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Doubles Tennis Champions

How psychological savvy helped 2 tennis players become a world-class team.

tennis men's doubles champions
Australian Open Champions
Most of my PsychologyToday posts on this blog have dealt with marriage advice like about how to stop arguing, and with how to build healthy relationships. This post carries that theme into a different realm of partnership by focusing on a professional sports team.  It explores the mental skills two tennis players needed to become a top international doubles tennis team.

I wrote the story below as a children's book to introduce the idea of mental skills in sports and in life to kids.  That's why the language reads pretty simple.  If you are less interested in the overall story of how athletes become world-class winners and want to skip straight to the mental skills, scroll down to the section titled Enter mental coaching, their "secret weapon."

Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram play tennis.  The compete as a doubles team in professional tennis tournaments, cris-crossing the globe from Beijing to Barcelona, from New York to Los Angeles, from Paris, Rome, and Rotterdam in Europe to Sydney and Melbourne in Australia, and from Bangkok in Thailand back to their favorite cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, in their home state of Israel. 

Jonathan and Andy especially enjoy competing in the Olympics and at the Davis Cup tournament because at these events they officially represent their country.  At the Olympics, the games begin with a gigantic opening parade of the athletes.  Jonathan and Andy, marching with the Israeli athletes completing in other Olympic sports, swell with pride to be carrying the blue and white flag of their country.  At the Davis Cup competitions, in which 44 countries each field a team of their country’s five best tennis players, Jonathan and Andy have helped Israel’s team to rise to the highest level of Davis Cup competition.  In 2007-2008, Israel’s team made it to the top “tie,” that is, to becoming one of the 16 teams of the World Cup division.  Jonathan and Andy love wearing their team shirts that have ISRAEL written on the back, and love the excitement when thousands of Israelis cheer them on at Davis Cup matches in Tel Aviv. They especially loved playing against Roger Federer and Warinka, the Swiss team, in the 2012 Olympics, a match in which Erlich and Ram triumphed.

In addition, each week for most of the year Jonathan and Andy travel to play in a different country, and in every tennis tournament the player’s country is always listed next to his name.  That means that wherever they travel, week after week, all over the world, Jonathan and Andy serve as ambassadors for Israel.

How have Jonathan and Andy reached this honored position as world-class athletes? 

That is the story that this posting tells.  It is a story of heads, shoulders, legs and arms.  The language that Jonathan and Andy speak, Hebrew, is read from right to left.  This story is told that way.  It starts with arms, then adds legs. Shoulders come up next.  Ultimately, then, Jonathan and Andy’s triumphs rests also on what happens in their heads.

As a child, Jonathan lived in Haifa.  Every afternoon after school Jonathan took a bus to the Israel Tennis Center near his home.  He loved swinging his arm hard to hit tennis ball after ball.  He also loved using his legs to run fast. Most of all, he loved winning games.  At the tennis center Jonathan had lots of friends.  It was fun to have so many friends who loved tennis and played together almost every day.  It was fun too to be the hardest hitting, fastest running, most often winning boy in his group.

Andy grew up in Jerusalem.  Like Jonathan, every day, , Andy went from school to the Israel Tennis Center tennis courts near his house.  He hit tennis balls back and forth with his friends.  He practiced his strokes also by hitting the ball against the practice wall. 

Andy’s father saw how well Andy could hit the ball.  When he saw that Andy was winning so many games, even when he competed against boys much older than he was, he went to talk with the best coach in Jerusalem, a young coach named Ronen Morali.  Andy’s father asked Ronen, “Will you work one on one with Andy?  I think he has special talent.” 

At the Israel Tennis Centers, children mostly learn tennis in groups, not in private lessons.  Ronen went out with Andy’s Dad to watch Andy playing in his group.  “That boy swings his arm with amazing accuracy so the ball goes exactly where he wants it to.  He also runs fast.  His legs are strong and speedy.  His legs let him jump like a frog to get to faraway balls, and dart across the court as fast as a gazelle.  “That boy has talent!” Ronen thought.  Ronen gave his answer to Andy’s Dad. “I will keep a personal eye on Andy, I’ll coach him some on his own, and also I will put him in my group to work with older boys who can challenge him.”

