Sunday, December 15, 2013

Teaching Tennis and Meditation

Four-plus decades of teaching tennis has been a form of meditation for me I call “PRO focus zone.” There is emerging medical evidence documenting how mindfulness improves stress management and other facets of well-being.

Teaching tennis has allowed me to reach greater “presence.” The acronym PRO – Pause, Relax and Open – can help expand the student’s focus zone, arriving fully in the present

Getting my students to “pause” between points and slow down – becoming more responsive and less reactive – increases their concentration during play. Next, getting my students to “relax” and focus on mentally showing up can both lessen errors and increase my students’ accuracy. Finally, I coach my pupils to “open” themselves to play to their full potential. 

Teaching “PRO focus zone” is the practice of imparting grace to the entire body/mind experience of learning this game. The mind becomes quiet and the body listens, observes and responds to how a student can have fun as 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 racquet on the ball is a lesson in meditation. 

I teach my novices how to catch the ball on the strings with a simplified overhead stroke. I point out the vibrant popping sound when the ball precisely hits the middle of their racquet strings. It is fundamental for my students to diminish their errors and improve consistency. Exaggerating my students’ errors creates fun learning. I get them to hit two to 10 balls in a row. I urge them to place their shots away from me. I run them and make them realize how better it is to move instead of being moved. I do many drills around these two lessons of consistency and placement. 

I start off each morning by sitting in a tranquil, still way with relaxed attention. When I become more gentle and friendly, I can then observe more clearly the nature of my mental, emotional and physical activities. The “PRO focus zone” certainly applies to teaching tennis and dealing with my clients in similar fashion. 

Clarity comes when I observe more and foster observance of the nature of “being.” The key in both teaching and meditation 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 stress in whatever tennis instructional activity. Relaxing allows me to arrive in the present instead of wandering off in the past or future. This also lessens my student’s tension. The more I “relax,” the more my student “opens” to whatever I may suggest. When I become more “open” I discover what is most important for my student’s learning. Instructing tennis reveals various points of concentration that enable one to expand moment-to-moment attention and improves play. 

As I instruct from a response mode, I model “mindfulness.” When I pause, relax and open to the “PRO focus zone” both my student and I arrive at a common contact point. We celebrate pausing, relaxing and opening. Teaching the volley is an excellent example of learning responsive grace. 

Instructing tennis is a form of meditation since my focus allows me to teach awareness 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 student’s shot possibilities. Countless hours of exploring how my students can tap into their bodies’ sensations can best direct their attention to sharpening their game 

Teaching “PRO focus zone” is the practice of imparting grace to the entire body/mind experience of learning this game and expanding their technique. When I get my students to find greater alertness and relaxed play, I guide them to their “PRO focus zone.” 

The more I can facilitate my students to find their “PRO focus zone,” the more they can direct the destination of their shots. I prompt my lesson to “arrive,” with placing the ball in a high percentage area (e.g. the service line T) that troubles future opponents. 

As I plant seeds of specific intentions, I also alert my students’ attention to find their own “PRO focus zone.” By simply directing my pupil to hit the ball at the bull’s eye instead of just the larger target, they increase their chance for the ball to arrive there. 

Many of my students hold their breath when following through on their 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 get my students to pay greater attention to their “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. Greater attention comes to my teaching tennis when I constantly center my students’ numerous mind/body awareness skills. Visual cues are critical for me in skillful instruction since improved hand/eye coordination requires specific reference points in space to increase tennis shot execution, thus enhancing “PRO focus zone.” 

When teaching large clinics or camps, I become the eye of the hurricane where there is calm consciousness surrounded by the flurry of tennis activity. If I have to teach the entire day, then I focus on effortlessness, and when I remember to lessen my resistance I benefit more.

My “PRO focus zone” is about enjoying teaching and the fun exercise that results. I challenge you to find any great superstar that does not have some sort of “PRO focus zone.” I illustrate shots with a sense of effortlessness. I guide my student 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 my students with this alertness creates a heightened state of play, and a focus on awareness. In turn, concentration can resolve aspects of your game that feel stuck, creating new flow. Increased awakening from moment-to-moment tennis play allows me to excel. 

I joke with my students by asking if they are “Re-Creation” or “Wreck-Creation.” Relaxing in the now with a sense of alertness is what I define as grace in the “PRO focus zone.” Tennis is your object of meditation. Arriving in the “PRO focus zone” happens when you teach and learn to pause, relax and open. 

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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 in teaching. 
• Create the space – I establish a special space to remember to be a mindful instructor.
• Visualize what to concentrate on – Relax and see yourself hit an ace. Focus on being fully empty and graceful, and visualize how you will go forth with your students. 
• Establish a comfortable posture of being a grounded teacher – As you instruct, stand upright, poised and balanced. Combine alertness and openness, allowing your hands to firmly yet comfortably grip your racquet. Use visual cues to be receptive contacts points such as where the exact point in space you will toss your serve.
• 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 your body. Visualize yourself as a bowl of pure, clear, still water.
• Instruct with a loving kind mind set – Empty and clear yourself with a loving, kind presence in each moment stimulating fresh possibilities. 
• Just be as you teach – 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. 
• Awakening to teach mind/body sensations – Use this time out to explore listening to and feeling the entire moment–to-moment experience with your senses totally open. Explore any senses.
• Focus on a specific teaching contact point – Select various contact points expanding your student’s “focus zone.” 

Just as in tennis when you make exact contact with the ball, it is the most critical element of play. Focusing on this instructing 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 instruction. 
• Use inspiring resources to cultivate further mindfulness and awakened tennis skills.
• Remember off the court you can observe and lessen the judgement; accept what unfolds so as to awaken how you can further teach tennis. 
• Meditate with a teaching intention and instruct greater attention – awaken with exercise. 

this also appears in,  page 17