Mind Control

How to control your mind during a match; so it is an asset, not a liability.

George asked me to write about this topic for his blog. My name is Joel Drucker. I write about tennis for a living and live in the San Francisco Bay Area.

George and I met at the John Newcombe Fantasy Camp. We’ve played a couple of times too, and I will tell you that George is truly a player. By that I mean he is committed to improvement — not just a hacker content to be where he is (and, inevitably, decline).

So how do you control your mind during a match? First, you must plan for success — yes, to win, but more importantly, to compete with all proper intensity and therefore know whatever happened, you did all you could.

One wise idea: Play your practice matches as if you were in a tournament. Don’t talk to your opponent on changeovers. Don’t chit-chat between points. All business.

I’m very big on thinking about how to win — that is, forcing the other guy to play shots he doesn’t like so you can play shots you like. Think beforehand about your game plan. What are the shots and sequences that work best for you? Which do you want to minimize?

As the match gets underway, have faith in your plan. Keep paying attention. Are you losing points due to execution or a faulty concept? At the same time, minimize technical input. If a stroke’s not working, limit your self-critique to one or two simple pointers — swing through, turn your shoulders — but not much else.

The other big problem is getting ahead of oneself. How many times are we up a set and 2-1 and start to see the finish line? You must instead trick yourself into seeing things differently. It’s very hard, particularly against an opponent you know is capable of coming back.

This is where little rituals — bouncing the ball before you serve, taking your time between points, toweling on changeovers — can make a big difference.

It also helps to have go-to strategies for many situations. For example, if you’re returning and it’s break point and the guy’s not rushing the net, it’s a no-brainer that your return must have a lot of air on it — lots of net clearance and depth.

So as I look at this, one macro key to keeping your mind at ease is to continually problem-solve. Think of a match as a workmanlike process of putting one piece together after another. Row the boat a little bit each day, and ventually you’ll make it across the ocean.

4 thoughts on “Mind Control

  1. Joel –

    Thanks for the great insights. I know first-hand (by losing to you!) that your “mind power” is one of your greatest tennis assets.

    Another mind trick I have found valuable: Never speak negatively to yourself before a shot. In other words, avoid saying “Don’t double fault here.” as you are getting ready to serve a big point. Your mind will then visualize what a double fault looks like; and you are more likely to replicate that action. Rather, say to yourself, “Hit this serve deep in the box with overspin.” And you are more likely to do that.

  2. George’s comment reminds me of another classic book on the subject: “The Inner Game of Tennis” by Tim Gallwey. I read this book 20(?) years ago and circulated it on to all my friends until someone finally kept it. He identifies your two “selfs” – the critical one and the natural one. In a nutshell, if you can block out your critical self, the natural self hits shots confidently and allows you to play those out-of-your-mind matches. I believe the book is still in publication.

  3. As a player who knows (and has played with and against) both Joel and George at Tennis Fantasies camp, I can attest personally to both the excellence of their games and the power of their minds. I agree with their comments, but write to illustrate that, for me, there is an even simpler formula to success on the tennis court.

    For myself, I can say that the times I have played the best — and, yes, even won — have occurred when I was able to remove from my mind all extraneous thoughts and just focused on just two things: (1) seeing the ball as well as I can, and (2) making sure my feet move as quickly as possible to get my body in position to hit the ball. When I have been able to do that successfully, I have often won (at least against players at or near my own skill level; if I play someone inherently better than me, then all bets are off).

    By seeing the ball better, I mean complete surrender of all concentration to the focused task of just observing the ball as it leaves the opponent’s racquet, through its ball flight, to its bounce (also noting its spin from the movement of the ball on the court surface; I do not believe it is really possible to see the ball so well that the spin can be observed as it moves through the air — that is a myth), to its being impacted by my racquet and its flight back over the net to my opponent’s side of the court. A little mantra that I find useful is to keep whispering to myself “The ball is a grapefruit.” This may sound silly, but what I am really trying to do is force myself to see the ball so well that it appears to be the size of a grapefruit in my mind’s eye.

    By movement of my body to the ball, I mean always staying on my toes and making sure the quick muscles in my legs are poised to carry my body as fast as possible to the track or path of the ball as I anticipate where it is going to when it leaves my opponent’s racquet. By keeping my eyes constantly on the ball, I have sometimes been able to get myself in position to move at one with the ball flight and, thus, to literally meet the ball exactly, or ideally a little before, it bounces. When I have been able to carry that out, it is truly exhilirating to feel how easy it is to play this game.

    I can only describe this strategy. I have no name for it. But on the rare occasions when I have been able to execute it properly, I suspect it is similar to what Arthur Ashe used to describe as being “in the zone.”

    Unfortunately, it is also rare that I have been able to execute this with aplomb. I attribute this to two factors: As for the watching the ball closely goal, I often cannot maintain concentration because I am unable to remove extraneous thoughts from my mind and just focus on the ball. An example might be worries about something going on at work. As for the movement with and to the ball goal, I have had a lot of trouble with over the last few years because of physical ailments preventing me from moving around the court as well as I would like. However, I recently had foot surgery to correct this so I am hoping that my court movement will continue to improve as I recover from the surgery.

    Anyway, many thanks to George and Joel for their comments, which got me thinking about all of the different ways to play the game of tennis with success.

  4. Great posts! Thank you.
    I too play with George and he has mentored me for the past 5 years about “mind control”
    Lately I’ve used the mantra “perfect action” as my focus point. Trying to exclude all other thoughts while I play, positve or negative.
    Here’s a quote from a wonderful little book I’ve been reading again; “Remember, always allow the action of an activity or an event to take presedence over your own point of view. At that time there will be a perfect flow of energy in whatever you choose to do, and there will be a grace and power in all of your movements. This, is perfect action”
    From Surfing the Himalayas, by Freddrick Lenz.

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