The pressure’s all in your head, right?

Just like other athletes, professional tennis players contend with performance pressures and emotional swings. André Agassi related his on- and off-court struggles in his 2009 book, Open. Commentators highlighted emotional pressure as an possible issue in Serena Williams’ crushing loss to Roberta Vinci. Although she never admitted to sensing the pressure, Serena had encountered heavy media and fan attention as she attempted to complete the calendar year Grand Slam.

Another American player, Mardy Fish, went on the record to discuss how psychological pressure led to panic attacks and physical problems that sidelined him for nearly three years. In his last singles match prior to retirement at the  2015 US Open, Fish showed signs of mental and physical greatness coupled with indications of emotional wear. He ultimately lost the match in five long sets.

pressure_mardy+fish

 

Emotional pressure affects rec players, too

Fish’s willingness to talk about his issues increased dialogue about mental health concerns in the world of pro tennis. And even though rec tennis players don’t earn their livelihoods from the sport, we still have to handle the pressure of competitive situations.

In fact for women such as myself, the scoring and ranking aspects of tennis make it particularly hard to view the sport as merely a recreational activity I do for fun and exercise, not a place where I compare my performance to other people’s.

pressure_nofaultsports+tennis+scorekeeper

 

We decide how to view our pressure

Anxiety over becoming an empty-nester and worries about what I would do after full-time motherhood ended contributed to a general lack of focus and low self-confidence that carried over into my tennis matches. Even though I was playing tennis “for fun,” it actually wasn’t all that fun, and I wasn’t sure how to make things better.

Last year, however, I experienced a defining moment — in other words, a moment of pain + an opportunity to grow.

Pain

After organizing a group of players to do clinics, practice and play doubles matches together, I heard from others in my group that they preferred not to partner with me. While I might have taken this information at face value, instead I interpreted it as a rejection of me and my on-court performance. I thought they were choosing to emphasize win/loss record over friendship, and it made me feel terrible.

As a tennis player who wants to improve, I understood my friends’ desire to move up in the ratings, and their fear that partnering with me might prohibit them from doing so. But their rejection still hurt. It hurt a lot. Some days I’d barely get to my car after seeing them on the court before I’d start crying.

Looking at the situation now, I don’t believe my friends had intended to make me feel bad, only to tell me the truth — that they liked me, but preferred not to partner with me. At the time, however, I let myself slip further into negativity, with the result that I lost every USTA match I played that season.

Opportunity to Grow

It had been my choice to allow the emotional pressure of a situation where friends wouldn’t partner with me to drain my self-confidence. Alternatively, I might have interpreted it as a sad commentary on the strength of our friendship, but not as a rejection of me per se.

Given the fact that I felt weak in other parts of my life, choosing the second interpretation would have been hard for me back then. Even so, I tried to hide my vulnerability. I failed to reach out to my friends and let them know how much their rejection had hurt me.

Sometimes we cover up weaknesses to appear strong on the outside — when really, by admitting our weakness, we could become stronger on the inside.

I tried to conceal my pain, but at the same time hoped that one of my friends would notice something was wrong and show me she cared. That didn’t happen. The growth came when I finally stopped feeling sorry for myself, stopped waiting for others to help me, and took charge of my own reactions.

pressure_Billie+Jean+King

“Pressure is a privilege”

Billie Jean King, perhaps the greatest female player in the history of tennis, is famous for saying, “Pressure is a privilege.” That phrase, in fact, is the title of her memoir. Her 1973 match v. Bobby Riggs, nicknamed “The Battle of the Sexes,” became a metaphor for women’s equality struggles through that decade and beyond. She has also discussed pressure faced in her decision to have an abortion, as well as the press conference she chose to hold after being “outed” in 1981.

Recreational athletes can take learnings from the court, course or field and apply them to other parts of our lives. As sports marketer David McLean puts it, we can excel under pressure by changing the way we think about it:

Regardless of who we are and what we do, let’s shift our perspective on pressure from being something from which we want to be freed, to a gift enabling us to be better.

Replace self-pressure with self-compassion

As good as the concept of embracing “pressure as a privilege” sounds, I find it hard to do. What works better for me is looking at the source of the pressure I’m feeling, and deciding what, if anything, I can do about it.

On the tennis court and in life generally, I find the worst pressure I experience is pressure I put on myself. I push myself to do better all the time, whether it be to win more tennis matches, write more “usable” prose (whatever that means!), or load the dishwasher more efficiently.

