We have all seen it. A top tennis player is hitting unbelievable shots. I tend to remember the 4th set of the Australian Open between Nadal and Verdasco. Although Verdasco couldn't maintain that level, he was on fire during those crucial points in the tie breaker. So how does that happen? Even for those that have experienced this feeling on the court, I have yet to hear what they did to get into that state. It sounds more random than methodical. This is unfortunate as that makes every match full of apprehension on which "you" is going to show up. Will it be the best version of yourself or more of the mistake prone player you are hoping to avoid? The good news is that you have some control of that. Let me walk you through the process of getting your mind in the best state possible for your upcoming match.
Step 1: Understand the Brain
Our brains are wonderful creations but they can also become our biggest enemies on the tennis court. No matter who you are, there are negative thoughts bombarding us throughout the day. This is something that we need to embrace rather than avoid. What I mean is by excepting the fact that you will have negative thoughts can allow you to decide if you want to listen to them or not. For example, if you have a thought that is berating you for missing a shot, you cannot avoid the thought but you can avoid the response. Instead of fixating on the thought, just thank your brain and move on. This can allow you to accept the unfortunate fate that we have to deal with these thoughts but also gives you the chance to move on from them.
Another interesting part of our brain is our ability to focus. There really is no such thing as "lacking focus" but rather focusing on the wrong thing. To explain my point, try NOT to focus on anything. It's impossible isn't it? Your brain needs to focus on something. This can be a problem on the tennis court. as mentioned before, we can focus on the negative thoughts our brain is telling us but there's more.
Step 2: Stop the Wondering Mind
We often use the phrase "time flies" but what does that really mean? It's not like time changes its pace, so what is it about making time go by quickly? I feel that by fixating on the moment at hand allows for the sensation of time slowing down. For example, I had players meditate for 1 minute and after a minute they were asked to guess how long that was. Everyone guessed a much longer time. On the other hand, when we are not present by focusing on the past or present, time can pass us rather quickly. This is the same on the tennis court. If your mind is wondering, you will be losing track of your match and before you know it, the match is over. Being present in your matches can allow you to solve problems on the fly and be able to enjoy your match. This also leads us to how we can use this understanding to playing better in our matches.
Step 3: Playing Out of Your Mind By Avoiding Expectations
As a player and coach, I can attest to feeling and seeing choking. It's not fun for anyone involved and leaves everyone frustrated with the "could have been." The problem is that many of us do not know how to avoid this. Yes, playing more matches will allow you to feel more comfortable on the court but there's more to it than that. Let's focus on what was discussed above.
When a player walks onto the court with expectations, they have lost their chance of playing well for a couple of reasons. First, having expectations will leave you at the mercy of having that one outcome to satisfy you. And that outcome you cannot control. It is also based on perspective. One player's perspective of playing well can be much different than another's. This can lead to a misunderstanding of what playing well means. Some just want to win while others do not want to miss an overhead. Regardless, having expectations before walking onto the court can be detrimental to your game. It's also part of why your game can fall apart while playing.
When a player reacts to a shot they do not approve of, it is based on an expectation that they should have done better than they did. So even without coming onto the court with expectations, you can create them while you play. By being upset with your performance, you are not only reacting off of an expectation of playing better, you are not focusing on the present (see step 2). An expectation, to me, is defined as using the past to predict the future. This is the exact opposite of staying "in the moment." Just think if Roger Federer started thinking about the millions of peoples' expectations they had on one of his matches. I'm sure that wouldn't allow him to play his best!
So the best advice I can give you to allow for the best possible version of yourself to step on the court and play a solid match is to stay in the moment. This means you are only focusing on the point at hand and nothing else. It also means you are not shaping the future with the past. This thought process has given players of mine (and myself) a way to get on the court and not only play well but also play to a level that we all are capable of.
Want to try something new involving the slice? Check out this video!