Think, Then Imagine
Serena Williams is considered to have the best serve in the history of women's tennis. Lindsay Davenport, retired, was asked if Serena's serve is better then when they played, and Davenport answered, "Yes, she's more deliberate. She's more mature. She thinks about the serve before she hits it." Clearly, Davenport is complimenting an aspect of Serena's mental toughness, yet it's not uncommon that when I try to get my students to think on the court, they reply, "I don't want to think. It just makes me up tight!" Do you have to be a pro to be able to think on the court?
Absolutely not. But you do need to become fluent moving between the verbal, analytical aspect of thinking to the imaginative, pictorial aspect of thinking. When students complain about thinking making them up tight, it means they're talking to themselves: "Take the racquet back early. Watch the ball." And it just doesn't work. The verbal part of your brain doesn't communicate with your body, and that's why players feel robot-like when they give themselves verbal cues: their arms and legs just don't follow. Once a player has made an analytical observation, like, "I'm hitting the bottom of the frame on my backhand. I'm not watching the ball," then it's time to turn off language and see an image, for example, Federer's head so perfectly still during the swing. That's how you get your body to work--with your imagination.
Using both the analytical and the imaginative parts of your brain is a hugely important aspect of mental toughness. Don't say, "I don't want to think." All that does is commit yourself to blind chance and to limit your potential. You miss your first serve into the net. You think the tennis gods will be kind if you just toss the ball and whack the next serve? No way. That serve is going into the net, too. Take a moment. If you think you're pulling your head down too soon, imagine your eyes up at the sky even after contact. Once the picture is clear, go ahead and swing. Think, then imagine.
c Keith Shein