Everyone knows that one player who is able to elevate themselves out of the level or category they “should” be playing at from a technical perspective, i.e. stroke mechanics into an entirely different level, but not many seem to understand why or how?
I will be discussing the intangible element of sport, most specifically, in the context of tennis. I would argue that this element is even more prevalent in tennis because of the multi-faceted nature of the game encompassing technical, tactical, mental and physical elements all required at a player’s disposal to use simultaneously and interchangeably in the blink of an eye.
Growing up playing junior tennis, you are sizing up players who you might be competing against either that week or at another time. Of course, the first things you look are how well they hit the ball and their technique. At the time, I would argue that these are key indicators for improvement and analysis of a player at any level, but as a junior playing all over Great Britain, I was naive to the “intangibles” a player can bring to the table.
What about the things you cannot see?
Sometimes, I would get nervous about playing someone who I felt as though had better technique than myself and would hit the ball harder, yet you would roll them easily and sometimes you would lose handedly. Why is this the case?
Being involved in college tennis for a few years now, I think the fastest way to add value in a player’s game is to illuminate these intangible elements and spend time working on them. It is really just a case of asking yourself if you have left any stone unturned before stepping onto that court for a match. In other words, it is more about your own preparation as a player rather than looking at the other player.
First, I would address lifestyle from a holistic standpoint, the best natural performance enhancers are hydration, sleep and nutrition, I would then address just how well are we taking care of our body before and after practice. Are you stretching, foam-rolling, performing dynamic warmups? Once some of these more rudimentary elements are satisfied, I would want to discuss questions such as: “What is an ideal point for Player A?” or “How do you want to play the game?” This would then inform tactical coaching and playing true to that game style you have selected in a process-focused manner where we take the emotion out of the win/lose aspect. Once we are able to free ourselves from this, we can truly concentrate on competing at the highest level.
Body language is something I really stress. Positive self-talk, and an in-between points routine is a huge performance-enhancer if used the correct way. You have 20 seconds between each point and 90 seconds on every changeover—use it wisely!
Those who will experience long-term success in the game of tennis will, be the steely competitor who can pick up on things in a live situation and can make micro-adjustments in the moment. These intangibles start with broader and more overarching themes, and will stratify the further you move along in your tennis journey.
Ben Mullis, originally from Leicestershire, England, was a graduate of Drake University, where he was a three-time all-Missouri Valley Conference honoree. He was ranked as high as 109th in the ITA Men’s Singles Rankings. After graduating, he served as assistant coach for the Utah State Aggies for two seasons, where he was named “Mountain Region Assistant Coach of the Year.” Ben went on to serve as an assistant coach at Pepperdine University before transiting to the role of director of junior tennis at North Ranch Country Club.