In October, I had a nice tennis moment I would like to share. I competed at Nationals in La Quinta, Calif., as part of the Long Island team that represented the Eastern Section. It was a great trip. On the last day of competition, I played at number one singles against a tough player from the New England Section.
Before the match, I spent some time thinking about my match. I wanted to approach my match with a healthy dose of curiosity, as opposed to the paralyzing anxiety I have felt in the past. My plan was to not judge myself on my bad shots or tactics, but instead to observe myself, to see if I would be able to make adjustments when needed, to try and be effective with my game, and to really enjoy the opportunity. The experience was a great one. I started poorly, falling behind 0-3. I noticed that my inner voice was harsh in its criticism, however, since I was in “Observer Mode, it was a somewhat muted voice pushed to the background:
"Boy, you are slow, fat and old. You can't even track down shots in the corner anymore. And how about your backhand? It's ready to break down any second now. And forget about your second serve: What a sitter!"
What can you do to be effective?
A smile appeared on my face, I felt it … I was laughing at myself!
I guess I had no “Observer Voice” that I had chosen to listen to today. Yes, you can choose that.
In any case, I got myself into the match, and was seeing and reacting to the ball better and better. It became a 5-7, 7-5, 10-3 match. Afterwards, people told me it was a quality match. I was just so pleased that I had prepared the way I did, it worked for me and that I enjoyed it so much. I was proud of my performance. In hindsight, it is hard to know if I would have felt the same way had I lost the match, but I felt pride during the match, so I would have been okay with losing the match … I was really doing the best I could at that particular moment.
Fast forward to Tuesday of last week … I am training with one of my best students, an NCAA college player. I am trading groundstrokes with him as if I am 18-years-old again. The pace is furiously high, and my legs were burning. After a while, I start noticing my net-errors. They start to bother me. Somehow,” my Inner Voice thinks I am 18-years-old again as well.
"Every other ball is in the net. At this pace, you really have to bend low, and you cannot because you are too fat. You suck!"
I hear it loud and clear, but somehow still continues for a while longer somewhat unnoticed. The net errors did not get any better, and as a result, my Inner Voice gets even meaner and louder. I am scolding myself for being imperfect and I am ready to crack my racquet over my own head. Then it happens … I remember Nationals.
"Hang on," I think to myself. "Who are you?”
I instantly crack a smile when I am observing my ridiculous behavior. My Judging Voice loses all of its power.
I choose to make a change to see if I can raise my level of play. I conclude that I must not be seeing the ball very well because of that dark cloud of negativity. I start to really, really watch the ball. I decide that if I consider the ball extra low, I will tell myself to bend those old knees a little more to get under the ball and to add some topspin, and that if I consider it a ball of medium height, I will just drive right through the heart of the ball. Within minutes, I am not missing anymore. I am seeing the ball great. I feel like a young Andre Agassi blasting shots from the back court, unleashing laser shots from both wings. Boy, this is fun! Meanwhile, perhaps since I am not missing much anymore, my student is starting to notice his errors. I can see they are starting to bother him. His body language tells me the story of his inner game. He must be listening to the wrong voice. He must not be seeing the ball very well. He is ready to explode at any moment now.
"Hey pal, let's take a break for a minute … I want to tell you a story about my singles match at Nationals in October!”