Mental Toughness
Part Three
Closing the Door on Fear

Boil it down, and what prevents us from playing our best tennis is fear.  However, it isn't fear of losing per se that's our undoing.  It's something deeper and darker:  ego and self esteem.  We're afraid of being embarrassed, afraid of being seen as a loser or a failure, afraid we'll lose our rating, afraid we'll let our partners down, afraid our team mates will have a lower opinion of us, afraid we won't fit in, afraid no one will want to play with us.  And, deep and dark as those apprehensions are, they don't represent the most insidious aspect of the problem, which is, because everything we fear is other-directed, it's beyond our control  For, even if we play well and win, we won't necessarily earn the respect and admiration we desire.  A team mate could be standing on the sideline watching you crush your opponent 6-0, 6-0, and say to herself, "She just got lucky.  Her opponent was having an off day."

Is there any way you can play competitive tennis and not feel fear?  Not if a heart beats in your chest.  In fact, the fun of competition comes precisely because we put ourselves at risk of losing.  We step between the lines knowing that, at the finish, only one player or team will be a winner.  If that challenge doesn't get your blood racing, you should look elsewhere for your thrills.  It's why we play the game.  The catch is, our response to this adversity is often apprehension, and if we fear the result, we don't play well, and it doesn't feel like a game or fun, at all. 

So let's say, if you're normal, competition inspires fear.  The question is not defeating fear or even avoiding it, unless you want first to spend the next ten years in India becoming a sage.  The question is, can you play so that don't let fear take over your game?  The answer is yes, and one of the secrets is in managing the down time between points and the change-overs, so that your focus is on what you can control:  the first stroke of the next point. 

But we're going to start with an even larger segment of time, the time before the match.

Your Greatest Hits

I don't know if it's still in business, but one of the early companies involved in improving mental toughness for athletes was called Sybervision.  It built on a common experience, namely, that when we watch good tennis, we seem to absorb the good qualities and play better, at least for awhile.  Sybervision believed that if you watched pros hitting their strokes from various angles, in slow motion and in regular time, you could learn the strokes as well as by actually hitting the ball, and it made video tapes of all the strokes.  But for me, as a coach, one of the company's greatest contributions was in building the success of a varsity player at Stanford.  They chose the number two guy, purposely.  To improve his game, they created a brief video of the player's matches, all positive moments:  break points that he converted, service games that he held after coming back from Love-40, passing shots that captured a set point, handshakes and smiles at the net when he was victorious.  The guy's task was to find a quiet moment before his matches and to watch this video of his greatest hits.  The idea was to create a positive frame of mind.  Instead of the player imagining the worst--fearing a loss, playing badly, embarrassing himself and letting down his team--the player's job was to anticipate the possibility of pleasure.  He'd felt that pleasure before, not always, of course, but he'd won; he'd been successful. Could he tap into that emotion and bring it with him to the court?  The answer was yes. The player had a great season, outstripping everyone's expectations, including his own.

Managing the time before your matches is crucial.  It's your first opportunity to quiet the voice of your fear.  And you can do it by creating your own Reader's Digest version of your greatest hits.  Think back, even to the juniors, and remember those moments.  Specifically, remember the emotion of those moments, the lightness of them, the visceral pleasure, how quick your feet felt, how relaxed and elastic your muscles and body felt.  Replay those moments in your mind; feel the emotions in your body.  The idea is not to set a standard to which you have to measure up.  Imagining the pleasure of playing well doesn't guarantee that you will.  The point is to create the possibility of playing your best.  To do that, you need to imagine the pleasure of competition before your match, not the negative things that so easily creep in to our consciousness.  Somehow, somewhere, find five minutes of quiet before your match.  Close your eyes, and play your greatest hits.  Open your eyes and smile!  You're about to play tennis!

Create a Ritual Between Points

The twenty-five seconds between points provides enough time for our concentration to get to Mars and back, ample opportunity to hold on to our anger and frustration over blowing an overhead on the previous point, or to dread that we're going to blow the lead and lose the match, or both.  These emotions are rooted in self-esteem issues, but what is most obvious about them is that they are completely out of our control.  We sure as hell can't change the past, and the future--the end of the match--is equally beyond our grasp.  Yet, that's where the mind goes, point after point, match after match, pissed-off because of our bad play or knee-knocking scared about the finish, or both. 

Managing the time between points and on the change-overs can keep these negative and fearful thoughts from staking a claim on your consciousness.  To do this, you have to create a ritual during those intervals that keeps your focus positive and specific to the one thing that you can control:  the first stroke of the next point.  Following is my ritual.  I do it between every point.  It's designed to eat up every last second of the down time betweeen points, denying fear a chance to plant its wicked seeds.

