This post looks at letting go of what we can’t control in tennis and focusing on what we can. The Serenity Prayer can help us develop this habit.
I don’t subscribe to any one religion, but I was recently reminded of a well-known prayer that I think could help tennis players, of any (or no) faith, on the tennis court.
It’s called “The Serenity Prayer” and has been popularized by it’s use in 12-step addiction recovery programs. It goes like this:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Focusing on What we Can Control
Much more in tennis is variable than is constant. Opponents, bounces, spins, speeds, muscle aches, distractions, weather conditions, and even equipment are all constantly changing and affecting other variables in an outward spiral. You might say that the only predictable thing in tennis is its unpredictability.
Nevertheless, we tend to grasp at control. At certainty. I’ve written a lot about how the inherent uncertain nature of tennis makes it a stressful undertaking that can result in fear and frustration alongside the joy it brings us.
So I’ve been working on letting go of my need to control outcomes in tennis. In my recent post about vulnerability in tennis I wrote about why I think we need to let go of the need to win and accept the prospect of losing – and of appearing weak or foolish in our own eyes and in the eyes of others – to play our best tennis.
But, that doesn’t mean that we should give up control entirely.
In tennis, we need to understand what we can and can’t control, let go of the things we can’t, and take ownership of those we can.
Let’s take the weather, for example. I live in a city with no indoor courts, so I’m at the mercy of the weather gods deciding if I can even play tennis each day, and whether I’lI be dripping with greasy sunscreen while trying to hold on to my racquet or will be wearing a toque and jumping up and down between points to stay warm. I also live in what’s “affectionately” (by some) called the “freshwater sailing capital of the world” because it’s rarely not ridiculously windy.
My typical pre-game routine includes poring over the weather forecast and radar and then examining tree leaves on the way to the court to confirm wind speed and direction. I can’t help but get concerned about how the wind will affect my game. With the wind my balls will fly long and against it I’ll be pushed back, robbed of time, and my shots will land short.
Knowing this, I end up getting frustrated by the weather before the match even starts.
But really, what does this accomplish? Nothing, other than pulling me down into a bad mood which then makes me look at other aspects of the day and my game through a negative filter.
What if, instead, I looked at this from the perspective of the serenity prayer? I cannot control the weather. But are there aspects to the situation that I can control? Where should I put my focus?
On the one extreme I can try to control what weather conditions I play in. I can choose the time of day I play and I guess could even choose not to play in “bad” weather. Of course, the problem with this approach is that, come tournament day, I won’t have the luxury of planning around the weather. Logically, I understand that I need to be accustomed to playing in all conditions.
On the other extreme, I can choose to not ever think about weather conditions. I can show up to the court on any technically “playable” day (i.e. courts are dry) and just play. Let my game adapt itself to the conditions without any thought. Or just miss long when I’m with the wind and hit short when against it.
But then somewhere in between these extremes lies the wisdom of the serenity prayer.
I can’t control the weather.
But I can control my reaction to it.
I can’t get rid of the wind or slow it down, but I can use it to my advantage, or at least see every windy day as an opportunity to learn to do this. Hitting with the wind gives me extra power and helps me put pressure on my opponent and get to the net. Drop shots, slices and lobs can be really effective into the wind.
On a sunny day, attacking my opponent’s serve and understanding he’ll be sun-blind for the first few shots after serving into the sun is a solid strategy as is lobbing him when I know he’ll be hitting overheads with the sun in his eyes. (That’s not bad sportsmanship is it?)
And on those days where the conditions are just so crazy that tennis is way more difficult than usual, I can surrender my need to control anything and just be ok with it. I can choose to be grateful that I’m healthy, get to play tennis, and have friends to play it with. I can work on being compassionate with myself for mistakes. I can choose to bring my love of the game and my drive to improve into every point.
We can’t control conditions, but we can always control the attitude we bring to the court.
This, like everything else I find myself writing about, is easier said than done.
Changing the Habit
Getting frustrated about things beyond our control is a habit. One that we need to break. Learning to let go of what we can’t control and focus on what we can is the habit we need to develop.
