Peter Bodo's TennisWorld - Choking 'Poke
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Choking 'Poke 02/24/2007 - 2:52 PM

[Ed. Note: Hey, Tribe. Codepoke, whose real name is Kevin Knox, filed this Battlefield Report shortly before I left for vacation. This is one bad ex-diesel mechanic, beating up on an elderly Polish gentleman who coaches 'poke's own son. Enjoy, and in the coming days I hope more of you are moved to produce BRs for us!Thanks, Kev, well done  -- PB]

I hate playing the old guys.

You know the ones. They bring an extra racket, even though they haven't broken a string in decades. They grimace and regale you with their litany of injuries before you start, and then proceed to paint every line with winners.

My son's coach is one of those. He's a old, Polish lefty who's known the game for longer than my four decades. I hit the ball a good twenty miles an hour faster than he does, and my serve is worth twice as many points as his. On paper, there's no point in us playing, but before last week I had never beaten him.

His ankle was a mess that day. Today is the rematch. He's healthy and so am I, at least by old-guy standards.

I go up 3-0 quickly. I am repeatedly burying him in his forehand corner, and he is barely getting floaters back down the center to me. I let these bounce, and drive them into one corner or the other - at least for those first three games. After putting five or six free points away like this, I begin to think about why it's working. Then I miss one, and I begin asking myself why it's not working.

So I back off, and suddenly nothing's working. By the middle of the second set, I am alternating pretty consistently between bouncing balls into the net and hitting the fence half-way up. In the blink of an eye, it's 4-6, 0-6 and I'm wondering what went wrong. Heck, I'm wondering whether the best fix wouldn't be never setting foot on a court again.

I choked. And I didn't do it in a small way. I'm not one of those guys who can choke and miss by a couple inches. Nope, when the choke is on, I may as well switch to my left hand. (Yes, that's a strategy I'm working on. I have my left hand up to almost 3.0 level now.) So I figured a Battlefield Whinge -- oh, excuse me -- Report on choking might be useful.

I did not know this, but there are different kinds of chokes, and some of us are more susceptible to one than another. When I finally got around to reading John McEnroe's autobiography, You Cannot Be Serious, I learned Mac choked when he fell behind. I treasure that book now, because he describes the insidious voice of mental defeat so well.

CliffyFor me, the voice is that of a TV commentator.

How Cliff Drysdale's voice got into my head, and why it thinks it knows how to play tennis so well, I'll never know. Once Cliff starts, though, I'm dead.

I suspect most of us are front-running chokers. I know I am. Once I get in the lead, I start thinking about my shots. I start playing smarter. And smart is bad, very bad.

In football the "smart" thing to do is the "Prevent Defense". A smart football coach puts his team into the Prevent Defense when they are winning, and are willing to give up little victories, so long as they don't give up the touchdown.

The Prevent Defense allows everything, except the big touchdown. Which is as good as to say that it allows lots of little touchdowns. More football games that appear to be won are lost by the Prevent than any other single mistake in the football. More tennis matches, too.

In my head, Cliff's voice tells me to wait for my opponent to make a mistake. But by the time his advice reaches the end of my right hand, what comes out looks more like an unforced error. let's just say I have long arms. Somewhere between my head and hand, my thinking fuddles my mechanics, and I start painting the fence. But bear in mind I already was in safe-mode, so the effect of the error is even more demoralizing than usual. Then the next "smart" move is to back off a little more, and keep waiting for my opponent to make his mistake.

I'm sure Cliff told me my opponent would make a mistake. So, why is he painting lines all the sudden?

I'll call the third type of choke the pressure choke. That's the choke that comes at set point, for or against. At that moment ol' Cliff tells me I should gamble, or is it that I can't gamble? He's never sure. I hate that the commentators never know when to shut up.

I don't worry too much about the pressure choke. I do alright under pressure, all things considered. Everyone chokes under pressure (well not Mr. Federer, but you know what I mean) and I can fight the pressure choke better than the front-runner choke. There's something about knowing that my opponent is definitely coming to my backhand with set point on the line, and that helps me settle down and hit my first decent crosscourt winner of the day.

All in all, though, it's that front-running choke that repeatedly kicks my butt. I've tried all the mental games that are supposed to keep choking at bay in that situation. Tell yourself you're behind - check. Say reinforcing phrases to yourself - check. Pull back your shoulders, and lift your head - check. Worry about the process, not the outcome - check. Just play this point - check. Play the opponent - check. Don't play the opponent, play the ball - check.

Every one one of those ideas works brilliantly until I'm up 4-0 against a competent but beatable opponent. Then, suddenly, it's Cliff repeating them to me. Oddly enough, when spoken in his accent but in my head, the bromides don't seem to help.

So the other Friday, I decided to try a new mental game. The Blitz.

Again for those of you who don't follow football, the Blitz is the opposite of the Prevent Defense. The Blitz is what happens when the defense decides to get offensive. The Blitz says, "You'd better score a touchdown on this play, because I'm gonna make you hurt whether you do or don't. The Blitz risks everything for the chance to hit an opponent with a pre-emptive, first strike. And let's face it. There's no 7-point touchdown play in tennis. So why not Blitz? It just makes more sense.

On Friday, I went up 4-0 on my opponent - a guy who had erased a deficit the last two times we played to come back and beat me. So, when I lost the fifth game, it felt more like I was behind 1-4 than ahead 4-1. It was then the evil Mr. Drysdale started going on about "the ol' momentum shift" and "the last two meetings between...," and "what a career this Knox could have had."

The mind is a funny thing, and the fragile mind is an absolute riot. I swear, if squirrels were this stupid, the whole high-tech bird feeder industry would dry up overnight.

With the serve back on my side, I found myself preparing to lose from a 4-1 advantage. My arm wanted to twist the next 4 services in so badly it hurt. Cliff agreed. He reminded me repeatedly that this would be a horrible place to double-fault -- and that was just during my service motion. You should have heard him between points.

I delivered a big serve anyway. I blitzed.

Nobody was more shocked than me when the score clicked up to 5-1.

I made my opponent work for 2-5, but when the balls came back to my side I STILL wanted to spin my service in. Had I learned nothing? I still wanted to send forehands straight down the middle, and I still wanted to put a little more top on the ball, "just to be sure." Cliff started to say something, but I stuffed that third Wilson 4 tennis ball in his mouth, and kept blitzing.

It took everything I had to really unload on that last crosscourt forehand, but I did it, and it was a clean winner.

Just like Mr. McEnroe, my main feeling was not elation, but relief. I took the tennis ball out of Cliff's mouth, since accolades are actually fun to listen to, but he seemed to be at a loss for words.

Relief can feel pretty good. Maybe I won't quit this game quite yet.

Do y'all have any internal announcer moments? I'd love to hear how P-Mac would handle this..

--Kevin Knox

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Posted by Dunlop Maxply 02/24/2007 at 03:05 PM

Brilliant post, Kevin, not only honest, but simultaneously a well written, entertaining, and illustrative description of match psychology.

Not only that, but recreational players might learn more from this entry than from a library full of tennis books and years of lessons.

So, just for fun:

(i) what concept is missing?

(ii) Once you answer question (i) what is the overall conceptual "answer" to the challenge of match play?

I put "answer" in quotes because obviously there is not one answer, but there is something very, very important. I'm also not saying its easy to do, but Kevin's post is one of the best illustrations I've read in 35 years.

Posted by Andrew 02/24/2007 at 03:39 PM

This is great writing, Kevin. I second DM's accolades.

I'm not sure about the concept DM refers to, but (maybe it's the same thing) - are you having fun? It sounds like a lot of the matches feel serious to you.

The most significant choke gentlemen experience doesn't always happen on the tennis court. I'm going to choose my words carefully here. There are certain - ah - pressure situations, or ones that feel to us like pressure situations, where we're unable to deliver any kind of serve.

I have experienced this.

I also found that the only solution (which did actually work) was to remind myself that the activity was meant to be fun, and try to find ways to laugh, not to take myself and the situation concerned seriously.

