One of the key areas that I’ve been hoping to improve in my tennis is the mind game. I struggled with what to label this. Some possibilities could be mental toughness and mental focus, but I’m not sure which of these I’m trying to achieve, or if they’re even independent of each other or one and the same.
What I’ve settled on – the mind game – is another option, but are our minds and bodies really separate, or does what’s happening in our minds have such a profound effect on what our bodies do that it’s ridiculous to imply there are two distinct games – one of the body, and one of the mind?
Regardless of what it’s called, I think you know what I’m getting at. Fear of competition, distraction, letting go of leads, giving up, overconfidence, under confidence, too tight, too relaxed, racquet throwing, cursing, frustration, etc. It’s the intangible part of the game that most of us don’t practice – don’t know how to practice – that has an enormous impact on our results and our enjoyment of tennis.
Books/Courses on the Tennis Mental Game
A couple of years ago I decided I wanted to conquer the negative emotions that were interfering with my performance and enjoyment of tennis, so I read The Inner Game of Tennis (I’ll call this TIG) by Timothy Gallwey and I listened to Jeff Greenwald’s Fearless Tennis audio course.
While going through these resources, I was so excited about the prospect of gaining control over my thoughts and emotions on court, but unfortunately they just didn’t lead to any difference in my ability to stay calm, focused, and fearless on the court.
In fact the more I played and the more my technique and movement improved, the more frustrated and fearful I seemed to get.
Gallwey and Greenwald did a great job of explaining the psychology behind why we react the way we do on the tennis court – with fear and frustration – and suggested techniques for combatting this such as routines to quiet our minds and relaxation/visualization methods.
I remember trying what they were suggesting, and then abandoning the methods when they didn’t work. I tried, as TIG suggested, thinking of myself as two separate “selves” and trusting Self 2 to hit the ball while Self 1 calmly watched but found Self 1 refused to stay out of it. I tried incorporating routines like Nadal and Sharapova to keep my mind occupied between points less it run amok, but would just forget about the routines after a few points, and I tried some visualization and relaxation sessions from Greenwald’s courses, but never felt any more calm or in control during matches.
It wasn’t that I blamed Gallwey and Greenwald for dishing out bad advice – I did truly believe in what they were saying – but rather I chalked my failure at mental tennis mastery up to a personality “flaw” in myself that just can’t be helped.
I’m a worrier by nature and nurture. I have a highly analytical brain (which I’ve always thought helps me design reactors and dissect forehand technique, but hinders my ability to relax), and so have trouble not worrying that my backhand is going to miss under pressure when it typically does so logically it probably will again.
Even still I tend to have (often unrealistically) high expectations for myself so it’s no wonder that I get frustrated when I don’t perform as well as I think I should. I have a strong “fight or flight” response and literally can get an adrenaline rush when I turn the lights out at night so my tightening up in important points and matches doesn’t surprise me at all. I decided I was doomed to a tennis career filled with frustration and hoped it would get a little better with time.
Professional Players Meditate
And this is how things stayed until I read about something that Novak Djokovic was doing off-court: meditating.
When Djokovic first came on the scene in 2006, he was famous for succumbing to various ailments, and quickly becoming World No. 1 after adopting a specific, gluten-free diet.
However this article quotes Novak with crediting only part of his rise to the top to his new diet, implying that a major part has been his work on his mental state and his incorporation of some Buddhist practices like meditation and visualization.
I do remember reading in Djokovic’s book Serve to Win that he spends time mindfully meditating every day and have heard rumours of him visiting a Buddhist temple near the All England Club during Wimbledon for the past few years.
I definitely didn’t jump on the Buddhism bandwagon right off the bat as my previously mentioned analytical mind strongly resisted the idea that sitting still and thinking about nothing for 20 minutes could have any effect other than obviously 20 fewer minutes to accomplish things, but the seed was planted.
Yoga – A Practice in Meditation
I’ve done yoga on and off over the years and primarily thought of it as a great stretching session, sometimes even strengthening if the class involved warrior poses and planks. I generally tuned out most of what my instructors were saying and focused on important things like my grocery list or what movie I wanted to see.
But this past fall when I started doing yoga more regularly, the meditation seed that was dormant in my mind began to grow.
I actually listened to what my yoga teachers were saying, and I started to notice that so much of what they said was very similar to what I’d learned in The Inner Game and Fearless Tennis, which was essentially that we need to be able to quiet our ever-chattering, ever criticizing minds, and gain control over our thoughts and emotions.
One yoga instructor explained that in yoga and meditation practice we work on expanding the space in time between a stimulus or event and our response to it. She quoted Victor Frankl, who was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Logically, I know that when I’m up 5-1 and lose a game I shouldn’t instantly become scared I’m going to lose the set, but I often feel like I have no control over how I react to tennis situations, it just happens. Similarly, when I double fault at a critical time, before I know it I’ll have uttered a curse or hung my head, even though TIG would tell me that this type of behaviour only makes things worse so I shouldn’t do it.
