I had a breakthrough recently that I’d like to share.
As you may know, I’ve been trying to master the Inner Game of Tennis. A quick refresher: the main idea is that we work against ourselves mentally by listening to our conscious “teller” (Self 1) rather than letting our unconscious “doer” (Self 2) learn naturally how to play tennis.
For a while now, I’ve been trying to stop Self 1 from judging my level of play or giving instructions on how to improve my shots. The book recommends focusing on the ball, watching it so closely that you can see its seams or read the words on it. Theoretically, such close observation should keep Self 1 too busy to interfere and put you in a good position to address the ball.
In practice, I found it worked, but required a surprising amount of mental discipline. I would swear that I was concentrating, only to realize my mind was wandering, giving me instructions or criticizing my shots. Yet, when it worked, it worked. I hit better balls and it felt magical, like someone else was playing for me.
The experience also taught me that I need to let Self 2 figure out what’s right for me and to worry less about correct technique. If you think about it, that has to be true for everyone. Let me illustrate:
Halep has a more classical serving technique, while Errani’s positioning is awkward. But before you judge, know that both women have reached the final of the French Open and were among the top 10 female players in the world. Although Errani’s technique might not look as pretty, it works for her.
None of these observations are a breakthrough in themselves – just a lot of hard work to stay mentally focused. The breakthrough was the realization that to keep that mental discipline, I needed to remove all distracting thoughts: random, negative AND positive.
Last week, I played a match where I let go of all emotions and just focused on observing. It was an amazing feeling: I didn’t hit perfectly, but I didn’t feel bad or good about the shots. I could see what they were, what worked and what didn’t.
It was liberating – and surprising. I didn’t realize how distracting my positive thoughts were; every moment spent congratulating myself distracted me from the ball and my opponent. Suddenly, I was truly watching my opponent, which led to better predictions about her shots and better success in the match.
Now, when I’m on court I immediately dump all extraneous thoughts, especially positive ones, as soon as they occur and refocus on the ball.
I feel I’ve turned a corner. Suddenly my forehand has more topspin than ever before, and even better – tennis is consistently fun.