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Tennis as a Narrative Experience

I was talking to a client the other day about narrating her matches. No, unfortunately, I didn't have video of her playing a match, I was talking about actively narrating her match as it happened. 

Our conversation came out of a visualization exercise we were doing to help her prepare for competition. I had her write out, from her perspective and using the present tense, what she would experience as she prepared and played an imaginary point. In order to make it maximally vivid, she described every detail about a specific court she was familiar with, her opponent, and the situation. For example, "I see my opponent shifted her weight waiting for my serve. I choose my target. I'm going to hit the 'T.' I exhale, feel my muscles relax, and toss the ball," etc. She then read through and practiced placing herself in this situation in order to get mentally more familiar with the routines and actions that she wants to execute as she plays. 

The next step is to realize what kind of narration is happening during a match. There is often a stark contrast between the present-tense-narrator voice, and what players are thinking about during a match. Often, the biggest difference is that players drift away from the moment and think about the future during play ("What will my team think about how I played? I'm going to have to tell them I lost." "It'll feel great to tell my Mom that I won."). This is amazingly tempting, but usually not very helpful. As Nadia Comminici said about her "perfect 10" balance beam routine, "Athletes don’t think about history when making history. They think about what they’re doing, and that’s how it gets done."

Another common diversion is thinking about details that aren't helpful, such as something that annoys the player ("I can't believe that guy's outfit. What a joke!"). Of course we'll notice all kinds of details, but if we analyze and dissect things that aren't relevant to playing good tennis, we're wasting mental energy. Most of the time, getting annoyed with something is a way to avoid the battle that needs to take place. If a match is hard, it's easier to focus on not liking the opponent, or some minor annoyance, than facing the fact that getting over those things is the surest path to good performance.

Overall, the narrative visualization exercise serves several important purposes: it allows a player to mentally practice routines and responses that they desire to execute in future matches, and it allows the player to practice focusing on the present tense in matches. Finally, it can serve as a contrast to the player if their thought patterns during play diverge from a present-tense narrative.



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