One day Ronen called to Andy to come talk with him.  Andy was concerned when he saw Ronen’s usually smiling face looking serious.  “Andy,” Ronen said in a kindly voice.  “There are changes ahead.  I will be leaving Jerusalem.  In Netanya, a town on the Mediterranean sea, about an hour away from Jerusalem, there is a special school called Wingate.  Israel’s best teenage athletes live and go to school there to train intensively in their sports.  I have been asked to be the coach there for the teenagers who Israel thinks have potential to become its most talented tennis players.  That means I’ll be leaving Jerusalem soon.”

“Can I go with you?” Andy asked.  “You’re my coach.  I don’t want to learn with anyone else.  I want to keep working with you.   I want to grow up to be a tennis player, and I know that you could help me become a champion.” 

“You’re too young, Andy, for Wingate.” Ronen answered.  “But maybe when you are older, then you could join me.”

Andy missed Ronen.  Tennis practices weren’t the same without his favorite coach shouting “Kadima!”  Kadima means move forward, and tennis players move all the time, especially moving forward toward the net.  That’s how Andy won games.  His legs pumped fast toward the net.  Then when the ball came toward him, he could return the ball to wherever he wanted on the other side of the net. 

When he first had started playing tennis Andy had thought tennis was just about using his hitting the ball with the racket.  A strong arm holding the racket, swinging from low to high, from readiness close to the ground to high up in front of him at the end of the stroke, sent the ball fast and hard onto the other side of the tennis court. 

Ronen taught Andy also that tennis was about legs.  Legs don’t hit the ball, but strong fast legs get a player to where the ball is coming on the court so he can reach the ball to return it.  Ronen taught Andy to keep his legs moving all the time during every point.  Once the ball was served, Andy bounced or ran or stepped toward the on-coming ball to put additional pace on his shot.  No standing still!   By making it to every ball no matter where it was headed on the court, and especially by moving forward to close in on the net, Andy could hit back each shot from his opponent on the other side of the net.  When Andy sped up to meet the ball, striking it when it barely had bounced, he could zap winners time and time again. 

But with Ronen gone, Andy hardly felt the energy to pump his legs fast any more.  He felt too sad. 

One day many month’s after Ronen had left for Wingate, Andy’s Dad received a phone call from Ronen.   Andy was worried.  But when his Dad hung up the phone, he turned to Andy with a big smile.  “Andy!” his Dad said to him.  “That was Ronen calling to say that he has arranged with the officials in Netanya, at the Wingate Institute where he is coaching the best teenage players in Israel, …,”

Andy could hardly wait to hear the end of the sentence.  “You mean I can go live at the school and have Ronen again as my tennis coach?”

“Yes,” said his father, sad at the idea that his son would be leaving home to live at his new school, and at the same time, happy to see that Andy would have the chance to continue to develop his talent by working with his favorite coach.  Andy’s father knew that even though being a good athlete came naturally for Andy, to become a professional tennis player would take hard work and first class coaching.  How fortunate they were that Andy had been invited to join his coach even though he was only twelve and the other boys would be older.

Jonathan also had been invited to join the tennis team at Wingate.  Jonathan loved the workouts on the court.  He loved his coach, Ronen, who appreciated how hard he worked at every practice.  Every day when it was time for a practice session Jonathan was the first one on the court, the last to leave, and always eager to learn new drills and techniques. 

Games sometimes frustrated Jonathan though.  He knew he had great talent and could beat just about everyone in his age group.  At the same time, whenever he missed a point in an important game, especially a point against a player who was not as strong as he was, it bothered him.  When he missed points in practice it didn’t really matter.  But in tournaments, after a bad shot he would feel frustrated and say to himself, “That was stupid!” 