So possibly, on the tennis court or elsewhere, find a way to enjoy the sheer experience. The score is only there to tell you whose serve it is. The real victory is in the enjoyment.

I still need help on my second serve, though.

Posted by Sanja 02/24/2007 at 05:04 PM

Very entertaining and a great read, Kevin.

I laughed doubly hard because I suffer from Cliff in my head, also. Only it's repeatedly "Keep your eye on the ball. Always move your feet. And always play with Penn." It drives me nuts like a broken record sometimes. Retire that commercial, already!

Posted by Tom in Smalltown 02/24/2007 at 05:35 PM

Pete, the Blitz has always been my mode of operation. I'm glad it worked out for you, but it is purely a choking strategy for me. I Blitz, I lose. I lose, I Blitz. Now that my nine year old is getting lessons, I've finally begun to realize why my Blitzes don't work. My style is so horribly flawed that I CAN'T hit the ball in when I hit it hard. Oh well, I'll just pay closer attention during my son's lessons this year. Please don't tell the coach though, because right now he's only charging for my son's time.

Thanks for this wonderful piece of reading.

Posted by steggy 02/24/2007 at 05:38 PM

Tom: This was written by Codepoke, not Pete. Pete's currently on vacation in Belize.

Posted by codepoke 02/24/2007 at 06:40 PM


> always play with Penn


Another one for the ol' record player. :-)

Posted by codepoke 02/24/2007 at 06:48 PM

Thanks for the all kind words, everyone. It's nice to hear that I'm not alone.

DM and Andrew,
>what concept is missing?

If the answer is, "fun," then I should be winning all the time. I love to hit the ball. I'm a "board trained" tennis player, which is to say that I have probably played ten times as much against the wall as against opponents. (Can you say "weakness against topspin?) When no one will play, which in a town of 3000 is always, I just go pepper the wall for a while.

I anxiously await anyone else's thoughts, and the eventual answer!

Posted by codepoke 02/24/2007 at 07:46 PM

Alright, after a couple minutes of thought - I return.

If it were Mary Jo Fernandez pattering in my head, she would be going on about conditioning. Grrrr. I wish she'd find another drum to beat. Anyway, I don't think that's the thing missing in my match play. I'm fast for the whole match and them some.

My greatest weakness is strategy. Could that be what I should be giving my mind over to?

My son's coach picked up on my weakness against topspin, and those floaters down the middle started coming with varying degrees of top on them. He zeroed in on something in my game that he could exploit, and by beating on it, caused me to lose faith in my most basic strokes.

Posted by Beth 02/24/2007 at 07:49 PM

Love the writing. This sounds so much like my game. I play in a ladies doubles league. In this league I am one of the younger ones. My partner and I invariably lose to the seniors who walk on to the court with braces and bandages and a list of complaints that should render them immobile. What happens? We get tentative. They don't move so we are lulled into playing their game. We need to take your suggestion and Blitz. The Prevent sure isn't working for us. Our tennis pro says the same thing.He says you cannot win if you are afraid to lose. I think he is trying to say take a chance. Poach, go for the big return or serve, go for the winner , aim for the lines. If you miss what happens? You will lose. But we were losing anyway trying to play safe. Maybe , just maybe, the risk will pay off. And you will win. Next time I play- I am going to try it. You've inspired me. What have I got to lose?

Posted by Pierre Des Joachims 02/24/2007 at 07:50 PM

Codepoke, that was a great self-analysis. Some people might say to just suppress the analysis during the match, but if it's there it's not going to go away by trying to suppress it.

This may not have anything to do with Dunlop Maxply's "answer", but you didn't talk about what your opponent was doing in the two matches. You got ahead on an "old Polish lefty", and then he ended up running up a string of games; do you think maybe he figured you out and changed something he was doing, the type of ball he was feeding you, just about the time you thought you "choked"? After all, you said he beats you most of the time, and Old Polish Lefties and other good players usually read their opponent's weaknesses well, he may know some things about your game that you are not even aware of.

What I am trying to say, is that if you get ahead and then lose a bunch of games, maybe you didn't choke, maybe your opponent was thinking and analyzing just as hard as you, and maybe he adjusted, and kept just one step ahead of you.

And in the second match, maybe your opponent choked, so you didn't have to play that role, or maybe he gave up, or he wasn't feeling well or hitting his shots well, or maybe you are just better than he is and would win every time you play. But to me, it's all about the opponent.

The other thing is that one of the the chief tenets of tennis strategy is to never change a winning game, and always change a losing game. Personally when I am ahead, I play my best tennis because I can keep ahead of my opponent. It is when I am behind that I feel I am most at risk of choking, because that is when I get anxious and don't execute as well as I should some times. Maybe what we both need is a course of psychoanalysis, do they have that in towns of 3000?

Posted by Lisa 02/24/2007 at 08:05 PM

Great job, Codepoke!
Hey, you're looking at the queen of the chokers-but in the really big matches and not the regular league matches. I'm better off if my instructor/coach isn't watching.

Posted by Pierre Des Joachims 02/24/2007 at 08:17 PM

And just so you have maybe one more thing to worry about, the voice I hear is not Cliff Drysdale's, but my own, and it kicks in at times like when I am receiving serve and I am up 30-40; and the voice starts to say, "OK, if you win this point, you will be up a break, and then you can close out the set 6-4 etc..." .

I hate that voice.

Posted by Sanja 02/24/2007 at 08:42 PM

Codepoke : )

Great stuff everyone. I just started playing again so I don't really have any match experience to compare it with as I'm at the level where I need to just become more consistent and STOP closing my eyes at the last second when I volley! I'm looking forward to playing a lot of tennis in Florida on vacation and these reports make me look even more forward to it. Thanks.

Posted by Lorraine 02/24/2007 at 09:49 PM

Hey, Lisa! Great job on your reporting -- I really enjoyed reading your posts. Maybe you could get Pete to send you to tournaments he's not at... :)

Codepoke, great job. As a fellow choker, I definitely can empathize. Big matches, little matches, ahead, behind, whatever. I don't hear Cliff in my head (god that was funny!), but my own hyper-critical voice telling me NOT to do various things. I'm finally getting a little bit better at quieting the roaring going on between my ears, and when that doesn't work (it's exhausting!), I have only a few words I "allow" to come through the static -- "up" when serving, "deep" for regular groundstrokes and "ball" for anything else. The only thing I've found really helpful is to NOT concentrate -- that is, try to quiet the voice (God I sound schizophrenic!) and let my instincts take over. I find when I'm successful doing that, I play well.

Posted by skip1515 02/24/2007 at 10:32 PM

The toughest opponent I ever played against is me.

Posted by ex-momofan 02/24/2007 at 10:33 PM

Hi Codepoke,
Lovely article. For me the choke occurs even before the stressful situation (I've never really "choked" in tennis, but I've certainly choked otherwise before!). I think the problem is that I psych myself out before the whole ordeal even begins by forgetting a simple thing that I KNOW I know -- the first note of a piece, or the derivative of sin(x) -- and that's it, I fail miserably. Once you start choking, it's really hard to stop, too. Luckily I've never choked in the middle of something (yet), only in the beginning, so maybe that just means I have to go in really, REALLY confident. We'll see. But I certainly don't hear Cliff's voice; only my own!!

Posted by skip1515 02/24/2007 at 10:34 PM

Well done, codepoke.

Posted by Rick 02/25/2007 at 12:03 AM

Amen! This has only happened to me one time. Last tournament 2nd set I forgot how to play tennis. The mind(choke) had taken over my head and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I managed to win the 3rd set 6-3 but I heard Cliff's voice as well, and I was happy to stuff a tennis ball in his mouth once it was all over.

Posted by jac 02/25/2007 at 12:57 AM

Hey Codepoke,

Great article with plenty of food for thought:

1.The 'mental aspects of sport are always more fascinating and unconquerable than the physical aspects.

