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Seeing the Moment
“Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”
- Alexander Graham Bell
In tennis, we are constantly counseled on the benefits of early preparation and the gift of anticipation. But can our efforts to prepare actually undermine our chances for success? Can our attempts to anticipate lead to our downfall? Can our own plans and predictions cause us to lose our way?
There is a fine line between “being ready” and getting betrayed by “what we are ready for.” There is a delicate balance between anticipating an opponent’s shot and committing ourselves to a fanciful fate. The reality is that there is a great deal of the game of tennis that is unpredictable and uncontrollable. When our opponent approaches the contact of the ball we cannot always tell where that shot will end up. In fact, at times the ball doesn’t even go where the striker intended it to go. How then can we be expected to “anticipate” or “prepare” for the unexpected? And how do our diligent exertions to do that prevent us from responding to actual events as they occur?
Preparation, Readiness, and Relativity
Click photo: McEnroe sees the
ball at contact, judges the situations, reacts, and makes decisions with uncanny rhythm, fluidity
“Preparation” or readiness is the first part of the reaction process. Being ready means being prepared to respond to what is seen. Being “prepared,” however, is a relative thing. We can only be ready for the things we have experienced, with what we are familiar. For example, we can’t get ready for a “kick serve” if we have never seen one. This is one of the benefits of playing against better competition. We improve as we play better players by the simple fact that we see better shots coming from our opponents. The ball comes back with more speed, spin, angles, variety, and frequency. By becoming familiar with that greater variety of responses, we can incorporate that into a broader “scope of readiness.” This familiarity is developed through time and experience.
Anticipation and Human Behavior
“Anticipation” is a natural human response. Much like we crave warmth when we are cold so do we crave certainty when there is doubt. We have a natural impulse to anticipate the response of our actions, to plot their courses, to evaluate the possible outcomes. We also have a natural impulse to anticipate for the impending actions of others so that we can prepare, so that we can control our own destinies.
What is much less natural and more difficult to achieve is being comfortable with not knowing. To be content and relaxed in a state of doubt. Martial artists know the importance of staying calm, alert, and “focused” in the face of an attack. Almost all martial arts training involves meditative practice to calm the mind and harness its eagerness to roam. By calming the mind, one can achieve a state of being in the present. The mind stops analyzing and simply observes purely in the
In the face of an attack, the observer must detach from the urge to
anticipate, to prepare a response and simply see the moment. In the same way we
must learn to observe our opponent's shots and not be caught "over anticipating." When the mind is steady, alert, and focused, it can shift from predicting to very precise seeing. Whereas anticipation is a more natural, automatic response, "seeing" is more of a learned behavior. With good players "anticipation" is subject to "seeing" based on information grounded in experience.
“Concrete Seeing” and “Conditional Seeing”
Anticipation in tennis is really a misnomer. In reality, anticipation is actually “seeing” occurrences and conditions in the moment and making appropriate responses. Seeing can be broken down into two general categories, “Concrete Seeing” and “Conditional Seeing.” Concrete Seeing is visual recognition of real objects in real time and space. I see the ball come off of my opponent’s racquet in concrete terms. I see the position of the court in concrete terms. Concrete Seeing is at its most heightened when the ball is being struck on both sides of the net. This seeing is extremely momentary, instantaneous, and intense. It is performed in a singular focus of time and space and within a vacuum of thought and emotion.
There is also “Conditional Seeing” which includes the ball while in flight, the opponent, the court, and external factors such as the wind, the sun, and so on. Conditional Seeing is more anticipatory by nature but it is based on real time and real occurring factors. Conditional Seeing involves the recognition of less tangible forms, the constantly changing positions of ball and player. It involves seeing opportunities, pressure, relationships of time and space, and an awareness of player “tendencies.“ If I “see” I have applied pressure on my opponent based upon the strength my shot and my opponent’s position, then I can calculate the probable response and what my most advantageous action should be to maximize my chances of success.
In the course of a point there is Concrete Seeing and Conditional Seeing. These two forms of awareness ebb and flow into a rhythm. The shift is from narrow, specific, intense, and concrete focus at the moment the ball is struck to broad, judgmental, anticipatory, and fluid focus in between the hits.
When players say they are “seeing the ball well,” it is not just the ball they are seeing but also an accurate assessment of the relationship between significant objects and doing these two forms of seeing at precisely the right moments. This rhythm takes patience so that the player allows enough time to “see” before judging. It allows the player to not only see things with clarity but to exercise skillful decision making. This coordination of information processing makes the game flow more smoothly and makes the “mental” part of the game operate more efficiently.
But this process takes a great deal of practice and may be the hardest part of the game to master.
Intentions, Expectations and “Emotional Seeing”
How many times have you said, heard, or thought, “Yeah, I was ready …but I didn’t expect that!” or “I didn’t see that coming.” This often occurs when returning serve. You may think you are ready for any possible serve, but then you are caught by a weak, short serve. In the same way you may intend on hitting a certain shot or create a certain situation and react to what you intended to do rather than what actually happened. You may hit an offensive lob and run to the net assuming that it went over your opponent’s head simply because that is what was intended. However, in many cases you allow the things you expect to happen influence how
you interpret the things that are actually happening.
