Mental Equipment Syndicated Column – Oct 1, 1999 – Dr. John F. Murray – It is essential to continually refine your sophistication in psychological skills training. This begins by looking deeply within yourself to discover ways in which you are still struggling in your sport. If you compete seriously and rarely struggle, you’re either from another planet or you need to find better opponents. Pearls are indeed born of irritation, so openly welcome adversity as your ticket to improvement. This month, we’ll introduce an imagery technique to help you gain a sizable advantage in awareness, providing clues for enhanced performance and greater understanding.

How do you experience the world? Since you are reading this sentence, you are acting (moving eyes) and thinking (about the meaning). You also have certain feelings about the message, and physical sensations too. Since so much happens with the relatively passive act of reading, consider all the rich mental and physical activity that takes place while competing in a challenging tennis match. The astounding complexity of it all underscores why sport psychology and mental skills training are so essential. Although your physical output or behavior can be observed by others, your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations that dominate your actions are very private affairs.

Sports commentators are paid to proclaim to the world what a player is feeling or thinking at critical moments in a match. Do they really have a clear idea? The reality is that the inner world is a very subtle and complex place, accessible only to the person experiencing it. If you are having difficulty with confidence, for example, what does that mean? Is it that you act in a dejected manner, feel dangerously overconfident, or allow negative self-statements to intrude? Do you experience boundless physical energy and excitement when you are on the brink of victory, or is it a dream-like absorption in the present, with few distractions?

Since everyone ticks differently, there are few absolute rules. It’s important to get in touch with your own experiences in all four modes of expression (thoughts, feelings, actions and sensations). The following exercise is designed to help you refine your understanding of yourself during your best and worst recent performances. With this greater awareness, you’ll be able to practice re-creating the experiences associated with high performance and ultimately more success.

You’ll need about 20 minutes for the following exercise:

Find a comfortable and quiet place to relax and begin by identifying your best and worst performances in recent memory. Remember that “winning and losing” is less important that how well you performed. You’ll need a pen, paper and highlighter.

Let’s focus on the poor performance first. Take a deep breath, close your eyes and allow yourself to deeply imagine all aspects of this poor performance for about 5 minutes. Recall specific moments in the match and your reactions to various situations. Re-create all senses in vivid detail. While observing your performance in your mind, pay particular attention to thoughts (self-statements), feelings (emotions), physical sensations (e.g., butterflies in stomach) and actions (e.g., quality of ground- strokes).

Open your eyes and do some brainstorming. Write down on one side of a piece of paper all the details you can remember for the next 5 minutes. Divide the paper into 4 sections and label each section differently as: thoughts, feelings, actions and sensations. Allow yourself to produce as much detail as possible about the ways your were thinking feeling, etc. If you need some extra time, that is fine. The main point is that you should have tons of information about yourself during this poor performance.

Now turn the paper over and repeat this whole process, but this time focus on your absolute best performance in recent memory. Again spend five minutes on the imagery and five minutes recording information.

Using your highlighter, mark through all the key experiences on each side of the paper. What have you discovered about yourself? Do you see any patterns? I’ll bet there are some characteristic differences between your thoughts, feelings, actions and sensations on the good versus bad performances. Write these down. Do this again in a month or two and see how the responses compare.

By learning more about the rich details of your experiences while performing well on the court, you are in a position to practice reproducing these same experiences while eliminating the ones that seem to be associated with poor performances. This continual process of refinement will make you a more sophisticated and dangerous opponent.

Finally – Your Feedback & The US Open
First, I’d like to thank all of you that sent feedback on your progress and the areas in which you need the most attention in future articles. It’s really satisfying to hear from you, so keep it coming with your questions and great ideas. I try to reply to every question, so thanks for your patience.

I enjoyed the US Open this year as a fan, consultant, and speaker at the USTA Tennis Teacher’s Conference. On our flight out of Palm Beach International Airport, my wife and I had the pleasure of meeting a young woman with stylish white hair beads and tennis rackets going by the name of Serena. She kept saying, “this tournament is so exciting.” By the way, I couldn’t resist giving her a copy of Smart Tennis, and made her promise to share it with Venus! In any case, Serena displayed mental and physical equipment far beyond her years, and taught us all a lesson on how to re-focus during adversity in that stunning third set. Congratulations Serena and Andre!