Students Description of Problem

by Joe Boland

“I have played tennis for some years. However, recently I took some coaching for the first time in my life. It looked good to start with, but thereafter my tennis gradually became worse to the point that I stopped taking lessons. I have become very tense/stiff when I play, and all the smoothness and ‘natural’ play has disappeared. I suspect that I am now over aware of my body movements (I am quite an analytical type of person anyway) which in turn makes me tense my muscles (this is especially noticeable in my shoulder and stomach area)”

Observations and Recommendation

I’m going to assume that you recognized something of your own tennis experience in what I wrote in my article and I’ll respond on that basis. You can let me know me if I’ve assumed incorrectly.

If I interpret what you wrote correctly, before you took tennis lessons and perhaps for a brief period thereafter your experience when you played tennis was one that was for you smooth and “natural”. This is not too surprising because my guess would be that at that point your were still playing intuitively and were not yet preoccupied with all the right/wrong details which would subsequently be presented to you by your tennis coach as a way for improving your technique. Not preoccupied with such details your analytical mind had not yet come strongly into play and your attention when you played was evenly dispersed.

As your lessons progressed and you were presented with more and more things to work on it would be my guess that, as long as you were in the “lesson” and the primary focus for your attention was the teacher and what he was saying and/or demonstrating, you seemed to be making progress and your technique was improving. And it would be my guess that even for a brief period after lessons the experience of improvement may well have lasted; but that there always came a moment when the experience went stale and it became a struggle to maintain what you thought you had learned. Such moments come as often than not when we try to take a newly learned idea into a stressful competitive environment and discover very quickly that it doesn’t work as well as we thought it would.

What you are doing is indeed over-analyzing or what is commonly called in sports “thinking too much” (a golfer would recognize the phenomenon as being overwhelmed by “swing thoughts”). Specifically, what you are doing is what I described in my article: in response to detailed instructions from your coach you (like many) become preoccupied with thoughts, feelings, and body parts, believing that this is what is necessary in order to “learn” how to execute a given instruction. The goal we have in mind when we do this is to find a “feeling” that can believe will reliably tell us when we are executing properly. By doing this, by narrowing our attention to and fixing it on “internal” sensory stimuli what we do is create the “mental” tension of what we call concentration, which simultaneously translates into the kind of “physical” tension that you have come to recognize in your tennis play. In so doing our visual attention to the ball is diminished and mishits become more common.

Because this is the habitual process you have been using to try to learn better tennis technique, if I gave you a “tip” like, for instance, “Stop thinking so much about what you’re feeling”, the chances are good that you would start to analyze that and pretty soon you would just have more tension.

If you were here or I was there we could go up to the tennis court and I could show you very quickly how to break this habit and how to improve and enjoy and your tennis without it.

But such is not the case so what I will suggest is an experiment that you can do that can show you that all of the introspective analysis in unnecessary. Try the following and let me know what happens.

1) This experiment is most effective if you can “see” the results so find a space where there is a mirrored wall. Two possibilities are dance studios or gyms/health clubs.

2) Stand with your back to the mirrors with your tennis racket in your hand and move from side-to-side executing forehands and backhands as you are accustomed to doing them. Do this for a few minutes and then…

3) Make some adjustments as you are doing this. For instance, loosen or tighten your grip, increase your hip rotation as you follow through, or sink more deeply into your knee bend. As you make these changes notice how you are “thinking” and what you are “thinking” about.

4) Now turn around and face the mirrors (from about ten or more feet away if possible). Just watching your reflection in the mirror and making no value judgments, move from side-to-side executing forehands and backhands as before, but this time just be content to WATCH what you are doing instead of trying to focus on what your are “thinking” or feeling. If you notice your center of attention wavering from what you are seeing and/or a tendency to want to draw your attention back to your “thoughts” or “feelings” stay calm and just redirect your attention back to what you are seeing. Let the “feelings” take care of themselves.

5) Now make the same changes as before, but this time just WATCH the changes taking place instead of trying to analyze and “feel” them. What you may well discover is that you can execute changes/improvements without all of the introspective analysis, that you can do so in a way that is not in conflict with keeping your eye on the ball, and that the result is much smoother and “natural” than what you were getting with all of the analysis.

When I work with tennis students I make it a point to have them visually focused on something whenever we are doing technique drills or even if they are standing off to the side practicing on their own. If they are standing in front of a backboard or practice wall and just practicing moves without a ball I will draw a circle on the backboard/wall with a piece of chalk so they have a definite visual objective, or just putting a tennis ball on the ground in front of them can achieve the same purpose. This prevents the kind of counterproductive introspection that causes the kind of tension you’ve experienced and it produces effortless and reliable movement and technique.

Let me add one last “tip” before I close.

Contrary to a belief that is popular with children as well as with adult Club players one does not learn how to play tennis well by playing games, sets, and matches; the best players learn, practice, and improve their skills relentlessly outside of the competitive environment. And, not incidentally, the best tennis academies teach this way.

If you want to play well you first have to practice well.

Copyright 2005
Joe Boland

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