2. That it is the mental aspects of life rather than the physical aspects where we(homo sapiens) can not only reveal more of our essential and unique humanity, but also more properly probe our untaped potential

3. tennis is primarily a "mental" sport

4. Therefore tennis is inherently more of a challenge than sports that are obviously more about the physical-(football of all codes, most definately hockey, swimming and track and field etc.

5. Therefore, also, we as humans with qualities stated above should be more fascinated in tennis than sports which do not offer this challenge.Therefore tennis deserves more of the goodies of and attention from our civilisation.

Another thread is because of the undoubted mental aspects of tennis and part of this mental aspect(just one part)is the presence of an opponent who is trying to get into the heads of players or because of particular features of the game, (like between serves etcwhen there is time for outside influences to intrude into the consciousness of players- the vestiges of an old Cliff Drysdale commentary, for example), these features make the game of tennis more difficult than golf, where the player is essentially playing himself.(not with himself)

Therefore the No. 1 in tennis is a more dominant and complete example of the species, homosapiens than the No.1. in golf

Another thread-is there perchance, a cultural component to this dominance in sports which are primarily mental in nature?
This is not only a sensitve issue, but also dam hard to measure.

So what other sports are more mental in nature? I am told that one of the toughest sports mentally is pistol shooting. I think we can agree that there isn't much of a physical aspect here -it is really just the shooter standing facing the target with all the other shooters close by doing the same.I read an article that there was a young Chinese guy, a couple of olympiads ago, whose focus under pressure was frightening. He was indominable

I also read of the former greatest biathlon person,(A Norwegian, surprise surprise) besides the current one of Bjorndalen, whose coach would position a target to be shot at from a really nasty ant hill which would immediately crawl all over this guy upon arrival. Now this guy had to shoot 5 bullseyes flat out while his heart rate was around 190 plus. The mental challenge here was the ability to immediately think his heart rate down to 120, otherwise he would be shooting at the sky. This guy in his day, was, apparently according to his opponents, an absolute machine.

A conclusion to be from these two(and only two) examples from the mental sports is that in the first case, control of the mental "game" was perhaps natural and in the second case it was more the result of the training effect-neither of which, naturally, answers the culture question (heck you guys didn't really believe I could do that, did you?)

Curiously enough, the mental game has an effect even on us Joe ordinarys and when we aren't even playing sports, to boot, as when we have a sudden attack of performance anxiety when we are just visiting the urinal. This phenonemum further serves to remind us how far we really are from the tennis gods we so admire(do we really believe TMF would find it hard(oops) to front up for a public slash?

Posted by Dunlop Maxply 02/25/2007 at 01:24 AM

OK, back with my thoughts.

(i) the missing concept from the piece is any thought at all as to what the opponent is feeling. Not to say that Kevin doesn't spend any time thinking about his opponent's game, but the piece reads like a treatise on golf, where there is no opponent.

(ii) the overall conceptual "answer" to match play is that (a) virtually all matches are lost due to mistakes and not won by winners, so (b) the most important thing is not to "beat" your opponent but to allow the opponent to beat him or herself. Focusing on how you will "beat" your opponent is a sure recepie for guaranteeing that you will choke.

Oh, easy to say, but if only it were so easy to put in practice! IMO about 1% or so of all tennis players naturally have the critical ability to, in a match, think more, and pay more attention to what their opponent is doing and feeling than what they are doing and feeling. That 1% ususally starts out immediately winning matches in the juniors.

The other 99% learn this to a greater or lesser degree over time. One reason I think that Galloway's "The inner game of Tennis" is more useful as fire kindling than help with match play is that the premise of that book is that a player, who starts matches with Kevin's worries about choking, can reach some state of grace were all these worries somehow melt away.

The reality is that the "state of grace" is not freedom from nervousness, its the reality that the other player is just as nervous, and just as likely to make a critical mistake as you are.

For example, in Kevin's piece he completely focuses on what he is thinking --- how about the fact that the "old Polish lefty" might be having a very difficult time (i) dealing with the fact that he is in fact, old, and (ii) that he is down to a guy whom he believes, from prior experience, he should be beating?

This is not wishful thinking. Certainly, you can enter matches where you are outgunned, but those are not the matches you think that you "choke" away, are they?

By definition, a "choke" match must be reasonably close. If its reasonably close why is it rational to assume that you are a basket of nerves, about to unravel at any moment, yet your opponent is as calm as Rafael Nadal facing a 100 stroke rally at break point down on clay?

You're not playing Rafael Nadal, you're playing some other player at about your level. If their nerves were so great, they would not be playing you.

The bottom line is that as you stand to serve or recieve to begin a given point, a good match player will have a firm grasp of which shots his opponent is most likely to miss, and a rough plan to try to construct the rally to give said opponent a chance to miss that particular shot.

A match player who has trouble with "nerves" will be thinking about the point solely from his or her own perspective, forgetting that there is always pressure on both sides of the net.

Any lead, no matter how great, can be blown by thinking too much about your own shots. If you find yourself spending more than a couple of seconds thinking about Cliff Drysdale, ask your imaginary Cliff what he would be saying TO YOUR OPPONENT.

That is the key.

Posted by Slice-n-dice 02/25/2007 at 01:27 AM

Excellent writing, Codepoke, and a wonderfully insightful expose of at least one tennis player's fragile psyche. I've got one or two decent choking stories of my own, which over the course of 35 years of tournament play isn't too bad, I suppose, but I've never forgotten them.

On the flip side, here's how I averted the choke one fine Sunday morning a few years ago. It was a semifinal USTA match at my local tennis club, and I was playing a friend, whom I had never lost a set to and usually beat by a score of 6-3, 6-3. A few dozen people were milling about as we began warming up. I was the top seed and the club's members actively supported their own, so I knew all eyes would be on me in short order. My opponent-friend played a "blitzing" attack game, using his quick, sure hands to take all serve returns on a short hop, as if off a ping pong table, and coming to the net early and often. His game epitomized the pre-emptive, first strike style of tennis.

Ordinarily, if I served well, making him move out of the box, and mixed up my shots and tactics, keeping him moving and guessing, things fell nicely into place.

But this day began differently. He exploded out of the blocks and got off to a 4-0 lead on a slew of very brief and well played points. I wasn;t able to string two points together, and what began as a respectful marvelling at his play that morning quickly turned to a decidedly unhealthy self-examination.

"What's wrong with you today?" ... C'mon, get it in gear!" "How did he make THAT shot?" ... "This can't continue forever; just hang in there, he'll cool down." ... "Another return winner? You've got to be kidding me!" ... And so on.

I looked over to the sideline (ever do that and regret it later?), and noticed the stunned looks on some faces, the muttering under the breath on others'. THen something miraculous happened.

As my opponent-friend prepared to serve for the fifth game, I took a deep breath, looked inward, and asked a simple yet profound question: What is the worst thing (aside from something completely unexpected like a stroke or a meteors falling from the sky) that could happen out here today?

The answers that flooded my brain in the span of 10 seconds changed my fate. "Well, for starters," I thought, "I could lose." ... "In fact, the way things are going, I could lose 6-0, 6-0, to a guy I've never lost a set to and rarely more than 3 games in any set." ... "And if that happens, I will go to the net with my head held high and shake my friend's hand, congratulate him on playing a fine match and wish him luck in the final." ... "And then we'll come off the court and I'll be greeted by pitiful stares from stunned, and eerily silent, club members who won't understand what just took place or why. Some may even try to console me, as if someone in my immediate family had recently passed away." ... "Then I'll gather my things and head home to a hot shower and a beer, followed by a big meaty sandwich and some play time with my young son. And I'll not think too much about the match." ... "Life will go on, and I'll play again and even win some."

After that quick reality-check, in which I faced down my worst fear as a player -- total ahhihilation by a friend and guy I imagined I would never lose to, followed by the questioning gaze of others -- I began to do what all good players do. I focused on the ball, and put my mind to the task of developing a winning strategy and executing the tactics to support that strategy. And ended up playing a decent game and winning 6-4, 6-2. And as we shook hands at the net, I told my frind that he nearly had me that day, and that it was good to see him play so well.

