Fearless Tennis is A Choice
Jeff Greenwald, M.A., MFT
Once I acknowledged the importance of pursuing an alternative path—one that forced me to pay more attention to my internal experience than on the actual outcome—I became intrigued with the perspective that we might all have more choice than we realize over how we perform moment-to-moment. I thought, “Could we actually choose to focus on other things, besides the outcome, that would be more helpful, even rewarding?" What I discovered is that this quest alone, and, ultimately, the subsequent choices we make from it, can boost confidence simply because we are taking power back into our hands. In many ways, for me, I felt as though I was on a more intriguing, and perhaps, more satisfying mission.
Ever wonder why great players like Andre Agassi and Roger Federer, more often than not, seem to pull out those tight three set matches. Could the reason be as simple as they choose to?
At the same time, I reasoned, if we could actually choose to prioritize our internal feeling state and embrace the moment-to-moment excitement of competition during a match—breathing in a relaxed way, visualizing specific strokes or targets, and shifting our perspective from time to time—over and above winning or losing, then, I thought, I might, ironically, win even more than before.
Interestingly, what started to emerge out of this was that my fear of losing or not playing well actually morphed into concern over NOT going for my shots, playing loosely, and stepping up at crunch time. That is, knowing that I might be choosing to back off the ball and playing tentatively became unacceptable under this new paradigm. My old patterns started to shift before my eyes. The thought of winning or losing was becoming background noise. Such thoughts as, “I have to win this” or “this would be a big win” shifted to “just let it go” and “one point at time” among others (“I love this”, “enjoy this match,” “It's never over until it's over.”).
These thoughts were really emerging from the choices I was making every match---to go for my shots and focus on being a competitor in the present moment rather than a player anxious about a result in the future.
In a short time, through my mental coaching work with other players and personal experiences on and off the court, I began to notice how much more additional mental space we have when we stop obsessing over the outcome or our mistakes.
“What are we able to do,” I thought, “when we choose to be more present and less preoccupied with what isn't working?” What I discovered is that we have the opportunity to enjoy the feeling of hitting the ball and becoming more present in the moment. When we choose to keep our attention more present in our body, we can hit the ball more cleanly. In other words, our sensory experience deepens. When we choose to be present like this, we make technical adjustments naturally. When we allow our bodies to reveal the information we need and not over think our shots, we are simply less in our head. Our muscle memory has the chance to become more automatic because we are operating from a physical, more tactile place, than simply thoughts. However, powerful “cue words” (short backswing, weight forward) or short visuals of correct strokes, can certainly ignite this muscle memory and serve as useful reminders.
When we choose to keep our attention more present in our body, we can hit the ball more cleanly.
As I fine-tuned specific shots (my inside-out forehand, backhand down the line, mixing up and adding pace to my first serve by relaxing my arm), I also chose to tinker with my physical tension levels—namely, being loose—and practiced playing with what I believed to be an optimal level of arousal. I am helping others do the same.
When players are returning serve, for example, I have them scan their body and literally “call up” the feeling of “looseness” that they feel is ideal for them. I have players “drop” their minds down into their arms and become aware of their muscle tension. If there is some tension, I have them breathe it out or simply try to let go into the moment. More than anything, it becomes a feeling of letting go; letting go of their tendency to want to control the shot and outcome of the point.
Many players learn to access this feeling of “looseness” and choose to hold this as a priority over the outcome. Then, I have them choose to hit the ball the way they commit to—aggressiveness with intention. This commitment to go for their shots on important points, regardless of the outcome, can be challenging at first, but it is one they eventually learn to value over and above everything else. Their bodies don't always follow suit every match at first, but it does get measurably better over time. Eventually, a fearless mind-set does emerge with practice.
Fortunately, I chose to shift my mind-set in a similar way in a critical league match playing for the club championship in Hamburg, Germany a few years ago. I was up against a player fifteen years my junior, in the deciding match for our team. I was down 5-2 in the third-set, all too aware that I was playing tentatively and would lose the match if I didn't change something.
In that moment, I acknowledged that I was backing off the return and trying to play it safe. I didn't know what would happen if I chose to step in and hit through the ball and really go for it, but I knew that I had to make this choice. So, I chose to attack the ball even though I was feeling a little tight and not in a terribly trusting place. But, I made the decision with intention.
I hit a winner on my first return. I then hit a very aggressive return on the next point and won that point, too. Within seconds my anxiety turned into positive adrenaline and I felt a surge of confidence. It was all I needed to race back and win the set 7-5 in the third only to hear him scream, “How can I lose to an old man?” in German.
What happened? I made a choice to hit through the ball and go for my shots even though I was feeling somewhat apprehensive. I chose to play the way I wanted and, admittedly, needed to. It doesn't always work out this way but at least I made the decision to play the way I knew I could. Sometimes the decision is all we need. If it doesn't work out, that's fine. More than likely, good things are right around the corner when you adopt this attitude.
We're all forced to make multiple choices everyday. Often we can approach these choices from a mind-set of fear, apprehension, and worry about the outcome. When we truly recognize that we have more influence over our mind-set than we may have acknowledged, we can make new choices that are more in line with our values. We can choose how we want to hit the ball, regardless of our anxiety in the moment, choose to view competition as an exciting opportunity to play full out, we can even choose many of the thoughts that enter our mind.
There is a moment when you must
choose between going for your shots or playing in fear.
Exercising this choice on the court or in our lives takes awareness and an interest in our personal development. By choosing many of our thoughts and tossing out the negative ones, and playing in a way that is in concert with our values, we have the opportunity to transcend old, worn-out beliefs and play the game of tennis and life at a much higher level. And, by the way, you may begin to win more without even thinking about it.
As you contemplate choosing to move into a more fearless mind-set, I think it's important to first acknowledge how much your mind is mired in the world of outcome. If it is, and you honestly believe that the scale is tipped too far in this direction, you should ask yourself, “What am I really trying to achieve in this game?” If it's to get better and beat particular players, that's fine, but ask yourself one more question, “Am I playing too tentatively or unfocused?” If so, the path I've described above is definitely for you.
This is a moment where you need to begin getting excited about following a new path in this game. It's a time for you to step into your own power, your ability to make choices that reflect a different set of values—performance over outcome— and commit to this process for the next 30 days. Once you've done this you are ready to move forward on the exciting path toward fearless tennis.
Your comments are welcome. Let us know what you think about Jeff Greenwald's article by emailing us here at TennisOne.
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