Posted by: joeruth on Sep 04, 2011
This is a topic which I have great focus on right now because I'm right in the middle of one. I stopped playing tennis for a month and a half because of a hamstring tear and though I am back physically, my game is not. Oh, I'm playing competently enough but all I am doing is taking my opponent into the third set and losing close and late. I can't seem to make those magic plays which put you over the top when you need them. Since we're starting the league playoffs soon, I'm hoping to find something... like now.
Playing to win against difficult opponents of roughly equal skill is more than just practice and basic competence. After all, they have all of that too. There is something that I have to learn every year all over again from scratch which I haven't rediscovered yet. I haven't put my finger on it but when you are going good, you just have a knack of making that last shot or staying on the ball just a millisecond longer and playing it out hard to the end. It is almost like selling out to the gods of tennis and putting away that uncertainty and doubt and simply being there playing ball. How do you get there? I have no definitive answers but I do have some notions...
First, you have to simply stop worrying about winning. That seems very strange but it is a first necessary step. If you worry about winning while not playing well, the first bit of bad luck or good play by the opponent or bad play by yourself will start to consume you and in short order you'll be more concerned with the results of your match than the actual playing of the match itself. This is never a good thing.
Next, remember that losing is not a reflection on you as a person. This seems obvious but for an athlete for whom a huge amount of their identity is wrapped up in their sport, it isn't so easy. If you start losing then you ARE a loser and maybe you deserve to lose. You see a lot of self loathing start to come out in players who are in a bad streak and you hear things like "I stink" or "I'm awful". This needs to stop right away for more reasons than just winning a match or two. The player in the game and the human walking around in life after the game are two distinct things. Keep it that way. Some people use the beginnings of that self loathing to direct anger either at themselves or their opponent and wash away the doubt and uncertainty with some hard core hate. A dangerous path but many have done it and it can work for you as long as you can turn if off afterwards.
Now let's start something instead of merely stopping stuff. Try and make the game as 'small' as possible. Your entire focus needs to be on each shot or individual play and not on anything bigger. There are bunches of devices to help with that but my favorite is simply to make a strong effort to watch the ball the entire time it is in play. It is probably not the ideal thing to do as the position of your opponent is important but if you're having problems making plays, following the ball is a great way to help focus. Each play is the entire match and you need to focus on each play at a time.
Finally, you need to start believe that the ball is going to go where you hit, throw, or kick it (whatever is appropriate for your sport). If you are not practiced enough to do that on a regular basis under no pressure circumstances, no amount of conviction is going to help you. But if you can do that and are failing because of the pressure of the match, then there are things you can try.
Let's start off with a quote from the Bible. I'm not a Christian but it is a nice little tidbit which helps start off the discussion:
“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”
This is an interesting passage from a reformed uneducated religion cop. There is a lot of twisting and jumping done by various scholars and clerics to kind of make this line up with our more common sense of what being religious means but frankly, I think it speaks for itself.
Mariano Rivera was once asked about his cutter and replied like this...
“I didn’t learn it by somebody teaching me. It came by the Lord. So it’s not within myself to lose it or keep it. It will be the Lord to decide when to take it away.”
The common theme is that you are not going to 'work' you way out of your funk. It is a nice way maybe to occupy yourself until the light switch comes back on but it isn't getting you out of your trouble. I think maybe some folks use the sweat and difficulty of preparation to convince themselves that they are worthy of success when the time comes. Hey, if that does it for you, more power to 'ya.
If you are a Christian, then simply ask God to help you. Not so much to 'win' but to at least play to the limit of your capabilities. I mean, do you have faith or not? Let go and be God's willing agent in the world. Hey, don't take my word for it, try it yourself. And no half measures please. You're not going to fool God by play acting.
If you aren't a Christian, and I'm not, it is a bit more complicated. Let's try this approach...
First, do you know how to actually swing a racquet? Ok, I'll answer it for you. The answer is NO. Think about all of the coordination on a molecular level needed to carry out the 'simple' act of tracking a ball and hitting it with a racquet. That's billions and billions (think Carl Sagan voice) of intertwined molecular reactions. Wow. All for one swing. It's pretty mind blowing if you really let yourself explore it and a miracle that it ever happens EVER.
At the level of our conscious mind, we swing and it happens. In order words, we don't know how it happens, it just does. When you try and take over that action by thinking too much and maybe 'concentrating' more on 'doing it right', it is necessarily going to fail. So when things get sticky, I just kind of try and turn the game over to the inner whatever that makes all of this happen. You need to be humble about it and, just like that Christian above, you need to believe it fully. You can't lie to yourself and expect to get away with it. However, you're not going to 'get over' the on universe and attain some kind of superior oneness with the thing. You are a mess and that's ok.
No, I don't know how to play this game. You, you, whatever you are, you DO know how to play this game and I know it and I'm going to go with whatever you tell me. Often I am then shortly after struck with urges to do this or that or notice things about my opponents game or how I am doing something and just go with it. My inner self is speaking to me and I need to listen. It can't use words... only sort of vague feelings and urges which need to be followed carefully.
This works pretty well for me but I need to really be 'all in' so to speak. Also my level of practice and physical weakness (3 hours in 90+ heat wacks out this 50+ year old body sometimes) does limit my game but if I'm hitting well in practice and follow this, I always at least play to my limit and isn't that really all you can ask for?
We'll see. First playoff match Sunday morning 9:30am.