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On the Way to the Mountaintop

By Dr. Jorge Valverde - A mental coach specialized on tennis

Enjoying the journey to the top is possible when we focus on each step along the way. There is time for everything, and now is the time to live the intensity and excitement of the process of achieving your goals. Forget about the "some day" philosophy. This is the idea that we will be happy when we obtain or achieve something that we have not obtained or achieved up to this point, that is: "When I have a new car," "When I win a tennis championship," "When I have somebody to love me 'forever.'" In other words, we believe that when that moment finally arrives "everything will be perfect in our life." The fact is that happiness does not come from things that happen to us. Happiness is a way of life, a realization of who we are while handling our everyday challenges and circumstances. So, if you are planning on being happy when you get to the top, you must start by being happy now while you are on the way there.

At this point, one of the most important things mentally is the development of a strong belief in yourself and your ability to concentrate. Concentration means avoiding distractions. A distraction is anything that detours you from the path that takes you to greatness. Here are two important precautions you need to take in order to keep focused while preparing for your tournaments:

Be very disciplined with all your schoolwork. Getting behind in your primary responsibility, school, drains you emotionally.

Avoid potential problems or situations that could trigger in you an emotional roller coaster. For instance, keep your close relationships going smoothly and avoid starting a romantic relationship just before a tournament.

Concentration and your belief in yourself go hand in hand, as you will see in the following explanation.

The belief in yourself is an everyday battle that is won or lost depending on the way you respond to each experience you face -- on and off the court. The key elements here are:

Learn to observe your own thoughts. Be aware and focus on what you are thinking about when facing a challenging situation. Our thoughts rule our emotions. If you control your thoughts, you will control your emotions as well. Increasing your awareness of your thinking process when facing difficult situations is a very important step in creating the state of mind that allows you to play your best tennis.

First, recognize the relationship between your thoughts and your feelings. Then, recognize the relationship between your feelings and your body tension. By observing and concentrating on this mental/physical process, you are increasing your awareness of who you are. This increased awareness will allow you to grow as a player and as a person. Tension in your body is like a red flag that indicates that whatever you are thinking about is interfering with your ability to be the best you can be.

In order to break any unproductive circle (thought-emotion-physical state), first focus on releasing your body tension wherever it may be: in your shoulders, neck, jaw, stomach, etc.

Stress is the single-most inhibiting distraction that you must avoid. You can release body tension by first focusing on your breathing for a few moments and then imagining the group of tensed muscles loosening and relaxing. Consciously let go of that tension until it is gone. Muscle tension is a sign of stress. When we are in this physical/mental state our IQ drops 20-30%, causing us to make careless mistakes. In addition, we expend more energy and tend to blink more often. When we blink we can not see the ball, if we can not see the ball, we can not hit it accurately. Normally we blink once every four to seven seconds, but under stress we may blink every two seconds. Considering the speed of the ball and the average time it travels in the air from one side of the court to the other, if a person is blinking every two seconds his/her reaction time decreases by approximately 22%. This is one of the main reasons why a player under stress makes so many unforced errors and then calls himself/herself "stupid" afterwards.

Take time every day (at least 20 minutes) to consciously calm yourself down physically, emotionally and mentally. Accomplish this by using whatever strategy works best for you. Examples include: music, showers, short naps, yoga, relaxation exercises, meditation, prayer, etc.

Mentally the most important thing to realize is that you do not have to be the product of your thoughts -- the unproductive ones in particular. You must realize that you are not a slave to these thoughts and that they can not control you in any way (unless you allow them to). In order to accomplish this, you need to see thoughts as objects outside of yourself. Negative thoughts are like an envelope arriving at your mailbox with the wrong address. Just pick it up and send it away. Remember, worry is the dark room where negatives are created.

Furthermore, you need to realize that so-called "positive thoughts" are not necessarily productive or instrumental to your success. The key to this is, as I have already explained above, that if a thought causes you body tension (no matter what kind it is, positive or negative) that thought has to be sent away like an envelope with the wrong address. For instance, during a match some players think that they already have the match "in the bag" (positive thought) only to find out later that after thinking in this way they can not win another point and end up losing the match.

One of the most important keys to playing your best tennis is focusing on the here and now. When you focus on the here and now, on the moment that you are experiencing and what you are doing then, your mind becomes more resourceful. It is in this state of mind that you can get into the zone of peak performance. Here your subconscious is in charge -- and remember that up to 90% of what you do on the court is controlled by your subconscious mind. If you are connected to it, you will play your best tennis. Here you see the ball bigger and play smart tennis, anticipating your opponent’s moves. Here is when the automatic pilot takes over and all the muscle programming, accomplished through long hours of training and years of preparation, can produce the results you are longing for: playing free of worry, with relaxed intensity and enjoyment.

In order to stay in the here and now you need to do two things. First, you need to block thinking right after you finish playing a point, which is not an easy task. One way you can accomplish this is by focusing on an object that is 12 to 18 inches away from you, like your racquet strings. Research shows that when you focus your eyes on something located at that distance your brain wave activity and your heart beat decrease. Second, you need to concentrate on your breathing process and nothing else. This combination of activities, concentrating your attention on an object close to you and on your breathing process, switches you to the “here and now” state of mind. (Perhaps Sampras and many other great tennis players have discovered this fact, since they always look at their racquet strings between points). In addition, your mind is more resourceful at the end of your recuperation period between points. This is the most appropriate time to choose a strategy for the next point.

Finally, remember that success is an illusion: “You never conquer the mountain, you only conquer yourself.” -Jim Whitaker, mountaineer, during an assault on the mount Everest.