ball, your conscious mind thinks back to all the times you have missed these types of balls in the past; or a thought arises to play this ball aggressively or defensively, or down the line or cross court.  These type of thoughts (and almost every situation can precipitate some kind of inner dialogue from the conscious mind) will not only create tension in your body, but more importantly, will also prevent you from ‘seeing’ the ball clearly.  If you cannot ‘see’ the ball, it will be extremely difficult to make clean contact with the ball.  ‘Seeing’ can only happen if the conscious mind is absolutely silent and you are playing with the ‘instinctive mind’.

Fear is the underlying nature of the conscious mind and in many cases there is so much doubt regarding one’s own ability to execute consistently and effectively that ‘seeing’ the ball becomes impossible and so the player’s fear of failure becomes a reality, not because they cannot execute these shots (they do so consistently in practice), but because the negative inner dialogue prevents them from ‘seeing’ the ball clearly.

When players of all levels, even top players, shank or mishit easily makeable shots, it is almost always because at that very moment their conscious mind enters the fray.

Consequently, all the six qualities mentioned above that are required to be a smart player are achieved not through accumulating knowledge from the past, but by simply being present to this moment.  Having a silent mind is not to be blank; there are numerous things happening in each and every moment and when the conscious mind is silent, there is an heightened experience of all that is, right now!

It is the commentary and stories created by the conscious mind that do not allow the ‘instinctive mind’ to flourish.  There is no such thing as good inner dialogue and bad inner dialogue; there is no such thing as positive self-talk and negative self-talk.  All inner dialogue as such must stop completely!  Peak athletic performance will happen to you only when you are playing tennis with your ‘instinctive mind’ and not with your conscious mind.

There is an intelligence within the body, but this intelligence is not of the mind, it is of the body; it is an intelligence of feel, not of thought.   The conscious mind is not required to make decisions.  Intention simply arises from the ‘instinctive mind’ through observation; when the observation is totally pure and without interpretation.  All the player needs to do is to be present by becoming increasingly sensitive to what is happening in this very moment.  Not trying too hard to remember or notice things, but in a state of relaxed-intensity watching the ball and noticing all that becomes apparent during the course of that watching.

Consequently, a smart player is not a thinking player, but a feeling player; someone who is in the body and allows the body to play without any direction or instruction.  The task of training the body happens in practice through hitting lots of balls.

There is no conscious decision-making in match-play and that is the most difficult thing for players to accept.  Trust is a huge factor in playing to your ultimate potential.  The conscious mind gives us the illusion that we are in control and yet to really be in control, we need to give up this pseudo control and trust our instinctive skills, which are honed in practice.

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