He laughed a little and said he knew it was only a metter of time before I found my form and climbed back into the match. Then he wished me luck in the final. He never knew the depths to which I had sunk, and how close he had come to giving me a thorough thrashing.

Posted by jac 02/25/2007 at 01:45 AM

interesting piece-you know telling yourself that "man, this is just a friggin game after all" never really does is it, right.At least it never did or does work for me-somehow this game or race is just so dam important.

Neither does the old standby: "visualize yourself really winning those rallies with sublime ease". So what can you do? I think the only answer but hardest is to do is to somehow maintane a watertype focus-again this is a higher cognitive skill-does this make tennis players inherently smart?

Posted by Slice-n-dice 02/25/2007 at 01:49 AM

Dunny Max, well said. But, let's not forget that Codepoke had tried for all the world to "not beat himself" when he was up 3-0 and fell apart. Now, the key here is "tried for all the world," which, as you pointed out, implies a hightened self-consciousness, which is destructive in all athletes. The truth in Gallwey's philosophy is that the mind must be clear of self-doubt, self-loathing, self-criticing, self self self. Yet it is true that one cannot "will" these things away. I find the best approach is to let these negative, of you will, thoughts wash right over me and then overlay positive ones before beginning a point. Then, during the point, to focus solely on what it is I'm trying to do to my opponent. In other words, my focus is directed "outward."

Ever notice how difficult it can be to get a serve in play at 3-4, 30-40, when all you can think about is, "Don't double fault!" Or, "Don't miss your first serve. You can't afford to miss this first serve; he'll climb all over your second." What Gallwey espouses is that we should banish those thoughts, and I agree with you that this approach does not work. Instead, let the thought come, and then let it go. Step away fro the service line when this thought begins to form, and let it play itself out. Then regroup, create and visualize a winning, or effective, service plan, and step back up to the line and play it out.

Everyone experiences self-doubt from time to time. But even more so when we are conscious of ourselves and our thoughts. A large part of being able to create peak performances in sports is developing the ability to focus solely on the task at hand (and the tactics you'll employ to achieve that task), and never letting that focus waver. Ever notice that when a player has played "out of his mind" or a pro athlete has spoken of being "in the zone" they can rarely recall details of their performance? We often say they were "unconscious." But in reality, the peak performance is a result of that athlete's having been conspicuously unSELF-conscious during the match/game. They have maintained their focus on their task, and on objects and objectives OUTSIDE themselves.

Posted by Slice-n-dice 02/25/2007 at 01:59 AM

jac, yes, I believe that all great athletes do possess some kind of higher intelligence, for lack of a better word, that enables them to reach levels of consciousness/awaresness that most ordinary recreational athletes cannot.

Notice, though, that the personal experience I shared did not at all entail "telling myself" that it was just a game, nothing more. I didn't so much "tell myself" anyting, as much as let myself hear what my sub-conscious was struggling with. THe sub-coinscious mind -- the ego, etc. -- is constantly struggling to make itself feel like top dog, and whe threatened by the realities it is facing, can get downright nasty in its criticism of the conscious self. I was able to, in that rare moment, recognize this reality, let it play out to its logical conclusion (I could lose 6-0, 6-0 and face embarrassment and lots of questions from club members) and, when my sub-conscious had unloaded its fears on me, only then was I able to redirect my sole focus (conscious and sub-conscious) on the task of playing tennis and countering that particular opponent's attack.

That's how I see it as a distinct from Timothy Gallwey's approach in that classic, The Inner Game of Tennis, of which Dunlop Maxply alluded. Make better sense?

Posted by Dunlop Maxply 02/25/2007 at 02:00 AM

I basically agree full on with jac and Slice n dice. Although I'm not familiar with running philosophy. I can say that in tennis one thing that always helps in simply recognizing the nerves are there. Not only on my side of the net, on both. Its not a question of ovecoming nervousness, but of basically gettin used to it.

Not matter how bad anyone thinks they are choking, its not as if the paramedics have to be called. If you can manage to "choke" by missing a serve one foot long, or in the tape, there is no reason it can't go in the next time. Then, its your opponents turn to worry about it.

Its not a question of playing too carefully, its realizing that winning or losing does not depend solely on you.

This is why so many playes play "better" in doubles. In dubs, with four players running around, its harder to rationally think that the entire game is in your head. You see your partner, for example, choke shots away, and ironically, it makes you feel better about yourself!

So, jac, what do runners do about this?

Posted by Old Tennis Fan 02/25/2007 at 02:01 AM

Wow, excellent post. How so many of us who play the game can relate to this.

Just today I played for almost 3 hours, with a big serving guy and actually won 7-6, 7-6 on 2 tiebreaks, and in fact I served quite well. I won the match because of the errors he made, than my winners.

And that brings me to DMs post about what your opponent is thinking and the whole write up. I have always admired DMs writing, but he is a genius with this peice. Very well written.

There hasnt been a great tennis related post in this site than this, in a while.

Posted by jac 02/25/2007 at 02:09 AM

The thing is we are, by definition, unable to consciously hear the unconscious-if we could then it would naturally be the conscious mind. We apparantly only have access to the unconscious through dreams. I'm not trying to be an a...h... didact here but really trying to understand your experience(this once was my profession, i hesitate to say)
Are you in the Pacific zone, btw?

Posted by Dunlop Maxply 02/25/2007 at 02:18 AM

Not to answer jac's question to slice, but let me give a concrete example. In the 14 and unders I remember serving for the match in a close match and my arm was literally shaking. Not so much that my opponent could see it. But at that time it did not matter. I was so focused on my own problems that it did not occur to me that (i) for all I know my opponent was about to barf and (ii) that just because I was nervous it did not automatically mean that there would be a negative outcome.

Years later, playing in college and on the lower levels of the tour, my arm would still be shaking. The critical difference was I basically sort of did not care. At that level, nervousness was an accepted part of the game. Like sweat. It was inconceivable to me that you could manage to get through most matches without feeling so nervouse that you would choke. For that matter, I choked in most matches. That didn't mean I had to lose them.

The critical difference was I was also noticing that my opponents choked as well.

Have you even noticed that inexperienced playes are hard on themselves, and expereinced players are not?

There are many ways to say this, but the concept is the same.

Posted by Slice-n-dice 02/25/2007 at 02:24 AM

True story....

I was watching a buddy of mine play our State 25 Singles Consolation final, against a fellow we both knew who had played at the same college, just a few years after us. As the match wor on -- and it was not a pretty one -- and as it entered the third set, my buddy began to struggle with his conditioning. He was slam worn out, dog tired amd showing it.

I was watching from a vantage point at one end of the court in the corner (due to the unusual court tiering and windscreens). Each time my buddy was playing on the end I was nearest, I could hear him muttering to himself (rather loudly) that he was so spent he didn't want to keep going. He was feeling "sick" to the stomach, needed food, etc., and didn't think he could finish the match. But I know my buddy, and part of it was a manifestation of his assessment of his play. He was not "on" and was struggling to beat a guy he thought he should beat more easily.

Well, when the other guy came around to play near me, he too was muttering about how badly he was playing, how it was the worst he'd ever played and he just wanted to go bury his head, and racquets... yaddy yada. He was a pathetic mess, no better off than my buddy. But no worse.

My buddy went down that day in 3 ugly, painful-to-watch sets. But had he known that is opponent was on the verge of a total mental collapse, I'm quite certain he'd have found away to quit worrying about his empty stomach and win that match.

All this to echo Dunlop's point about realizing there's another guy out there who is wrestling with HIS OWN demons, and that sometimes things are not exactly as they seem. To push on is sometimes all one can do or need do.

Posted by Slice-n-dice 02/25/2007 at 02:35 AM

Dunlop, well put. Yes, all players experience that choking sensation, or heightened nervousness. That can actually be a good thing, if it doesn;t completely overwhelm you. And yes, the experienced, successful players learn that being hard on themselves merely doubles their difficulty and accomplishes no good. You cannot, I repeat myself here, cannot talk yoiurself out of nervousness.