But I’m learning to identify my triggers for self-imposed pressure and offer up self-compassion instead. To replace the voice of judgment in my head that tells me, “I should have finished this project by now, I’m an incompetent writer,” with “It’s a bummer I haven’t finished this project yet, but I’m going to keep trying.”

A subtle shift perhaps, but one that in time, will help me put pressure in its proper place.

 

Image credits: WSOC TV, NoFault Sports,Canberra Times,

The tennis ball machine, your ideal workout partner

I just love working out with the ball machine.  Other than humming, “Whoosh, whoosh” as it shoots balls at me, it’s silent.  It never makes questionable “in” or “out” calls. Unlike some partners I’ve played with, it never complains with a tactful, “Don’t worry about making a heroic shot — just put the ball in play.” And the ball machine isn’t even capable of giving me a tense smile that says, “I’m not having fun here, but I don’t want you to keep falling apart, so I’m going to act as normal as possible and maybe things will be all right.”  Thus in many respects, it’s the ideal tennis partner.

Tennis Ball Machine - 1

 

Tennis Ball Machine Benefit #1: Shot Practice

I try to hit with the machine about once a week.  More often than that, and my forearm gets sore — you can go through 500 balls in an hour without even realizing it, so you need to make sure you vary your shots and take breaks to pick up balls and drink water. It’s best to the ball machine use soon after a lesson, when you want to practice a new shot you’ve been working on, like a backhand down the line, or maybe a slice drop shot. Remembering of course that only “perfect practice makes perfect,” it’s critical to use good technique when you hit with the ball machine — otherwise you’re just cementing bad habits.

Tennis Ball Machine Benefit #2: Build Concentration

I like to set up the machine for forehands first, then backhands.  I vary the speed and/or height, and I practice volleys as well as groundstrokes.  I build concentration by trying to hit a certain number of balls, say 10, to a certain spot.  This is a lot harder than it seems!

Tennis Ball Machine - 4

 

Tennis Ball Machine Benefit #3: Cardio Exercise

Another benefit of ball machine practice is that it provides a good cardio workout.  I put on a heart rate monitor this week and was surprised to see my heart rate jump up above 150 quite easily. For me this was great, as it was a better workout than doubles tennis, which is what I usually play, and lots more fun than what I’d have to do in the gym to raise my heart rate to a similar level. You can learn more about the workout benefits of ball machines and tennis generally from the Livestrong Foundation.

I really enjoy practicing this way — in fact, today is not the first time I’ve blogged about my love of the tennis ball machine.  It not only gives me a good workout, but benefits my self-confidence while improving my skills.  I’ve looked online for videos of ball machine drills I might try, but so far I haven’t turned up any good ones to post here.

Don’t get me wrong: there are lots of videos about tennis ball machines on the Internet, but it’s hard to cull out the good ones.  Most are marketing promos for buying a ball machine, or for working with a tennis professional, or they’re just some goofball’s idea of having fun on a tennis court with a camera and then uploading the result to YouTube.  This clip, which has nothing to do with the sport of tennis but everything to do with ball machines, is so ridiculous I had to share it with you:

 

 

My recommendation is that unless you’re going for a game show record, use the ball machine for its intended purpose: burn some calories, and work on your game.  You just might build enough confidence in your new shot to use it in your next match.

 

Bring back the joy!

There’s a sign I drive by most weeks, usually on my way to play tennis.  Although it stands outside a car repair shop, it reminds me of a resolution I made when my tendency to self-judge was sucking the fun out of my chosen sport.  I decided, in short, to bring back the joy.

Before choosing to look for joy in tennis, I thought what would bring me pleasure was playing better, so I focused on that alone.  I took lessons, watched videos, read books, kept track of wins and losses.  And guess what?  I didn’t play better, and I didn’t enjoy myself.

Step back, and it’s obvious.  A recreational activity like tennis should be enjoyable – if not, what’s the point?  But it’s easy, especially for us women who’ve given up careers and are looking for a way to evaluate “productivity” outside of making school lunches and coordinating book fairs, to take something we do for fun and start to measure our progress.  There’s nothing wrong with this.  But I let it go too far – I lost perspective.  I lost the joy.

No more.  I’m taking practical steps to make sure that doesn’t happen again.  To start, I remind myself constantly: “bring back the joy.”  It’s one of the things I say to myself during matches.  Or I ask myself on tough points, “Are we having fun?”  Because whether I win or lose the point, I want to enjoy playing it, and not “having fun” usually means tightening up and playing worse anyway.

