Distractions in tennis happen – deal with them by being present

 In Focus & Awareness, Tennis

How can you improve your focus and refocus during your match when there are distractions? What does it take to be truly in the moment?

Take a walk in the woods. As you are walking, focus on the sights, sounds, and smells around you. While you are washing dishes, listen to the sound of the water, smell the soap, and feel the dish in your hand. Focus on the present moment and enjoy the peace and quiet away from phones, computers, and thoughts. Have you ever missed seeing a deer or other animal while walking in the woods or broken a glass while washing dishes? This generally occurs because we are not present and are distracted with other thoughts or other things.

What does it really mean to be present?

Devon, a 13-year-old tennis player, was spending a lot of time thinking about how she was focused on the score and winning matches. After working together for a couple of months, here is how she describes what it means to be present. “I am focused on what is going on in the moment of each point. I am not focused on the score or winning.”

Devon told me that by focusing on each moment of a point, she gives her full attention to what is currently happening on the court. This allows her to hit the shot she wants, move her feet, and play the point to the best of her ability. It enables her to have control over what’s happening on the court at that very moment.

How does being present change your actions?

When Devon was focused on the score or a mistake, it pulls her out of the current moment and is then unable to play her best because her focus is elsewhere. Once she is pulled into her thoughts and other things besides the point, a chain reaction happens and it creates a downward spiral. One day at practice, Devon played around with this theory. At the start of practice as she was hitting, she spent 5 minutes saying to herself over and over, ‘I am a terrible tennis player’. After the 5 minutes, she took a break and wrote down the impact of that thinking on her body and mind. What she noticed is that her body was tense. Her heart rate sky rocketed. She struggled to swing her racquet and couldn’t move her feet. Not what a tennis player wants to experience on the court, right? Her mind went from, I am a terrible tennis player to why did I hit that shot and I can’t believe I didn’t get to that ball. She cycled from one negative thought to another.

Devon couldn’t believe the results of our little experiment. She told me that this experience not only helped her understand the impact of not being present on her body and mind, but also realized that when she was focused on something other than the present moment she lost control of the only thing she had control of – herself and her ability to play tennis. When this happens in a match, she gives her control to her opponent and feeds into what she is thinking – I am a terrible tennis player. When Devon is focused on the past or the future, what happens to that current moment? It’s lost and then it becomes part of the past. There are no do-overs.

What gets in the way of being present?

Internal and external distractions get in the way of our ability to be present and focused. Internal distractions are the thoughts, worries, and fears that come from within. Some internal distractors that affected Devon’s ability to play good tennis include: I am tired, I haven’t practiced enough, my opponent is so much better than I am, etc. External distractions refer to environment stimuli that divert attention away from what is currently happening. Devon’s external distractions include: her opponent, coach, parents, spectators, sun, wind, and other matches being played around her. Distractions increase as the demand increases and the pressures are more intense.

So, how do you improve your focus and refocus just on skills?

The great thing is that we have the ability to deal with internal and external distractions in a different way once we know they are there and impact us in a negative way but, it’s a learned skill. Once Devon understood the impact of distractions on her ability to play tennis, we worked on her ability to cope with them in a more effective way. We started by developing a deeper awareness of what her internal and external distractions were and then started helping her learn new coping strategies:

  • Every time she walked onto the court to play a match she would identify them. This would take the power away from them and she didn’t have to think about them again.
  • Devon developed routines that helped her become mindful before the match, before she served, and between points.
  • Devon used exercises to develop her ability to be present. She became aware of when she got distracted and learned to bring her focus back to the moment.

Here’s an example of an exercise I used with Devon and one that I use with other tennis players. Do this while sitting quietly. Play a song you really like. Sing along out loud or in your head, depending on where you are (being present). When you lose your focus (distraction) gently guide your focus back to (refocusing) the music and sing along. Every time you lose your focus, you gently guide it back and start singing until you get to the end of the song. Your goal is to get further into the song each time you do this without losing focus.

Develop the mental skills to control distractions

Being present means learning what needs your attention, being in the moment with whatever needs your attention, and being able to shift your focus back when you get distracted.

We all have varying degrees of concentration but you can learn to develop greater powers of present moment attention, and lose the distractions. You can learn to focus and refocus to provide a mental environment that is consistent with competition. You can learn to control a wandering mind that diminishes your ability to win. Developing the right mental skills to deal with distractions is a learned skill just as developing your forehand, backhand and serve are.

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