1.  Release the emotion of the previous point, good or bad. 
After a point, the first part of my ritual is to distance myself from that point.  If I carry over the emotion from the previous point, I won't be in the right frame of mind for the next.  All players know this syndrome.  We hit an ace and can't wait to step up to the baseline and hit another one.  Except, because we're too excited, we miss the next first serve by a mile.  And the second serve goes into the net.  Double fault.  In the space of two points, we've gone from heaven to hell.  So, good or bad--if I've made a put-away or hit an unforced error--I want to get rid of those feelings.  If I've hit an ace, I pump my fist.  If I've hit a stupid shot, I may very well groan in agony.  But if I have played a bad point, I also make sure that I take the time to find something positive about it (as I wrote about in my previous tip).  I only want to hear a positive voice.  But, after that, I literally turn my back on the net, signaling to myself that the point is over and I want to prepare for the next one. 

I take the racquet out of my dominant hand and shift it to my left.  I want my right arm and hand to begin to relax.  I want my whole body and my mind to relax, to open toward the next point from a calm point of view.  I begin to take deep breaths, through my nose and out through my mouth, bringing my heart rate down, settling my nerves.  Only when I feel calm do I return my racquet to my right hand, signalling to myself that I'm ready to turn my attention to the future:  the first stroke of the next point.

2.  What's the score?
After I've literally turned away from the previous point and calmed down, the next part of my ritual is to ask myself what the score is.  I want to plan my first stroke, and to do this, I want that stroke to be commensurate with the score.  A score of 30-Love is about as different from Love-30 as ice cubes to hot asphalt.  At 30-Love, if I'm the server, green lights blink all around my happy head.  I can take a chance, maybe swing the serve out wide, maybe serve hard into the body and take the net.  I'm definitely going to pressure the receiver.  But at Love-30, I'm serving to the T, and I may very well take something off the serve to get that first one in.  I'm definitely not going to give the returner an angle and have him go for a winner because he's got the green lights blinking around his head.  I'm going to play a high percentage point if I can, be patient and wait for my opportunity, and that starts with a high percentage first serve.

If I'm the receiver, I ask myself exactly the same question:  what's the score?  My plan, as a receiver, must be more provisional than as a server.  After all, I don't know what kind of ball I'm going to get to hit, whether it's going to be a forehand or a backhand, or whether it's going to be in a good position to strike.  But I'm certainly planning the kind of stroke and the kind of point I want to play.  At Love-30, I'm going after the return, especially on second serve.  I may try a quick strike down-the-line, get my drive on top of the server in a hurry.  I may even chip and charge.  But if I have something I can hit, I'm going to be aggressive.  However, at 30-Love, I'm playing a high percentage point.  I'll take some pace off and usually hit cross-court, giving myself a target to the longest leg of the court over the lowest portion of the net.  I'm not going to play passively or in fear of making a mistake, but I'm going to get the ball in play and work the point.

Once I've planned the first stroke and I know what kind of point I'm going to try and play, I step up to the baseline and look at the court.  I try to feel a positive emotion.  I may even smile to myself.

Note:  The above was written from a singles player's point of view.  However, it's the same in doubles, although each player should act as part of a team as well as an individual.  Each player needs to get rid of the previous point, calm down and ready herself for the next point.  Between points, the pros give each other a high five, whether the point played in their favor or not.  Then they talk, and they aren't making lunch plans.  The serving team needs to be clear where the serve is being placed, whether there should be a planned poach, who's covering the lob off the return, etc.  The receiving team needs to know where the return is going, if the receiver is going to try and pass down the alley, lob, drop shot or drive deep cross-court.  Once the plans are made, commensurate with the score, the team is ready to play.

3.  Visualize the Plan
Once I've planned my first stroke, I'm almost ready to play, but not quite.  The next, and final step of my ritual is to visualize what I've just planned.  I picture the stroke in my mind.  If I've planned a serve out wide, I see that.  And, if I'm the server, I also see where I'm going to be after the serve.  If I'm following that serve to net, I see that.  If I'm staying back, I picture myself behind the baseline.  As a receiver, if I've planned a high percentage cross-court return, I picture that placement.

This juncture is critical to my emotions.  I want to make a transition between the thinking part of my mind (my words) and the imaginative part of my mind, for it's the latter that controls the body.  Tennis players are famous, or infamous, for talking to themselves.  As I've mentioned in another tip, usually this talk is negative, but there's another problem with it.  The left side of the brain, which controls language, doesn't control the movement of your body.  You can yell at yourself to watch the ball or take the racquet back earlier all day long and your body literally can't listen.  Your body, though, can "listen" to an image.  Think about learning a dance move.  You wouldn't use words to tell yourself what to do.  You'd look carefully at the movement and then imitate it.  This ability to move between your words and an image is crucial to competitive success.  You need the rational part of your mind, your words, to diagnose problems, plan solutions, consider the score and the kind of point you want to play, that first stroke.  But once you've done that, turn off the words.  Create a picture.  See that first stroke.

