Tennis has some basic rules. Hit the ball before it bounces twice so that it lands on or inside the lines. That’s basically it, with a lot of fine-tuning (serving rules, net cord rules, double-hit rules, and so on).

Beyond these rules, tennis is what we make of it. A select few pursue it for fame and fortune. For many, it’s a fun, social way to get healthy exercise. For a smaller yet sizable group, it’s a dojo for pursuing excellence. And so on.

Beyond the rules, in other words, tennis is what you make of it. It’s the clay and you’re the ceramist.

Unlike tennis, life’s rules are not laid out for us. We absorb them unconsciously from our environment. Of course, there have been many efforts to make them explicit. The Ten Commandments, for example. But external mandates tend to backfire. All too often, all they do is stir up resentment, rebellion, and middle-finger disregard. People who are raised under the flag of ‘thou shalt not’ are often the most hypocritical of all.

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A practice partner once said to me about playing tennis: “If you’re thinking, you’re stinking.”
Was he right? When you’re playing tennis, is thinking, by definition, overthinking? Or are there shades of thinking only some of which are a problem?
I’ve tried to get at a useful answer by compiling the sort of things that go on inside my head when I’m playing tennis. The following list, while lengthy, is probably incomplete:
  • Self-exhortation — “You’ve got this!”
  • Self-judgment — “You dope!” “You stud!”
  • Strategy — “Go down the line!”
  • Performance mantras — “Quick feet!”
  • Affirmations — “There are no ‘uh-oh’s in my game.”
  • Positive reminders — “Remember how great you did the last time you got into this situation?”
  • Technical corrections — “Racket above the wrist when you volley!”
  • Self-visualizations — “I’m going to get perfectly still in my core as I prepare to return serve.”
  • Role-play visualizations — I’m in a sprinter’s starter blocks or pretending my backhand looks like Musetti’s.
  • Information-gathering — “I can exploit that technical weakness!”
  • Error correction — “Don’t miss this one like you did the last one!”

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I have always considered tennis as a combat in an arena between two gladiators who have their racquets and their courage as their weapons. -Yannick Noah

What does courage look like on the tennis court?
We can start with another quote, this one from Arthur Ashe: “You’ve got to get to the stage in life where going for it is more important than winning or losing.”
Going for it takes courage.
Courage is the resolve, from moment to moment and from point to point, to be your own personal gatekeeper and bar all things negative from coming in the door. When I’m competing, I visualize my mind as a stainless-steel container with no doors or windows that contains only positive thoughts, and focus, and resolve.


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I am an admirer of Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis, and I am also a skeptic. He broke important new ground — his discovery of the inner game is to tennis what Columbus’s discovery of the New World was to Europeans.

Wow! Who knew?

I find his approach a bit on the simplistic side, though. His basic proposition is that there is a think-y self inside us — an overthink-y self, really — that he calls Self One, and a Mister Natural kind of dude (or dudette) who knows intuitively how to do tennis right. This character he calls Self Two.

My skepticism lies in this: If you don’t bring any technical knowhow to the game, Self Two is doomed to flail even with all its natural genius. You can’t dance like Mister Natural if you’ve got two left feet, and we all have two left feet when we’re just getting started at the game.

Simplicity follows complexity, it doesn’t precede it.

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