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The Courage to be Loose

Those of you who have listened to my CD program, Fearless Tennis, or have read my book, The Best Tennis of Your Life, know that I am passionate about pushing the envelope when it comes to playing “loose.” Okay, fine. Maybe a bit obsessed. But this newsletter is not only about how to get loose. It’s about finding the courage to do so regardless of the score. Because more and more, I find that “choosing” to play loosely with the possibility of missing, creates an internal tension that we all must transcend over time.

And since this challenge is so universal and so much easier said than done, I thought it might be helpful to expand on this opportunity and explore it in greater depth.

There you are. You’re serving at 5-3 in the third set, people are watching and you’re on a “show” court. Is that enough to get your juices flowing? You’re heart is starting to pump a little faster. Your legs feel a bit heavier. You feel more tension in your arm. Your mind becomes aware of the score. Sound familiar? What’s your first thought? If you’re like most players the instinctive response is, “Oh no. This isn’t good. I just need one more game.” And, if you’re a sensitive one, you’re acutely aware of all of these feelings and thoughts coming at you like a freight train. But, you’ve just walked up to the line and this all hit you within seconds. Now what?

What do most human beings do when they are nervous? They run, fight or freeze.

But on the tennis court I am confident that you rarely, if ever do any of these exactly–with the exception of a few players over the years (most notably Azarenka at the 2013 Australian Open who left the court as she started to have a panic attack). “It got to the point that it was pretty much impossible to breathe and play”, Azarenka said in the press conference after her match.

It would be a little bizarre to see your opponent sprint off the court in a winning position wouldn’t it? But, understand that some level of fear in this type of situation is totally human. And, as you’ve witnessed, even the pros can stiffen up. They are not immune to nerves and pressure. But, most often they manage to find the courage to hit their shots anyway, even with some tension in their bodies. Usually, they manage these situations better because they have exposed themselves to pressure on a consistent basis. And, yes, they have a bit more trust in their strokes. But, it’s all relative. In the moment, players who do not succumb to nerves and tension accept the ebb and flow of nerves as part of the game. They are not spooked by them.

What’s the reaction that gets you into trouble 95% of the time? It’s actually a mixture of all three of these universal reactions (fight, freeze, run). The common reactions are to play it safe, to be tentative and hope for an error. The opposite end for some is to rush and try to win the point in a shot or two. Some go to both extremes. But, most people play it safe though and this is where I believe your greatest barrier and opportunity exist.

It is critical to acknowledge the downsides of this style of play so you can get to the next level and truly shift this habitual, knee jerk, fear response. The con list is plentiful: You allow your opponent to control the point, you make more errors, and you privately hate yourself because you know you are playing scared tennis. But, of course, the killer is that you do it anyway, again and again. But these costs are nothing compared to the deep awareness that you are not playing at the upper end of your ability and may never get “there”–wherever you believe that to be.

So, as you walk to the line to serve, your body sends you a huge shot of adrenaline with a message attached, “Danger, danger. Body is getting tight. Just get it back in play. Don’t miss.” Because we are all wired to respond to the thoughts we have in our head (to get us out of danger), we listen and obey. We back off the ball, guide it with increased muscle tension and hope we don’t make a fool of ourselves or have to deal with the pain of a simple mistake and lose the point. And, unfortunately, we are occasionally reinforced for this decision because we actually win the point and get away with it–sometimes. Nevertheless, we feel lousy but usually do it again, because even though it feels bad, at least it delivered us a point. We know we could be better–in fact, we know we ARE better–but somehow our brain and body won’t cooperate to let you hit through your shots at the expense of losing a measly point or two. At the last second, when you are making contact with the ball your body puts on the brakes, doesn’t it?

As you can probably tell, I learned to hate this habit– playing it safely, even though I still fall victim every now and then. But, when this happens it only humbles me and reminds me how challenging it is to commit to your shots with a win or loss hanging in the balance.

Well, here’s the deal. First of all, you need to think of nerves and tension on a dial. You do not want to think of your tension level as all or nothing (tight or loose). I use a dial from 0-10. Ten is the tightest you’ve ever been. I think of a 4 as Federer and a 5 as Rafa Nadal. Optimal looseness is around 4/5. Above 6, you are getting too tight to play your best and you will likely begin to play tentatively. The difference between 6 and a 5 or a 7 and a 6 on the dial could be the difference between winning and losing. If you practice hitting the ball at these lower levels and learn to feel the difference between a 4 and a 7 in your body, for example, you will be able to recall this feeling in a match. Going up and down the scale to get a feeling of the different numbers as they relate to your physical body will help you train this feeling. Please note that you may notice your intensity dropping when you try to be looser. Just make sure you stay mindful of keeping your feet moving (think loose upper body/fast feet). It takes practice and awareness. And, remember, being loose is a feeling, not a thought.

Playing loose, letting go of tension in your arm and committing to your shot when you are in a position to win, takes great courage. It takes courage because deep down you really want to win the point and that is likely more important than some future “potential” you might achieve. The now takes precedent over tomorrow. But, there are so many downsides and you need to really know this, deeply.

It takes courage because hitting through the ball with tension in your body may mean that you do miss that particular shot and lose the point. But, what you may not yet realize is that this decision-to play YOUR game, to hit the shots that you know you can and have trained-will help you win in the long and short-term. Maybe not the very match you are playing (although you very well might), but with practice and determination you will far surpass the level you are playing at now. It won’t even be close. And, remember, this is not a license to be reckless. It is a mandate to hit the shots that you own now; the very same shots, but in a different (looser) manner.

I am absolutely convinced that my 47 year-old mind and body today would beat my 25 year-old mind and body of years ago in straight sets only because of this decision. Can a “state” change like this really make such a difference for you? Yes it can. You know it, too. It’s just that in the moment your mind and body aren’t yet completely on board with this plan-yet.

So, the takeaway is to “store” the feeling of looseness in practice and work on hitting the ball with less tension using this dial when you are in a match. Let’s see what happens. It’s a commitment and it takes courage. But, you would be surprised how incremental gains can begin to lead to more freedom on the court.