Naomi Osaka – Mindfulness in Action

Naomi Osaka won the Women’s Singles Championship at the 2019 Australian Open on Saturday 26th January, beating Petra Kvitová (winner of two Grand Slam titles). In winning the championship, Naomi became the first Japanese tennis player to win the Australian Open and the first Japanese player to become No.1 in the world. In reflecting on her mindful approach to her recent matches and her achievements, I have become very conscious of the level of mindfulness she has attained at such a young age (21 at this tournament). Her advanced level of mindfulness is reflected in her resilience, capacity to handle negative thoughts and emotions and her strong sense of gratitude which enables her to stay grounded.

Resilience – capacity to bounce back in the face of setbacks or adversity

Naomi was serving for the match at 5-3 in the second set, having won the first set. Despite three match points in that game, she was unable to win the second set. Her disappointment was palpable – she left the court after the set with a towel over her head to hide her tears. However, she was able to settle herself in the break before the third set and to to resume the match with a new resolve and focus that enabled her to lift her game and go on to win the match and the Championship.

In overcoming the setback when she served-for-the-match at the end of the second set, Naomi had to deal with two conflicting challenges that beset the best champions in these circumstances – (1) anticipating the result (she so wanted to be No. 1 in the world that she could almost see and feel what it would be like) and (2) her negative thoughts and emotions resulting from missing her opportunity to close out the second set.

Her capacity to bounce back shows her resilience when having to deal with disappointment following a setback. This resilience was also in evidence when she was able to win the US Open five months earlier, despite the bad behaviour of her tennis idol and opponent, Sarina Williams – behaviour which was both unsettling and distracted attention from Naomi’s wonderful achievement.

Overcoming negative thoughts and emotions

Naomi was distressed at not being able to serve out the match at the end of the second set. It would have been easy to continue to entertain the negative thoughts that were going through her head, “I was so close and missed my opportunity”; “Why did I serve so poorly?”; and “I’m not going to win now or be No.1 in the world”.

Naomi took time to get centred again and to control her negative thoughts and emotions. She reminded herself that she had come back from being behind and that she could regain her ascendency (building on a very strong sense of self-efficacy).

It is so easy to entertain negative thoughts and emotions to a point where they disable us. However, Naomi reported that in the third set she put her emotions aside (self-regulation) and focused on playing each point. Even when she made mistakes in the third set, she used one of her anchors to shake free of her negative thoughts and emotions – she could be observed shaking her head from side to side, taking a temporary pause or a few deep breaths.

Naomi revealed in an earlier interview that she is an avid online gamer, a passion she enjoys with her sister. She described gaming not only as an alternative pursuit for up to four hours a day, but also as a way to reframe her tennis matches. She describes this unique anchor as follows:

I just feel like I know [tennis] is sort of my job and, like, if I were to say it, like, in a gaming term, then it’s sort of a mission that I have to complete. Um, so yeah. I just sort of tune everything out and just try my best to complete the mission.

Naomi demonstrated what it takes to be a mindful tennis champion through her demeanour, her self-awareness and self-regulation and her capacity to manage her inner dialogue. Her sense of gratitude is another trait that belies her youthful age and demonstrates her advanced level of mindfulness.

Gratitude – a way to stay grounded

Naomi mentioned in one of her interviews that she had visited Haiti, the homeland of her father. This visit had a significant effect on her, not so much for her treatment as a hero and a publicly acclaimed sports ambassador for Haiti, but more for the profound sense of gratitude she experienced after seeing the abject poverty of the Haitian people.

This strong sense of the deprivation of others in her father’s homeland, made her appreciate how much she herself had – not only her natural talent as a tennis player and the opportunity to develop it, but also having the basic things in her life (a home, loving and supportive family, food to eat and water on tap).

Naomi reported that her sense of gratitude helped to ground her and enable her to stay in-the-moment, to really appreciate everything she had and to be able to absorb losses. She indicated in an interview that her sense of gratitude helped her to deal with the disappointment of losing the second set. She reminded herself that she was playing a final against a champion tennis player in Petra Kvitová and told herself:

I can’t let myself act immature in a way. I should be grateful to be here and that is what I tried to be.

As we grow in mindfulness, through developing self-awareness and self-regulation, we can build the resilience to handle the stresses in our life, manage our negative thoughts and emotions and be truly grateful for what we have in life. Having simple mindfulness anchors can help us to be more in-the-moment and less controlled by our emotions that can sometimes blind and disable us.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Why is it so Difficult to Serve-for-the-Match in Tennis?

