Patience. Patience. Patience.
Patience is one simple word that has big meaning and impact on your game. Said once is not enough.
One time turns into three: Patience, Patience, Patience. At some point in your tennis quest, it’s likely that you’ll reach a level of frustration that sends you in search of answers. Ninety-nine times out of 100, the answer is going to be more patience. Just keep repeating it until it is deeply embedded in your mind and then you might just begin to understand what it’s all about.
In order to play good tennis, it has to be fun, not head-banging and frustrating. Fun means something different to all of us. In tennis, we all do have one fun thought in mind: Winning matches. The trick is to learn to choose a positive and productive path, and leave the negative thoughts and self-destruction behind. Learn to enjoy and trust the process. This takes lots and lots of patience.
Improving the next three keys that will give your mantra meaning and start your forward progress now:
Typically, learning technique is the number one task for those relatively new to the sport. It’s also essential for more experienced players to constantly upgrade and improve their technique. Technique refers to proper formation of all the basic shots: Forehand, backhand, serve, volley and overhead. This addresses ball watching, point of contact, correct grips, swing patterns and footwork.
Each basic shot has a number of variations or sub-sets. These can all be learned after some proficiency once basic shot technique is completed. All of these specific techniques need to be learned, accepted, understood and practiced in order to achieve some level of proficiency or mastery. In other words, it’s a complex process that builds over time … and that's where patience comes into play. It’s essential to be patient with yourself and trust the process.
When you are developing and learning new grips, shots and footwork, you need to use the new, developing aspects in stressful situations. For example, when you are playing a set with a person you regularly beat, use your modified serve grip or new topspin forehand even though you might lose the set. Winning this particular set is not important. What is important is using the new stuff in a real situation. Initially, you won’t trust it, but that’s how you will learn to. Then, go and practice outside of the playing situation to solidify the technique.
Remember: Losing is an important part of the process and is a great learning tool.
The mind drives our emotions, and emotions can create fear on the court. Fear is a four-letter word in tennis and the most destructive emotion. Fear leads to impulsive behavior, playing outside of our means or not up to our potential, poor concentration and negative thinking. Once you go down that road, it’s difficult to recover. After all, if you are not nice to yourself on the court, who will be? Do you expect too much of yourself or worse, not enough? Are you often afraid on the court? Are you afraid to fail or to look bad or worse … to lose? The honest answer is likely yes. Who needs an opponent when you have yourself?
Once you have become somewhat proficient with the basic shots, you’ll discover the need for positive thinking and mental management skills, especially if you like to win games and matches. Fear, impulsive thoughts and negative behavior lead to unsatisfying play and prevent you from improving and loving the game. The fix to battling fear is proficiency in technique. If you know for sure that you can produce, then what is there to be afraid of? It’s almost that simple.
Tennis is a very patterned and logical game when you understand it. Playing in the moment, leaving the past (good or bad) behind you and not letting your emotions get the best of you is key. Developing mental stability and discipline requires a whole new level of patience and takes time to cultivate.
We’ve all been next to or playing someone spewing negativity and generally acting poorly. Maybe you’ve seen terror in the eyes of someone who is winning, but about to go down the tubes or someone who looks like a much better player than the opponent, but just cannot keep the ball in the court. Maybe it was even you! Now look on the other side and see the guy who looks relaxed, focused and attentive. If he shows any emotion, it is only positive. He may not win today, but he is on a far better path than the others and will certainly win many future matches.
Chances are you don’t know how negative thoughts are hurting you when, in fact, they are your fiercest foe. Negativity is far more powerful than the person on the other side of the net. The next time you feel fear on the court, simply smile. Smiling reduces stress. The experience has to be fun, whatever your definition of fun is.
Shot selection can make strategy seem like the most challenging area. Basically, we act like we have mastered Key Number One (Technique) and we really haven’t. If you play within your means (pick shots you can actually hit with a high degree of success) and up to your potential, then your strategy becomes much simpler.
Just because you can hit a variety of shots doesn’t mean you need to use them. Use them when they are appropriate for the situation, not just because you want to. Simplicity leads to success. Remember: Tennis is not a random game (repeat after me: Tennis is not a random game). A successful game is built on successful patterns of play and the ability to choose and string these patterns together. That brings us full circle and back to technique and mental discipline.
Being able to make your opponent uncomfortable is at the top of the strategy list. Accomplish this by knowing your strengths and putting them to use, planning ahead and having an answer for everything your opponent throws at you. Like a chess match, success in tennis often depends on identifying your opponent's weaknesses and capitalizing on them before they realize it’s too late.
The Mantra of Three is every player’s route to success. Patience often translates in physical, mental and strategic terms as simply being steady, keeping our cool and outlasting our opponent. How dull, right? Those solid concepts are the cornerstone of every game. With a good plan, every area of the game can be expanded into one that is truly successful.
Players who are not particularly athletic might not achieve enough because they don’t know the process and don’t think they can do it. Those of us who are athletic and highly competitive often skip some of the key steps to building a successful game. We are in a hurry to win. It can take these players much longer and cause more grief even though they bust through the gate faster. Slow down and enjoy the process. It takes some time and Patience, Patience, Patience.
Thanks to my new tennis friend, Harun Asad, for his content contribution for this article.
Lisa Dodson is the developer and owner of Servemaster, a USPTA Elite Professional and a former WTA world-ranked player. She is currently the director of tennis at Shenorock Shore Club in Rye, N.Y. She may be reached by e-mail at Lisa@TheTotalServe.com or visit TheTotalServe.com.