And again, jac, not to belabor the point or debate it too strenuously with an expert on consciousness (I take you for your word, at face value), what I described as my subconscious fears coming through as "negative self talk" was, I think, more a matter of those unacknowledged or suppressed fears breaking through to the conscious level. This may not, in actuality, be the subconscious "speaking" or becoming conscious -- although I would be interested in reading scientific works that prove this is impossible -- but clearly these were "thoughts" and fears that linger just below the conscious or spoken level in all of us who are performing, whether i sports or in music or theatre, or even in front of a classroom or board room.

Posted by jac 02/25/2007 at 02:37 AM

Hey DM,

The trategies in "track" are rather blunt instruments compared to the sophistication necessary in tennis: it consists of either simple trash talk as in baseball, or fronting up to your opposition ala Rafa, providing of course you have a chest to puff out, of massive gams. These are usally the complete toolkit necessary to get that edge and not choke.

NB.-I fronted up to a former world mile record holder(John Walker) when I was a spotty youth of 19 at the start of 10k.The circiut was a 2X5 K thing. Now I'm no long distance runner, but i knew as fast as Walker was, I had more basic speed than him. My strategy-go out like blazes the first 5k to see if I could sow some doubts in his mind. Result?

Well I really did have a good lead up to 5k, but Walker wasn't a gold medal winner at the Olympics for nothing: he wasn't fazed at all by my tactics-he was extremely disciplined(that was how he won the gold medal). He just keeped to his plan of mile splits etc,. and eventually reeled me in.

My place, oh only about 20th-that's what you can learn bieng around the greats: the good ones like Federer are never fussed by things going on-they just focus and keep to their plan -success has given them the belief that their plans generally prevail so why worry about anything else?

On the track, Walker's stategy was always to go from 300 out no matter if some guy was already 70 meters in front . He very seldom shifted his strategy to cope with the specific contingencies of a particular race.

Posted by Slice-n-dice 02/25/2007 at 02:39 AM

jac, I'm actually on the East coast, just up late working on some other writings and saw Codepoke's post, Dunlop's responses, and thought I'd weigh in with some personal experience sna thougts on the subject. To me, as you know by now, choking and peaking (or playing in the zone) are flip sides of the same coin. Both are responses to enormous felt pressures to perform at our best.

Posted by Dunlop Maxply 02/25/2007 at 02:41 AM

One other thought tonight, and then even in Pasadena CA its too late.

I sort of view the tendency to focus too much on oneself as an "addiction" -- you are never cured, even if you understand the principals thoroughly. The tendancy to forget about your opponent is always there.

For example, if you play with a regular bunch of friends the chances may be that the stakes are simply not high enough. You all know each other too well. You don't really care. You are in Gallway-land.

Then, you play in some club exchange or tournament against a stranger, and all bets are off. What happens first? You are more hard on yourself. You are hard on yourself because you are simply not used to being under pressure. Being hard on yourself is frankly just another way of expressing the concept of "pressure" its not as if you are under any physical pressure, right?

I think a relatively steady diet of play against strangers is important if a player wants to improve on "match toughness."

Posted by Dunlop Maxply 02/25/2007 at 02:50 AM

By the way, (allright, enough already, I know, I know!) most players think they are playing far, far better in practice than they actually are. That is because in practice, many players are nowhere near as hard on themselves when they miss an easy shot as they are in a match.

Plus, in practice, the spectacularly good shots are given too much weight.

Posted by Slice-n-dice 02/25/2007 at 02:59 AM

jac, nice comments and interesting story.

"...the good ones like Federer are never fussed by things going on-they just focus and keep to their plan -success has given them the belief that their plans generally prevail so why worry about anything else?"

You put it in a nutshell... what success does to ensure future success. We often talk, especially in tennis I think, about learning more from our losses than we do from our wins. But what is rarley discussed is the confidence, that deep self-belief in one's game and ability to execute, that can only come through success upon success upon success.

This is why I think one of the biggest mistakes a lot of amateur tennis players inexperienced in match play make in preparing for a tournament is to go out the week before the tournament and try to get matches with the best players they can find. Often, while getting really good workouts and playing some of their best tennis in the process, they come away merely with 3 or 4 straight defeats, which is no way to go into a tournament.

I played a set against a much younger guy today with a big game (115-120 mph serve, huge run-around and inside-out topspin forehand, crisp two-handed topspin backhand and great wheels). He was probably 26 or 27 to my 48, and he had walked on and played on the UNC-Chapel Hill Tarheels varsity squad. It was easy to be intimidated by his first serve, wheels and forehand. But I stuck to my game plan of getting good string on as many returns as possible (in hopes of frustrating him); keeping the ball low and playing pre-emptive, first-strike tennis whenever the opportunity arose so that he couldn't work me over with his bigger groundies; and protecting my serve by getting a high percentage of first serves in, moving it around, and going to his forehand with my first serve on inconsequential points (to try to instill some doubt about his forehand) and on the occasional big point with my second serve (as a surprise tactic, catchiong him sneaking over to run around his backhand to pummel my weaker second serve). We traded service games, but as the set wore on I held serve more easily than he (a couple times at love), and finally broke him in he 11th game and served it out, 7-5. It felt good, as he has a much bigger game than I. He even admitted afterward that it was all about strategy, all what's going on between the ears.

Posted by jac 02/25/2007 at 03:30 AM

Good for you, Slice (your win)

Its always interesting competing against the young bucks. When I was a youngster, I suffered from nerves really bad as i was often expected to win-and this expectancy really froze me or caused me to do some really dumb things.,
but when I become a Master(over 40)runner a few years ago, it was weird-I felt oddly liberated. No more do I suffer from the tentacles of doubt spreading uncontollably throughmy, well, consciousness. I'm no longer expected to win, so I can go out and really focus on only the physical aspects, I really no longer need a mental game.

And now it's the young guys with nascent reputations to preserve and develop who must be afraid of the older guy. Man it's amusing.
I mean if they can't beat me, what of their careers. So I'm often asked my age by the young bucks, who, despite the evident creases of time on my mug, that I might actually be younger than I look.
Is this roughly similar to your own experience?

Oh btw, I'm also here in the East, but a lifetime of all nighters has given me a definate preference for darkness.

Oh btw, I ain't no Steven Pinker with Cognitive Science-but I teach it and used to practice another form of Psychology.I really don't know much.

Posted by jac 02/25/2007 at 07:49 AM

Something else here(I'm endlessly enthralled with the exploration of the mental)
Before I hit the sack for a bit of a kip (that's if my kids will let me), you made a point in your last post which sparked another fertile germ here-that of the comparison of quality of play in :
1. Practice v real
2. knowns v unknowns (opponents)

For the first, you said (Ihope i got it right), that because a player is always aware that in a practice match that it is not quite the same thing as a competition match, that said player is either not as demanding on himself in the execution of a shot nor as punishing when he makes a mistake. Therefore the player thinks he is playing better than he/she probably in reality is . But but isn't it also true that the relaxation factor with practice games versus serious games going to assist in a performance.

Whenever I played competition squash in England I was always, always much better in practice-because i wasn't so constipated with mental angles-i felt free just to continually go for it. My feeling that I was playing better wasn't just an illusion, it was a fact e.g I seldom beat my practice partners in a tournament. I was chocking due the"occasion"

Point 2. For this one, the answer is similar to the first point. It was the familiarity factor of playing with friends etc which raised my game. This to me is similar to what EL Jon says is one of Federer's ultimate strenghts, he at least lowers the inter psychic temperature with his oppenent to a level which is obviously optimal to him. In this state, Federer performs best.

No one knows if he does this for the reason stated(personal comfort), or really is an A+ strategy to disadvantage the opponent. But if I have anything even remotely in common with TMF, his game may be benefitted with a friendly tone which more closely approximates the state of affairs found in a practice match.

However, it is more probable that I am talking a load of old cobblers, so if you will excuse me , I'll go to bed.


Posted by codepoke 02/25/2007 at 08:48 AM

Ha Ha!