Gradually, Jonathan began to believe what he was saying to himself.  In school he began to act stupid, that is, to get bad grades.  He didn’t study for tests.  He would rather play tennis, or joke with his friends, or flirt with the girl athletes who lived at Wingate as they were training to become competitive swimmers or gymnasts.  When his tests came back the grades were low because he hadn’t studied.  Then again he would say to himself, “That was stupid!”  

Living with friends at Wingate was fun, but sometimes Jonathan missed his family.  He wanted to play silly games with his sweet younger brother and funny little sister.  Talking on the phone to them wasn’t the same as laughing with them as they played together.  When he lost a match in a tournament Jonathan would feel especially sad.  Even though he was a big teenager now, sometimes he just wanted to sit on his mother’s lap or enjoy a big warm hug from his father.  Talking on the phone wasn’t the same as being home where his mother and father’s loving arms could melt away the sadness.   After a while he stopped telling his mom and dad when he was losing games.  He felt bad enough.  Making them feel bad too, he figured, made no sense.

What did help was working hard on the tennis court.  What helped too was encouragement from his coach, Ronen.  Ronen believed in him.  “You could be a world class player.  You could become one of the best players of everyone who plays tennis from every country on the map,” Ronen told him.  Ronen’s encouragement gave Jonathan confidence.  “I can do it!” he told himself after talking with Ronen. 

The beginnings of partnership

During their teenage years in Wingate Andy and Jonathan knew each other.  They said hello when they saw each other in the dorm or passed each other on the walkways connecting the tennis courts, the school, the cafeteria, and their dormitory, but Jonathan was three years older than Andy.  And Jonathan had a girlfriend.  They lived in different worlds.

Sometimes Andy and Jonathan traveled with their coach Ronen and the other top teen players to tennis tournaments around the world.  They traveled to tennis tournaments in Europe, in South America, and sometimes also to Florida, California, and New York in the United States.  As they turned 18, 19, and 20 they grew old enough to become tennis professionals, that is, to be able to earn money by playing in tennis tournaments. 

Talented young tennis players become professional players by “playing the circuit.”  That means traveling to “the circuit” of tournaments that were held in a different city almost every week.  The problem was that in lower level professional tournaments, the earnings from winning games was too low to cover the expenses of airplanes and hotels and restaurants for all their meals.  “How will I pay?”  Jonathan kept asking himself.  “How can I find the money to support myself during these years of trying to rise up the rankings?  I understand that I have to start at the bottom and earn my way up the rankings by winning matches if eventually I want to play in the big tournaments where players really do make money.  But how will I pay for these first few years?” 

Jonathan was determined.  He borrowed money from his parents.  He borrowed money from friends.  Finally, he had borrowed all the money anyone he knew had to loan him.  What was he to do if he still wanted to become a tennis star? 

Surprisingly to Jonathan, an answer to these worries came in a form he had never anticipated.

Before Jonathan had run out of money, Jonathan and Andy traveled the circuit along with several other of the young men whom they had learned tennis with at Wingate and who had traveled with them with Ronen.  They did have fun traveling together.  While many other players on the circuit felt lonely as they traveled the world struggling to win in lower level tournaments, the group who had grown up together in Europe under Ronen’s tutelage practiced together, ate together in restaurants for dinner, and bunked together in shared hotel rooms so they weren’t lonely as they went from city to city, playing tournaments around the world. 

The goal of playing the circuit was to earn points and move up high enough in their rankings to play real money tournaments.  Sometimes though, just for fun, Jonathan and Andy would sign up to play as a doubles team in addition to playing their singles matches.  In singles tournaments, they stood alone on their side of the court, determined to beat the player on the other side of the net.  But in doubles, playing as a team, they played with two people on each side.  With a friend as a partner, they could relax and have more fun on the court.  Singles matches were very serious.  Jonathan especially felt huge pressure to play well in order to pay back the loans he needed to be able to go to the tournaments.  With so much stress, as he missed a point, or several in a row, he would sometimes become angry at himself for his errors, and then angrier and angrier until he wanted to explode.   But in doubles, Jonathan and Andy  just had fun playing the tennis that loved and played so well.

