Actors credit their best performances to “staying in the moment.” Tennis players often talk about playing matches “one point at a time.” I’d like to take this further by talking about mindfulness, the ancient practice of being aware of the present without judging incoming thoughts or feelings and accepting the present as it is. This concept of staying present and engaged seems so simple but can actually be so hard to achieve and it is so important both on and off the court. So, I’m sure you are wondering, how does one actually get better at being mindful on the court? Like the physical aspects of the game, hitting thousands of balls or working out in the gym, the mental aspects of tennis require exercises that can improve concentration and focus in the most trying of moments.
On Court Rituals
If you have ever seen a tennis player bounce the ball a certain number of times before he or she goes up to serve and wondered why, here is your answer. This is an on court ritual. As human beings, we find solace in ritual, and they can be useful to have in your pocket when you are serving to close out a match or facing a match point. Rituals ground us because they provide a sense of comfort and give us a moment to take a deep breath a let our bodies go into the mode of “OK, I’ve done this before 1000 times and this moment is no different.” While Djokovic in this video describes this as a “bad habit,” it is not something that he’s going to stop doing because it’s something he has done his whole life. I don’t advocate bouncing the ball 30 times, but pick a number between 2-6 and let that be your number each time you go up to serve.
Another key on-court ritual is called the “16 Second Cure.” My coach always talked about the 16 second cure as the a proven method to staying focused in between points. It keeps body language positive and keeps players playing one point at a time.
Practicing Mindfulness Off Court
One of the best ways to practice mindfulness off court is through a daily meditation practice. People often think that meditation is about clearning your mind of all thoughts until it is empty. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Meditation is about allowing thoughts and feelings to float around in your mind, but instead of forming the free associations that typically come with conscious thought, you just let each thought pass and go without judgement. As the focus of My Side of the Net is about novel technologies and their applications to tennis, I’d like to share two apps for meditation that I’ve used and found to be very useful.
Headspace is a great app for guided and unguided mediation and I love that they have guides on how to apply mindfulness to everyday techniques.
I also really enjoy Calm.com when I want a moment of serenity in my day.
There are many other ways to improve mindfulness like a regular yoga practice or breathing exercises, but these are excellent uses of technology that attempt to make the world a more pieceful, less stressed out place to live.
Mindfulness can improve how you project yourself on court, your shot selection, and how you respond to the ebs and flows of the game. It can also help you stay poised on pressure off the court and to maybe not get as angry the next time someone cuts you off on the road. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t notice results right away, just keep practicing and take note of what works and what doesn’t.
As always, dialogue is in encourage, so please feel free to share ways in which you practice mindfulness in your daily life, both on and off the court.