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Concentration

What is a state of flow and what role does concentration play in obtaining this state while playing tennis? The state of flow is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in the activity that he or she is doing. It is also characterized by a feeling of great freedom, enjoyment, fulfillment and skill.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is recognized as a leader in the study of the state of flow. He identifies nine dimensions of the state of flow; a) a balance between perceived challenges and skills, b) a merging of action and awareness, c) having clear goals, d) receiving unambiguous feedback, e) being totally concentrated on the task, f) having a sense of control over what one is doing, g) not being self-conscious, h) losing track of time, i) and experiencing high levels of intrinsic satisfaction from the activity. (Hanin)

One important aspect of the state of flow is concentration. This brief article will focus on six smart and simple tips to help a player achieve deeper levels of concentration that can contribute to reaching the state of flow.

“Concentration can be defined as the ability to focus on the relevant cues in your environment and to maintain that focus for the duration of the athletic contest.”(Renstrom). Players often report an ability to concentrate for brief periods during matches and practice but most days find themselves easily pulled into nonessential external and internal distractions. Nonessential external distractions may include, playing your match next to a court where the players are disputing the score or a line call, difficult weather conditions or playing an opponent with unsportsmanlike behavior who frequently disrupts the match.

Internal distractions include negative internal dialogue such as, “I always miss that shot.” “I’m playing terribly.” “There’s so much riding on this match I have to win to prove that I can compete at this level.” Internal distractions may also manifest as physical feelings such as anxiety or muscular tension typically described as tightness in a player’s legs, arms or chest. It is common to hear players after matches say that they felt so wound up that they could not figure out what to do on the court. The match was over before they could settle themselves down.

Tennis matches are lengthy events and it is normal during the course of a match for a player to be pulled into external or internal distractions that have the potential to create significant shifts in concentration.

The following are tips for staying focused when external and internal distractions start to disrupt concentration. There are more tips to rely on but here are some examples to get you started.

The first step a player needs to take to regain control of concentration involves awareness that their focus of attention has drifted into irrelevant external or negative internal stimuli. For example, a player misses a shot during a point in the match and reacts with anger toward him/herself. This begins a negative inner dialogue that affects the player physically. Instead of letting go of the error and shifting thoughts towards the action they want to have happen, five points later the player is still upset about the error. Physically the player is now tense and instead of slowing down to center him/herself attempts to hit lower percentage shots to regain the lost ground. Often the player will continue to rush into the next points and usually spiral into thoughtless errors. This creates frustration, more negative self-talk and less concentration on problem solving tasks needed to stay in the match.

The second positive action a player can take to restore concentration is to take time during the 20/25 seconds allotted between points to focus on what he/she can control on his/her side of the court. The third tip is taking time to breathe between points. Breathing is one of the most helpful mental tools a player can learn. It brings the player into the present moment and allows time to regain emotional control. A simple breathing exercise is to breathe deeply into your abdomen for the count of four, hold the air for four seconds and then let the air out for the count of five seconds or longer.

Checking in on self-talk is the fourth tip to help with concentration. Our emotional and physical reactions to situations are determined by our interpretation of the event, not the event itself. Negative self-talk can increase anxiety and undermine concentration. Become aware of situations that have the tendency to trigger negative thinking such as double-faulting or making unforced errors. Substitute back up thoughts for these hot spots. For example if a player misses a first serve, he/she can elicit back up self-talk that serves to focus on the next serve. Examples of this positive self-talk are, “toss the ball up, watch it and hit the sweet spot.” The best players in the world make errors. The difference is that they have learned to adjust and avoid becoming bogged down with negative chatter.

Some players find that having a cue word works well when their focus begins to drift. Words and short phrases such as, settle, trust, see the ball, move on, be smooth etc., are common verbal cues to help remain focused as well as regain focus. Linking the breathing routine followed by the cue word is also effective.

Players who practice a between point routine will find that the routine becomes a natural part of their tennis play. Between point routines provide familiarity and calmness that reminds players that each point is just another point. For example, the server receives the balls to serve and prior to serving bounces the ball a few times while taking a few deep breaths, pauses and observes the angle of the opponents receiving position, the server selects a target area in the service box, uses a cue word or phrase then tosses up the ball to serve. This type of routine develops consistent behaviors which provide performance stability. Of course, if the player has poor technique he/she may be reinforcing a routine of poor technique utilizing these steps. If what you are doing is not working check in with your tennis pro.

To summarize, when the mind is engaged in specific actions it is less likely to become distracted. We have control of what we focus on. These simple six smart tips can begin to engage you in the process of controlling your levels of concentration and provide ideas to regain concentration when external and internal negative stimuli challenge your attention.

Six Smart Tips to Improve Concentration

  • 1. Be aware when your focus of concentration is challenged by external and internal distractions.
  • 2. Stop. Evaluate what you can control on your side of the court.
  • 3. Breath. 4x4x5 between points.
  • 4. Check self-talk. Emotional and physical reactions to situations are determined by our interpretation of the event.
  • 5. Develop a cue word to use as a focal point.
  • 6. Develop a routine between points to enhance performance stability.

References

Emotions in Sport: Yuri L. Hanin (editor). Joy, Fun and Flow in Sport, chapter 6, p.141.

Tennis: Per A.F.H. Renstrom (editor). The Psychology of Tennis: Gaining the Mental Advantage, chapter 22, p.285.