Just as we discussed in my recent post on deep practice compared to The Zone in tennis, habit changing, which is essentially the development of a new skill, requires 4 stages:
- Unconsciously unskilled – we don’t know that we don’t have a skill, or that we need to learn it.
- Consciously unskilled – we know that we don’t have a skill.
- Consciously skilled– we know that we have a skill.
- Unconsciously skilled – we don’t know that we have a skill (it just seems easy).
Right now, I’m at Stage 2 of the habit of finding the right balance between control and letting go. I am aware that I put way too much energy into trying to control things that I can’t, which prevents me from focusing on what I can control, and also makes me miserable.
Wanting to be in Stage 4 – where I unconsciously put my energy into the right things – simply isn’t enough. I need to move through Stage 3 to get there. I think that the Serenity Prayer could be an amazing tool for this. It’s a simple reminder of the attitude that I want to bring onto the court all of the time.
Courage to Make Changes
There’s another reason I think the Serenity Prayer is so great: It reminds us that it takes courage to change.
It’s easy to decide that we want to change something about our games but much harder to actually do it, partly because we face the prospect of getting worse before (or instead of) getting better.
Let’s stay with the same example of playing tennis in the wind. There are two key ways that making changes might require courage.
1. It takes Courage to Move out of your Comfort Zone
We talked about hitting drop shots or slices when you’re against the wind, and playing aggressively – coming to the net – when you’re with it. But if these strategies aren’t a regular part of your game, then you might hesitate to try them. It takes courage to move out of your comfort zone and develop a new skill or strategy.
But we need to have the courage to try new things if we want to get to the next level. The serenity prayer can remind us that learning something new is courageous. This can be particularly useful after we try something and fail. It is a reminder that trying it took courage and we can be proud of that.
2. We can no longer use the excuse that our failure is beyond our control
Sometimes it’s nice to have things to blame mistakes on. On a windy day, it’s easier on the ego to tell yourself (and others) you lost that match because of the wind. After all, the ball was so unpredictable, even Federer would have struggled with it.
I think many of us fall into the habit of clinging to excuses like these. If we stop seeing the wind as something that will make us play badly, and then play badly, we can no longer blame our bad play on the wind.
Similarly, we can blame our poor play on bad line calls, mouthy opponents or deadlines at work. Again, if we remove these excuses, by learning that we can always have control over our response to these types of things, then suddenly we don’t have external factors to blame.
It takes courage to be responsible for ourselves, our play, and our choices on court and to stop making excuses.
Again, the serenity prayer can help remind us of this, particularly in the early stages when making excuses is still habitual.
Using the Serenity Prayer
You don’t need to think of this as a “prayer” if that doesn’t sit well with you. It can be a poem or a mantra, and you can change the wording if you want. Maybe something like:
Consider writing this down somewhere you can see it daily or carry it with you in your tennis bag. Even just the word “serenity” on your water bottle might be a good reminder that you’ll see many times during a match. If you’re really dedicated, you could tattoo it on your forearm, à la Stan Wawrinka!
Now, I do want to point out that I understand the challenges we face on the tennis court are insignificant compared to those experienced by people struggling with addiction or other, more serious, matters.
But, in my opinion, the tennis court is like a practice field for the rest of life, where our weaknesses are exposed and our strengths nurtured. Where we fall down and develop strategies for getting back up. Where we learn the importance of drive, focus, acceptance, and compassion.
The point of this, for most of us, isn’t that we become world-class tennis players, but rather that we become world-class humans.
I’m sure many of us have heard or read the Serenity Prayer somewhere before, but if you’re like me, before tennis you wouldn’t have given it a second thought. It’s been through tennis that I’ve become aware of my tendency to struggle with control – with knowing when to use it and when to give it up – and I now see that this happens elsewhere in my life as well.
So while I think the Serenity Prayer can help us with our tennis, it can ultimately, and more importantly, help us where it most matters – off the tennis court.
I’d love to hear what you think. Do you struggle with focusing on things you can’t control in tennis? What strategies do you use to help?