Every game is composed of two parts, an outer game and an inner game.
There is a far more natural and effective process for learning and doing almost anything than most of us realize. It is similar to the process we all used, but soon forgot, as we learned to walk and talk. It uses the intuitive capabilities of the mind and both the right and left hemispheres of the brain. This process doesn’t have to be learned; we already know it. All that is needed is to unlearn those habits which interfere with it and then to just let it happen.
One: Reflections on the Mental Side of Tennis
THE TYPICAL TENNIS LESSON
Our mind is churning with six thoughts about what he should be doing and sixteen thoughts about what he shouldn’t be doing. Improvement seems dubious and very complex.
I’d try to keep his mind uncluttered and see if it made a difference.
I was going to skip entirely my usual explanations to beginning players about the proper grip, stroke and footwork for the basic forehand. Instead, I was going to hit ten forehands myself, and I wanted him to watch carefully, not thinking about what I was doing, but simply trying to grasp a visual image of the forehand. He was to repeat the image in his mind several times and then just let his body imitate.
He dropped the ball, took a perfect backswing, swung forward, racket level, and with natural fluidity ended the swing at shoulder height, perfect for his first attempt!
Everything had been absorbed and reproduced without a word being uttered or an instruction being given!
I was beginning to learn what all good pros and students of tennis must learn: that images are better than words, showing better than telling, too much instruction worse than none, and that trying often produces negative results.
PLAYING OUT OF YOUR MIND
Listen to the phrases commonly used to describe a player at his best: “He’s out of his mind”; “He’s playing over his head”; “He’s unconscious”; “He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
Athletes in most sports use similar phrases, and the best of them know that their peak performance never comes when they’re thinking about it.
The “hot streak” usually continues until he starts thinking about it and tries to maintain it; as soon as he attempts to exercise control, he loses it.
To test this theory is a simple matter, The next time your opponent is having a hot streak, simply ask him: "what are you doing so differently that’s making your forehand so good today?"
He will lose his timing and fluidity as he tries to repeat what he has just told you he was doing so well.
His mind is so concentrated, so focused, that it is still. It becomes one with what the body is doing, and the unconscious or automatic functions are working without interference from thoughts. The concentrated mind has no room for thinking how well the body is doing, much less of the how-to’s of the doing.
If you begin to learn how to focus your attention and how to trust in yourself, you have learned something far more valuable than how to hit a forceful backhand. The backhand can be used to advantage only on a tennis court, but the skill of mastering the art of effortless concentration is invaluable in whatever you set your mind to.
Two: The Discovery of the Two Selves
"I'm talking to myself". But just who is this “I” and who the “myself”?
Obviously, the “I” and the “myself” are separate entities or there would be no conversation, so one could say that within each player there are two “selves.” One, the “I,” seems to give instructions; the other, “myself,” seems to perform the action. Then “I” returns with an evaluation of the action. For clarity let’s call the “teller” Self 1 and the “doer” Self 2.
Within each player the kind of relationship that exists between Self 1 and Self 2 is the prime factor in determining one’s ability to translate his knowledge of technique into effective action. In other words, the key to better tennis—or better anything—lies in improving the relationship between the conscious teller, Self 1, and the natural capabilities of Self 2.
THE TYPICAL RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SELF 1 AND SELF 2
Imagine that instead of being parts of the same person, Self 1 (teller) and Self 2 (doer) are two separate persons.
Tightened face muscles aren’t required to hit the backhand, nor do they help concentration. Who’s initiating that effort? Self 1, of course. But why? He’s supposed to be the teller, not the doer, but it seems he doesn’t really trust Self 2 to do the job or else he wouldn’t have to do all the work himself. This is the nub of the problem: Self 1 does not trust Self 2, even though it embodies all the potential you have developed up to that moment and is far more competent to control the muscle system than Self 1.
His muscles tense in over-effort, contact is made with the ball, there is a slight flick of the wrist, and the ball hits the back fence. “You bum, you’ll never learn how to hit a backhand,” Self 1 complains. By thinking too much and trying too hard, Self 1 has produced tension and muscle conflict in the body. He is responsible for the error, but he heaps the blame on Self 2 and then, by condemning it further, undermines his own confidence in Self 2. As a result the stroke grows worse and frustration builds.
Getting it together mentally in tennis involves the learning of several internal skills: 1) learning how to get the clearest possible picture of your desired outcomes; 2) learning how to trust Self 2 to perform at its best and learn from both successes and failures; and 3) learning to see “nonjudgmentally”—that is, to see what is happening rather than merely noticing how well or how badly it is happening. This overcomes “trying too hard.” All these skills are subsidiary to the master skill, without which nothing of value is ever achieved: the art of relaxed concentration.