Friday, February 26, 2010

Mental Matchpoint--Editorial

The 'Creature' plagues tennis players

You have match point, you’re serving in what could be the biggest tennis upset of your career, and then it happens. You double fault, then at duce your opponent hits the net cord for a winner. You’re flustered and you powder-puff a serve, only to have it stuffed down your throat. You lose the game, the set and the match.

At one time or another, we do things we are trying hard not to like missing a shot. We want so hard to win when in fact we are playing not to lose. After a collapse, word spreads like wildfire from the tournament desk throughout the club after the fall, It’s an awkward moment, and an embarrassment. You take a few lessons and after a while you recover, but for a professional athlete, it can end a career.

Tom House, the pitching coach at USC and former major league pitcher calls it the ‘creature’ golfers call it the yips, on the court it’s simply choking. The choking reputation is the scarlet letter of tennis and can keep you from landing that coveted league team invitation. It destroys confidence and can ruin a season of league and tournament tennis.

Whatever the name, it once attacked Boston Red Sox first baseman and (Boise resident) Bill Buckner in game six of the 1986 World Series. The all-star first baseman was unable to field a routine ground ball that many think cost the Sox the Series against the Mets (I don’t).

Choking attacks the rest of us with the same ruthlessness: a sitter volley at the net, you tell yourself repeatedly not to miss it,of course you miss it, not by an inch but a mile, and alas another match slips away.

Daniel M. Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard wrote in Science magazine that when the pressure is on, the unconscious attempt to avoid errors causes even more mistakes. The same happens with words and thoughts as it does with physical actions. Tell someone, “Don’t choke” and they’ll choke like a chicken.

I was down recently in a singles match 3-0 in the second after winning the first set. It was tough spot and nothing was working when I complemented my opponet on the change over. "This is the best you have ever played, you havnt missed a serve in three games!

See, where I was going? Match over. The opponent fell apart and never got another first serve in. With a half dozen double faults he was mired in mental quick sand. While his mind went into overdrive, I was free to just hit the ball and took the second 6-3.

Under stress the problem worsens. Tell your partner you have to have this return, no way in hell will you get that return. Also tell a partner to forget about the easy shot just missed and that thought becomes all consuming.Wegner calls this “the ironic return of repressed thoughts.” Tennis players, and athletes suffering with the disorder, have other words for it

"It can become quite embarrassing, and not just on a baseball field or a tennis court. Experiments have shown that if you ask people to concentrate on suppressing prejudices like racism, sexism or homophobia, they blatantly express those biases despite — or perhaps because of — the effort to control them.

In one experiment, researchers put eye-tracking cameras on soccer players and instructed them to avoid a particular part of the goal in making a penalty kick. Guess which part of the goal their gazes most often fell?

Wegner suggested that the ‘creature’ is with us when we look over the edge of a high cliff — that queasy feeling is a symptom of trying hard to prevent a deadly fall.

How to avoid the ‘creature’? Wegner says there's no scientifically proven therapy, so any advice offered is unproven. But some players say that accepting choking, practicing with the creature rather than avoiding it helps because the problem gets worse under stress, they also say visualization and relaxation techniques greatly help.

Fred Robinson, played in the Senior Men’s 55 National Indoor Championship at the Boise Racquet and Swim Club last week, he told me to play the points the same, ‘you can only play one ball at a time, just play the ball in front of you, clear your mind.’ Whatever the treatment, scientists say the yip's will always find a way to creep into play. Studies show that peeople who choke very bright and simply care too much, and it's very common.

Players like Robinson say its better to play the problem out and practice with it every day so when you get in match situations that you can go into a pattern of play to cage the beast and avoid the scarlett letter.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Player Secrets to Success

Robinson: Play in the Moment
by Jake Putnam
On the court, in any championship, Fred Robinson plays tennis in the eye of a huricane. No mater what's going on around him, he's fixed on one thing: the ball. A tough mental game and legendary concentration has lifted the former Airborne Ranger to the number one ranking in Men's senior 55 division. Fellow players say he's the Roger Federer of the senior set because of that purpose and precision. I sat down with this remarkable athlete, the conversation went something like this:
What can average players do to play more competitive matches:
Obviously fitness is a very big part of it and being steady. Play your shots and learn some patterns. When you’re in position, most people will try to beat their way out of the paper bag, instead waiting for it to get wet and walk through it. When a good player is forced he tries to go for too much instead of keeping it simple like just hitting at the opponets feet. A shot like that is percentage and an excellent way of opening up an angle on the next shot, a shot that you can put away.

Are you playing to win, or playing to win the point?
I don’t really play to win the game, I just follow the ball. What difference does it make if its 5-0 or 0-5.? I still have to hit the ball in front of me and I'm not going to hit that next ball differently. It's best to play even, play all the points the same. If you're opponet hits a winner, he made a great shot; you move on.

How important is it to get off to a good start?
Its important how you start a match, but critical how you finnish. Even if you fall behind stay in there with your head, stay focused and just play the ball. I play every ball, but just a ball at a time. When a point is over, its over, I can't carry the weight of that point into the next ball, its too heavy. Carry enough failed points and the weight of that keeps you from swinging the racquet.

