Saturday, April 6, 2024

Concentration, breathing, and thinking differently about competition are some keys to tennis improvement

I summarized some of the helpful hints from the first half of the classic tennis self-help book, The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance, by Timothy Gallwey. It begins to repeat itself quite a bit as it enters its second half. There is lots of interesting but repetitive mumbo jumbo about the Self 1 and Self 2 (conscious and unconscious). 

That said, there really might be something to not worrying so much about the “external” score of your tennis matches or how far you make it in the tournament but rather focusing on what’s important to you in your “inner mind.” These may be things like overcoming anxiety or nervousness before a match, achieving a fun time on the court, or any number of other inner accomplishments. Here are some of the more interesting tennis tips I gleaned: 
  • Play around with your grip style to see if you are holding the racket the right way for you. I’ve never been able to keep track of the different ways many teachers have instructed me to grip the racket. For many years, the Eastern grip dominated, and it’s still the United States Tennis Association’s approved style. It’s when you basically hold the racket as if you were shaking someone’s hand. But a lot of competitive players are nowadays using the “semi-Western grip,” in which a right-handed player will turn the racket a quarter turn back so that the wrist is bent up in the direction of the elbow a bit. I tried that for a while but I’ve basically gone back to a pretty Eastern grip style, which is not to say I shouldn't still always experiment.
  • Go out and videotape yourself in a match. Then analyze the tape to see where your feet, your hips, your shoulders are on good shots and on bad ones. Observe where your backswing is. Where is the ball on your racket at the time of impact, and what is the angle of your racket at the point of impact? Is there any hesitancy in the follow-through? How is weight distributed from the start to the end of the follow-through?
  • Counterintuitively, tightening the muscles of the arm and the wrist on the serve reduces power, so it’s important to find the right level of muscle tension. There is no one right way, which is obvious when noting that no pros' serves look the same.
  • Whenever you discover you have a bad habit, don’t work to break it but rather try new habits and see how they go. See if you can get in the groove. The thing with tennis is that you don’t need to try to do everything like your favorite pro player because everyone is different and things work differently for different people.
Pretty much every stroke and improvement follows the same process:

  • Criticize or judge past behavior
  • Tell yourself to change, instructing with words
  • Try hard and make yourself do it right
  • Observe existing behavior non-judgmentally
  • Picture desired outcome
  • Let it happen
  • Continue to observe and learn
For better concentration, try focusing on the seams of the ball. Not just the ball. Not just watching the ball. Really get engrossed in how the ball spins, and watch it this way from the time it bounced off the opponent’s racket. I am suspicious of this hint, but I will try it nonetheless. To help, try saying "bounce" out loud when the ball bounces and "hit" when your racket hits the ball. Likewise, listening to the sound of the ball off your racket can be illuminating, perhaps even more than watching the ball. Once you hit the ball right in the sweet spot of the strings, you might find great satisfaction in often trying to replicate that sound. Flat, slice, and kick serves will each produce different sounds. And there may be no more satisfying sound than that of a volley performed perfectly. 

Relaxed concentration is another tactic Gallwey uses. He will often cheat forward to return a serve soon after its first bounce then attack the net. It not only confuses an opponent but it builds quicker and more accurate reactions over time. “Concentration seems to slow time down.” In order to stay focused between points, “focus on breathing … observing breath going in, going out out, going in, going out in its natural rhythm.” 

Competition is another part of the equation in the book - and Gallwey makes the point that tennis can be both competition and cooperation between the two opponents. For example: 
  • Instead of hoping the other player double faults, you can hope it lands in the service court so you can have a better mind state for the return shot. 
  • If your opponent has a weak backhand, hitting it to his backhand will be a nice thing to do in helping him improve that shot. 
This book gets a 4.5 out 5 stars. After I try many of the tactics, I'll have a better sense of whether it should be 5 out of 5 or something less.

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