Thursday, June 20, 2013

Mindful Tennis Play

Playing tennis has been a form of meditation for me I call “PRO[1] mindful play.” Playing tennis in the brutal summer heat is the foundation for my mindfulness practice in relaxing in the “now.” Also, playing tennis presents many “mental” weather systems to learn from.  Increasing my concentration on how to play with little effort, I give my fullest intention to pay attention.

Enjoyable tennis play has allowed me to reach greater “presence.”  The acronym PRO- Pause, Relax and Open can help expand my wakeful play— arriving fully in the present.  
When I “pause” between points and slow down-- becoming more responsive and less reactive-- increases my concentration during play.  Next when I “relax” and focus on mentally showing up I lessen my errors and increase my accuracy.

My introduction to mindful tennis first began when I asked my first question to my own tennis guru, Pauline Betz Addie.  Forty years ago my first question when I met Pauline was, “What is the most important thing in learning tennis.”  This world champion and trail blazer for pro tennis replied, “Concentration.”  She was my Zen master: her work skillfully instructing tennis was her play.

Two years ago on Pauline’s 90th birthday, I asked Pauline’s oldest tennis friends if she knew anything about her perfect finals match.  Nancy Dillon replied that she watched the entire match.  Nancy lost the round to Catherine Wolf in the semis. Pauline in 1943 won 48 straight points - a perfect match- in the Tri-State Singles Championship.  In 1986, Pauline and I (both former Edgemoor Club Pros) won a perfect set playing doubles against a close friend and then Head Pro at Edgemoor.   

Playing in the “PRO focus zone” is a graceful body/mind experience of enjoying this game. The mind becomes quiet and the body listens, observes and responds.  Being present is and makes me a better tennis player. Both meditation and tennis share what is most critical: fine tuning when you make exact contact with the ball.  Focusing on this specific contact point of racket on the ball is a lesson in meditation.

First just catch the ball on the strings with a simplified overhead stroke and hear the popping sound when the ball precisely hits the middle of their racket strings. It is fundamental for my game to diminish my errors and improve my consistency. When I become more gentle and friendly, I can then observe more clearly the nature of my mental, emotional and physical activities.  

Clarity comes when I observe more and foster observance of the nature of “being.”  Beneath the entrance to the center court of Wimbledon there is a non-judgmental Rudyard Kipling quote, “If I can meet triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same”.  Key in excelled play is to observe rather than judge, otherwise we become hindered by such identification.  

As a PRO, I “pause” calming my mind and body.  Pausing lessens my play. Relaxing allows me to arrive in the present instead of wandering off in the past or future. The more I “relax,” the more I “open” to whatever arises. When I become more “open” I discover various points of concentration that expand my moment-to-moment attention.

When I pause, relax and open to the “PRO focus zone” I improve my contact point. The volley is an excellent example of this responsive grace.

Tennis gets me to focus in the here and now.  Just as a camera lens clicks, I develop a shot-by-shot process to be with and listen to my tennis sense, or a clearer focus and understanding of my shots.  Countless hours of exploring how I can use my body sensations has sharpened my game and expanding my technique. When I find greater alertness and relaxed play, I also find my “PRO focus zone.”

For example, when I focus on hitting a tennis ball in the middle of their strings and notice the sound the ball makes when it meets this sweet spot.  The more I find my “PRO focus zone,” the better I make and direct my shots.  I best “arrive,” with placing the ball in a high percentage area (e.g. the service line T) that troubles my opponents. When I hit the ball at the bull’s eye instead of just the larger target, I increase my consistency.

Sometimes I hold my breath when following through on my shot.  Reminding them to inhale on back swing and exhale on follow-through has assisted many of my students to improve performance.  Getting my students to exhale with a calming aaaaahhhhhh sound or saying yes is another skillful tip.

Mindful tennis is how I pay greater attention to my “PRO focus zone”.  I like the metaphor of rock climbing to understand this mindset of moment-to-moment awareness.  It is a process of being alert and awake to how each moment unfolds. Visual cues are critical for me in skillful play since improved hand/eye coordination requires specific reference points in space to increase tennis shot execution, thus enhancing my “PRO focus zone”. 

My “PRO focus zone” is about the fun exercise that results.  A different type of tennis “zero-love” comes when I empty myself to just be “here and now”.  I challenge you to find any great superstar that does not have some sort of “PRO focus zone.” I attempt shots with a sense of effortlessness.  I guide myself to enter the “PRO contact zone”: a flow state to improve their tempo of effortless effort (knees, hips and shoulders working in unity).  Work is transformed into a ballet of play.

I extend the “PRO focus zone” into positive stroke visualizations of how to gracefully hit the shot.  Using exact mental images of championship form is how Olympians prepare for their Gold medals.  Imitating the Pros creates a positive visual. This lessens distractions, doubt and other counter-productive thoughts

“PRO focus zone” cultivates skillful mental exercising. Pausing, relaxing and opening with an alertness helps me heightened my level of play. This practice both unfolds a greater understanding, and it shifts me to an more aware game.  In turn, concentration can resolve aspects of my game that feel stuck, creating new flow. Increased awakening from moment-to-moment tennis play allows me to excel.  Relaxing in the now with a sense of alertness is what I define as grace in the “PRO focus zone”. Tennis is my object of meditation. Arriving in the “PRO focus zone” happens when  I pause, relax and open.

(For further information please refer to and

A few helpful on court tips:
·        Develop the routine between practice sessions where you Pause, Relax and Open (PRO) to provide greater renewal, concentration and continuity. 
·        Create the space – I establish a special space to remember to explore effortlessness.
·        Visualize what to concentrate on– relax and see yourself hit an ace. Focus on being fully empty, graceful and visualize how to hit the next shot.
·        Visualize relaxing yourself – Before key points take a quick relaxing body scan: start at your scalp and move this mental massage gently downward, letting go and relaxing and softening each part of my body.  Visualize yourself as a bowl of pure, clear, still water.
·        Play with a loving kind mind set- empty and clear yourself with a loving kind presence in each moment stimulating fresh possibilities.
·        Flow- effortless effort is go with the flow. Less identification more unification. Transform the “I” with the “Eye contact”. Nothing to resist, just be in the moment. 
·        Focus on a specific contact points –select various contact points expanding your  “focus zone.” Just as in tennis when you make exact contact with the ball it is the most critical element of play.  Focusing on your contact point deepens their mindful presence.  Such contact points are: 1) Physical sensations-contact of the ball 2) Breathing- exhale on follow-through 3) Sounds-of hitting the ball in middle of the strings.

Off the Court helpful hints:
  • Sit every day, even if it's for a short period or several long pauses visualizing mindful tennis play. Remember your ZEN-play is work and work is play!
  • Reflect regularly on your aspiration for improving tennis play.  
  • Use inspiring resources to cultivate further mindfulness and awakened tennis skills.
  • Remember off the court you can observe, and lessen the “judgment”; accept what unfolds so as to awaken how you may enjoy greater tennis fun!

[1] PRO comes from Gregory Kramer at