Sometimes seeing can be imprinted with emotions. If I am returning a serve I may expect the ball to come to the place that I fear the most - say my weak backhand. As the opponent’s ball toss goes up I may be so self conscious about my backhand that I can’t think of anything else, and that is what I “see.”
In most cases expectations are grounded in experience but they can also be imprinted with emotions, fears, and hopes. All of these things can create projections that can cloud accurate “seeing” of the ball as it comes off an opponent’s racquet. Fear and hope will lead to “projecting,” that is imagining scenarios that are not reality based. Not only can these emotions produce disruptive tension but they also produce delusional, “emotional seeing.”
An exercise I like to do with people that replicates this phenomenon of “emotional seeing” is to have them stand at the net with their hands at their sides without a racquet. As they stand still, I hit balls by them (sometimes closer and faster than they are comfortable with) and I have them simply call out “forehand” or “backhand.” You would be surprised at how often they call it wrong. The fear of getting hit makes them anxious so they anticipate - or more accurately, they guess.
While under duress, they have a preconceived misconception of time itself. They may fear they have too little time to avoid getting hit. So in order to satisfy their own sense of “time,” they often create scenarios that preclude the event. In essence, they guess. Under these conditions it is very difficult to remain calm enough to let yourself actually see what is coming at you before you react.
Short-court volleying is great way to develop better seeing, judging, and reaction timing. As you get better, you actually “slow down” both your mind and body. The movements become less forceful, more supple, and more economical. The reactions become more appropriate as you give yourself time to actually “see” as opposed to “rushing to judgment” before all of the evidence is actually in. With enough practice and experience on drills like these, fear of getting hit will be reduced and time will seem to slow down. Much more clear vision and judgment and better reactions will be the result.
Click photo: Federer has an uncanny ability to abandon expectations, intentions, emotions and deliberation and to “see and react” with clarity and spontaneity.
The Great Ones
Perhaps the greatest “visioner” was John McEnroe. He was able to use relatively rudimentary stroking skills but he had an ability to read and react to situations with tremendous timing, clarity, spontaneity, and agility. Federer has a similar ability to “see” the moment, judge, react, and create but with a greater arsenal of stroking techniques.
Planning, preparation, and anticipation are all important aspects of playing the game. Planning, preparation, and anticipation will put the player into an optimal position from which to see, judge and react. But to properly see and react, you must abandon your plans and preparations, your intents and expectations, and see what actually occurs in the moment.
Our fears and hopes, our intentions and expectations tether us like ropes, binding us in time and space, and preventing our minds from gracefully maneuvering the slippery terrain of now and then. My racquet can only get as far away as my arm will let it, but my mind is limited only by my imagination. It is the trickiest part of the game to control. To be ready for everything, I cannot be prepared for any one thing. It is both enigmatic and paradoxical and like the rest of the game, it will reveal itself in the playing.
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Pat Etcheberry's Cerification Program (Nov. 11-12, Los Gatos Tennis Academy,
- Enhance your professional value: Eligible for 4 USPTA CEU credit and PTR MAP Points
- Add new revenue streams to your business
- Receive a FREE copy of Pat's new book "My Secrets to Championship Performance"
- Receive a FREE copy of Pat's blockbuster DVD series "Strength & Conditioning for Serious Tennis: Coaches' Edition"
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T1 Super Slow-Mo™ Video - Elena Dementieva
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ProStrokes Gallery: Fernando Gonzalez - Return of Serve
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Virtual Tennis Academy
Current professional tour coach, Heath Waters and wife, top 100 and former no. 33 in the world ranked tour player, Lindsay Lee-Waters, are proud to release the first predominantly all streaming video based e-learning tennis instructional website at www.virtualtennisacademy.com
Subscribers will receive personal video tennis instruction directly from Heath and Lindsay as well as mental coaching, sports performance training, and much, more from a hand chosen team of experts currently working with professional tennis players on tour. Now anyone in the world, no matter what level, can receive the same world class training the world's best tennis players receive right from the convenience of their own home.
The Etcheberry Experience DVD
For more than twenty years Pat Etcheberry has been providing athletes from around the world with the winning edge. We call this the Etcheberry Experience, and players with an Etcheberry experience have hoisted Championship Trophies at over one hundred major championships, including 28 Australian Opens, 18 Wimbledons, 22 UP Opens, 22 French Opens and 15 Olympic medals.
And now it's your turn! This is your chance to experience the same drills, exercises and words of tennis wisdom that Pat gave to Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis, Jim Courier, Justine Henin-Hardenne, and others, that helped launch them on their incredible careers. For the first time, Pat Etcheberry shares his training secrets in a series of DVDs for players of all ages, their coaches, and trainers.
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