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On-court psyches: the layman’s guide to tennis psychology

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Let’s play a game of “one of these things is not like the other”.

Football. Soccer. Baseball. Quidditch. Tennis. Which one is the outlier?

For those of you who think it’s Quidditch on the grounds that it isn’t real, you are very much mistaken, and being a citizen of South Carolina, you should be especially aware of this, as the 2016 Quidditch World Cup was held in our very state’s capitol.

The answer is tennis, and this is for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s the only sport in which game-time isolation is common. Except in the case of a round of doubles, you are your entire team on the court. Welcome to the spotlight. In addition, it can be argued that tennis is the most mysterious sport on that list. Any typical person can tell you that the quarterback is superior to the linebacker in terms of status and lady friend ratios, that “goalie” is simultaneously the worst and most boring position to play, that if you can pitch a honey of a curveball, then you’re looking at a bright and sunny season, and that the flying golden snitch is definitely worth the perils of fighting over it, but what has the typical person to say about tennis, other than there’s a court and a net and lot of running around? To the onlooker, that pretty much sums up the game, but the intrigue of tennis doesn’t lie in the external plane; the spectacle is all in the player’s head. Consider this article a much more lively version of an instruction booklet on how to appreciate Tennis via education on it’s distinctive mental clockwork.

Unless you’re blind, deaf, or “nose-blind” (as penned by the Febreze commercials), you have five different channels with which you can piece together a full-scale sensory window into the world. We can see, smell, taste, touch, and hear life, and we rely on these senses for every action, and every thought. These are the essential building blocks of human experience, and their collective value exceeds any sum that the biggest imagination could ever fathom. Now, apply that same concept, and that same level of importance to the world of sports. The average person has five senses, but the average athlete has ten. During play, another sub-set of senses emerges: Teamwork, Instinct, Reflexes, Opponent Analysis, and Speed Strategizing. And just as the basic five senses and the information we garner through them shape our everyday perspectives, the five athletic senses shape the alternate game-time persona that exists only to the athlete.

Obviously, every basic sense doesn’t have a direct translation or counterpart in every athletic sense. In no way, shape, or form is opponent analysis anything like tasting a strawberry popsicle. However, in terms of habitual reliability, teamwork can be regarded as the eyesight of the athletic senses. All too often, eyesight poses as the instrument with which the general sketch of any characteristic conclusion or experience is drawn. Likewise, and dually in recognition of the emotional benefits and positive gametime outcomes that are associated with teamwork, teamwork can be used as a sort of crutch upon which the weight of performance responsibility and lack of skill is shifted upon. Teamwork almost perpetuates an assembly-line type method of play, in which each player has one specific job they dedicate all of their focus to. In soccer, for instance, you may be the most pitifully horrific defensive midfielder that has ever existed, but if you tend to excel playing forward, then you can afford to leave defensive midfield to another teammate, and prevent the risk of an unsuccessful game. Although every athlete should constantly be perfecting their skills anyway, teamwork can be and is used as an emergency solution to individual weakness….

….With the exclusion of tennis. As stated previously, gametime isolation is common in tennis, and there’s a major emphasis on individual ability and strategy. There is, generally, an absence of teamwork. There is an absence of the eyesight of the athletic senses.

Tennis is the blind man’s game.

Contrary to the initial speculation that the absence of teamwork in tennis puts the tennis player at an athletic disadvantage, the forced independence during gametime pushes the remaining athletic senses to the point of hypersensitivity; whatever could have been bogged down by the domineering presence of teamwork instead flourishes in clarity and precision at the surface of the brain, and bounces freely between the checkpoints of the nervous system. Instinct becomes sharper and more automatic, reflexes become quicker and more situationally aware, opponent analysis becomes more acute, and speed strategizing controls your movements entirely. Not to say that all of this hypersensitivity is magically bestowed upon each and every tennis player as a result of gametime isolation. The hypersensitivity surge is simply the natural and logical reaction to the conditions; the fact that the tennis player must rely on himself and himself only for success forcibly puts the development of the other athletic senses into motion.

Furthermore, there’s a more intensive harnessing of concentration and focus during play.

“I think I’m a different person on the court, focus-wise and with my mental aggression. I take real life kind of like a breeze…but when I’m on court, everything matters to me,” said Stephen Wills, junior tennis player.

Wills is a confident, easy-going character. But the critical need for independent performance during a tennis match makes him detail-oriented, and able to zone into his and his opponent’s plays. He even cited left and right handedness of his opponent as a go-to indicator of which strategy to use.

When the outcome of the game is solely dependent on you and your abilities, it seems as though the intensity of your concentration is magnified, as all of the pressure to succeed rests squarely on your shoulders. The tennis player has to not only be able to cope with this pressure, but to thrive off of it. You do not voluntarily play a sport unless you like it, and you do not willingly dedicate your focus to tennis and bear the results unless you have passion for it. But even in consideration of the romance of tennis, the necessary bold directness of this concentration is undoubtedly a strain on the brain.

So how does the tennis player cope with being in the eye of the storm?

“You’ve got to remain calm and focused, you’ve got to keep your emotions under control. But you also have to be intense, and be able to exert a lot of energy. It’s a difficult combination,” said Coach Long, who heads the SHS Boys Varsity Tennis Team.

Red hot aggression. Stark white tranquility. The key to playing balanced and dauntlessly is to think pink. The tennis player has to learn to block out sloppy frustration and stress while still channeling the momentum and adrenaline associated with the heat-of-the-moment fire. The tennis player has to be both distant and connected with the game, in that separation with emotional negativity, and total unity with the speed, energy, and nature of a match, almost to a point of hippie-esque liquidatious coherence, is required. The goal is to achieve that much coveted but realistically rare state of controlled intensity. A tennis player who has mastered the art of controlled intensity has in turn mastered the perfect mental homeostasis needed for peak performance.

Want it for yourself? Maturity and patience are the pickaxes with which you strike the gold.

And what of this “oneness” between the tennis player and the game? Simply put: during a match, the tennis player’s very identity is cleansed, sharpened, and put into high definition for the sake of the play. As opposed to other sports in which the team melds into one sort of all-encompassing being, the tennis player becomes a crystalline version of himself. Personalities are put into action.

According to Taylor Reynolds, another junior tennis player, “If you’re more aggressive with how you play, let’s say you just hit the ball really hard, and that’s all you do, you tend to be a faster driver or more aggressive [in general]. More timid people are thinkers…”

Much like how the sports senses are hypersensitized, the persona is put into working clarity on the field. Reynolds himself is a strategist; naturally observant from a social perspective and impressively analytical on court. Whatever definitive point to a character is underlined in the everyday, is put under a very, very large microscope during gametime.

It would seem that the isolation of tennis forces the tennis player to be the most powerful and prolific version of themselves. So is the cardinal rule of the lone wolf, and in this case, the lone wolf of the world of sports.

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1 Comment

One Response to “On-court psyches: the layman’s guide to tennis psychology”

  1. Jamal Lucas on September 13th, 2016 2:51 pm

    Great Work !!!!! Love the story, Keep up the great work!!

    [Reply]

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The student news site of Summerville High School.
On-court psyches: the layman’s guide to tennis psychology