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How to Improve Your Tennis Without Hitting Another Ball!

August 5, 2005 10:06 AM

by Dr. Robert Heller

To quote John McEnroe, as you read the title of this article I’m sure some of you are thinking, “You cannot be serious!” Well, in fact, I am! The mind is a powerful tool. It’s been estimated that most of us use only about 15% of its capacity.

One way to maximize our learning and performance is to correctly train the senses that we learn best with. The majority of individuals are largely visual learners. One of the most popular expressions is, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” If we see something clearly a number of times, there’s a good likelihood, we can remember it, copy it and reproduce it later on. It’s not an exact replication but more like an assimilation. We take in what we see and incorporate it with what we already know and do.

Imagery training has many names: guided imagery, visualization, mental rehearsal, and self –hypnosis are terms that describe methods that emphasis the visual modality of learning. The basic idea is, “If you can see it you can be it.”

I can remember as a youngster going to Forest Hills to watch the US Open during the early rounds where I could get up close to watch the players hit. I would spend the whole day there and watch their strokes or movement for hours on end. When I would play tennis the following day I would always seem to play a lot better. I hadn’t consciously focused on the details of what the players were doing. I just sought of took it all in and noticed I seemed to play better.

When I was teaching beginners the concept of hitting through the ball I would sometimes take 3 balls, place them one in front of the other in their strike zone and tell the student to “imagine hitting through all 3 balls.” If you close your eyes and think about it I’m sure most of you can “picture” 3 balls in a row and the racket moving forward past all each ball. This is a form of learning by association. Associating the words with a sequence of visual images.

Using visual imagery is not new, but yet is still not widely practiced in my experience. Years ago, Stan Smith was in a series of videotapes called Sybervision and it would show him from different angles and different speeds hitting different shots. The learner would watch the tape, absorb the images and copy it when they went on-court. There wasn’t an analysis of what he was doing it or how he was doing it, just a repetition of a “picture perfect” stroke.

Golf greats Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus have talked about their use of imagery since the 1970’s. Palmer would draw an imaginary line between his putter and the hole and picture the ball traveling along the path of the line until it feel directly into the hole.

Nicklaus reportedly focused on picturing the trajectory of his shots and saw them landing on the green close to the pin. He would do this as a part of his set up routine.

Chris Evert described that she would mentally prepare for an upcoming tennis match by picturing each point of the match in her mind the night before or hours before in the locker room.

Olympic skiers often view films of themselves coming down the racecourse identifying what they did well or poorly on different runs.

Today, commercial programs like Dartfish allow you to make a make a tape of your serve and then view it side by side a tape of Pete Sampras serving. This feedback allows you to clearly see what you are doing similarly or differently throughout the serving sequence.

Whether the “tape“ is in your head or on a computer monitor or television screen, by practicing “viewing” pictures and sequences of images you can improve your tennis.

Dr. Robert Heller is a psychologist, sports psychology consultant and certified tennis instructor based in Boca Raton, Florida. He is the author of the 2-volume mental conditioning CD-Rom program, “TENNISMIND.” For information on sports enhancement training, workshops and other services, contact him at (561) 451-2731, robertheller@adelphia.net or visit www.thewinningedge.usptapro.com.




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