Mental Toughness Issues
Part 1
Playing the Warm-Up

When I ask students how their matches went and the news isn't good, a common theme comes up:  "I started slowly.  I lost the first set, and then I played better."  Yet, when I've asked this same question after I've observed a student's match, and my student says, "I started slowly," I reply, "Well, it looked to me that you were on fast forward."

Almost all players are tense at the beginning of a match.  They're apprehensive about how well they'll play, worried about losing and how their team mates will perceive them, nervous that they're going to embarrass themselves.  The typical result:  players go for too much too soon, serves too big, groundies too big, big mistakes all over the joint.  Then a different sensation comes over them:  dread, a deeper apprehension.  What if I lose 0 and 0?  What if I double fault every service game?  Knees knock; hands shake; a deep breath is hard to come by.  Dear Lord.  And we do this for fun? 

You bet.  Nervousness is part of competition; it never really goes away, no matter how long you play or how successful you become.  However, some players seem to cope with their nerves better than others; some are even able to turn this nervous energy into something positive.  It's tricky business and it sometimes seems like achieving the composure of a mystic is a necessary distinction before competitive success can be realized.  But let's just say you're any Big Bob or Betty Bounce and just want to take the edge off those early match twitches.  After all, if you cross the threshold into play from the warm-up actually ready to play, you just might steal a first set and be half-way home.

Tackle Apprehension Head On

Mental toughness literature is now the stuff of PhDs, and you can fill a library with books and DVDs coming at the thorny subject from all kinds of angles and points of view.  But isn't the primary question pretty specific and clear?  When we hit the court, don't we worry that we're going to miss?  Isn't the basic question we ask ourselves:  if I hit the ball, is it going to go in?  Though we have our sights on victory, before we even begin to worry about losing, we worry about our steadiness, because even a newbie gets it:  matches are won by keeping the ball in play; matches are lost by unforced errors, especially for recreational players.

That means that the first obligation of your warm-up is to find a pace for each stroke that addresses this question and answers it affirmatively:  yes, I can get the ball in.

But there's a problem:  your initial jitters during your warm-up will defeat a positive answer to the question almost every time.  Why?  Well, if we're nervous about how we're going to play, instinctively we reach for our best pace, our benchmark pace, the pace we've played at when we're at our very best, the pace of our dreams.  Because, we believe, if we can find that ultimate pace, we'll satisfy ourselves that we're going to play well, and we'll sure as hell impress our opponents.  However, if we reach for the gold ring and miss, more than likely, there's only one place to go:  down.

And there's another problem:  the fickle tennis gods.  Yesterday, we were able to hit the tar out of the ball and control it; today, no go.  Yesterday, our forehands we're like lightning strikes; today, wisps of wind.  Yesterday, we couldn't get a flat serve in to save our lives; today, it's cooking.  Yesterday, our hands we're like bricks; today we're hitting drop shots deftly as angels.  Go figure.  Actually, there isn't any figuring it.  No one, even the PhDs, know why we've got the goods on one day and are bums the next.  Welcome to tennis.

Here are three ways you can use your warm-up to find the paces you can control for each stroke.

Go Zen  When I was trying to date a girl in college, I started to read Buddhist literature, because she was into it.  I didn't get the girl but I did find an idea that helped my tennis:  Beginner's Mind.  The Zen adherents believe we should approach experience as if it were new--curious, open, without assumptions--with a beginner's mind.  Applied to tennis, when you hit the court, don't assume anything--that your forehand's great, that your backhand's crap, that your serve is off, that your net game is on.  Discover what's there and what isn't.  You'll know quickly which strokes feel right and which seem a bit off.  And if something is off, that shouldn't surprise you; after all, that's usually the case.  But if you think you're going to rely on your forehand because you have in the past, just listen for the gods' pending, uproarious laughter.  It's coming with your first five forehand unforced errors.  However, if, rather, you keep an open mind, you'll know what strengths you carry into the match and what liabilities you need to protect, and they change almost every time we're on the court.  You can win even if you're not playing your best, but you need to figure out how as soon as you can.

No Advancing the Pace  We always have three choices when a ball is coming to us, hit it back at the same speed, slower or harder.  In your warm-up, take the last option off the table.  It feels so so fine to jack the pace of the ball.  But if you impose this obligation on yourself, you're going to warm up into the fence rather than into the court, and make your opponent very happy--the same gal you were trying to impress.  Rather, find a place of relaxation.  Your hand should be light in the grip.  You should actually be able to exhale as you hit.  Your arms and shoulders should feel loose.  Most particularly, remember the qualities of a finished ground stroke:  a downward gaze and an upward finish.  Hit the ball back at the same speed it comes to you or slower, and you'll feel it easy to keep your eye on contact and to complete your finishes.  If you choose a pace that makes you look up too soon or punch or shorten your finish, you're hitting too hard.  You want to impress your opponent and yourself:  hit ten balls in a row over that go in.  She'll figure she's playing a back board.  Now who's nervous?

