Reflections on the Mental Side of Tennis
The problems which most perplex tennis players are not those dealing with the proper way to swing a racket. Books and professionals giving this information abound. Nor do most players complain excessively about physical limitations. The most common complaint of sportsmen ringing down the corridors of the ages is, “It’s not that I don’t know what to do, it’s that I don’t do what I know!” Other common complaints that come constantly to the attention of the tennis pro:
I play better in practice than during the match.
I know exactly what I’m doing wrong on my forehand, I just can’t seem to break the habit.
When I’m really trying hard to do the stroke the way it says to in the book, I flub the shot every time. When I concentrate on one thing I’m supposed to be doing, I forget something else.
Every time I get near match point against a good player, I get so nervous I lose my concentration.
I’m my own worst enemy; I usually beat myself.
Most players of any sport run into these or similar difficulties frequently, but it is not so easy to gain practical insight into how to deal with them. The player is often left with such warmed-over aphorisms as “Well, tennis is a very psychological game, and you have to develop the proper mental attitudes” or “You have to be confident and possess the will to win or else you’ll always be a loser.” But how can one “be confident” or develop the “proper mental attitudes”? These questions are usually left unanswered.
So there seems to be room for comment on the improvement of the mental processes which translate technical information about how to hit a ball into effective action. How to develop the inner skills, without which high performance is impossible, is the subject of The Inner Game of Tennis.
The Typical Tennis Lesson
Imagine what goes on inside the head of an eager student taking a lesson from an equally eager new tennis pro. Suppose that the student is a middle-aged businessman bent on improving his position on the club ladder. The pro is standing at the net with a large basket of balls, and being a bit uncertain whether his student is considering him worth the lesson fee, he is carefully evaluating every shot. “That’s good, but you’re rolling your racket face over a little on your follow-through, Mr. Weil. Now shift your weight onto your front foot as you step into the ball . . . Now you’re taking your racket back too late . . . Your backswing should be a little lower than on that last shot . . . That’s it, much better.” Before long, Mr. Weil’s mind is churning with six thoughts about what he should be doing and sixteen thoughts about what he shouldn’t be doing. Improvement seems dubious and very complex, but both he and the pro are impressed by the careful analysis of each stroke and the fee is gladly paid upon receipt of the advice to “practice all this, and eventually you’ll see a big improvement.”
I too admit to overteaching as a new pro, but one day when I was in a relaxed mood, I began saying less and noticing more. To my surprise, errors that I saw but didn’t mention were correcting themselves without the student ever knowing he had made them. How were the changes happening? Though I found this interesting, it was a little hard on my ego, which didn’t quite see how it was going to get its due credit for the improvements being made. It was an even greater blow when I realized that sometimes my verbal instructions seemed to decrease the probability of the desired correction occurring.
All teaching pros know what I’m talking about. They all have students like one of mine named Dorothy. I would give Dorothy a gentle, low-pressured instruction like, “Why don’t you try lifting the follow-through up from your waist to the level of your shoulder? The topspin will keep the ball in the court.” Sure enough, Dorothy would try hard to follow my instructions. The muscles would tense around her mouth; her eyebrows would set in a determined frown; the muscles in her forearm would tighten, making fluidity impossible; and the follow-through would end only a few inches higher. At this point, the stock response of the patient pro is, “That’s better, Dorothy, but relax, don’t try so hard!” The advice is good as far as it goes, but Dorothy does not understand how to “relax” while also trying hard to hit the ball correctly.
Why should Dorothy—or you or I—experience an awkward tightening when performing a desired action which is not physically difficult? What happens inside the head between the time the instruction is given and the swing is complete? The first glimmer of an answer to this key question came to me at a moment of rare insight after a lesson with Dorothy: “Whatever’s going on in her head, it’s too damn much! She’s trying so hard to swing the racket the way I told her that she can’t focus on the ball.” Then and there, I promised myself I would cut down on the quantity of verbal instructions.
My next lesson that day was with a beginner named Paul who had never held a racket. I was determined to show him how to play using as few instructions as possible; I’d try to keep his mind uncluttered and see if it made a difference. So I started by telling Paul I was trying something new: I was going to skip entirely my usual explanations to beginning players about the proper grip, stroke and footwork for the basic forehand. Instead, I was going to hit ten forehands myself, and I wanted him to watch carefully, not thinking about what I was doing, but simply trying to grasp a visual image of the forehand. He was to repeat the image in his mind several times and then just let his body imitate. After I had hit ten forehands, Paul imagined himself doing the same. Then, as I put the racket into his hand, sliding it into the correct grip, he said to me, “I noticed that the first thing you did was to move your feet.” I replied with a noncommittal grunt and asked him to let his body imitate the forehand as well as it could. He dropped the ball, took a perfect backswing, swung forward, racket level, and with natural fluidity ended the swing at shoulder height, perfect for his first attempt! But wait, his feet; they hadn’t moved an inch from the perfect ready position he had assumed before taking his racket back. They were nailed to the court. I pointed to them, and Paul said, “Oh yeah, I forgot about them!” The one element of the stroke Paul had tried to remember was the one thing he didn’t do! Everything else had been absorbed and reproduced without a word being uttered or an instruction being given!
I was beginning to learn what all good pros and students of tennis must learn: that images are better than words, showing better than telling, too much instruction worse than none, and that trying often produces negative results. One question perplexed me: What’s wrong with trying? What does it mean to try too hard?
Copyright © 1997 by W. Timothy Gallwey. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.