I have been watching the live TV broadcast of the 2019 Australian Open. It is surprising how many players – great champions among them – who have great difficulty serving-for-the-match. The more they desire the win, the more often they fail at the final hurdle. There seems to be a number of contributing factors related to mindfulness that are behind this widespread difficulty – (1) anticipating the result, (2) negative self-evaluation for making mistakes and (3) fear of failure.

Living in the future: anticipating the result

Many players when they are so close to winning begin to think about what it would be like to win the prize money, hold the trophy aloft, receive the accolades of the crowd at the end of tennis tournament and gain new sponsorships. They lose focus on playing the game and instead begin to play the result in their head. The legends of tennis and other great players such as Sarina Williams emphasise the need to stay-in-the-moment and play each point as it comes, ignoring the score. Mindfulness training can help here because it builds that capacity to be in the moment and to stay focused.

Many quality tennis players develop their own anchors to remind themselves to stay calm and in-the-moment. The anchor could be a couple of deep breaths, mindful walking, stopping to focus on their breath for a few seconds or a speedy body scan and stress release, especially of the tension in their arms and shoulders. These anchors can be developed through mindfulness practice.

Living in the past: negative self-evaluation for making mistakes

So often even top players will make a double fault on their serve when serving-for-the-match. I have even seen both Nadal and Federer do this. The tension and stress of the moment can result in muscle tightness and weakness in the arms.

Mistakes at the final, critical stage can become more momentous in our eyes because of the potential consequences of these mistakes. So, the tendency to negative self-evaluation is heightened. This self-criticism can become self-defeating as it negatively impacts our self-confidence and self-esteem. The negative thoughts can swirl around in our heads at this time like a whirlpool -“Why did I do such a low percentage shot at this time?”; “What a stupid time to play a drop shot!”; or “Why did I go down the line when the whole court was open?”.

Under stress our judgement suffers, unless we have learned to manage the stress through mindfulness. If we continue with our negative self-evaluation, then we are sabotaging our winning position, as so often happens in tennis matches.

Fear of failure

Ivan Lendl is famous not only for his amazing achievements in tennis but also for his early failures in closing out matches when he was serving-for-the-match. He kept losing finals in major tournaments, but his real breakthrough came when he beat John McEnroe in the 1985 US Open final. He went from not being able to win a final to rarely losing one.

In reporting on Lendl’s 1985 US Open win, John Feinstein had this to say of the fear demons that had beset Ivan:

The demons have chased him around the world. From Paris to Sydney, from London to New York. Everywhere Ivan Lendl has gone, the fear has chased him. Burdened by his talent and penchant for failure when the pressure was greatest, he suffered with the knowledge that people respected his skills and questioned his courage.

Fear of failure can cause us to freeze, to intensify our negative self-evaluation and self-criticism for making mistakes. We can get into another negative spiral of thinking which is even more difficult to control – “What will people think/say about my failure?”; “I am letting down so many people who have helped me!; “What will my coach say?” or “So many people who have come to see the match will be disappointed (particularly likely if you are playing on your home turf)”.

Lendl overcame his fear, born of past failures to win major finals, and went on to win 8 major titles in all, and a total of 94 singles titles, achieving a match winning percentage of over 90% in five different years. Some commentators consider him to be the greatest tennis player to ever play the game

After his historic victory, Lendl commented about the destructive effect of fear in the closing stages of a tennis match:

The worst thing you can do is be afraid of something.

As I have discussed previously naming your feelings, e.g. fear of failure, can help you tame these emotions. The R.A.I.N. meditation is a specific meditation for addressing fear and overcoming the disabling effects that fear can have on you.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop anchors to help us stay in the moment at times of stress, to minimise our negative self-evaluation and face our fears so they do not disable us.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of mohamed_hassan on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog. 

Developing Mindfulness through Managing Making Mistakes in Tennis

You might wonder what mindfulness has to do with making mistakes at tennis. If you learn to effectively manage making mistakes at tennis you can achieve two important mindfulness skills, (1) accepting what is and (2) reducing negative self-evaluation.

Accepting what is – you will always make mistakes in tennis

Tomaz Mencinger, Slovenian tennis coach, reminds us that no one has zero tennis mistakes, no matter what their level. If you watched world no.3, Roger Federer, play 20 year old, Greek tennis player, Stefanos Tsitsipas, at the 2019 Australian Open, you will have noticed how many mistakes Federer made, even on his trusty backhand – a total of 55 unforced errors. This level of errors occurred even though there were only a few points difference influencing the final result – Stefanos Tsitsipas won 6-7, 7-6, 7-5, 7-6.