Take the term warm-up literally.  If we're warming up, aren't we, by definition, starting with a pace that's slower than our ultimate?

Play the Warm-Up As If It's Match Point Against You  Treat the warm-up as a free period, not penalized by loss of points or games, and when it's time to play and your opponent asks, "Ready?", you'll think, "Yikes, I'm not!"  That's bad.  If you're letting yourself hit the fence and hit into the net in the warm-up, you can bet the house when you cross the threshold into play, it's going to be unpleasant.  Rather, treat the warm-up as if it were match point against you:  one miss and you're done for the day.  No shots on two bounces, no blasted ground strokes, nothing near the lines.  Create for yourself the tension you're going to feel as soon as you start to score.  Be ready for it, practice it.  That's the true freedom of the warm-up:  you get to practice playing before you play. 

Once you establish the paces that allow you to be steady in your warm-up, you'll find yourself getting off to much quicker starts, not because you're going fast but because you've started slowly.  This accomplishes a number of things.  First, if you're the steadier player out of the gate, you can steal a bunch of early games, even the first set.  That doesn't mean you're going to win.  How often do we see scores that read:  6-1, 2-6, 7-5?  If you win an easy first set, all that you really can be sure of is that you warmed up more quickly than your opponent.  Don't assume anything about the second set.  Your opponent's backhand may have been a gold mine of unforced errors in the first set, but your repeated pounding on it may have just fine tuned it.  My advice?  If you win an easy first set, grab yourself by the collar and walk yourself to the back fence.  Remind yourself that the match begins right now.  I mean, begins.  Look for the slightest openings.  Keep an open mind.  The second set is a whole new match, but it always feels great to tuck that first set into your pocket.

Second, once you've established that you can play steady tennis at a relaxed pace, after you break a sweat and feel that you're in the match, you may be able to hit harder--if it's in your interests.  Maybe your slower pace is uncomfortable to your opponent, throwing him off, making him advance the pace to a level he likes.  You're not in the business of making Big Bob happy.  On the other hand, pace certainly has its virtues.  Once you've grooved your strokes, if the situation warrants it, hit away!  Because if you start to miss too much, no worries.  You've established what I call "a basement pace" that you can control.  Dial it back and march out of your unforced errors and on to glorious victory!

Have A Game Plan When You Leave the Warm-Up 

I remember an interview with Jimmy Connors.  After he'd won a match, he was asked if he'd scouted his opponent for the next round.  He said, "No, I never do that.  I just play my game."  A typical response from a citizen of Planet Tennis.  But if you're from Planet Earth, do some homework during the warm-up.  After you've discovered what pace you will bring across the threshold into play, after you're clear what strokes are working and what strokes aren't working so well--after you've made your internal discoveries, take a look across the net.  Even if you've played your opponent before, scrutinize him.  Wristy forehand?  Punchy backhand?  Pattycake second serve?  Great!  Play to those weaknesses.  Play blindly, and you'll likely play into your opponent's strengths.  My student, Helen, a doctor by profession, and way smart, once played a doubles match and never realized one opponent was left handed!  Don't laugh!  How many times have you taken the bait and got into a fire fight with a forehand better than yours?  I thought so.  Remember how pleasing it is to break down an opponent.  Find those weaknesses.  Don't relent.

Some Other Warm-Up Hints 

Make sure you warm up all your strokes, not just your favorite ones.  Have a tendency to shank your overheads into the net?  Regardless, put your index finger up to the sky and ask for a couple lobs.  Keep at it until you hit some good overheads.  And keep track of those shots your opponent doesn't want to warm up.  What do you think he's telling you?  If possible, warm up on the courts you're going to play on.  That's not always possible if you're playing a league match at another club, but it wouldn't hurt to get there a half-hour early and see if you can grab an open court.  Courts and facilities can be various and challenging--different court colors, different fencing, different proximity to walkways and stands.  It all takes some getting used to.  It's preferable that you don't lose a first set while you're settling in.  Also, always warm up with new balls.  Please.  Even if you throw them out afterward, spend the three dollars.  Your warm-up should be as close to playing conditions as you can make it.  And, finally, if you need to, don't hesitate to remind your opponent that the warm-up isn't the match.  If he's blasting balls at you as hard as he can while you're trying to warm up volleys, ask for a slower pace.  If you're warming up for a doubles match, don't hesitate to ask that you warm up with your partner if your opponent isn't offering proper warm-up shots.

The warm-up is a critical time in the match.  It's the time you're allotted to find your strokes and the paces that work for them, aspects of your game that can change day to day.  It's the time that you're given to practice playing, the game you're going to bring against your opponent as soon as you start to score.  It's the time when you get to scout your opponent and come up with a game plan.  That plan may change over the course of the match, but what never changes is looking for opportunities to win.  Get better at warming up and you'll win more matches.

c Keith Shein

Next Tip:
Mental Toughness Part 2
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