When I work with competitive junior tennis players, one of the first concepts I share has to do with “The Now” and “The Noise”. I ask them to get out a pen / paper or start a google doc and list what they think each of these terms mean. Before reading further, go ahead and write down “The Now” and “The Noise” and list as many things that you think might go under each category.
Ok, now that you have listed some ideas, let’s discuss what each of these concepts really mean, and why understanding what they are and how they work is crucial to being a consistent player when the pressure is high or when you are struggling to stay motivated.
The Noise – If you’re like many of the clients I work with, the first thing that comes to mind are all the external elements. Some examples may include:
The elements (wind & sun)
My opponent (bad line calls, intimidation, conflict, grunting)
My parents / coach (cheering, looking dejected, yelling)
It’s true that these all play a role when considering all the noises that we encounter on the tennis court, and they represent real challenges, but perhaps the most powerful noises are the ones that you create inside your own head. A Harvard University study found that most people are only living in the present moment about 50% of the time. That means that half the time, people are somewhere else. The question is, where do we go if we’re not in the present moment? Answer: wherever the noise in our mind takes us. So for half of your day you are likely to be caught up in thinking about something else that may have happened or worrying about some things that might be about to happen. Without realizing it, most of us are creating a fantasy world inside of the real world. We project what others are probably thinking. We build up a small moment and make it seem like life or death. We have running dialogues in our mind about things that many never happen. All that noise gets in the way of what is most important – focusing on hitting the right shot at the right time….every time. This is what Novak Djokovic had to say about it, “I stopped thinking too much about what could happen and relied on my physical and mental strength to play the right shots at the right time.” If you recall, there was a time when Djokovic was known as someone who buckled under pressure. But he has now become an all-time clutch performer. To be clear, it’s impossible to “stop thinking”. Instead, Djokovic stopped putting his focus on all the noise and turned it to the task at hand. Think of focus like pointing a camera. Whatever it’s pointed at is what is in focus. It’s not that the rest of the scenery disappeared, but the only thing in focus is what is on your camera screen. So how do we shift our focus away from all the noise and put it somewhere that is more productive? We need to learn how to move our camera away from the noise and point it on the now.
The Now – Here are a few tips for understanding the now and a few suggestions that may be appropriate for you. Of course, be sure to personalize the list so you are being true to your own style.
Task at hand (are you getting ready to serve / return, where do you need to physically be on the court)
Next point strategy (aggressive, consistent, attack the net, bring opponent in)
Routines (fix strings, adjust wristbands, walk to fence)
When Djokovic said, “…play the right shot at the right time.”, he was talking about being in the present moment. When you learn how to play in the present moment, you are not wasting valuable energy on all the noise inside. Just for the sake of this lesson, let’s assume that being present is like having a full tank of gas. Now, let’s assume that you play an important point and lose it. Instead of getting back into the next present moment, you spend mental energy dwelling on the last point. You play the “what if” game. You project what the score would be if you would have won the point. You fixate on the line call your opponent made. No matter what it is, the main point is that you are not in the present moment. You did not shift your focus to what’s happening now. Instead of having a full tank of (present moment) gas, you are down to ¾. Suddenly, you are not the player you were just a moment ago. This type of scenario happens over and over again, in many different ways. As much as your ego wants to be right or project on what might have been, you have got to learn to shift your focus to what. is. happening. NOW.
Here are a couple of great ways to learn how to connect to what’s happening now. Spend 5 to 10 minutes each day practicing these skills. Be sure you feel comfortable with them before bringing them to the court.
Breathing – probably the single most important skill to develop. Breathing is a physical act that can train the mind to focus on getting back in the moment. I like 4 x 4 box breathing (4 count in / 4 count out). Be sure to find a rhythm that feels natural and don’t force it.
Notice 5 things – It’s crucial to get your senses back in the moment. What are 5 things you can (see, hear, touch, smell, taste). It’s not important to get all 5, but activating your senses is a great way to get back in the moment. Be sure to practice this off the court and during practice before trying to use it during a match.
If you let the noise play too big a role when you’re competing, you immediately are playing at below 100%. My question to you is why would you want to do that? Take the time to learn how to shift your focus away from the noise and back to the now and you’ll be amazed at how much more consistent your game will become.