Playing doubles matches though brought Jonathan and Andy a surprising problem.  Almost every time they played as a doubles team, they won the tournament.  That was fun, and did earn them some money!  At the same time, if they made it to the finals in doubles, that meant that they had to stay at the tournament through the last round, which would be on Sundays.  To play the next week’s qualifying tournament in the next city, however, they had to travel by Friday or Saturday.  Being doubles winners meant they would miss out on being able to play the next week’s tournament as singles players, and singles playing made more money. 

Still, from time to time Jonathan and Andy did play doubles together.  It was such fun. They so easily seemed to beat just about every other team out there.  Without even trying, they had been building up a high international ranking as a doubles team.  That was fun to see too!

Meanwhile Andy began to have a problem.  Gradually, his shoulder began to hurt.  Andy had been practicing long hours and playing well in many tournaments.  The more he practiced  his serve especially, the better he played.  His shoulder was what enabled his arms to hit his powerful serves so his legs then could race him to the net to zap volleys to wherever his opponents couldn’t return his balls.  But the more Andy practiced his serves, the more a small pain in his shoulder became bigger and bigger.  Eventually his shoulder said to him, “No more!  Take care of me, or else stop playing tennis!”

Andy had to listen.  For a whole year Andy could no longer play tennis.  His life focused only on his shoulder, and eventually also his back.  Doctors performed surgeries on his shoulder, and then every day Andy worked hard in physical therapy to get his shoulder to heal.  Since he had to take the time away from tournaments to fix his shoulder, he also had a back surgery to nip problems that were developing there as well.

A year away from tennis felt like a very long time.  Was it worth trying to get back into the kind of tip top shape his whole body would need to be in to go back to the tournament circuit?  Could his arms remember how to hit the ball with power and accuracy, or his legs regain their rapidity?  Would he still be able to win matches against the best players in the world after a full year away from the game?  Andy wanted to return to tournament competition, but at the same time he was filled with doubts about whether his dreams of becoming a professional tennis player had been dashed by the shoulder pain and surgeries.

The end or a beginning?

In the spring of 2003, Jonathan and Andy each faced big decisions.  Andy had to commit one way or the other—give up on tennis after having been away from professional playing for so long.  Or give it one more big try.   Jonathan’s problem was money.  Without more money, how could he continue? 

One bright spot shone ahead.  Jonathan and Andy fun doubles partnership had earned them a high ranking in doubles play.  In fact, their ranking had risen so high that they were eligible to enter the qualifying tournament for Wimbledon, one of the four biggest tournaments in the world. 

“Let’s go for it!”  Andy said, inspiring Jonathan with his enthusiasm.  “Let’s fly to London and play the qualifying tournament for Wimbledon!”

“I have no money for a plane ticket,” Jonathan answered, “but playing at Wimbledon is something I’ve dreamed of all my life.  Besides, Ronen would be so proud to see his players at a Grand Slam tournament, and especially on the grass courts of Wimbledon.  I’m determined to go.” 

Suddenly Jonathan though of an idea.  “I know!  I’ll sell my car!  That’s the only valuable thing I own.  I’ll gamble it on this adventure.”

So Andy and Jonathan boarded a plane from Israel’s Lod airport and flew to London.  They were off to play in the qualifying tournament for Wimbledon, the most prestigious tournament in the world of tennis!

In the qualifying tournament, with Jonathan especially expecting this would probably be his last tennis event, both Jonathan and Andy gave their matches their very all.  It was their first professional appearance in the biggest leagues of “Grand Slam” professional tennis, and they let themselves love every minute.  In the clubhouse for the players, where they sat to wait for their playing times, they ate and talked and joked with the very top players in the whole world. 

To their surprise, Jonathan and Andy emerged from the qualifying tournament as winners.  That meant they would get to play the main draw, the big events with cheering crowds, as well as the qualifying rounds of Wimbledon!

