Recently I had the pleasure of playing a doubles match with my friend Kirk visiting NYC from Little Rock– an awesome player who blew past 4.5 level years ago. I met Kirk at IMG Bollettieri Academy and remember thinking, “If I could play like Kirk someday I’d die a happy man.” I felt so grateful playing with him and felt pretty good about how I had played. As we walked off the court after winning our match against a formidable opposing team, Kirk said, “You’re really hard on yourself aren’t you?”
Presumably this was because he heard me murmuring expletives to myself after shanking the ball or double faulting…
I nodded and smiled, explaining that, yes, I can get very impatient with myself when I repeat bad habits under pressure. But I also explained how I’ve actually become 100 times easier on myself during practices and matches in recent months, thanks to a breakthrough experience working this summer with an incredible coach from Total Tennis: Saif Syed.
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While Saif has been responsible for many major technical breakthroughs that are helping me accelerate progress on the “Road to 4.5” (e.g., my epiphany several months ago on how to get more topspin), his biggest game-changing contribution has been more psychological than technical.
You see, Saif doesn’t just yell at me when I do things wrong or praise me when I get it right. Quite often, he is prone to yelling:
“I’LL TAKE THAT MISTAKE!!”
In Saif’s view, there’s a big difference between bad mistakes (reverting to old habits mindlessly or out of fear) and good mistakes (instances where you give it your all and at least partly achieve what your coach has asked you to do–even if the ball misses the target or you lose the point).
The first time he said “I’ll take that mistake” I thought something like: “Seriously?”
The second time, I remember embracing the words and believing him. “Well, yeah, I guess hitting a ball with real topspin over the fence is better than continuing to hit flat forehands into the net.” I noticed that his encouraging phrase had completely turned around my growing negativity and frustration, which we all know doesn’t help us on the court.
From that point on, I started anticipating him yelling “I’ll take that mistake” the instant before the words came out of his mouth– which, in turn, was empowering: I was both becoming more self-aware, while also focusing more on the “right” than the wrong.
I can’t tell you how much this little phrase has positively impacted both my practice sessions and matches. It has been a sure-fire way for me to “press the reset button” if my mind starts heading into a self-defeating cycle of negative thinking. It helps remind me that I’m on a journey and I shouldn’t expect instant results just because I “understand” something in principle or can do it sometimes in practice. And it adds energy and momentum for me to focus about the all important “next ball” and “next point” rather than focus on the previous one.
On a related note…
I recently started reading Rafael Nadal’s biography, RAFA, and came across the passage below, which — like Saif’s mantra — has also really helped me put my mistakes into context:
“You might think that after the millions and millions of balls I’ve hit, I’d have the basic shots of tennis sown up, that reliably hitting a true, smooth, clean shot every time would be a piece of cake. But it isn’t. Not just because every day you wake up feeling differently, but because every shot is different; every single one. From the moment the ball is in motion, it comes at you at an infinitesimal number of angles and speeds; with more topspin, or backspin, or flatter, or higher. The differences might be minute, microscopic, but so are the variations your body makes–shoulders, elbow, wrists, hips, ankles, knees– in every shot. And there are so many other factors–the weather, the surface, the rival. No ball arrives the same as another; no shot is identical. So every time you line up to hit a shot, you have to make a split-second judgment as to the trajectory and speed of the ball and then make a split-second decision as to how, how hard, and where you must try to hit the shot back. And you have to do that over and over, often fifty times in a game, fifteen times in twenty seconds, in continual bursts more than two, three, four hours, and all the time you’re running hard and your nerves are taut; it’s when your coordination is right and the tempo is smooth that the good sensations come, that you are better able to manage the biological and mental feat of striking the ball cleanly in the middle of the racket and aiming it true… Tennis is, more than most sports, a sport of the mind; it is the player who has those good sensations on the most days, who manages to isolate himself best from his fears and from the ups and downs in morale a match inevitably brings, who ends up [winning].” — Rafael Nadal, RAFA (2011)
So next time I make a “good mistake” I’ll think of Saif’s encouraging mantra. And next time things go inexplicably wrong, instead of yelling at myself I’ll remember that even the great Rafa can’t always be perfect.
And now I can’t wait to get back to work on the court…
* Photo credit: I took this photo of David Ferrer (always thinking calmly between points) during his 2012 US Open round of 16 match against Gasquet.
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