Making A Meaningful Connection To The Game Of Tennis

October 20, 2015

Today I would like to discuss something that no one has ever spoken to me about nor asked me about in all my years of playing, teaching and coaching tennis. I want to talk to you about connecting to the game with your heart and soul and opening yourself up to all that the game can be and all you can derive from it.

Jill and I like to watch the TV show “So You Think You Can Dance.” I have never been a dancer nor was I ever interested in dance until very recently. The thing that drew me to the show was the way that these dancers put everything they had, physically, emotionally and even spiritually into their dancing. The best dancers had a combination of technical brilliance and an ability to interpret the music as well as connect the audience to the story they were trying to tell. You can tell the best dancers because they always look joyous yet spent after the dance because they put so much of themselves into it. They are not self conscious, they are not afraid, they are willing to bare it all to create beautiful art.

In tennis, most players rely way too much on technique to carry them through.They underestimate the emotional, psychological and even the spiritual components which is why they often look lost, unhappy and unconnected to the game. They never experience the sheer joy of letting everything out and playing with feeling. Here’s a personal anecdote that describes what I’m talking about from something other than tennis.

A few years ago I had surgery to remove a polyp from my vocal chords. I was told that taking voice lessons would help me to improve my vocal technique so that I didn’t continue to damage my voice. I had always wanted to take voice lessons so I was very excited about it. I took lessons from Jim Caputo, an amazing singer and a great voice coach. I learned quickly and developed very good technique. Many times when I would sing a song, Jim would say that he could see me thinking about technique while I was singing. This was helpful early on as it helped me develop consistent habits but the problem was that I could never get to the next step because I just couldn’t let it go and move on to connecting to the music. I might “sound nice” while singing but I could never connect to the words or the music thus I could never connect to the audience. I felt good when nice sounds came out of my mouth but that was as far as it went. Fortunately for me I was not trying to make a living at singing or competing at it but I still felt very unfulfilled in my singing. I loved it so much, yet I couldn’t make the right connection to it because I was afraid. Afraid of embarassing myself or of not doing it “right”.

If you’re a tennis player, you can probably relate to that story. You learn the basic stroking techniques but are so afraid of letting go and reaching for your full potential because you might fail or not do it right. If that’s the case, you’re already failing. No amount of wins will make up for the fact that you are not fulfilled as a person and a tennis player. As my coach used to say ” you miss 100% of the shots you don’t try.”

So the question is, how do you connect to the game in a more well rounded way. I am going to give you a few suggestions. As with anything you wish to learn, this will take patience and practice. The more you learn not to try too hard, the easier it ( and your tennis) will be.

1.)Do some kind of dynamic warmup before you play. Get your heart rate up and your muscles loose. It’s difficult to play loose when you’re sore and tight. Be alone for a few minutes or listen to music while you do this. Get your thoughts where you want them to be and relax.
2.) Hit smooth and easy with a relaxed grip in the warmup. Build up to more racket speed and velocity on your shots as you find your rhythm. Focus on how good it feels to hit the ball well and how much fun it will be to test yourself against ( and with) your opponent.
3.) During the match, do not focus on the results, only the process. Whether you win or lose a point, you are focusing on the present, the point you are playing, not the past or the future. Nothing can happen in either of those places.
4.) Take everything that is happening as a challenge and an opportunity. There is nothing negative going on, only negative thoughts connected to actions and situations by you. The heat, the wind, bad line calls, a superior opponent are only difficult to deal with if you make them that way. Otherwise thay are just part of the process. Part of winning a sailing race is navigating difficult waters. No competent sailor expects the seas to be calm all the time.
5.) Don’t be afraid to do what you’ve trained to do. The only time you should have a regret is when you fail to go for your shots and play your game.
6.) Don’t think about technique at all during the match. Let your body adjust your strokes to the pace and spins of your opponent instead of being rigid and inflexible. Everyone you play gives you different challenges and you must adjust physically as well as mentally to those challenges. Stop trying to control everything and trust yourself.
7.) No excuses. They hit too soft, too much spin, why am I playing #1, the courts were too fast, etc. If you can get to the point where you can accept the fact that no one wins all the time and just say, “it was great to play tonight. I can’t wait to get a chance to play again”, you will be on your way to playing at a new level of enjoyment and fulfillment. You will connect to this game in a way you never imagined and reach places you never thought you could reach. I’ll see you when we get there.