The reality is that tennis is such a complex game for mind and body that it is inevitable that you will make mistakes – everyone does, no matter what their level of competence and mental capacity. Tomaz reminds us, in his landmark article on making mistakes in tennis, that a part of the brain, the cerebellum, controls our movement, coordination of muscle activity and our balance at any point. The cerebellum is taught over time through our training and activity how to assess what kind of bodily response is needed to respond to the challenge of a tennis shot from an opposing player. As Tomaz points out in his profile story, hand-eye-coordination, for instance, can be developed through various sports and utilised by our brains to direct our bodily response in tennis.

When you think about what is required to hit a tennis shot in response to a shot from another player, you can begin to realise how complex the response mechanism is and how easy it is to make a mistake in tennis. For starters, the brain must register the speed, spin and likely trajectory of the opponent’s shot (data taken from observing the force applied, the angle of the racquet, positioning of the body, experience of the opponent’s shot-making, how the shot is being disguised and the overall game strategy of the opponent). Your brain then has to direct your physical response – which is limited by your awareness, physical capacity, energy level, skill and prior experience. On top of this, as Roger Federer found in his match against Tsitsipas, a changing environment can impact the effectiveness of your shot-making (e.g. if the balls are heavier because of the night atmosphere or from closure of the roof over the tennis court).

You might think that as you improve through coaching and training, you will be free of mistakes in tennis. Tomaz argues that this is an impossible ask – you will continue to make mistakes no matter how proficient you become at shot-making. Part of the explanation for this is that as you become more competent, you take more risks and try to make more difficult shots, e.g. attempting to create greater angle, slice, depth and/or speed with your volley. So, we are programmed to make mistakes, even though we can play better shots more consistently with practice and coaching. Tomaz maintains that our percentage of errors over shots remains relatively the same over time, even as we improve our proficiency in playing tennis.

Of course, as you age, you lose some of your capacity – your eyesight declines, your reflexes slow, your mobility reduces and your muscle power declines (even when you undertake exercises to reduce the rate of decline). All these declining physical features impact both what your mind sees and interprets and how well your body can respond to the messages from your cerebellum. So, as you age, you not only need to accept making mistakes but that the rate of mistakes will more likely increase owing to declining mental and bodily facilities.

Tara Brach reminds us that a “willingness to be with what is” represents a core component of mindfulness along with internal and external awareness and open curiosity. Accepting that you will make mistakes in tennis is a good discipline for developing the mindset of accepting “what is”. This does not mean that you do not try to improve your technique, fitness, and balance – your ongoing enjoyment of the game will depend on observable improvements that you can make, e.g. better speed and/or placement of your serve, more effective and penetrating volleys or more consistent backhand shots.

You could also focus on improving mental resilience as the inner game of tennis is as important as its external manifestation. What goes on in your mind during a tennis game can dramatically affect the outcome and your level of enjoyment. Learning to deal with negative self-evaluation after a mistake is a key element of this positive mental state.

Reducing negative self-evaluation

I have written a lot about negative self-evaluation and the positive impact that mindfulness can have on redressing the negative outcomes of such evaluations. Tennis with its mistake-prone nature provides a great opportunity for us to practise overcoming our negative self-evaluations and be more mindful of the enjoyment of playing tennis and interacting with others.

A starting point is to develop self-awareness around your own response to making mistakes. Do you frown, pout, scowl, hit a shot in anger, swear, psychologically withdraw or bounce your racquet. These are external manifestations of a state of frustration at making mistakes in tennis. They reflect an unrealistic expectation that you can be mistake-free in tennis – no one can! So, a key aspect of self-regulation and associated mindfulness, is to adjust your expectations of yourself when playing tennis.

Typically, we will engage in negative self-evaluation when we make a mistake – “What a silly thing to do”; “How could I possibly miss such a simple shot?”; “People will think I can’t play tennis”; “How stupid am I”; or “I’m letting my partner down”. We will blame the mistake on the fact that we did not bend our knees far enough, took our eyes off the ball, lost concentration, misjudged the speed of the ball, and many other defects in our game. The problem with negative self-evaluation is that it does not improve our game but leads to lower self-esteem and loss of confidence – all of which, in turn, negatively impacts our tennis game and increases the likelihood of errors.

Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us that mindfulness entails being in the present moment non-judgmentally. If we learn to manage our negative self-evaluation when making mistakes in tennis, we can develop mindfulness – awareness in, and of, the moment, without resorting to negative self-judgment.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and by effectively managing making mistakes in tennis, we can have a more productive game, interact more positively with others and really enjoy the experience of being able to play tennis. Effective management of mistake-making in tennis involves accepting that mistakes will happen and avoiding negative self-evaluations as a result.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of moerschy on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.