Ronen, Jonathan and Andy’s trusted coach, flew to London to help them out.  At this top level of world tennis, all the players brought their coaches with them to drill them between games and talk through strategies for handling each opponent they would face.  Ronen’s presence gave Jonathan and Andy additional confidence. 

The official tournament began.  In their first round of the main draw, Jonathan and Andy played their very best, they had fun—and they won!  In the second round, they won again.  Third round, they emerged with another victory!  Now there they were, not only playing on the famous courts of Wimbledon, but winning!  Fourth round, the quarterfinals, incredibly, they won yet again!

After each round Jonathan and Andy called their family and friends in Israel to share their excitement.  By Wednesday of the second week of tournament play, many their family and friends dropped their work and quickly bought tickets to head for London.  They were eager to see the excitement first hand, and to be there to support Jonathan and Andy.

Before the semi-final match began, Jonathan and Andy looked up into the stands. They saw two rows of family and friends who had flown to London the night before from Israel and the United States.  They realized how amazingly far up the tennis tournament ladder their gamble had taken them.  Like the feeling of looking down from a tall height, the view from their lofty successes suddenly looked a bit scary. 

As they felt briefly nervous, their muscles tightened up.  Warming up on the semi-finals court before their match, Jonathan and Andy both felt jitters.  Jitters brought stiff arms and slowed nervous legs.  The match began.  It teetered back and forth.  Jonathan and Andy gradually became more comfortable, and as they did they began to win. 

Suddenly, the thought came to Andy, “This is a really Big tournament!” 

Jonathan thought, “Oh no, this is a Big Point we have to win.”   Then, “What if we lose?”

“What do our parents and friends think as we’re beginning to lose?” Jonathan wondered.

That thought made the jitters in his stomach worse.  His arm tightened again, shortening the arc of his serve. 

“Zap!”, his serve fell low and short, into the net.

With anxious thoughts and nervous feelings tightening up their muscles, ultimately Jonathan and Andy lost the semi-final match. 

In tennis as in life, it’s not the games you lose, but the games you have won that matter.

At Wimbledon Jonathan and Andy turned a major corner.  They won enough games, and therefore ranking points and money, to establish themselves from that tournament forward as eligible to play the highest level tournaments all over the world.  Playing their way to the next-to-last round at Wimbledon had been an amazing journey. 

In addition, Jonathan and Andy’s victories over so many top world players convinced Andy that even after a year away from tennis to heal his shoulder, he still had the ability to become a major world player.  Jonathan discovered that he and Andy had won enough money from Wimbledon that he could pay off all his debts and still have plenty of funds for travel expenses to go to future tournaments.  He would never have to worry about paying to go to tournaments again!  In the two weeks of Wimbledon, their lives had totally changed.

Strong arms had given them great strokes.  Fast legs gave them the ability to cover the court with miraculous speed.  Shoulder pain had almost stopped Andy, but he had learned that with determination and hard work he could overcome even a seriously injury.  Money troubles had almost stopped Jonathan, but after Wimbledon’s big winnings, money would never again stop him from pursuing his tennis dreams. 

Enter mental coaching, their "secret weapon."

What else would Jonathan and Andy need to rise to the top of the top even of the best of the best tennis teams in the world?  To be able to outplay even the players that viewers around the globe watch on TV? 

The strong arms, legs, and shoulders had brought them this far are the body parts a tennis player depends on whenever the ball goes into play.   In tennis though, during almost half of the time of each game the ball is not in play.  After a point ends, players have up to twenty-five seconds before the next ball is served.  During this pause, they recover from the prior point, get balls for the next, confer with each other, and then prepare to serve or return the serve in the next point. 

During this twenty-five seconds while the ball is out of play, the critical action takes place in players’ heads.  Jonathan and Andy discovered that mental skills for making the best of the thoughts and feelings in their heads during these pauses when the ball was not in play could add extra magic that could enable them to rise to the very top of world doubles tennis teams.

