What's the most difficult thing to do in tennis?
I'd have to say it's the ability to balance efficient learning with optimal performance. The best players present a growth mindset to maximize learning and improvement and shut down that mindset to perform. Learning is premeditated, performing is about letting go, relaxing and "just doing it."
Below are some guidelines …
1. Think about not thinking: How to practice non-specific thought.
Study after study indicates that Alpha brainwaves or a non-specific visual thought process is highly correlated with peak athletic performance, while specific thought or the production of Beta brainwaves work to inhibit athletic performance.
So should you think when you play tennis?
Of course you should, but only at certain times and in certain ways. It's important to limit specific thought to the process of learning on the practice court. General or non-specific attention is what you want to display during matches while you are in the act of performing.
In 1974, author Tim Gallwey in his best-selling book, The Inner Game of Tennis, suggested to repeat the phrase "Bounce, Hit" as almost a meditative mantra to master non-specific thought. Practice skills with very definite and precise goals, and then practice these same skills with the confidence to trust yourself and just let go. Maybe hum a song, shake your hips or repeat a phrase. This will help you link complex movements and flow.
2. Every breath you take, every move you make: How to breathe
We all know how to breathe. However, very few of us give much thought to just how vital breathing with maximum efficiency is to high performance. Increases in expiration flow rates allow you to take in more oxygen and feel greater energy, alertness and concentration levels. Enhanced breathing techniques are complex and require practice, but the "Cliff's Notes" version is to slowly breathe deeply through your nose and feel your chest rise, hold for a moment, and then even more slowly exhale though your mouth while feeling your belly raise. Conscious breathing will promote a calm mind and body.
3. What you see is what you get: How to use visualization
Visualization and mental imagery are some of the most powerful tools that tennis players, as well as all athletes, have to improve upon and display peak performance. Many studies indicate that that neuroplasticity, or changes in neural pathways which result in "muscle memory," are gained by mentally rehearsing a movement to almost the same degree as by physically performing a movement.
Novak Djokovic has recently talked a great deal about how his mindfulness practices have helped him ascend back to number one in the world. Such practices are particularly useful in managing and controlling performance anxiety, which is one of the main obstacles tennis players encounter on the road to success.
4. The habitual and the ritual: How to practice habits and rituals to relax
There is nothing more terrifying than uncertainty since it is human nature to fear the unknown. The use of rituals, or a series of actions in a prescribed order, helps to bring the familiar to even the most novel situations. When we repeat habits, they become soothing mindful engagements.
Ask yourself … how many times do you bounce the ball before hitting a first serve? How about before a second serve? It doesn't really matter what your number may be, as long as it's the same every time.
5. The “Marshmallow Effect”
In this famous Stanford University study, young children were asked to choose between "having one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in 30 minutes." These subjects were tracked as adults, and those children who were willing to wait for that extra treat had a higher level of education and achievement attainment as adults.
While many suggest that this was a flawed study, my takeaway is that success is attained by choosing the perfect balance between immediate gratification and greater future success. This balance recognizes that just the right amount of stress and fear motivates conscience behavior. If we are always in a state of relaxation, we could become overconfident and under-motivated. We might not look both ways before crossing a busy street and we might procrastinate every unpleasant task.
On the tennis court, anxiety or the fear of failure is a great motivator to help us pay the price to fight through the pain to work past limits to achieve greatness. Once having committed to decisive action, however, relaxation is the best path to peak performance because it prevents us from fighting ourselves.
As the Mandarin Chinese proverb reminds us: "The tree that does not bend with the wind will be broken by the wind."
Steve Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation and executive director and founder of Serve & Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally-ranked junior players, 16 state high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.