Faulty second serves, shaky volleys, careless ground strokes and anger over bad line calls may rob us of many points. However, none of these are the primary cause of why most points are lost.
Our mistakes are not as costly to us as are our negative reactions to our mistakes. For most players, more points are lost because of an inability to focus only on the present, then for any other reason. Specifically, our reaction to previously failed points, as well as a fear of future point outcomes, keeps us from succeeding in the moment.
Just how troublesome is a lack of focus on the present, or what many call mindfulness? In order to put this issue into context, a historical review of ATP tour results reveals some starling numbers. If you win just 54 percent of the points for the year on the pro tour you will win over 90 percent of your matches. Both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have achieved this benchmark in recent years. If you win 50 percent of the points, you score a victory in about 50 percent of you matches.
So if you change the outcome of just one out of every 25 points you play, you go from being an all-time great to mediocre.
Now consider, how often do you give away more than one out of 25 points out of anger or fear?
I often challenge players to embrace the mindset that it's OK to not be perfect, because no one is. What is not acceptable, however, is to lose even one single point because we can't accept that we are imperfect. With this idea in mind we can recognize that each point counts for just one point. This same principle applies also to every game, set, match and season.
There is an expression in psychology, "If you want to be angry or sad, think about the past. If you want to be fearful or anxious, think about the future. If you want to be calm and focused be in the present." Billie Jean King calls this, "Being in the now", and as the famous author Eckhard Tolle explains, "The past no longer exists and when the future comes it will be the present; there is only now."
So how exactly can you avoid unwanted thoughts?
Well, you can't because it's virtually impossible to control what enters your mind. This concept is called the "White Bear Effect." Try not to think of White Bears and what do you think about? White Bears of course.
The key to dealing with unwanted thoughts on and off the tennis court is not to avoid them, but instead to manage them by stopping pointless and harmful conversations from derailing the task at hand. Learn and practice the ability to stop ruminating with unwanted thoughts by letting them go and then moving on by replacing the past and future with a laser focus on the present. One technique of many for example, is to imagine unnecessary thoughts as clouds in the sky. Notice them and let these thoughts leave your mind and body by exhaling them and watching them dissolve into the wind.
Perhaps the most effective technique for managing the stress of unwanted thoughts is to focus on slow and purposeful exhaling because this practice brings you to the present moment, and steadies you by triggering your nervous system with a soothing parasympathetic response.
Prolonged expiratory breathing to calm your mind and your body, as with any skill, can be refined and perfected with deliberate practice. The best players in the world, like, Djokovic, Roger Federer and Stefanos Tstisipas have all spoken recently about just how important developing breathing techniques have been to their success. While the top pros have embraced the value of proper breathing technique, this ability is still a poorly understood and under-appreciated skill by many juniors that really should be incorporated as a part of every players workout routine.
Breathe deep, exhale slowly and stop the conversation to be calm and in the now. You will win many more matches if you focus only on the present.
Steven Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation and executive director and founder of Serve & Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally-ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.