Jonathan reflected back on the old habit of getting mad at himself that he’d developed as a kid.  Calling himself “stupid” had been intended to get himself playing better.  He realized that actually calling himself angry names instead was making him play more poorly.  Instead of enabling him to fix his mistakes, calling himself bad names seemed to be making him feel bad and then to play with more and more mistakes. 

Jonathan’s insight proved to be right.  Whenever any negative thoughts about himself, entered his head, his odds of winning the next point tumbled down.  Jonathan gradually understood that his self-critical thoughts in reactions to mistakes had to go.  No more blame or self-criticism.  No sighing or moaning or feeling mad at himself.  Nor more of his old childhood habit of telling himself, “That was stupid!” 

Jonathan trained himself instead, after frustrating points and bad shots, to reassure himself, “Mistakes are for learning.”  Then he could look back briefly at the prior point to learn something from his error.  Learning something constructive could prevent the same mistake from happening again. Jonathan would quickly analyze what had happened, re program himself with a better habit, and then move on to prepare the next shot. 

Now instead of berating himself, he asked himself analytic, problem-solving diagnostic questions.  “Are my legs moving fast enough?  Is my arm swinging fully, extending forward so that my racket stays as long as possible on the ball?  Are my eyes staying focused on the ball so that when I hit it the ball goes right in the center “sweet spot” of my racket?”  Whatever he discovered had been the problem, he then corrected by picturing himself accomplishing this skill effectively. 

Jonathan then used his 25 second pauses between points to further strengthen his mental reprogramming by physically doing, briefly, the action that he had missed on the actual point.  He would bend his knees, if straight knees had been the problem, or “shadow” the shot by repeating it, briefly without a ball, with the corrected motion.  His old habit of looking back at the prior point to criticize himself became totally out of bounds.  No more calling himself bad names—just using his head constructively.  

By using his between-point seconds after errors to think through what his mistake had been and reprogram his head with the corrected version, Jonathan no longer became demoralized during games or angry at himself.  Instead, mistakes resulted in his playing ever better. Mistakes are for learning.

As Jonathan was figuring out how to stop the habit of getting down on himself, Andy realized that also could benefit by paying attention to what he was doing between points in his own head.  He noticed that his problem was the opposite of Jonathan’s.  Instead of losing points by getting mad at himself, he sometimes lost points by becoming too happy.  If he was too excited after a great point, he became at risk for losing his concentration.  He would still be reviewing in his mind how great that final shot he had made to the back corner had been, while, “Woosh” his opponent’s serve rushed past him. 

Andy practiced the mental skill of two-second memory.  After he had ended a great point with a spectacular shot, he enjoyed the euphoria, the thrill, of having hit such a winning shot—but just for a moment.  By two seconds he would take a deep calming breath to settle himself down.  Back in a normal emotional state, he could quickly refocus his thoughts with plenty of time to prepare for the coming point—where to place his serve, or how to return the serve from his opponent—so that by the time the next point began, his mind was totally cleared, ready for action. 

Jonathan and Andy together then began paying attention to other ways in which their heads could undermine their playing, or, help them out..  For instance, they explored what kinds of thoughts in their heads had brought on their “choking,” that is, becoming nervous, in their semi-final match at Wimbledon.  They understood that nervous tension could tighten their arms and legs, holding them back from being able to utilize their full speed and power, so prevention of anxiety and nervousness would help a lot in future games.  After all, “mistakes are for learning.”

Jonathan and Andy together figure out what kinds of thoughts had invited anxiety into their heads.  These would be good thoughts to keep out of their heads in future tournaments.  No more thoughts about the Bigs.  That is, no more labeling any point a Big Point, or any tournament a “Big tournament.”  Putting pressure on themselves by labeling a moment “Big,” only brought muscle tightness, lowering their chances of success.  They remind themselves now that all points are just points.  Thoughts of “This is a Big point,” or this is “Big game,” or a “Big tournament” raise their tension levels and tighten their arm and leg muscles.  If big thoughts so bubble up uninvited to their heads, they remind themselves that these are just points, games, and a tournament like any others.  They remind themselves, “There’s always more points, more games, more tournaments… “Then  they can loosen their tight arm, leg and shoulder muscles and relax. 

