Fearless Tennis: Get out of your head on break points

Fearless Tennis

by Jeff Greenwald, M.A., MFT; sports psychologist

Reprinted with permission from Fearless Tennis

Regardless of your level, converting break-point opportunities is a skill every player can improve upon. Understandably, break points can raise your heart rate and cause you to overthink the situation, taking you out of the moment and into a tentative mode. To improve your conversion rate on break points, you need to get out of your head.

In 2003 when I was playing the best tennis of my life and thinking about returning to the pro tour for a year to test my game and newfound mental clarity, I happened to be practicing with a player currently on the pro tour. He knew I was a sport psychology consultant, and at the end of practice, he turned to me and asked, “So do you have any suggestions for me?”

“About what?” I asked.

“I just can’t seem to get the breaks,” he said with his head down. “I am so close. I’ve lost a string of matches in the last six months that, had I won, I would be in the top hundred by now. It’s not that I’m playing that tight or anything. I’m just not winning them. I tell myself to go for it. Maybe I’m not breathing enough,” he admitted. “I don’t know. It’s just really frustrating.”

Relating to this player’s frustration and desire to do well, to achieve his dream of really making it on the pro tour, I do admit that I was thinking to myself, I wish I could give him a magic bullet to fix this, to help him break out of this pattern. But, having gone through a similar process in my own career, and with many clients with whom I’ve worked, I know that players need to learn more about exercising personal choice and feeling more empowered within their own minds, within themselves. This shift, as I learned over the years, given this type of in-the-moment pressure, requires a slightly more balanced perspective coupled with an individualized strategy or response that means something to him. So what did I tell him?

“Forget the techniques on this one,” I said, hoping to empower him more fully, as a real person with real feelings and a sense of self-control. “How about just getting out of your head completely when you are in this situation?” Then I asked, “How much pressure are you really feeling on these points when you reflect on it right now?”

He looked down for a moment to ponder my question and with some hesitancy looked up at me and like a waterfall it came pouring out. “A lot, I guess. You know, I’m just so close to being in the top hundred. If only I could win these matches, then …,” His voice trailed off. He stopped in midsentence and cracked a slight smile—as if to say, “I see what you are saying.”

“So getting out of the world of thought altogether might not be a bad idea, now, would it?”

Pointing to the ball under the chair, I said, “See that ball? Focus your attention on it. Now look at the fuzz from the ball on your racquet strings. Then focus on the naval area of your stomach with your mind and let your mind just drop down out of your head and into your body.” I continued with him and had him move his attention into his arms, legs, and face.

He did all of this successfully.

Gradually a smile came to his face. “So you’re saying I can shift my focus anytime I want?” he confirmed with enthusiasm.

“That’s right. We choose what we focus our attention on. In your case, it seems as though you are still very much in your head when you’re faced with what you call ‘a big point.’ So I’m wondering how this might feel for you to focus your attention more within your body to relax, watch the tension disappear if it’s there, and accept whatever shows up. Instead of focusing on the score, shift your attention to the joy of being there and how good you feel, again in your body—embracing the moment, thriving on it.”

Intrigued, he said, “I see what you mean. I’m not really forcing myself to do anything differently. I’m just shifting my attention in a relaxed way. I have control over what I do with my mind.”

“The zone never lies,” I told him as we walked off the court.