Once I've visualized that first stroke, I'm ready to play.  I serve, or, if I'm the receiver, I start moving my feet in anticipation of the return.  I'm there.  Because by the time I've taken the three steps of my ritual, I've eaten every second of the down time between points, and not an instant of it was spent being negative or fearful.  There wasn't an opportunity for that poison to get into my head.

Create a Ritual for the Change-Overs

If you can get to Mars and back in the twenty-five seconds between points, you can leave the universe during the ninety seconds of the change-over and never be found again.  Some players don't want to sit down on the change-over because of this.  They want to hurry to the other side of the court and keep playing, hoping they can run faster than their fear which they believe will overtake them if they take a rest.  Don't be silly.  Take a load off.  Catch your breath.  The change-over provides, first and foremost, an opportunity for your body to recover, and in case you haven't noticed, the more tired you are, the more difficult it is to concentrate and stay focused.

1. Tend to Your Flesh
There's a reason you bought that ginormous tennis bad and stuffed it to the gills.  Now's the time to whip it out, especially those things that can refresh your body.  If it's a warm day, use the first portion of the change-over to cool off.  Get in the shade, if you can.  Get a cool cloth on the back of your neck and on the inside of your wrists.  Take a cold drink of water or a sports drink.  Towel off.  If your energy is fading, take a bite of an energy bar or a banana.  Being good to yourself physically can go a long way in keeping your energy up and your attitude up.  Consider the change-over your own ninety-second spa treatment.

 2.  Take the Time To See the Big Picture
Change-overs are a great time to see the match from a larger perspective than is often possible during the points.  Ask yourself if your strategy is working.  If you've been attacking your opponent's backhand, are you still getting unforced errors?  Are there any changes in your opponent?  Is he angry at himself for a double-fault?  Can you attack his second serve, get him angrier and make him commit more double faults?  Are you up a break or down a break?  Do you need to play steady or attack?  Bottom line--what's your game plan?  We often lose matches because we run out of ideas.  The player that's got another card up his sleeve, another strategy, is still in the match, even if he's lost the first set and is down a break in the second.  Don't leave the change-over without a plan and the commitment to it.  It's okay if it doesn't succeed.  Make another plan on the next change-over or right in the middle of the game, if necessary.  Once you practice planning strategy, once it's part of your match ritual, you'll do it more easily and intuitively.  Like they say, the mind is too good a thing to waste.

 3.  Leave the Change-Over Feeling Positive
Once you've pampered yourself, cooled down, toweled off, tasted a cold drink and maybe a snack, you've told yourself that you're physically in the match for the long haul.  Once you've committed to a game plan, you've told yourself that you're ready for the challenge.  Now comes the time for your pep talk.  What are the key words or phrases that pump you up?  What image can you conjure that makes you feel buoyant and happy?  What does it take to make you feel positive?  I love the way Nadal sprints from the sideline into the court, like he can't wait to hit the ball, to play.  You can see it in his face, how he bounces on his toes.  Your task, should you choose to accept it, dear player, is to find words or images that inspire you.  Use the change-over to change you into a positive player.  When you stand up from that bench, feel good.  The match is right there in front of you.

Note:  If you're a member of a doubles team, you'd utilize the change-over similarly.  Tend to your physical needs.  Relax.  Say whatever you need to hear to bring yourself to a positive state of mind.  Then consult with your partner, find out if he has any insights that might help win, communicate your own thoughts, settle on a strategy as a team.  When you stand, give your partner a high-five or say whatever words he needs to hear that you know pump him up.  He should do the same for you.  Feel good!  Go get 'em!

Create a Ritual That Works For You

My ritual between points and on the change-over is mine, and is only meant as a suggestion; I don't know whether it will work for you.  To create your own ritual, customize it to your rhythm of play.  Graf got from point to point like she was late catching an airplane; she couldn't wait to play.  Sharapova gets from point to point as if she's considering the entire universe; she takes the maximum allotted time.  Do whatever works, but find a way to shut the door on the voice of your fear.  It has absolutely no place on the tennis court, no matter how seriously you take competitive play.  You can control those thoughts and voices, but you have to practice it and dedicate yourself to it.  Play!  It's hard, but it's so much fun!

 c Keith Shein

Next Tip
Mental Toughness Part Four
Setting Goals