Feeling Intimidated? Remember: “The Ball is Always the Same”
By P.J. Simmons
Tennis is such a mind game. And because we’re all unique, everyone needs to discover the specific “mental toughness” tools that work best for them. (For Jamie Powers, another player on the “Road to 4.5”, it’s racquet tattoos).
Here’s a very simple new trick I discovered recently that’s been working wonders.
It came to me when I was facing yet another one of those intimidating match-ups that usually get my heart racing and muscles tight as steel cables. I was warming up for a match with my doubles partner, John, against a couple of guys who were clearly stronger. A lot stronger. One of them was definitely a 4.5, the other a solid 4.0 with a couple decades of match experience under his belt. During the warm-up, I kept trying to quiet my mind and slow my heart rate. But I couldn’t get the little monster in the back of my head to stop whispering sabotaging thoughts. And for the first couple games, I kept hitting tight forehands that went long, pathetic backhands, and wimpy serves.
It was my turn to return serve from the guy who most intimidated me on the opposing team. My self-defeating inner voice was still jabbering away. Then another voice replaced it as a calm, simple thought that popped into my head:
“The ball is always the same.”
I looked at the ball as my opponent tossed it up to serve… that little yellow ball I love so much… and before I knew it I had hit a cross-court return winner that elicited a big fist pump from my partner and a “nice” from the opposing team.
As I continued to return serves that game, I kept repeating the same thing at the moment just before the ball came my way. Success, we broke them. Then I kept repeating it throughout the entire match… and we won.
During the match, I realized what was happening. By reminding myself “the ball is always the same” I was essentially coaching my brain to remember two vitally important things:
1) The ball may bounce differently, come at a different pace or with a different spin — it always does, of course. BUT… I have shown myself I can handle all those different kinds of balls in practice sessions. I CAN return a high-bouncing kick serve. I CAN hit a half-volley when the time is right. I CAN keep a rally going for a while with a really hard-hitting baseliner. I CAN run fast around the court and get to rough balls. I CAN hit a great serve. I CAN have the mental toughness in me to come back from a deficit. I can do all of that and more IF–and only IF– I watch the ball and truly focus on the ball. If instead I focus on my opponent … if I tighten up and watch where I’m aiming instead of the ball at impact… I will lose focus and not play to my potential.
2) I LOVE the ball. I LOVE the game of tennis. I am lucky and deeply grateful to be playing… (and the result of this particular match, however much I want to win it, will not change any of that). And while I’m feeling grateful about that, I’m reminded of other things I’m grateful for. These are the constants that define why I’m here right now. If I remember this, I’ll keep things in perspective and loosen up.
The best coaches out there remind us that during a match the last thing we want to do is over think. We just need simple “cues” and “rituals” to get us back to a place of focus and looseness. For me, this is proving to be one of the best in my arsenal.
Feel Free to reach out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to follow me on social media!
PJ Just happened upon your site and love it! I am a 3.0 during match play and a 3.5 at practice. ; ) My goal is to be a 4.0 someday. Right now, I am getting beat regularly at USTA, as my practice self is WAY different than my USTA match self. It is very helpful to read your posts on what you have gone through in your journey. It provides insight and hope. I love the game and hate to let the losses take that away. I look forward to reading all the posts you have. Best of luck… Read more »
Jason, you made my day! So happy it’s helpful – exactly why I decided to write stuff down in the first place and makes it so fulfilling to hear. I’m not posting much these days because of my chronic overextension (my July 4 2016 post sums up pretty much where I still am) but good news is I’m back on court now after struggling with a wrist injury and so grateful every time. Keep me posted on how you’re doing and try to enjoy the process, even the crazy ups and downs… You are not alone!! 🙂 P.J.