2010 Australian Open - Day 8

vida mind – mental conditioning – mental training – sport psychology
Australia – Melbourne – Sydney – Adelaide – Canberra – Brisbane

article also on tennisplayer.net by John Yandell – vol 10-8 Nov. 2014

In a recent  article I outlined multiple components of the so-called “Zone” as described by top researchers and athletes in many sports. The article showed that there probably is no one Zone and the experience and the process of reaching it can be different for different performers.

Now in this article let’s narrow our focus and discuss the fundamental pillars of our understanding of the zone in tennis. These are the work of Tim Gallwey and the work of Dr. Jim Loehr.

We’ll see that, as for other sports, each describes different aspects of the zone and different ways of approaching it. But, interestingly, together they provide an approach that fuses point play with the other critical aspects that surround it.

Tim Gallwey’s seminal best selling book, The Inner Game of Tennis, published 40 years ago in 1974, virtually created the field of mental game studies in sport. His work is sometimes summarized as a simple message “watch the ball.” However the work and its implications are far broader, complex, and powerful.

Gallwey was captain of the tennis team at Harvard in the 1960s. In 1971 he went to India and spent time in an ashram, where he learned the power of calming his mind through meditation. When he returned to the United States, he began to apply his experiences there to tennis. At first he called his method “Yoga Tennis,” but he renamed his approach “the Inner Game” as he worked on the book of that title.

Gallwey transformed Yoga Tennis into the Inner Game.

Gallwey wrote a second tennis book and then books on the inner game in golf and skiing. Their success showed that there were widespread problems and frustrations in sport that were not being addressed at the time by conventional coaching methods.

In tennis, Gallwey advocated watching the path of the ball moving back and forth between the players as a means of developing “relaxed concentration.” By practicing this, players could become truly focused without “trying.”

This focus on the ball resulted in spontaneous moments of excellence with the mind seemingly one with the body. There was perfect movement without effort.

Gallwey believed many players had had this experienced on their own and felt it was simply random or “lucky.” In fact they were experiencing brief moments in the Zone. The goal of the “Inner Game” practice was to increase the frequency and duration of those moments, when the subconscious takes over and the shots seemed to flow naturally.

vida mind – mental conditioning – mental training – sport psychology
Australia – Melbourne – Sydney – Adelaide – Canberra – Brisbane

But to Gallwey playing “unconsciously” did not mean playing without being conscious of anything–quite the opposite. Paradoxically it meant having a greater awareness of the surroundings–of the opponent and the ball. What was missing was concern about technical issues, or thoughts about the past, or about what could happen in the future.

The challenge was silencing thoughts in the mind and eliminating or reducing calculating, judging, and worrying. The goal was fewer expectations, less regret, less effort to control. Because trying to control the Zone meant losing it immediately.

Beyond ball focus, the key to the zone was understanding the relationship between what Gallwey called the “two selves.” Every player brought both selves with him to the court and the disruptive dialogue between them blocked entrance to the zone.

federer
The Inner Game: watching the ball impacts the entire experience of playing.

Self 1, the conscious mind, constantly gave instructions on how to play. But this interfered with Self 2 which actually played the game at a deeper level than words.

Tim Gallwey’s belief was that to play at your peak, you needed to silence Self 1 and release Self 2. This involved three steps.

First, observing your current behavior and internal dialogue but without judgment. Second, moving away from that verbal dialogue to by imagining positive images and sensations. Third, making no negative judgments based on outcome, and letting the process repeat and refine itself over time.

Understanding the conflict between the selves was critical. The player needed to let go of the disruptive self 1 input to achieve relaxed concentration and focus on the ball purely and completely.

Gallwey recommended that the nebulous concept of watching the ball be replaced by the concept of watching the seams. Specifically players should observe the spinning of the seems and the differences in that spin as the ball went back and forth.