No more letting their thoughts go to “What will people think?”  That’s a thought that is sure to bring on nervousness in anybody, in any situation.  Let others think whatever they are going to think.  Jonathan and Andy’s job is to focus their thoughts on one thing only: on how to play the very next point. 

Andy found that he could train his head to cease jumping ahead during games, or even before games, to thoughts about whether they are going to win or lose.  That is another surely self-defeating head-habit.  “Someone up there takes care of who will win and who will loose,” Jonathan adds if his head is beginning to jump ahead to “outcomes,” to winning or losing.  “My job is to keep my head focused on figuring out what to do next, so that I play better and better as the game goes on.”  This religious thought, that a higher power takes care of winning and losing, lightens his legs and relaxes his arms immediately.

Of course every so often Jonathan and Andy do still experience brief waves of anxiety.  Now however their heads know how to give them good instruction.  As soon as their heads become aware of even the slightest feeling of nervousness, Jonathan and Andy can identify where the nervousness is causing tension in their body.  They then consciously relax each tight muscle.  A deep breathe or two also can bring oxygen to help break down the chemicals in their body that tighten their muscles. 

In addition, after any brief nervous feeling, Jonathan and Andy use their heads again to bring back feelings of confidence.  They remind themselves that they have the skills to be champions.  They remind themselves that they can win matches against any and every other team in the world.  Confident is the opposite of anxious.  When they felt confident, they felt strong and relaxed—and play with power and verve.

Focusing on the present, and preventing thoughts that jumped ahead into the future, also proved important.  Thoughts that took them out of the immediate moment further than for planning for the very next point became out of bounds because looking ahead almost always brought tension.  Nor more, “Oh, we could win this game!”  or “We’re behind too much; we’re going to lose,”  Forecasting if they are going to win or lose, instead of staying focused on the very next point, would bring down their level of play, making it more likely that they would lose the next point.

On the other hand, using their heads for good planning for the very next point were vital.  That’s what they needed to use most of the 25 second pause time for--slow and careful mental preparation for the beginning of the next point..  Where would be the best place to aim the next serve, the next return of serve?  What did they want to add to their strategy once the ball was in play?  Run rapidly to the net?  Aim their returns toward the weaker player?

If they would be serving, they needed to visualize each movement of the serve before the action began.  If they would be receiving they also needed to visualize a return, one if the ball came to their forehand, and one to their backhand.  Where did they want their ball to land?  Their visualization needed to include seeing the ball all the way to where it was intended to go. 

Now they had the full package—head, shoulders, legs and arms.   Arms ready to pound the ball again and again for winning shots.  Legs moving fast.  Shoulders staying strong, taken care of with patient warm-ups before practices and games, and massages and strengthening exercises between games to be certain the shoulders stayed free of pain.  And last but not least, heads working effectively.  Especially in the 25 seconds between points, they keep their thoughts positive and constructive, and their energy levels aroused just right, not too low and not too high, always right in the optimal playing zone.

With a body fully trained for tennis, plus solid mental training, what have Jonathan and Andy accomplished? 

They have lost games, they have lost tournaments—but they also have won many games and won tournaments.  Over the course of their playing, by the year 2005, they attained their first goal.  Only the top 8 singles players and doubles teams are invited to a final end-of-year  “Masters Tournament” of that year’s world’s best players.  In 2005, there they were!  Again in 2006, they made the top 8 teams, placing 7 in the world.  By 2008 they won the Australian Open, and for the next three months enjoyed the ultimate status—they were ranked Number One in the world! 

They continue, year by year, to play better and better, more strongly, and with ever-increasing confidence and joy. 

Best of all, Jonathan and Andy are still in the midst of their careers.  They can continue to do their best to show the world how athletes from Israel can use their heads as well as their shoulders, legs and arms.  In Hebrew, they are hazak v’amatz partners; they are strong and brave.  Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram are true world tennis champions!

The Power of Collaboration