by: Matt Vaughn, PsyD from ProWorld Tennis Academy | Professional Tennis Coach | Doctor of Psychology
If you have read earlier articles of mine, you’re probably aware that I’m fond of the chess and tai chi champion, Josh Waitzkin. I want to discuss and expand on an area he briefly touched in The Art of Learning.
When it comes to reaching high levels of tennis, there are clear differences between what it takes to be a decent player, what it takes to be good, what it takes to be great, and what it takes to be near and at the top. If your goal is to be mediocre, you don’t have to do too much more than other players with that same goal—practice a couple hours a day, do a decent amount of fitness, and put a lot of effort into your matches. Do this and you’ll probably become an okay player. But, if you want to maximize your potential and have chances to be at the top, you need a different mindset. Injuries, usually disguised as frustrating and disappointing moments, are often wonderful opportunities to get exponentially better and improve important areas of your game otherwise neglected.
Occasional injuries are inevitable when practicing at a high level and playing a full tournament schedule. Most people view injuries as setbacks. From my experience, most players who get injured, whether a sprained ankle, pulled muscle, torn ligament, or other injury, take time off and don’t do much of anything. If the legs weren’t affected, they might run to stay in shape, but that’s about it. Most of this time, however, seems to be used to watch television and play on the phone.
I have strong feelings that a different mindset is needed to get near or at the top of the game. To become the best, your mind must always be searching for ways to improve, even when injured. After an injury, get on the court the next day. Figure out how to use your current situation (with the injury) to enhance other parts of your game. If you’re unable to run or move well, work obsessively on your serve, hit thousands of volleys, or drill your forehand or backhand, whichever is weaker, standing in place until it gets better—search and experiment with ways to make that stroke better. If you injured something that prevents you from hitting certain shots, go on the court (if you can do so without exacerbating the injury) and work on another area that isn’t affected by the injury. Take these moments to improve parts of your game that you might otherwise neglect. Imagine coming back from injury with a 25% or more improvement in your serve, volley-game, forehand, backhand, agility, footwork, flexibility, or strength.
Of course there are times when your body needs rest to heal, or simply to recover from a rigorous tournament schedule. If that’s the case, make sure you rest, but use those moments to improve the mental or tactical aspects of your game. Seek out help with your mental game and/or watch YouTube videos of professional matches to study how they construct points. What other areas can you improve during this time to help you maximize game? You might be surprised how many you can think of.
Most importantly, make sure you come off an injury as a better player than when the injury happened, whether the injury lasts for a few days or multiple months. Injuries and periods of necessary rest are not setbacks—they are moments that separate the decent and good players from the great and world-class.