Tennis Mental Lesson #4

David’s Tennis Lesson #4:

What Is So Important About Relaxation?

In the last lesson, I talked about breathing. This is just part of the relaxation package but it is the most important part.

This lesson will cover the rest of the relaxation techniques. Even though the breathing is extremely important, understanding about the other parts of relaxing when you play can be very important to your ability to play well.

Again, this is a long lesson so I am hoping that the length of it won’t keep you from reading the whole thing.

What Is So Important About Relaxation?

Do you ever hit a shot that feels “wrong” or awkward? How about a shot that felt really hard to do? I believe that the “wrong”, hard, or awkward shots are the result of being tense somewhere in your body.

Also, have you ever hit a shot that felt absolutely effortless and you wondered how come your ball when so hard and well? If you have, then you know what perfect relaxation means. And, you can learn to hit these kinds of shots more often.

So, what do I mean by relaxation? When playing tennis, being relaxed properly means using only those muscles that are needed to execute the shot and using the right amount of tension.  The problem is that there is no person on this earth who knows exactly which muscles those are and how to use the perfect tension every time when hitting.  The good news is that your “other than conscious mind” does, know. And if you can relax and let it hit the shot, you will be able to produce shots that really are effortless.

One day when talking to one of my students about relaxation, she realized perfect relaxation did not mean being relaxed the way you feel during a massage. You can observe the proper amount of relaxation and tension demonstrated when you watch the professionals in any sport and you say, “They make it look so easy.”

When we try hard to do something and especially the first time and when learning any new physical skills, we use so many more muscles than we need to and often with much more tension. And we wonder why it takes so long for that new skill to become easy and second nature.

When I teach a student a different way to stroke the ball, they will often have a death grip on the racket. I tell them this is not a weight-lifting class and the racket does not weigh 1,000 pounds. The student also often feels that this new way of stroking is not natural or feels funny because they are so used to trying very hard.

I try to help my students discover only the muscles that are needed when hitting a particular stroke. I accomplish this by having them experience relaxation in some part of their body starting with their grip and wrist.

Here is one of the little secrets of why relaxation works so well. When you  are relaxing and not trying to control your body with your conscious mind, your body falls under the supervision of your “other than conscious mind” and it can then take control of your stroke using only the necessary muscles and tension. Your “other than conscious mind” will also figure out exactly how to time the ball perfectly and what angle the racket must be at to hit the ball the way you want. If the body doesn’t know, by keeping your “conscious mind” out of the way and keeping it from trying to control your body, your body will learn that much faster.

Let’s say for example, that you are hitting the ball too high and it goes long. Do you know what angle of the racket that is needed to make the ball go lower? I don’t think so. But some part of your body knows. So, by relaxing your grip and wrist, your “other than conscious mind” can take over and adjust the angle of the racket. This principle applies to every part of your game.

So, how do you work on using only the muscles you need, and how do you know if you are doing this? There are some signs that you can watch for.

When you hit a ball and you feel awkward or the stroke feels hard to do, it means you are too tense somewhere in your body. As I told you earlier, if you are hitting a lot of balls long especially when running for a ball, then your grip and wrist are too tense.  If you have ever paid attention to what your face is doing when you hit the ball, you may notice that it is not relaxed and you are “making a face”. That means you are too tense and maybe even holding your breath from trying too hard.

Speaking of the face, let me tell you about Roger Federer. He does two things better than any other top pro that I am aware of. The first is that he must be seeing the ball all the way to his racket as I discuss in the watching the ball section. You can see his head follow the ball to his racket, and his head stays at that point for a period of time longer than any other player I have seen. You will see most other pros move their head to their racket, but not even close to how well Federer does it. If you will take a look how often other players miss the ball, and I am talking about the pros also, you will see that often their head and eyes don’t follow the ball all the way to their racket.

The second thing that Roger does that no other top pro even comes close to doing is what he does with his face. Or maybe I should say what he doesn’t do with his face. In every picture I have seen of Roger hitting the ball, his face looks very relaxed, and sometimes it looks like he may be exhaling gently. Even in pictures where he is obviously straining to get to the ball, his face is relaxed.

In every picture I have seen of other pros (male or female), you can see tension in their faces. This means that Roger is truly allowing his body to hit the ball and is not using any other muscles or trying to control his body consciously when he hits the ball. This is why Roger will be, and maybe already is, the greatest player the world has ever seen and will be on top for a long time to come.

By the way, do you know what stroke Roger hits without a relaxed face? The next time you watch Roger play, look at his face when he serves. Is it relaxed like the rest of his shots?

OK, back to how to work on the relaxation issue. When you feel you are too tense somewhere, you first have to isolate where the tension is located.

Other than the breathing, the most common place is in the grip and the wrist.

Tim Gallwey says that when you hold the racket you should hold it like you are holding a bird. You want to hold it tight enough so that the bird can’t get away, but not so tight that you squash the poor bird. Do you think you are squashing the poor bird when you hit the ball?

Many of my students think that if they hold the racket this loose the racket will turn in their hand. The racket will only turn in your hand if you hit the ball off center. Here is the irony of this. If you hold the racket too tight, you will find yourself  hitting more balls off center thereby having the racket turn in your hand more. By holding your racket looser and combined with seeing the ball, your body will be able to find the center of your racket easier and more often.

Here is a pretty complete list of the areas of tension, in order of importance, that seem to be common to most players.

  • Your breathing — holding the breath as you hit the ball or a tense exhalation
  • Your grip and/or your wrist
  • Your face
  • Your arm at the shoulder
  • Your elbow when you are serving
  • Your legs
  • Your left hand if you hit right handed
  • Your left ear. OK, maybe I am getting a carried away and being a little ridiculous but you get the idea
  • And lastly,  any other place in your body

Once you have determined what area you think may be tense, all you need to do is pay attention to that area when you are hitting the ball.

For example, if you think that your grip or your wrist is too tight, pay attention to your five fingers as you hit the ball. If you use a two-handed backhand, pay attention to all 10 fingers as you hit. With this awareness you will discover how not to squash the poor bird.

At the same time you are working on relaxing by paying attention to some part of your body, it is critical that you refrain from trying to do anything about the tension. The trying leads to more tension. Let your “other than conscious mind” figure out how to hit the ball into the court using only the muscles that are truly needed, and get your conscious mind out of the way.

As you begin to let go of all the other muscles you don’t need when you are hitting the ball, your strokes will become natural and so much easier. Your game will improve, and you will find that you have more endurance because you are using so much less physical effort.

When I was a junior and I played the number 1 ranked player in S. Calif. Jerry Cromwell, I always felt that I was in terrible condition. This was because after the match, I was absolutely exhausted. Only after my lesson with Tim Gallwey did I realize what was going on so many years ago. I was tensing up every muscle in my body for the entire time I was hitting the ball. No wonder I was so tired afterwards and no wonder I never ever beat Jerry.

As you work on relaxing, you will experience more shots that feel absolutely effortless. When this happens, you will know that you are in the state of perfect relaxation. You need to remember those times so that you can begin to duplicate them on every shot. This is what you are striving for. And, all this “letting go” leads to “playing in the zone.”