I watched Maria Sharapova in her three set victory over Heather Watson on the opening day of the 2011 US Open. Her coordination was erratic. She had almost twice the unforced errors of Watson (58 to 30) and four times the number of double faults (8 to 2). Yet, she had a lot more aces (5 to 0) and winners (41 to 9) than Watson.
Of course, she had other match statistics which show us an erratic performance, but you can get the picture from these. Sharapova was the winner, but she was erratic. She is a great player and because of that she was able to win in spite of her poor coordination. As I watched the match, I saw her shift back and forth between poor and good coordination. Sometimes she was on and sometimes she was off.
For many tennis players, poor coordination or an erratic performance is the difference between winning and losing a match. What causes lapses into poor coordination or this kind of erratic performance and what can a player do about it?
Keeping Track Of Your Rhythm And Timing
In my former TTT post about Improving Coordination, I talked about a player’s level of rhythm and timing as the basis of their level of coordination (and accuracy). Tennis players test and reinforce their rhythm and timing by bouncing the ball before their serve and swaying or dancing before they receive a serve. This is a good test of their current state of coordination and when their rhythm and timing are in good condition, it is a good way to reinforce that state.
Many Things Affects An Athletes Rhythm And Timing Performance
Emotional State: Calm confidence is generally the best emotional state for maintaining the highests levels of the coordination which comes from excellent rhythm and timing. Any other emotion can rob the player of their best set of resources. This is why Sharapova has her ritual between each point in a game. This helps her regain her calm confidence.
We see many players lose their calm confidence after a bad line call (or some other perceived problem) and some get so stuck in that upset state that they cannot play well enough to continue to win the match. Emotions like fear, anger, and dread interfere with the athletes signal transmission and processing equipment and change the rhythm at which the athletes brain is operating. One of the most common reactions involves acceleration of these processes and that changes the athletes rhythm and timing.
Some athletes seem to have better performance when they are angry (Nadal) and others seem to fall apart (Serena Williams, Andy Roddick). But, most athletes lose the match when they lose that calm confidence.
Hydration, Nutrition And Conditioning: Of course, hydration, nutrition and conditioning play a part in the maintenance of our effective rhythm and timing. If you have not effectively prepared your body for the match, your body may not have the physical resources to perform effectively. Your rhythm and timing is not only related to your conditioning, if you don’t have the appropriate hydration and nutrition, you body may need to shut down to survive.
Environmental Factors: This can include the weather and temperature and we all know that when conditions are too hot (or cold or wet or dry) it can affect the players performances. But, there are other environmental conditions which can affect the athletes performance.
Do you remember the ATP Rome tournament a couple of years ago when many players came down with some kind of flu-like illness? My belief is that something happened in the environment at that tourney which affected many of the players. My guess is that the players dressing rooms were freshly painted or had new carpeting or something like that. I have seen this kind of response in organizations, schools, and businesses, where some new chemical has been added to the environment and many people have flu-like symptoms in reaction to these chemicals.
Our reactions to environmental factors do not have to be raised to the level of illness for us to have our performance affected. Many athletes lose their good rhythm and timing because they are responding to some factor in their environment. This is one of the significant reasons why athletes can have really great coordination (rhythm and timing) in one match and the next day they have lost their coordination.
I believe that this susceptibility to environmental factors is one of the main reasons that many high level athletes have a rigid structure in their tournament lifestyle. They like to stay in the same room at the same hotel and eat the same foods and wear the same clothes. Many call it superstition, but for me it is a desire to keep all the environmental factors under control.
What can a player do in the middle of the match to get back on track?
One of the things we know that Sharapova does between each play in the game is walk away from the court, look at her racquet, and make a fist with her left hand. My guess is that she is using a technique to focus her mind and to connect to a state of excellent performance before the next serve. She has done this technique for years and overall it seems to be working for her.
But, when a player’s rituals are not working, what can they do to get back on track with their state? I can suggest a few things which will help break these inappropriate states for you.
Stop Your Stinking Thinking: If you have lost your calm confidence, that is the most important thing you need to recover to to be able to get back on track. If you hold on to your anger, fear, dread or other emotion which is interfering with your match, you must stop thinking what you are thinking (which is holding you in that inappropriate emotional state). One aspect of being in the wrong emotional state is compulsive and repetitive thoughts which hold you there. You have to take control of your thoughts and erase what you have been thinking from your mind.
If you don’t know how to stop your stinking thinking, There are professionals who can teach you how to do that. Of course, it is difficult to learn this during a match. You know if you are prone to stinking thinking, you should learn these techniques so you know how to stop it during your matches.
Develop And Use An Anchor For An Excellent State: This is what I think Sharapova does when she makes a fist with her left hand before each serve. She has connected a high-performance emotional state to the experience of that fist with her non-dominant hand. You really need someone who knows what they are doing to help you establish this anchor for you. Ask around to get someone to help you do this. You will find it very helpful for you to get back on track.
Racquet-Tap To Reset Your Energy System: Tap your racquet as if to test the tension of the strings. But, don’t tap it with your palm. Use the side of your hand (like a karate chop) and tap the strings at least 5 times. Don’t do it so hard that you hurt your hand (or your racquet). There are energy meridian points on your hand which you stimulate with this activity and this resets aspects of your energy systems. This is very helpful when your coordination is off and you can do this before every serve until you have got your rhythm and timing back on track.
Splash Cold Water On Your Face: If you recognize that you are losing (or have lost) your rhythm and timing, splash cold water on your face when you take your rests. This is is usually more powerful than the Racquet-Tap to get your rhythm and timing back on track.
It is common for your rhythm and timing to come and go during a match. But, these tools and techniques can help you get back on track.