The Science of Joking Around in Tennis
Some years ago one of my top students was making a serious push to improve her game. It was almost like she had gathered around her an entourage similar to all of the top Tour players. She had a fitness trainer, a physical therapist, an acupuncturist, and several tennis coaches. I made the point to her that she did not have a professional Jokester and I would be willing to take on the job (this didn’t go over very well and I was subsequently fired for a period of time).
Before going on, here’s some background to put this story in context. Jim Loehr, the universally-acclaimed mental tennis guru, has developed the 25-Second Cure to help players handle the stress of playing tennis. The 25 seconds refers to the time between points and he provides an emotional management system to get and keep players in a positive state of mind. If you peel back what’s he’s really saying, it’s this: if your mood stays positive, certain performance-enhancing hormones are released into your body (and hence, your brain!). Simply keeping yourself in a good hormonal state is the foundation for success according to Loehr.
Let me digress a bit more here before I go on with the Jokester part of my story. The 4-D System proposed in Deconstructing Tennis is a step beyond the Loehr recipe for success. This is because it also makes time for tactical adjustments between points. Top players are always making micro-adjustments in their pace and shot selection based upon their overall game plan and what has just happened on the court. The 4-D System would have players remind themselves to relax between points, but this is only one of the 4-Ds. Physical and emotional relaxation are highly correlated, so practicing and employing the ability to relax between points is crucial to accessing one’s best tennis. Physical relaxation allows access to better stroke mechanics while emotional relaxation enables better decision-making.
This is where the Jokester comes in. Most players try way too hard and think about the wrong things when they compete and this results in playing well below their level. If we accept Loehr’s point about emotional well-being and its relationship to hormones, then laughing can be viewed as a form of legalized drug which maximizes the chances of peak performance. This works … read on.
My granddaughter is currently playing tournaments in the G14 age group. Last evening, she had a match against a player whom she had defeated only a month ago by 6-1, 6-0. She was in a somber mood, fighting off a cold, and otherwise ornery. She proceeded to lose the first set 6-1 before coming back to win 10-8 in a Super. After asking her to talk about the match and realizing that she had nothing to say (“I don’t really remember anything”), I went into Jokester mode as we waited for her second match to begin in about an hour and a half. I did not barrage her with jokes, but she spent most of this time with a big grin on her face. (Here was my best joke: “I wasn’t overly concerned or tense when you lost the first set 6-1. I simply reminded myself that you have one of the best coaches in tennis and, since I’m good, the effects of my teaching will surface, sooner or later.” She was, quite naturally, amazed at the purported size of my ego as I shared this story with her. But she also realized that I didn’t really mean what I was saying.
Her second match was a routine 6-1, 6-1 victory. She was a new person on the court. She seemed to actually be having fun in her match!
In a related story, Ana Ivanovic practiced with Djokovic a few seasons ago. She was asked what it was like: “I had no idea that practicing could be so much fun!”, she exclaimed.
I don’t mean by my examples to suggest that it is only female players who don’t appreciate what fun can do for performance. Taking oneself too seriously is gender-neutral.
So, I would conclude that joking around has a lot to do with playing better tennis. As players we need to stop taking ourselves so seriously and open ourselves up to the idea that less is more. A less stressful approach means more fun … and fun often means WINNING!