Last I blogged, I shared the fact that I re-engaged with tennis this summer. Now, after four months of lessons and social meet ups, I learned a valuable lesson about competitive play and performance improvment. In order to improve, the most important skill is NOT to focus and work hard. On the contrary, the most important performance improvment skill was to do NOTHING. In other words... RELAX. While this may be counterintuitive, my tennis experience proves this point.
My game developed over these past four months from playing social doubles, to playing social singles and now competitive singles sets. I am having a great time, but in all honesty, it took me losing games and confidence for me to realize that the key to improving my game was not in working harder. The competitive voice inside me was urging me to improve quickly, as if i was working towards a deadline. I pushed myself by practicing daily, hitting against the backboard, and taking more lessons. I believed ( incorrectly, I might add) that this regimen of practice and focussed determination could only result in a better Barbara, and position me for a higher USTA skills rating. As I continued with this approach,I stressed over how to deal with topspin serves and ground strokes. Topspin occurs when a player imparts spin on the ball with such force and control, the ball trajectory often keeps the ball inbounds, but still with sufficient pace that can keep an opponent, like me, off balance. I struggled with it and the more I tried to deal with it, the more frustrated I became. The notion of "focus" or "work harder" as a way to deal with this challenge made no sense, after all , who could be more focussed that me? Clearly, there was something more that I needed to do. But what?
The answer came to me quite by accident and was delivered through the words of my childhood tennis idol and former US Open Champion, Chris Evert. Chris was featured as a guest commentator during the Serena Williams semi-final US Open match. During warm ups, Chris observed that Serena had 'soft hands" when it came to gripping the racquet. She noted that Serena was relaxed and held the racquet firmly, but not tight, and as a result, delivers the most powerful serve in professional womens tennis. Chris' comment made me realize that soft hands, or a relaxed grip and having a focus or a competitive edge are complementary skills and not diametrically opposed as some might believe. Indeed, a relaxed grip suggests the kind of confidence and that comes with experience and the ability to relax mentally in the heat of competition sets the good players apart from the best. So, if Serena Williams can win with "soft hands", then surely I can too!
I immediately changed my grip and the improvement was immediate for relaxing my grip simultaneously relaxed my mind. My ground strokes improved. My volleys were on target, and my percentage of unforced errors dropped dramatically. My serves improved as well. Double faulting virtually eliminated. There is still room to improve, of course, but mastering the ability to relax on the court, allows me to develop my tennis skills and strategy unhindered by self defeating stress that was plaguing me.
Relaxing did not reduce my desire to win or my ability to focus. In fact, relaxation enhances both. I have observed well meaning parents on the sidelines urging their kids to "focus" on a foul shot or penalty kick. I can say from my experience that the ability to focus is overrated. It is the ability to relax that makes the difference- as it has for Serena, and for me.