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Visualization for Tennis Players during Lockdown.....and beyond

Covid 19 has put a halt to life as we knew it. There is lots of suffering, sadness and loss. Respecting the serious nature of this pandemic we are playing our part in trying to keep this virus from spreading. We’re staying at home, staying away from public places, including our beloved tennis clubs. Being unable to play tennis is probably a little frustrating for tennis players but in the grand scheme of things it’s a sacrifice that is definitely worth it.

At the moment, there are no competitions, no tournaments, no matches……and tennis players, like all athletes, like to be tested. We play competition because we like to be challenged, we like to make challenges. So during these times when we can’t compete, it’s important to set goals for ourselves. We’re all unsure about when tournaments will start up again. So it’s difficult to set your sights on being prepared for a particular time of the year, a particular tournament, because there are no definites. But that is kind of life anyway! There are no definites, as we’ve experienced in the last few weeks! But you might as well prepare as best you can, so that when things are up and running again, you can be ready.

No doubt you are missing playing and training – that’s normal. Perhaps you’re really frustrated – that’s normal. Maybe you’re worried your strokes will dis-improve with all this time away from the practice court – that’s normal. To help you with these emotions there are things you can do, exercises you can practice, physical training you can endure, to help you feel better. There are lots of goals you can be working towards regarding your physical fitness. But besides all the physical practices and drills you can undergo in your back garden or local park, this is, most certainly, a time to focus on improving your mental game. If you’re hoping to do all you can to help your tennis game then adopting a visualization practice is something you most definitely should consider.

Visualization in sports is a method of training for your brain for successful outcomes. By purposely creating mental imagery, you are rehearsing in your mind for what you want to achieve in reality. This rehearsal could be of a skill, of a performance or of an outcome you desire. All the top sports stars practice visualization. Bianca Andreescu credited her meditation and visualization practice when she defeated Serena Williams in the final of last year’s US Open final. Djokovic says he practices visualization all the time. “It is part of my pre-match routine. I also do it on the court. I think we all do it to some extent whether it’s conscious or unconscious”. And it’s not just tennis players. Top competitors in golf, rugby, athletics, soccer, gaelic, swimming, skiing, formula1 etc all practice visualisation.

For me, visualization came in particularly useful many years ago. I had just graduated from college and my plan and my dream was to play tennis on the professional circuit as soon as I finished college. But I had shin splints and I was struggling to recover from them. I was sidelined for an entire year. I spent a little time at the beginning of my injury feeling sorry for myself but then I decided to tackle my injury with a different mindset, a more positive one. I began setting goals for myself every day, every week. There were only a few exercises I was allowed to do physically. So I did them diligently. This gave me a sense of achievement which helped lift my spirits. Along with the limited physical exercises I could do, I began visualizing every night.

I was unsure when or if I would be able to play again but I decided that if I did recover I’d be ready. I didn’t want my return to the practice court to feel like I hadn’t hit a tennis ball in, well, a year. If you’re a tennis player and you take some time off, you might recognize the feeling of come back feeling somewhat disconnected from your body. You feel unco-ordinated, a sense of imbalance, uncomfortable. I didn’t want that feeling.

For those 12 months pretty much, every single night before I went to sleep I visualised all my shots. My forehead, my backhand, my volley, smash. All my different types of serves, my returns. I visualised myself playing and winning points. I visualised being able to play again.

I missed tennis so much! I didn’t know when I was going to get back playing....or if I’d even ever get back to playing. But I was determined, that if I did recover from my injury, that once I was able to play, it wouldn’t take me long to start feeling my shots again. A year on, that first hitting practice session didn’t feel foreign. I didn’t feel like I hadn’t hit a ball in over a year. I didn’t feel uncomfortable or uncoordinated or wobbly. I actually felt connected to my body.

My shots felt good. My timing was great. I was a little slow on my feet granted. But I knew that could be sorted with my training. I credit my visualization practice for my swift return to playing.

So those of you who are worried, anxious or frustrated about all the tennis you’re missing, know that you can use visualization as a training tool. It’s almost as good as actually playing. Probably the next best thing. When we visualise regularly, our brain chemistry changes and our mind records the imagery as a real memory. Visualisation can be used in practice, training, and competition. Being open-minded and using visualization can help you achieve feats that you may once have thought impossible.

So how do we practice visualization?

· To begin, make sure you’re comfortable. Sitting or lying down is fine. Just ensure that your body is in a position that will make it possible to relax.

· It is good preparation for the first stage of visualization practice to spend some time relaxing the body and the mind. Focusing on the breath and slowing it down can really help with this.

· Once you begin to practice visualization it is advised to use as many senses as you can to get most in touch/connected with the image in your mind. I personally used sight, sound and feel most when I was visualizing being on the tennis court.

· Take your time with it. The more you practice visualization, the better you become at it. Don’t be worried at the beginning if you can’t keep your focus or you feel you can’t imagine or feel the stroke or the scenario. Practice patience.

To help you get started with a visualization practice please listen to/watch the recording below where I guide you towards a relaxed state and then gently prompt you to creating the mental imagery in your mind’s eye. The visualizations in the recording are just examples of what you might try. You can then adapt your practice and create visualizations that serve your own needs. Enjoy!

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