Do you think a few balls ahead?
No, I play the ball. I do look for patterns on players, I look for patterns they don’t like. I go after those patterns as much as possible.

Do you have a lot of thoughts, dialogues under your breath when you play?
I don’t think when Im on the court, I play on instincts, thinking is very slow, being analytical is slow, points go by fast. Analytical players are in the past, theyre always thinking after the point, what they should have done. That doesnt give you much time to play the ball in front of you. Instincts will let you drive forward of what you are supposed to be doing at that moment. If you are in the zone you are not thinking about anything, you are simply tracking the ball and making shots.

So the best players in tennis have the worst memory?
Yes. I just want to keep coming out, I imagine a blank slate. It doesn’t matter what the score is, if you miss the ball, as soon as you miss the ball, that’s past, its only exists in your mind as a memory. You see, it doesn’t exist anymore. Again, people will carry that forward for a few points and it affects play. So dropping a ball into the net, ‘Ill say heighth because Im trying to do hit higher next time. If you say something to yourself like 'don't hit the net' you will hit the net again.

So if you miss you are immediately adjusting, correcting and moving on?
Thats right, So if I hit that ball into the net Im saying immediately: height, to program in my mind to hit more height next time. Then I'll move into the next ball. No matter what happens if I make or miss, Im right back on the ball.
How do you play a 30-15 or 15-30 point?

I may play differently. If its 40-love I may serve and volley and something more offensive. Again, I don’t play to win the point, I don’t play to win the games, I don’t play to win the match, I don’t play to win the tournament, I just play the ball when it comes across the net. If you're doing those other things then you're on a rollercoaster with too many ups, and too many downs. I don’t want to ride with everyone on that rollercoaster. I just want to play every ball. I focus on trying to stroke the ball as well as I can everytime I hit that ball. I don’t think there's a big point is there?

All tennis balls are equal?
They're all the same, play every ball with the same focus and the same intensity. Its like if you're getting ready to hit a freethrow in basketball, if you miss, you lose the game. That ball is not going through the hoop, because its different to you and more importantly you're not in the present tense.

Where is the zone, where is optimal performance?
Most of the players I see are either in the future or in the past, they either hit the ball and they are thinking about for the next 5 minutes that they shot themselves in the foot with the ball. If I shoot myself in the foot with the ball, it doesn’t exist anymore. I got to play the next play. If I am up 4-1, I start thinking Im going to hold serve, Im not on the court in the present anymore. Im in the future, so the only time you are on the court in is in the present. Being in the Zone is being in the present, the zone is never in the past or future. Once you get that, you need to stay in the present as much as possible. I can close to the net and have a sitter and miss, but its physically imposible to affect the next shot.

Tournament Notes--Editorial

Senior Tennis: So Much More
By Jake Putnam

I spent noon hours at the USTA Men's 55 National Indoor Tennis Championship at the Boise Racquet and Swim Club. After a week of these 'tennis nooners' I came to realization that the senior tour is more interesting than the Pro tour. I think watching Nadal is depressing because A) I will never reach that level of athleticism, and B) I can't relate to that weird grip, all the topspin and besides Nadal can't hit a drop shot to save his life. When I watch the seniors I'm watching players like myself. Almost all the players on the tour got off to a late start in the game, Only a few played major college tennis, all had to go to work and make a living and left the dream of playing pro tennis behind. Anyway, here's my list why I enjoy the senior game:

1) The money. There's no money on the senior tour, these guys are here on their own dime. Outbreaks, hooked calls, boorish behavior are rare. These guys are here out of pure love of the game and each and every player is wonderfully approachable and gracious.

2) Better tennis. Yes, better tennis, these guys can't get by on just pretty ground strokes with a weird-grip forehand (See the Nadal comment above). They have to think to win...yes, strategy. Points are painfully earned with elaborate set ups and smooth pattern-play. The margin for error on any given point is smaller than a postage stamp.

3) Personalities. Every player on the Senior tour has a fascinating story and each is willing to share it with you. When was the last time you sat down with Nadal or Federer? Singles winner Sal Castillo gave away his first place gold ball to his ailing doubles partner who suffered a heart attack on the eve of the tournament. John Diaz of California and Kevin Oneil are about the funnest guys you could go out and have a beer with. Fred Robinson will bend your mind with theories on the mental aspect of the game. Many players never touched a racquet until their 20's like Joe Grimm from Salmon, Idaho. Grimm travels two hours to Montana just to practice.

4) Atmosphere. Go to any tournament and its automatically 'old home week.' The players are genuine friends, all share the passion and camaraderie that's lost in sport today. Chris Bennett calls the tour a fraternity, yet it's an accepting fraternity where fans are always welcome.