Yes, I am THE classic amateur, and I almost never think about my opponent's head. I frankly see all my opponents as giants of mental stone. I could have thought about DM's challenge for a week, and not come up with the right answer. :-(

I once read a story about a boxing match. It was Bill Parcels' favorite story. The favored boxer was knocked out in the 5th round. After the match, the two didn't know that they could hear each other in their locker rooms. The winner told about how he was about to give in the middle of the 4th round when the favorite "didn't hit me no more." That was just the moment that the other man had figured he just wasn't hurting his opponent, and lost heart. They were both on the edge of surrender, but one of them lost heart and the other didn't. Almost exactly like that ugly three-setter with fatigue and stomach problems above.

[You can find the story here:
Search for "Hart-Antuofermo." It's about 1/3 down.]

Dunlop Maxply, this is something in which I should be able to believe, even when I'm not believing in myself. I know Cliffy would find a way for me to lose, no matter how comfortably I should win. If there's ANY chance the joker on the other side has someone in his head, then I've still got a chance.

Brilliant stuff. Thank you.

Jac and Slice-n-Dice, too. I have had some great moments by letting the fear out in the open, and playing past it, and by fronting a little confidence. I will keep these things on tap, too.

Heck. I think this little post may do something meaningful for my game. I've got some young bucks in my sights, and I just might try scaring them soon.

Thanks a million!

Posted by skip1515 02/25/2007 at 09:17 AM

1. Regarding DM's shaking arm: rarely does anyone use the phrase "iron elbow" anymore. I'm not sure why, it sure was accurate for what happens when nerves and a general mental white out take over.

2. You'll never know how close the other guy is to handing you the point if you don't get the ball back. So many of these stories reaffirm my belief in this.

3. Regarding practice versus match play: the warm up may give you clues about the opponent's shot, but it's more important to remember that Everyone Makes Them When They Don't Count.

4. About how to focus and win against weaker players who have enough to win if you let them: every tennis pro has more tales than they'd like of parents and adult players complaining that the group practice their kids (or they) are part of consists of players too weak for them.

Sometimes they have a point. More often what they really want is to be put in a group where they can swing freely, without pressure since they're not king dog, and be relieved of having to be consistent or create pace on the ball.

My usually futile response is to point out that in a tournament a top player has to beat 2, 3 or 4 oppponents they *should* beat before coming up against someone with an equally strong game. Learning to be both calm and dominating, when you're supposed to be king dog, is just as important as "playing up".

4. As a junior when colored clothing first arrived, I was hitting with a pro while on vacation with the family. I was busting my chops, while he was cool as a cucumber, which, of course, only made me sweat more.

When we finished I realized his baby blue shorts and shirt had hidden his sweat. I swore off whites.

Posted by mmy 02/25/2007 at 09:35 AM


Re your comment:
"Regarding practice versus match play: the warm up may give you clues about the opponent's shot, but it's more important to remember that Everyone Makes Them When They Don't Count."

Amen to that.

Remember that Roddick beat the Fed at the exo before the AO -- and was tagging him in practice.

Then, when it came to them money game -- well to a certain extent the Fed just kept saying "so, can you do it now?" "so, can you do it now?" to Roddick. Because Federer a) CAN often do it now and b) believes he WILL do it now while c) against most of his opponents doesn't think they can regularly do it now.

So, as Roger said "I can be two sets down and a break in the 3rd set, I still think I can win"

Posted by Tokyo Tom (tt) 02/25/2007 at 09:57 AM

I guess the point is everyone is different - Climbing is an interesting point where a serious unforced error can cause quite a bit more pain than losing a set - the key to climbing at a very high standard is to focus on what you need to do to make the next move section of a pitch. When learning, there is the natural tendency to start to focus on burning forearms, shakey legs. A person quickly realizes that wasted energy and focus that should be directed towards making the moves, can often be spent on wasted and even negative actions.

Tennis, for me, is a bit like that and the reason, when starting off I chose tennis over golf. I loved that fact one could leave a swing, point, game, set behind. It is a constant game of second chances up to the last point. The top pros know this. They hit a bad swing and take a couple of muscle memory swings.

They spend a bit of time acknowledging what the mistake was - bad swing, footwork, startegy, shot placement,mentally make the adjustment and move on. When they do not, it is so obvious - like a "bad call" causing a lost game - that sort of thing.

The other analogy- just as the rock changes and challenges getting up different sections, so to does the oponent. One can spend the warm up and first few games learing about what they like and do not like to do and then adjust over the course.

In climbing, where one has to learn focus to not make the mistakes that will contribute to failure, Tennis has less pressure because one can make a mistake, learn from it and move on to the next point. Thinking in very small bits of time.

If one is focused on the task at hand and what it takes, in a series of small moments, then there is little time to let the mind wonder to non productive activities.

Posted by Tokyo Tom (tt) 02/25/2007 at 10:03 AM

I meant to add - for me when I can remember where I made contact with the ball, I am playing well - because I am watching the ball coming onto the racquet - when I can tell you what type of bird is sitting on the fence behind the opponent I am spraying everything.

The focus on the moment for playing and the focus on the strategy between the moments, leaves little time for speculation.

Posted by Tom in Smalltown 02/25/2007 at 12:27 PM

Going back in time: Sorry I got you mixed up with Pete, Codepoke. I was reading on the run and failed to note the intro comments. I thought the writing style was familiar, but not quite Pete. Anyway, it is a great piece of writing. I enjoyed it.

Posted by Slice-n-dice 02/25/2007 at 12:41 PM

Tokyo, right on... focus on the little heres and nows that add up to an entire match. This is one reason so many of the pros now seem to have been trained to look at and adjust their strings between points -- to maintin their focus on the strategy and take at hand. It works.

Skip... it's amazing to me how common it is for the younger kids (12-, 14- and 16-year olds) to always "play up" to the next age group. Granted, there are always a few kids who's games are head-and-shoulders bove the others in their age group, and hey need to practice and play againt the older players with more mature games. However, it is crucial for these same kids to play at least two or three large events against the kids of their age group, for the reasons you mentioned. And it's interesting how often a 14-year-old who has on a national 16s title will get beaten in the quarters of a 14s national in that same year.

jac... yes, get asked about my age sometimes, but I think more often than not the young bucks would rather not know. That would be even more pressure! I recall not being able to beat my uncle, who had played offensive tackle in college back in the mid- to late-1940, until I was almost 14. He had me sosyvhed out it was unbelievable, and my game was far more complete and polished than his, even at 12. I could serve as big by 12, could hit the ground strokes as big, volleyed better, and could run circles around him, all day. But he had the knack for getting inside my head. If I were serving particularly well, on the changeover he might say, "Donny, you're really getting a great snap on the wrist today." Ad for the next several games that's all I could think about: getting an even better wrist snap. And my serve would begin to unravel and along with it, my entire game.

Also, jac, I've always played far better when I was able to laugh a bit during the match. Invariably something will happen that really is kinda funny, and I've found that a good laugh really relaxes the body AND mind, letting out all the fears. Perhaps Federer has begun to take it to that next plane. If so, the rest of the pack had better watch out, because we're just beginning to see his best tennis!

Posted by sophie 02/25/2007 at 01:02 PM mean "murder with a smile" is how Fed plays tennis :)

Posted by Nigel 02/25/2007 at 01:10 PM

I'm a world-class choker. I think the issue with tennis is that you have to keep going right to the end. In soccer, you can get 3-0 up and keep possession of the ball around the corner flag to waste time. In a race, you can get half a mile ahead and coast to the finish at half-speed. In tennis, you get 5-0 up and it still takes ferocious effort to cross that finish line.

Posted by Ray Stonada 02/25/2007 at 01:12 PM

WOW! Just read your piece, codepoke, and it was wonderful stuff. I'm so familiar with your feelings I'm almost proud, in a weird way! I too am a front-runner choker... I'm always losing second sets after cruising through the first. And you inspired a super debate, which I learned a ton from too. (Dunlop, you are the guru.) Many thanks for both, codepoke. Great, great piece.

