How To Be a Good Tennis Player— The Power of Mind When Instructions Are Useless
Whatever “transcends consciousness” sounds like whiff-whaff spiritual nonsense, but in Tennis, it’s the one thing that makes a difference.
And it makes my shots so good!
Many people say Tennis is more about Mind than Physique. And it is true. If you clutter your mind with instructions and conscious mechanics, you become too rigid.
If you say to yourself: “Come on, turn your hip up and to the left when you hit the ball, and finish on your right leg,” you lose it. The secret to tennis is to be flexible — and to make a tribute to the cliche community: You gotta feet it.
People who are in a streak always talk about being in “the zone,” and as one Tennis coach who investigates this phenomenon says:
“The next time your opponent is having a hot streak, simply ask him as you switch courts, “Say, George, what are you doing so differently that’s making your forehand so good today?” If he takes the bait -and 95 percent will- and begins to think about how he’s swinging, telling you how he’s really meeting the ball out in front, keeping his wrist firm and following through better, his streak invariably will end. He will lose his timing and fluidity as he tries to repeat what he has just told you he was doing so well.” — The Inner Game, Timothy Gallwey and Jonathan Cape, 1974
Instead, if you see your coach doing the move without manuals and they told you to replicate it: You are as smooth as a baboon’s butt, at least for your level.
What do I do to succeed in my shots?
I’ve been playing tennis since I was 11 years old. Thanks to quarantine, the sport was my kryptonite again, and I strive for mastery.
Since I was a kid, what I noticed from a whole bunch of trials and errors -and my coaches absolutely roasting me every time I mess up- is that the shots that work perfectly happen when I visualize them and I am present in Tennis, and only Tennis while I hit them.
So how do I do it exactly? (and how it applies EVERYWHERE?)
1. Visualize your sucess
I know, I know, this sounds like one of those “Rich dad, Poor Dad” financial independence tips, but it’s cruelly true.
The secret is that when I see the ball coming towards me, I imagine myself hitting it in the middle of my racket and to where I want it to be, and the feeling when I’m holding both my imagination and reality at that moment: That’s what PLAY really is, HAPPINESS.
Just literally imagine it while you hit it, and feel yourself inside that imagination and acting it out. Adrenaline gets pumped up, and you are in full presence: Holding both imagination and presence. I am confident I am FULL POTENTIAL AT THIS SHOT, EVEN IF I MISS.
You are flexible — it’s freedom, the real deal.
You get addicted to the sport that way. It’s that feeling of *presence*. Your vision narrows, and you are in full focus on the ball and the field. Tunnel vision and in-sync with your body? You hit the ball perfectly.
Research says that people who visualize tossing a basketball to the net for 30 minutes had the same improvement as those who actually tossed it over and over again in the same amount of time. (Video is attached above.)
This is absolutely amazing. No spiritual cr*p. This evolved mucus of flesh, neurons, and chemicals we call the brain needs to be trusted a bit more to succeed. We must believe in something bigger than instruction sometimes.
2. Feel the bottoms of your feet
Let me first point out that each professional player in tennis has a way to be present. To be in the “zone,” they each have a ritual. Isn’t that crazy?
Novak Djokovic will bounce the ball first with his racket then with his hand, Naomi Osaka will tap her thigh, Rafael Nadal will pull his shorts, the sleeve around his shoulders, touch his nose, and then finally move his hair to the back of his ears. — Vox, 2021
While moving back to my ready position, I practice presence. When I do it, I feel more in control of the ball. I sense the bottoms of my feet and how they are touching the floor, and then my hand holding the racket.
Sometimes it helps me to pay attention to my breath too, but you don’t have to do that. We don’t need the breathe much when we play tennis. When I do it, I look too much at my lungs and not the exterior of my body.
I don’t say: “Come on, move faster to the ball.” Instead, I acknowledge my mistake, and soon after I practice feeling my body like I said. The point is to get out of the frontal cortex, not inside of it.
The movement of your body is not in your conscious body, this is why once you learn to ride a bike, you barely focus on it anymore, it becomes automatic because the skill moves to what is called the Cerebellum.
Every time I do this, I hit the balls much better. More importantly, though, I get into a new world: I feel so present and it’s freeing. I connect to a higher power, as atheist as I may be. Even if I lose my match, I am a thousand times happier. (And the best player I could be in that match.)
“Ok man, but I am a financial analyst”
Ok. I’m sure in every self-help book you learned about mindfulness and how it benefits you. And how you should visualize your success and all of that fancy stuff.
But how can we apply these Tennis philosophies to whatever other job or goal we have in mind? Well first, mindfulness and presence don’t have to be all bearded yogy and we’re on our way to order a yoga mat online.
Mindfulness is about focusing on one thing, and when your mind naturally wanders, you notice it and bring it back to Center without judgment.
Whether on our laptop or taking a walk and feeling our feet up to the top of our head, mindfulness makes us less anxious and out-of-mind. What’s more to life? For example, I am mindful when I feel the bottom of my feet in my game.
On the other hand, visualization is not only a motivator, but it also tells our minds what the final product would look like. It makes things less obscure and real, almost attainable.
Imagination and reality are bundled up in so many ways that neuroscience can’t make sense of it all right now. But we know that once we visualize something in our mind, that’s all it takes to say it’s real.
“In a beautiful work by Alvaro Pascual-Leone at Harvard. Nonmusician
volunteers learned a five-finger exercise on the piano, which they practiced
for two hours a day. Within a few days the amount of motor cortex devoted to the movement of that hand expanded. Remarkably, remapping also occurred in volunteers who spent two hours a day imagining playing the finger exercise.” — Dr. Robert Sapolsky, Behave, The Biology og Humans at Out Best and Worst, 2017.
Check out this goal form from MD. Dawson and Guare in their book: The Smart but Scattered Guide to Success (2016). It uses both visualization and presence to plan for a goal: https://imgur.com/a/m31JR0J
Sometimes the last thing you need is a formula and instructions, if something is so complex, we need to trust in something else, and that’s flexibility and spirit (or whatever you believe in).
We learn from tennis that we are at our best potential when we visualize our shots and feel the soles of our feet. Visualize your goals step by step and practice mindfulness. It’s absolutely phenomenal.