Fearless Tennis: Narrow your focus in the warm-up

Serena in warm up

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

Reprinted with permission from Fearless Tennis

“I just couldn’t get a rhythm.” “From the beginning, I never felt like I was even in the match.” Statements such as these show how many players feel they often start matches slowly. They are frustrated that it takes them a few games (sometimes even a set) before they feel like they are competing well. I believe the warm-up is a very important opportunity to get your feel and prepare yourself before the first point begins.

As you walk onto the court, perhaps you feel some nerves. Or maybe you are distracted by your opponent, the conditions, the draw, or who might be watching. Whatever may be taking your focus away from the moment at hand, the warm-up is an opportunity to narrow your focus and establish your rhythm immediately. The best way to do this is by tracking the ball closely as it travels over the net and breathing purposely as you follow through after contact. This process will improve your reaction time and keep your mind calm and focused. Each time you hit the ball, you simply need to bring your focus back to the ball and exhale softly after contact.

Again, this will help you focus on something other than who you are playing and will prevent you from worrying about any excess nerves. This process resembles Tim Gallwey’s approach in the 1970s when he introduced the technique of “bounce-hit” in his best-selling book The Inner Game of Tennis as a way to stop your mind from judging your performance. However, what I found was that using my breath had an even greater impact on my mind and body because it slowed my respiration and relaxed my nervous system while I tuned in to the ball. This process helped me narrow my attention, which is what I needed to feel and play my best. Interestingly, the ball-breath approach also helped me access a deeper state of trust in my shots as I became more absorbed in the moment and fully connected to my body. Gradually, my confidence would start to grow. For me, getting my attention into this more narrow focus has been so helpful because my mind has a tendency to race when I am nervous, and I am very sensitive to my surroundings. By exhaling as I hit the ball and focusing on the ball more deeply, I created a kind of cocoon that insulated me from my environment. Many top players in the game today will talk about the same “cocoon-like” experience when they are in the zone.

Next time you play a match, try to take your attention and narrow it to your breath and the ball. See if you can lose yourself in the moment by tracking the ball more closely. When your opponent steps up to the line to serve, focus your eyes on the ball. This should help you override any judgmental thoughts, because you are focusing your attention on something “relevant.” You will also be surprised how much you can actually pick up about your opponent because you are in a more relaxed and focused state and not thinking as much. It’s amazing how much more open and perceptive you can be when you turn down the volume on your left -brain, analytical mind. Use the warm-up to get yourself into the zone and you will experience a new dimension to the game and your own ability to create the state of mind-body you need to play your best.