Posted by Nigel 02/25/2007 at 01:23 PM

Jac, your comments about squash are interesting. I play both sports and find it so much harder to choke in squash. Because you're simply hitting against a wall, with no limits (such as are imposed by the lines in tennis), you can get by with just power. In tennis, it's the power plus control aspect that often results in choking - the need to play powerful tennis within a limited framework. The two are incompatible and can lead to holding back on shots, or hitting too hard, which can result in choking. Tennis, I think, is unique in its endless capacity for chokage.

Posted by Slice-n-dice 02/25/2007 at 02:28 PM

Sophie... "you mean "murder with a smile" is how Fed plays tennis :)" -- yes!

Nigel... "In a race, you can get half a mile ahead and coast to the finish at half-speed. In tennis, you get 5-0 up and it still takes ferocious effort to cross that finish line." Well put.

There's a thing in tennis (you all may know of it) called the 5-2 choke. Here's how it works: you're serving up 5-2, maybe even with a set under your belt. You tighten up a bit, while your opponent play with abandon, and you get broken. Now your opponent is buoyed by that glimmer of hope, and serves a solid game at 3-5 to close the gap to 5-4. Back on your string, you suddenly feel the noose tighten around your Adam's apple as you consider how dreadful it will be if you don't close the set or match out now and somehow let your opponent back in. You choke and now face a rejuvenated opponent who's serving at 5-5 with a reasonable chance of turnig this match around. He now pays with real passion and energy, and holds to go up for the first time, 5-6, your serve. The fact is, the momentum has clearly swung, and now you face an uphill battle.

When the realization occurs that you are in one of these "tight" moments, the eventual outcome may very well depend on whether you can let everything you know go and focus just on the ball and on your strategy and tactics, or whether you will obsess about your predicament and how you have blown a set or match that was clearly in the bag.

I had a coach my junior year in high school in Rhode Island, who knew very little about the mechanics of tennis. but he knew people, and he knew what motivates people. And when I was facing a crucial point or game, I could look over at him and he'd be sitting on the metal stands, knees tucked up to his chest, hand up to his chin, tuggin and stroking his long red bear with a big ol' Cheshire-cat grin on his face. It would make me laugh, and I'd find a way to play the point or game with courage.

What he taught me in those moments, whether intentional I do not know, was that in those tense, frightening moments where doubt can creep in the back door when you're not looking, are the moments when the game of tennis really gets interesting. And that how we deal with those moments determines whether we have the "balls" to win.

Posted by jac 02/25/2007 at 03:49 PM


You are absolutely right about tennis being much more a mental game than squash with commensurate more capacity for player freeze and assults from mental demons-not only because of the hitting against the wall feature of squash, but also because squash is so much faster-there simply isn't the time to plumb the deepest recesses of the psyche

But here is something else you may agree with, as a fellow squash player-when I started my interest anew in tennis after the retirement of Pete Sampras-it was the wimby final of 03, I not only thought the movement of the Federer chappie was unbelievable and extroidinary-but I also had a deja vu moment-I thought to myself-"where had I seen movement like that before"? Then it came to me: watching to top squash players.

As a matter of necessity, they(top squash players)have to glide around the court on the balls of their feet-anything else would be not only unefficacious but also injury courting. And they are able to do this gliding by their superior ability to read the game.

But wouldn't Federer make an excellent squash player as well? Not only because of his great movement, but also because he already often plays the squash shot in defensive situations-I am refering to the reflexive shot he makes usually from the deep right of the court where the arm is bent at the elbow at about a 90 degrees-so the arm just swings at the elbow instead of an upper arm action.

Posted by Well Left 02/25/2007 at 03:50 PM

This was a great read, codepoke, I learned all BR's don't have cover triumphs.
Maybe you can get Cliff's voice to say 'Ninja Turtles'? That might get you laughing and less focused on choking/results. I fell out when the actual Cliff was musing about Rafa's fans at the AO this year.
DM's insights into competition are invaluable here and I'm thankful for his efforts- good practical advice. I appreciated the practice v. match play insights, especially.
I'll try to keep in mind my opponent's internal pressure tonight in my singles league match. He's just been demoted to my level and I am on the cusp of challenging up- I just need to beat him. We're both retrievers, so I guess it will boil down to who can win the 3-3 points (we play no-ad). I'll keep y'all posted.

WTA finals yesterday were incredibly entertaining.
In Dubai:Props to Justine for winning that second set: Momo kind of gave her the 10th game, double-faulting at 'little deuce' (30 all) to avoid reaching a set point. Justine put the clamps on, got the break and finished off the match two games later.
In Memphis: Venus Williams literally served notice that she is back and nigh unbeatable. She crushed Peer 1 and 1- it wasn't that close (!). 20 winners vs. maybe 10 errors. Gobs of aces in the >115 range. Petrova, Sharapova, Vaidisova: eat your hearts out.
I am saddened that the feud with Indian Wells officials will keep Serena and Venus out of action until the Nasdaq tournament. Apparently the Las Vegas Open, this week, is too small potatoes. By missing IW as a matter of policy, the fans and the WTA itself are losing out on the highest level of competition. The situation needs to be turned around.

Posted by steve 02/25/2007 at 04:13 PM


i'm a tennis player turned squash player as well, and i've noticed many shots of federer's that remind me of squash, shots only a squash player would THINK to try. he played as a kid with his dad.

i thought for a time it was harder to choke in squash—you almost can't hit the ball out!—but i have found a way as i've played more. rather than pull up and miss shots, as i would in tennis, i fail to keep running the way i should in squash. as you know, the first step is even more paramount in squash than it is in tennis, and when i choke, this is just the thing i stop doing—getting a good first step. it's weird how my brain seems to have FOUND a way to choke.

the mind can be a terrible thing, can't it?

Posted by codepoke 02/25/2007 at 04:37 PM


> Iron elbow.
Never heard of it. I've heard of glass arm, though. (a telegraph operator's affliction. When the little clicky thingy didn't give force feedback, they would overstrike it for too long, and their nerves would just get shot. I own clicky keyboards now.) The iron elbow picture is pretty clear, though. :-(

> Warming up doesn't say much.
I got over this one last year. I used to psych myself stupid during the warmup. Either I was hitting too good and it would all go away in the match, or the opponent was too tough, or whatever. When I saw my first pro match in Cincy 2006, though, I noticed something. They kept hitting the ball hard, fast and AT THE "T". Gonzo was just ripping the ball back to Ferrer, but he hit within 2 feet of the service T with every practice shot.

That was UNBELIEVABLY helpful. Now, I warm up a ridiculously useful shot (the safest hard shot I can hit), warm up my body (the whole point anyway), and don't discourage myself by hitting too well or too poorly. I have not psyched myself out before the match one time since. My opponent may be rudely warming up his deep crosscourt. Who cares. I get to it, and hit right back at the T. If I miss it, it just looks like I hit a good shot, and if I hit it, I feel good. It's a no-lose.

Posted by codepoke 02/25/2007 at 04:40 PM


> it's called the 5-2 choke.
I didn't know it had a name, but it's exactly why I got so nervous during the match I won. I've had enough 5-2 chokes in my lifetime, to get the willies just thinking about it.

I can't wait until spring. :-)

Posted by jac 02/25/2007 at 04:54 PM

Steve, right on!

Because of the seeming simplicity of squash compared to tennis, the concept of chock seems not only counterintuive, in this format, but almost defies belief. Yet often as not, but not as often as in tennis, the difference between a win and a loss, was in the head.

My problem was that after the pre-match posing and preening where I generally prevailed, which was done to mask serious anxiety, my opponent soon discovered that I really wasn't up to snuff, and I would essentially self-destruct.I believe in hindsight that this process was a result of unrealistic expectations-because I was always in great physical shape, I believed that I could ignore the mental preparation and physically grind the opposition in to the ground.

I also think in hindsight that for a healthy mental game, it is much better to keep a low profile if humanly possible. Being a natural extrovert, this was something I could never do, to my continual detriment.I could (figuratively) talk the talk but not quite walk the walk.

