JAK'S MONTHLY ESSAY SERIES: Achieving Your Personal Best
The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste:
Mental Toughness Skills
Ever consider why The Inner Game of Tennis (1973) still resonates today with heady players some 40 plus years after its publication? Or why did Mental Toughness Training (1985) inspire Arthur Ashe to declare its author, Dr. Jim Loehr, "the single most important person in the game of tennis today?" Or even what motivated me to pen More Than Just The Strokes (2005), which reached Amazon's top 10 tennis instruction category back then? And, how is it that, today, television commentators in any sport invariably, always in admiring tones, bring up the "mental toughness" qualities of particular athletes that are noted as making the difference in enabling them to perform at a very high level?
It's because the mental game - which, let us not forget, includes one's emotional component - represents the often ignored mind-body connection that's very much in the mix of facilitating players in any sport to maximize their hard earned mechanical skills - shoot, throw, catch, hit, et al - especially in a mano-a-mano sport like tennis, where there's no one to rely on besides yourself to replicate your best stuff on a consistent basis.
More than anything that means without a gazillion unforced errors.
I recall a lesson a few years ago with an affable, hugely successful, international commodities broker who, while we were drilling his ball striking technique - not playing practice points or competing - in which he was showing steady improvement to an already decent game, declared, "It's all just about the mechanics, isn't it."
Well no, not all of it!
At this juncture in our sport - long after Jim Loehr laid out the first practical, doable template that remains the primary M.T. model even today - I'm still surprised that far too many pros, no doubt well-intentioned, do not include mental toughness skills in their everyday teaching and coaching. And, as a result, their players, even those skilled in mechanics who drill like champs, are often at a loss when it's time to put up in match play.
So, in any case, here's a list of fundamental techniques that should be an integral part of everyone's game:
- Ball Tracking - Yes, tracking or watching the ball is a developed skill, and both the most important and most difficult skill in tennis. That means, in terms of dueling cross court groundstroke rallying in doubles for example, tracking the ball right off an opponent's impact point all the way to your own. And then, without looking up prematurely – keeping your head still! - tracking it "downrange" right into the opponent's racket. In and out.
- Visualization – Immediately upon recognizing an opponent's strike of the ball, visualize your own intended shot response, including both directionally and marginally over the net. Federer, otherwise Mr. Modest, claims he is able to accomplish this faster than anyone else. You cannot measure how fast the brain – right hemisphere – can "think" in pictures. Imagery.
- Breathing – A multi-faceted advantage can be gained through the raw physicality of exhaling at and through impact on every shot. Muscle relaxation and greater power, emotional stress reducing, prevention of going into O2 debt, better timing through overall shot synchronization can all be achieved simultaneously in the ball on string moment.
- Reading – Another developed skill that allows, exclusively through one's periphery since you're singularly tracking, or focused, on the ball and only the ball, being able to predict where an opponent will be striking the ball in relation to their body position – way in front, not much in front, or even late – giving you a quicker, earlier jump start to return their shot whether it's cross court, down the line, inside out cross court, or inside in down the line. The ball is always going where the racket face is positioned at that fleeting moment of impact.
- Kinesthetic Consciousness - An awareness of what your body parts – feet, legs, hands, arms, trunk, shoulders, head – through a sensory consciousness to maintain fluid ball striking, along with favorable hitting positions without any overt thinking, such as mistakenly focusing on a paint-by-the-numbers, 10-point ball striking list, that will literally distract your eyes from the ball. Left brain undermining.
- Rituals – Developed on both serve and serve return since those two shots are initiated from a static start of potentially no motion. Creating rhythm through relaxed movement prior to serve or serve return. Bodies in motion.
Hopefully, if you're not already, you'll integrate these basic M.T. skills into your game for a guaranteed better and more consistent performance in match play.
Copyright© 2019 by Jak Beardsworth Tennis. All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
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