Fearless Tennis: Optimize your time between points

Fearless Tennis

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

Reprinted with permission from Fearless Tennis

Players are often surprised when they learn that in a two-set, ninety-minute singles match, they actually are striking the ball and in a rally for only approximately eighteen minutes. Recognizing that the remaining hour or more is spent walking from one side of the court to the other, picking up balls or resting on changeovers can be eye-opening for many players. With our mind’s propensity to think, judge, and worry, the way we use this time can dramatically impact our performance. It is important to optimize our time between points.

While players’ internal experiences between points can be very different, there are some fundamental guidelines for utilizing this precious time. If you are the kind of player who loses perspective in matches or becomes overly caught up in the score and outcome, or becomes self-conscious about your technique, it can help to use what I call a wide-angle lens when the point is finished. Give yourself permission to look up at the sky if you are playing outdoors, notice the trees, and let your mind slow down as you connect with something soothing and unrelated to the match. This will help you manage your energy more effectively and feel more refreshed for the next point. Five seconds should be plenty to give your mind a break (remember you have a total of twenty-five seconds to use if you need it).

Taking a deep breath as you notice your surroundings may enhance this feeling. Using the wide-angle lens periodically throughout the match will help you stay clearheaded and probably also raise your enjoyment of the match. Of course, you will always want to bring your attention back to the moment and next point after you take this pause.

On the other hand, some players are highly sensitive to their surroundings, and their “lens” is already as wide as it can go. They are focused on the people outside the court, their opponent’s body language, and the players on the next court. If you find that this happens to you between points, you will benefit from using a specific object on which to focus your eyes—the ground, your racquet strings, or the ball in your or your opponent’s hand. You could also use a spot on the back curtain or fence, which becomes your “home base” to remind yourself to narrow your attention to the task at hand. You’d be surprised how small techniques like this can go a long way in the heat of battle when your mind and eyes begin darting around.

It is also helpful to become aware of your current habits between points now. What do you tend to think about? In what situations are you inclined to rush?

I received a call from a frustrated parent telling me her daughter was distracted in matches and was constantly looking around between points. When I went to watch her play, I did notice that she was often taking her eyes off the court between points, mainly looking at the other matches being played next to her. She also seemed uptight during rallies. It turned out that she was feeling stressed and was actually glancing over at other matches because she was trying to take her mind off all the pressure. While this helped to lower her anxiety for a few moments between points, it wasn’t helping her refocus on the next point very well. Once she realized that is was actually okay to recover between points and focus her attention on other things—besides a match that was also distracting—she learned to breathe and focus on her strings and her strategy. As she improved her ability to play with proper intensity and let the tension go between points, her game improved dramatically.

Jim Loehr, in his book, The Power of Full Engagement, describes the importance of balancing your energy.

The science of periodization has become more precise and more sophisticated over the years, but the basic concept hasn’t changed since it was first advanced nearly two thousand years ago. Following a period of activity, the body must replenish fundamental biochemical sources of energy … Increase the intensity of the training or the performance demand, and it is necessary to commensurately increase the amount of energy renewal. Fail to do so and the athlete will experience a measurable deterioration in performance.

Don’t waste the time you are given between points. Where you go in your head, whether on changeovers or approaching the line to serve or receive, will affect how your body feels. Working your way into your ideal mind-set has very much to do with how you manage your between-point time. Give your brain things to do that are productive that and will increase your energy so you can play the last game of the match like the first.