All this belated self-insight is unfortunately not of much use to me now. Oh well-the past is done, right?

Posted by Sam 02/25/2007 at 05:27 PM

Great post Kevin. As someone who has choked quite a few times (both when ahead and behind), I can relate to what you experienced. Thanks for sharing this with us. And congrats on the win.

Don't get me started on the Prevent Defense ...

Posted by sophie 02/25/2007 at 05:33 PM

The reference to the coach's attitude helping the junior player to lighten up in a tense moment got me wondering about the influence of coaches in general in such moments on the players.

Although I find it understandable at junior level, I'm firmly in the "you're out there on your own" category. I don't want to get into any debate about on court coaching, or illegal coaching from the stands, but the constant looking at their coaches by some players (Roddick, Murray, Henin, Nadal, Youzhny to name a few) makes me wonder if it's an individual trait or habit, whereas some never appear to look (think Fed, Ljubicic, Gonzalez).

What's the current teaching by coaches and tennis pros about coping with these tense moments in matches?

Posted by Sam 02/25/2007 at 05:47 PM

A few years ago, I blew a match where I had won the first set and was on serve early in the second. At that point, my opponent was frustrated. I was at net and missed a sitter volley by a few inches. I became so upset that I only won 2 games the rest of the match, stewing about that missed volley the whole way.

Before the next season, I did a good deal of reading on the mental aspects of tennis, and ran across a great piece on positive self-talk (I think in Tennis Magazine). I printed it out and highlighted certain passages, and kept them in my tennis bag. Employing the techniques I'd read about, I won a number of close matches that season. When I faced the same opponent late in the season, I won the first set by frustrating him by taking the pace off the ball (he preferred pace) and staying focused. He adjusted in the second set, and broke me to go up 2-1. I pulled something in my upper left leg on game point. He won the next game, and I considered retiring since my mobility was hampered and I wasn't able to push off on my serve. I decided to try playing another game or two. I focused on each point and as little on the injury as possible. Slowly, I came back, including chasing down a short volley to pass him and take a 4-3 lead. I allowed myself to celebrate briefly, then went back to the task at hand. When I won that point, I knew the match was mine. He self-destructed in the final game, giving me 3 of the 4 points on unforced errors, including a frustrated forehand that sailed 10 feet past the baseline.

Posted by Sam 02/25/2007 at 06:05 PM

Oh, the positive self-talk consisted of such things like:

1) When I missed a shot, I gave myself credit for trying the peoper tactic rather than saying "you suck" or something like that. Conversely, when I made a shot, I wouldn't get too excited most of the time.

2) I would focus on my strings between points or look down at the ground rather than look over at the opponent. This kept me from getting nervous as much as I usually did.

There's more, but that's all I can recall right now.

Posted by skip1515 02/25/2007 at 06:47 PM

I encourage students to know the difference between being behind in a match and losing. Being down a break might be an example of the first. A player unable to control or string together any points, and way behind in the score, is an example of the latter. When you're losing, the match is speeding away from you, and that's just how it feels.

Being behind is no reason to panic. Pros have learned this lesson very early in their careers, which is why we don't see "panic" in professional play. Confusion or despair, maybe, but not panic. At the AO, in Sharapova v Williams, or Federer v Roddick or Gonzalez, we never saw the losers fall apart like we mortals do.

Among tennis' unique beauties is its scoring. Without a time clock, and with small victories (games) to be had on the way back into a match, letting them build confidence as they go, the pros know the possibility of a comeback is usually there, waiting for them.

To paraphrase the cliché, they know the next ball they hit is the first ball of the rest of the match.

Posted by jac 02/25/2007 at 07:36 PM

Thanks for the mental hints, Sam. I've noticed that Hewitt, for one, gives those strings an unholy staring at-perhaps he is doing it for the reason you outlined-focusing on the next thing that just has to be done to keep those nerves in check.

Posted by Sam 02/25/2007 at 09:38 PM

Sorry for the long post, but here is the article I was referring to.

INSTRUCTION: Clinic: Practice Your Mental Game

If you want to be a complete tennis player, you have to practice your mental skills.
By Dr. Paul Lubbers

From the July 2004 issue of TENNIS Magazine

Practice, practice, practice. We all know that to improve our strokes, master tactical patterns of play, and raise our fitness levels, hours of diligent and focused practice are required. But your physical skills aren’t the only thing you need to train. Another area that must be evaluated and exercised each and every time you play is your mental game.

What are mental skills? They’re procedures that can help you control your mind efficiently and consistently as you play tennis. This not only involves developing talents like concentration and positive body language, it also includes efforts to influence personal characteristics such as self-esteem and sportsmanship.

The concept of enhancing your mental skills may seem awkward and confusing. But as with physical abilities, they can be presented, practiced, reinforced, revised, and tested under competitive conditions. In fact, sports-science research has shown that top tennis players have honed their mental skills so well that they’ve become habits. Players who struggle in this area often do so because they practice these skills infrequently and usually only in the context of a match.

The fact is, at any level, mental-skill techniques will help you adjust your actions, thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and they’ll improve your play.

Objective: Positive self-talk

As you start to compete, you begin to judge your playing more critically. Interpreting performance on the tennis court often occurs immediately and decisively. These thoughts are powerful and are usually linked to the winning or losing of a point. In reality, to play your best you need to focus on performance (how you’re playing) rather than outcome.

One way to monitor your thoughts is to be aware of your self-talk. Positive emotions and self-talk can push you forward to better performances, but by the same token, negative feelings and cursing yourself can, and usually does, bring you down with a thud.

The first step to improving your self-talk is to take an inventory of your thoughts during or right after a match. What happens in your mind when you miss an easy shot, double-fault, lose a lead, or fail to win a match that perhaps you should have won?

The next step is to engage in something called “thought stopping.” This works by halting negative thoughts before they become harmful to performance. You become aware of a negative thought, say “stop” to yourself, and refocus on something task-related. Often in the pro game you see players taking deep breaths and moving their strings. The strings may not need any adjustments, but the pros need to employ a routine like this to refocus their attention from what just occurred on the court to a simple task like moving strings.

Objective: Controlling your body language

At this level it’s important to show that you have a positive attitude. Have you ever peered across the net at your opponent and noticed that he looked defeated? Perhaps he made an unforced error that gave you the game or maybe you hit an unbelievable winner.

When an opponent displays negative body language, it feeds our psyche by giving us confidence that he’s beaten. On the other hand, you may look across the net and see a player full of energy who is maintaining a positive posture. When this happens, you know you’re in for a tough match.

How do you want to look on the court? What’s the image you want to display as a competitor? Take a moment and create an image in your mind of a confident player. It’s easy to picture someone with good body language; more often than not he has a confident walk, good posture, and his head is up. The player’s eyes are intense, but at the same time they’re calm.

The best players react positively to the stresses of competition by using routines that allow them to exhibit a relaxed intensity during and after points. Here are a few routines that you can use to stay focused and confident. Practice good posture—head up and shoulders back. Employ a confident walk.

After the point is finished, put your racquet in your nondominant hand. This allows your hand to rest and relax, and more often than not you won’t be tempted to use or abuse your racquet in frustration.

Smile and enjoy the match.

Manage the time between points effectively. If the momentum is on your side, keep the flow of the match moving. If you’re making mistakes and in trouble, slow down, take some deep breaths, and have a clear plan for the next point.

Use the same routine before every serve. Make sure you bounce the ball a few times and visualize the serve you want to hit.

Posted by kingandre 02/26/2007 at 01:30 AM

really relevant post Kev.I am a table tennis turned tennis player.Because of my low expectations in tennis i have done quite well.Last year i played the 5 th rubber for my college in tt against a non decript guy.I psyched myself pretty much before the match and had a 5 point lead but the front runner syndrome hit and i lost 7 points in a row and went on to lose the match and the rubber.Whereas in tennis it is just the opposite,i play freely and enjoy the game.Its been almost a year since i played either sport though.Life out of college just isnt the same

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