Here’s another one, but it’s a bit touchy.  These days I avoid playing with people whose styles don’t match up well with mine.  Many times, it means I try not to partner with women who are more serious and intent on winning.  It’s not that I don’t care about winning – but if I concentrate on the score too much, or think about whether I’m living up to my partner’s expectations for me, I start making more mistakes. I feel bad about playing poorly, so I play worse – it’s a downward spiral.  My progress is slow, but I’m learning to put negative thoughts aside, stay loose and have a good time.  This helps me play better.

[Read more…]

What YOU think of me is YOUR business

I’ve blogged about tennis failures – things like how I’ve let my emotions get the best of me, or how my game has suffered due to a “crisis of confidence.” But I also want to pass along what I’m learning about how to overcome these problems.  My tennis journey may be a long one, but it’s not so different from other roads I’ve traveled.  In fact, there are days when my “tennis journey” and “the midlife passage” have a lot in common.  And I don’t just mean the effects of gravity.

 

I reached a point where I felt as though I had invested so much time and money in learning a sport, watching the pros play it, buying trendy clothes for it, and even taking some “tennis vacations,” that I felt I deserved to be playing better than I was.  I held myself to a higher standard than I should have and was constantly evaluating my improvement against better players.  As a result, I was always coming up short.  By my own standards, I was never going to measure up, never going to get out of my USTA 3.0 “rut.”

But at the same time as I was tired of not improving, I felt locked in: I had put so much of myself into tennis, for so long, that I didn’t want to quit.  I was addicted to an activity that wasn’t going anywhere for me.  Aside from a bit of exercise and socializing on the court, I couldn’t point to many positives about my involvement with tennis – I wasn’t having fun, and I could have gotten a better workout by going to the gym.

 

So what started my turnaround?  Well, I was complaining about my frustration  with poor play in matches and my irritating “voice of judgment” to Coach Alan Margot.  He told me, “You can’t silence the voice, but tell it to quiet down.  When you worry about what other people are the court are thinking about you, remind yourself, as if you were speaking to them: ‘What YOU think of me is YOUR business.’”

This seems simple, but it’s deep.  For years I’ve taken ownership of how others perceive me on the tennis court, and more generally, in most other sectors of my life.  Since I’d rather please people, I end up pressuring myself to make a better shot than I’m capable of, let my partner choose when she wants to serve and whether she wants the ad or deuce side in doubles, try for a heroic poach when simply getting the ball back over the net would be good enough.  Outside of tennis, I rearrange my own schedule to accommodate an appointment that works better for my husband, or I ask a friend to give me a ride so my son can use my car.

At the end of the day, however, I don’t feel satisfied about setting aside my best interests in order to make others happier.  I’m not sure they even notice my efforts, to tell you the truth.  But it’s helpful to acknowledge that what someone else thinks of me is his or her responsibility, not mine.  It doesn’t give me license to be obnoxious — rather, it reduces a burden I shouldn’t be carrying anyway.

[Read more…]

What’s behind the poor play? Are you ready to find out?

I played tennis this week with a friend whom I haven’t seen since our last match together, back in the winter when emotional issues were affecting my game.  In fact, the last time we played together, I felt like such a failure I considered quitting tennis entirely — it had ceased being fun for me, and I was letting my partners down by inferior play.

 

 

But this time, things felt different.  I still made mistakes, we still lost our match, but I didn’t come away with the sense that my partner would never speak to me again, nor that I had performed so miserably as to discredit the sport.  While there were moments where I double-faulted or missed an easy shot and started to panic, I was able to settle down and focus on the next ball.  I even felt strangely calm when serving or returning serve on “pressure points” like “ad-in” – moments where winning or losing the point can decide the outcome of that game.

In spite of these improvements, though, I’m still not winning matches.  But this is a journey, in my case a long one, and at least I’m taking a few steps forward.  From my current vantage point, I now understand how strongly my attitude correlates with how I play tennis.  Knowing this, I see that what I needed a few months ago was not more tennis tips to pull me out of a slump, but a partner who could step over court boundaries and be a true friend.

 

 

I’m not blaming anyone — since I hate to let on that anything’s amiss, others might not even see that I’m having a bad day.  I’d prefer to give the appearance that all is fine, and I shy away from exposing vulnerabilities with anyone but family and close friends.  However, I’ve learned from this and other experiences that not only do I need to be more open about wanting others’ help — I also should be on the lookout for people who might need someone to pay attention to them.

[Read more…]