As Gallwey put it: “To the extent the mind is preoccupied with the seams, it tends not to interfere with the natural movements of the body. Furthermore, the seams are here and now, and if the mind is on them it is kept from wandering to the past or the future.”

Jim Loehr created the field of mental toughness training almost 25 years ago.

Mental Toughness Training

Gallwey’s inspirational book is still worth reading today and in fact was one factor that inspired the subsequent work of our second titan: Dr. Jim Loehr.When Jim Loehr wrote his first book he literally coined the phrase “mental toughness,” which went on to become a universal concept in all sports and virtually every field of endeavor. But ironically Loehr could not initially find a publisher and “Mental Toughness Training for Sports” was first self-published with help from Jim’s family.

Unlike Gallwey’s insights, which stemmed primarily from self-reflection, Loehr took an empirical approach. He interviewed athletes and asked them to describe their experiences when they were playing in their “finest hour.”

The result was the discovery of what Loehr called “The Ideal Performance State.” This was a very specific body and mind set that was common to top players, but that he felt could be recreated at will at all levels.

Loehr found that the mind had direct biochemical effects on the body and vice versa. He found that mental negativity chemically sabotaged physical performance and was also self-reinforcing. Anxiety and fear reduced performance and reduced performance produced more anxiety and fear.

According to Jim: “An athlete’s thoughts prompt certain emotions, and those emotions have physical consequences. They prompt physiological responses including increased heart rate, muscle tightness, shortness of breath, reduced blood flow and narrowing of vision.”

federer oz open
Could other players achieve the performance state of a player like Federer?

In addition to his interviews and work with elite juniors at the Bollettieri academy, Loehr traveled for a year with Ivan Lendl, then the top player in the world. He noted that Lendl, like virtually all top players, adopted a long series of rituals between points that he claimed maintained concentration and rhythm.

This led to his famous formulation of the 4 stages of between point behavior, still widely taught and practiced today. These stages are: maintaining a positive physical posture after every point: relaxing the mind and body through breathing and focus on the strings: preparing strategically for the upcoming point: and finally creative personal physical rituals before serving or returning.

Loehr noted that Lendl spent long hours on the practice court and maintained a fierce physical conditioning routine. But he also spent much time off court training control of his mind.

Lendl observed his thoughts and emotions in the same way as in meditation simply noting their arising and passing but without reacting to them. He did mental-focus exercises in order to strengthen the sharpness of his awareness and capacity to focus and be completely absorbed by one thing at a time.

Before matches he sat down and defined goals: “Be strong, confident, eager, quick.” Finally he closed his eyes and imagined himself executing on the court, sometimes visualizing entire games.

Ivan lendl: the champion’s mentality was not innate, but created.

Observing Lendl and other players, Loehr concluded that the champion’s mentality was the result of disciplined and balanced training rather than merely innate qualities possessed by superior competitors.

Loehr’s enduring contribution was to devise a specific on court and off court program to create these positive mental, emotional, and bodily states. This was principally through his prescription of rituals and disciplined thought patterns between points and games. But it included off court reprogramming and positive visualizations as well.

Loehr’s work has been widely copied, paraphrased, and appropriated by dozens if not hundreds of self-styled mental gurus. But it remains the foundation for the field that he virtually created.

Taken together the work of Gallwey and Loehr, so different in approach, style, and tone still provide a framework for the mental game–during actual points and in the critical times between. In that way, at least in tennis, there appears to be more coherence than divergence in defining and creating the zone.

If you want to improve your performance and to know more about Vida Mind, do a free session with Dr. Damien Lafont. Contact him at info@vidamind.com.au or call 0435 819 262 and he will get in touch with you to schedule 45 min with you either in person or over Skype. In this free info session with him, you’ll go through what is keeping your performing at your best. You’ll know Dr Lafont, how he works and whether you are a good fit for each other.

vida mind – mental conditioning – mental training – sport psychology
Australia – Melbourne – Sydney – Adelaide – Canberra – Brisbane