Mental conditioning, like physical conditioning, requires training and sharpening. It’s not something that ‘just happens’ because you’re playing a competitive sport. The name focus gets thrown around in tennis a lot: “She lost focus, and choked the set away,” or “When he’s focused, he can beat anybody in the state.”
But what exactly is this focus, that sounds like Marcellus Wallace’s soul? How does it work? If it’s trainable, how do you do it? Wii?
Lots of people say, “Just watch the ball.” Yeah, right. Sounds simple, but really not easy. But the point is, how do you put yourself in the position to be less distracted, and more likely to see/make contact with the ball more consistently and effectively?
Part of the equation is picking up the ball as early as possible. Some players first pick it up as the ball crossing the net back to them. Some pick the ball up from their opponents’ racquet strings. Some players pick up the ball for the first time as it’s bouncing up from the ground onto their racquet.
Obviously that’s too late. Ideally seeing the ball from the opponents’ racquet allows for better preparation, reaction, and even anticipation of the shot coming back to you. Then the question remains: do you trust yourself not to look up towards where you’re trying to hit the ball before you’ve actually hit it?
Trust yourself. Your shot will travel where it needs to go, so let it be. Put the onus on your opponent to hit the ball back, and stop trying to focus on their movement at the expense of watching the ball. And we know that’s where the shanks come from. Stay cool.
You can practice this. Focus on the point of contact instead of trying to appease your ego by looking over and admiring the shot you hit. Start in practice. Do it in practice matches. Do it in matches. You’re going to want to look over at the solid balls you start hitting because the succession of on-center balls you hit will increase when you do this.
But stay humble. Enjoy the feeling, not the visions of playing freely and moving the ball around. If you stay focused, you’ll enter your zone, where you’re game is in heavy rhythm, very grooved,
Many hackers don’t believe me when I say this. They equate this zone with a loss of care about trying to win a match. They equate this ‘zone’ to a less serious, not competitive brand of tennis they don’t really want to sign up for.
But intensity and focus coexist, definitely. It doesn’t mean to stop giving a care. It just means to stop trying so hard. Here are a couple of training tips/strategies to achieve this end:
- Watch the seams of the ball. The spin patterns vary greatly, and reading spin (back, topspin) also help you prepare for the next incoming shot. Watching the ball is merely too general, and its easy to lose focus that way.
- Bounce-hit Say the word bounce when the ball bounce, anywhere on the court. Say the word hit when you or your opponent make contact with the ball. You’re going to be too busy announcing bounces and hits. You won’t be able to exert a whole lot of ‘over control’.
- Listen to the Ball. Bring your attention to the sounds of the racquet making contact with the ball on both sides of the net. Observe the differences in timbre of the contact when one hits groundstrokes, slice, drop shots, and even serves.
Just because you can only focus for 5 minutes your first time doesn’t mean to throw it out. Your mind needs to be conditioned to do it for longer periods of time so your focus muscles can strengthen.