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Saturday
Aug152009

An Early Turning Point

       I often told this story when I was thinking about studying sport psychology; I used some form of it in several drafts of my application essay. For this page, I want to expand a little bit on the basic story, which is about a player I encountered when I first started teaching tennis and my experience teaching and playing with him.
       After dropping tennis mid-way through college, I found myself missing it after graduation, and I eventually ended up as a part-time tennis pro, with decent strokes and little confidence for playing singles (Doubles, with its shared responsibility perhaps, was always easier for me.).
       A few months later, I was introduced to a high-school player who was #1 on his team at a local prep school. He was interested in developing his game and had arranged with the owner of my club to play weekly practice matches against me. Approaching the first match, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I had been drilling with some of the other teaching pros at the club, so I felt like I was playing my best tennis, but that was only in theory. Might these matches expose me as a fraud, both as a competitor and a teacher?
       Well, we warmed up and played a couple of competitive games. I think he may of been up 2-1, or it might have been 1-1. The point is that the match was quite competitive. At any rate, the Kid had game point at 40-30. I'm a fairly aggressive player, and I got myself to net on what I thought was a pretty good approach shot. He threw up a lob, a good one. As I chased it back, I knew that it was going to be fairly deep in the court and it might bounce far enough away that I needed to make a play in the air. I flicked my racquet up with my back to the net and made solid contact.
       My shot arced high in the air. My opponent, sensing that he had hit a good lob, was making the right move: he was charging in expecting a weak shot from me. But that didn't exactly happen. In fact, my shot kept going, over his head, and landed gently on the baseline. It was an inch or two from being out, but ended up as a winner for me. At that moment, I looked at my opponent and it seemed like he shrunk 4 inches. He was in disbelief, going from sure victory to defeat in a flash. The swing was a little more than his confidence could take, I'm afraid: I won that game, and about 16 of the next 18 games. By the end of our hour, I couldn't get him to win a point even by playing weak shots; he would just make an error the first chance that he got.
       At the time, I thought he'd caught a bad break and lost concentration, but I'd have to work to beat him the next time. Nope. In fact, his lack of confidence carried over for weeks. Every time we played, he would hit hard until something unexpected would happen, then he would crumble. As a teaching pro, I tried everything I could think of, but I really didn't have a good plan for building his confidence. This bothered me for years, and I really never felt settled about how to approach competitive training until the Sport Psychology program that I did.
       A few things stood out to me over the years:
               -This was the first time that I played someone who I considered to be skilled, but put no pressure on me after the initial few games. This was the best player that I had ever had trouble keeping a match close with by not playing my hardest. I had been on the other end of it many times but never on this side of the equation.
               -He played well at first, but he really was a house of cards. What was it about his approach that set up this confidence bubble? What would have needed to happen for him to sustain his confidence? For him to recover from my miraculous shot?
               -Was continuing to play sets against me helpful (He had to learn to compete, right?) or harmful (Maybe he was just steadily losing confidence.)? At what point do you do something else?
               -If so much of the difference between us was mental, how could I train his mental game?

       These questions bothered me when I returned to tennis (after a stint teaching English), and I found that other pros offered anecdotal advice, but nobody ever sounded too sure about what they would do to help someone prepare to maintain focus through a difficult match. This has been the revelation for me in studying sport psychology. The training is systematic, beneficial, and widely applicable. I have much more to learn, but I understand much better how to prepare people mentally for competition.

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