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.