Hearing once again that I might be able to develop some control over my reactions and emotions in tennis (and the rest of my life!) was intriguing, so I found myself very drawn to yoga, but this time more for the breathing and meditative parts than for the physical posing parts.
I started reading up on yoga and meditation, and learned that meditation has become very much mainstream. A quick internet search will reveal the numerous celebrities who meditate daily, many of whom are athletes or coaches.
A few years before winning the 2014 Super Bowl, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll (who I just noticed wrote the foreword to my copy of The Inner Game) had a sports psychologist teach his team to perform mindfulness exercises (one type of meditation), and the nicknamed “Zen Master” NBA coach Phil Jackson – who coached 11 NBA Championship teams – has used mindfulness meditation practices with his players (maybe you’ve heard of a few of them – Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant).
Science Backs Meditation
And if anecdotes of athletes increasing their focus, decreasing their anxiety and becoming more successful after incorporating meditation into their training wasn’t enough to convince me, there’s also a growing body of scientific evidence that meditation actually induces changes in our brains. These changes include things such as:
- increasing volume in areas that govern learning and memory and that play roles in emotion regulation and self-referential processing
- decreasing brain cell volume in areas that are responsible for fear, anxiety and stress
The Inner Game and Fearless Tennis Need to be Practiced
My journey into the world of meditation has only just begun so I’m not here to tell you that it’s been a game-changer for me. But I do know that it has worked for many athletes and I now see it’s at the core of TIG and Fearless Tennis. In fact, I just finished listening to Fearless Tennis for a second time and also to Jeff’s Play Out of Your Mind course, which is his more recent tennis psychology audio course.
I see now that both of these courses are essentially Mindfulness meditation concepts geared specifically towards tennis players and the situations we face at all levels of the game.
Looking back on my earlier experiences with TIG and Fearless Tennis, I think if I’m totally honest then the reason they didn’t work for me was that I wasn’t willing to put in the work. I understood logically that quieting my mind was paramount for optimal, relaxed performance, and was so excited for the new attitude I was going to have on court, but when that didn’t come immediately I really just gave up on the whole thing.
Similar to many new habits we try to adopt – like healthy eating, going to the gym, or practicing our serves – it’s easy to be enthusiastic at first but much harder to stick with the routine over any significant length of time.
I didn’t understand that the ability to focus the mind – to be aware of our thoughts and to understand that they don’t have to control us, to relax in situations we’ve found stressful in the past, and to stop tying our feelings of self-worth with the outcome of a tennis match – are skills that need to be developed with practice both on and off the court.
Expecting to learn these concepts in a book or audio recording and then instantly be able to apply them in a close match is completely unrealistic – kind of like watching Federer’s forehand in slow motion and then expecting to be able to execute one like him right away.
Building the Foundation for the Mental Game
I think that meditation practice – that can come in many forms including a yoga practice, mindfulness meditation, concentration-based practices like Transcendental Meditation, or Jeff Greenwald’s tennis-specific exercises that he offers in his courses – can help us form the foundation upon which we can build solid mental tennis mindsets.
Without the foundation I’m not sure we can benefit from the techniques that the top players use, such as routines in between points. We might look at our strings or count the number of times we bounce the ball before serving because we know we’re supposed to, but we might just be going through the motions (I know I am). This is similar to how in a yoga class we can perform the physical movements, but if we aren’t concentrating on our breath or inner experience then we really aren’t getting the full benefit.
Perhaps the key to the whole thing is dedicating the time and effort to practicing this off-court. While adding yet another habit into our already busy days can seem daunting, the reality is that we can’t expect to see results without putting in the work, and I believe that the reward of calmness and clarity on court will be well worth it (not to mention that meditation, which can take as little as 5 minutes a day, is known to improve productivity throughout the rest of the day so should make us less, not more, busy).
And the best part of all of this is that improving our tennis experience is really just a side effect of what improving our concentration, awareness and focus can do, which is improve our entire life experience. As Tim Gallwey puts it in The Inner Game of Tennis,
The ability to approach this state [playing out of one’s mind], is the goal of the Inner Game. The development of inner skills is required, but it is interesting to note that if, while learning tennis, you begin to learn how to focus your attention and how to trust in yourself, you have learned something far more valuable than how to hit a forceful backhand. The backhand can be used to advantage only on a tennis court, but the skill of mastering the art of effortless concentration is invaluable in whatever you set your mind to.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and if anyone has been able to overcome fear and frustration on the tennis court and, above all, how you did it.
Update: If you want to read more about these concepts, you might be interested in the following posts: