Robert London, M.D.

Robert London MD

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The Tennis Racket and the Mind

A successful approach for improving athletic performance.

Posted May 04, 2010

A potential patient wanted to know whether I could help him improve his tennis game. We know improved concentration can be a great advantage in sports performance. And we have seen the emergence of sports psychology as a specialty aiming to improve performance, just as sports medicine has developed and focused on treating athletic injuries and illnesses. I suggested he try a strategy using a "split screen technique" with me for a few sessions and see if it made a difference.

Knowing that performance anxiety, one's own insecurities, and fear of failure influence performance in many tasks, I felt the split-screen technique could help to improve this patient's tennis game, as it had with patients of mine who sought to improve their concentration for studying and theatrical performances.

In the first session, during which I gathered information, I determined that the patient had no previous history of any mental health interventions and he was perfectly healthy. He was anxious before each match, and he had an ongoing thought of seeing himself lose. There was nothing abnormal about those kinds of thoughts, commonly experienced by many competitive people.

I decided to teach him some relaxation exercises and then use the split-screen strategy to relieve his anxieties so he could concentrate more on the moment-to-moment action of the game.

First we philosophized about the spiritual mental process of Zen kyudo archery, developed over a thousand years ago, which combines a concentrated mental process with efficient use of the bow and arrows. As I understand the process, it is more than just shooting at the target. It is a learned spiritual process by which fears and worries are displaced through the process of concentration on the bow, arrow, and target as one. This is a process that might start a patient on the path of a new and better way of focus, concentration, enhanced achievement, and self-confidence.

The key was integrating the bow, arrow, and target as an ongoing mental process of movement. I wanted the patient to see them as one flowing experience, rather than as separate entities of bow, arrow, and target with intruding ongoing thoughts of anxiety and possible failure that can distract from shooting at the target or, in this case, hitting a tennis ball.

The first visit I had with this patient lasted about two hours. We discussed his personal history, his goals in tennis, the teaching of a relaxation technique, and the philosophy of the Zen kyudo archers.

With the relaxation technique understood, on visit two I had the patient begin the split-screen technique. I asked him to visualize a great big movie screen, put a thick line down the middle, and then project onto the left side of the screen his anxieties before the game and a recurring thought of how badly he felt about losing. This technique enables one to "see" anxieties but not experience them--and it requires ongoing practice, especially before an event such as a match.

After that, I asked him to project any pleasant set of experiences he wished onto the right side of the screen, which was blank. Linking the two sides of the screen was the planned reciprocal inhibition method, which allows the pleasant set of experiences on the right to relieve the projected anxieties on the left side of the screen. Doing so would allow him to play a better tennis game. It worked, and he felt that this would be of great help-especially if he could enter a game relaxed.

On visit three, we used the whole screen, this time to incorporate the technique of the Zen kyudo archers. I asked the patient to project onto the screen his arm, hand, and tennis racket as one entity, and as he made contact with the ball (not hitting it), to see himself placing the ball where he wanted it to land on the opponent's side of the court. The racket and ball would become an extension of him in this new process.

This conceptualization took an entire visit of practice, but the patient truly felt he was on to something exciting, new, and different. It was as if he, the racket, and the ball had become one. The fragmentation of different segments was gone, as were the anxiety and thought patterns that had distracted him. On the screen, he was learning how to be at one with the game.

The entire process took three visits with follow-up telephone contacts. He reported that he practiced those techniques and strategies regularly and routinely, and that he was successful in winning more tennis matches and even some tournaments.

With all the problems we see and treat, it's nice once in a while to work with healthy people who want to improve the quality of their lives.

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This blog aims to present psychiatric/psychological information to a general readership, offering insights into a variety of emotional disorders, as well as social issues that affect our emotional well-being. It includes the ideas and opinions of Dr. London and other leading experts. This blog does not provide psychotherapy or personal advice, which should only be done by a mental health care professional during a personal evaluation.

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