5) Knowledge. Want to know what to eat before a big match? Talk to Sal Castillo. He has a degree in nutrician. Questions about string tension at sea level? That's Chris Bennett. How to keep from choking on big points? That's Fred Robinson, or Rollin Rhone; Rhone is writing a book about playing in the Zone. Best restaurants and night spots on the road? That's Kevin Oneil. Nebraska football? That's Bruce Van Maanen, The perfect forehand or backhand?
Tom Smith. Finance? Tom Monahan. Hotel management? Harlan Hopchik.

The Men's 55 Senior Tour visit to Boise is always the highlight of the winter season at the Boise Racquet Club. Beside myself, there was a devoted bunch of 'nooners' like Dave Roberts who also loved showing up on their noon hours and having one of Mel's amazing lunches. Bill McGrath and Robert Sterk did an amazing job pulling of tournament logistics and keeping the players happy. Pete Peterson, Peggy Cooper, Scott Hatter, Nan Jacobsen,Sandra Sell shared their tireless efforts, along with the USTA referee crew.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Singles Final

Sal Castillo wins Indoor National Championship
Boise--Sal Castillo of San Antonio, Texas won a gold championship ball Saturday afternoon at the Boise Racquet and Swim Club. Castillo beat top seeded Fred Robinson of Charlotte, North Carolina 3-6, 7-5, 6-4. The clash of tennis titans was a hard fought battle that saw lead and momentum changes and with a service break in the final set that sealed the victory for the college tennis coach.

"I've played him before, so I know what he likes to do," said Castillo. "He played as good as I have seen him play, and I played as well as I can play and it was a quality match." There were very few unforced errors in the two-hour 55-minute battle. Castillo said that it was the type of match that you had to go for broke to win the long, drawn out points. At 5-4 in the third Castillo made a mental declaration to shut out the match. "I told myself that I had to go for it. I knew he wasn't going to give it to me, he's a warrior, I had to take it."

Fred Robinson never dropped his head in the match, even after corner to corner gut-wrenching rallies, the top-ranked US senior player was the picture of steadfast and calm, constantly looking for cracks in the Castillo armour, but finding forged steel. "I looked up on a couple of passing shots and missed," said Robinson. Both players agreed that was the difference in the third set.

One of the worst kept secrets on the tour was Castillo's rehabilitated knee. The four time World Cup Champion has a long history of wins, but after a freak on-court accident in a doubles match last year, Castillo wondered if he would ever play at this level again, but proved in Boise that he is back. The Texan ran down balls in a spectacular show of mobility athleticism.

"You have to pace yourself," said Castillo. You can run down every ball of every match, unless you are faced with defeat then you have to go for it, You have to know when to go for it or not to a certain degree. You play percentages if you're in command of the match, especially on the senior circuit, on the ATP tour you got to go for it on every ball, and that's why guys like Nadal get hurt, but in the finals you got to go for it."

Despite the hard fought match, Castillo will leave Boise without the gold championship ball, he sent it to San Diego. His doubles partner had a heart attack on the eve of the tournament. "I told him I thought I had a good shot of winning it," he said. "I told him that I was going to try and win this for him, because he couldn't make it." Castillo goes home empty handed back to San Antonio, but with a surprise National Title in the record books.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Doubles Final

Rhone and Stanley win National Indoor Championship

Boise--Rollin Rhone is writting a book on playing in the zone; today in front of an appreciative crowd at the Boise Racquet and Swim Club he found it. He and partner Andrew Stanley won their first Men's 55 Gold Ball in straight sets this afternoon over Leslie Curtis of Shaker Heights, Ohio and Bruce Van Maanen of Omaha, Nebraska.
The hard-hitting team from California got it done 6-3, 6-4 in a battle of serves, nerves and breaks. "I had a 15 year break, this is my 9th tournament back and just my third national tournament. The Indoor National was research for the book I'm writing on being in the zone and I had a blast, tennis is a phenominal game," said Rhone.

In singles, top seed Fred Robinson took out Carl Sechen 6-1, 6-1. Robinson was diabolically deliberate in each point, forcing Sechen into forced errors. In the other semi-final Sal Castillo overcome a sore knee to beat defending champion Chris Bennett. Castillo found relief for his healing knee in a deadly top spin forehand. The high looping ball bought the Texan time in long rallys and forced Bennett to change from a cross court-open court pattern. Castillo prevailed in a nail-bitting third set 6-4, 1-6, 6-4.

The Men's Singles final is scheduled this morning at 10-AM.

Player Profile

Joe Grimm of Salmon, Idaho plays the Men's 55 US Indoor Nationals in Boise, Idaho, Putnam Photo

Player Profile:

Joe Grimm,Salmon, Idaho

What’s your story?

I grew up in Southern California, attended Junior High and High School in Texas.
I took up tennis in my mid 20’s, I was self taught, no training, no lessons. I’ve played most of my tennis in Montana.

League tennis?

I have played in 27 sectionals; I’ve played a lot of tennis. I just got dropped to 4.0, I’m in the top 10, and in my age division, I'm ranked in the top 5. I've had national rankings last year I was ranked 87 in the US in men’s 55, singles.

You seem to be having the most fun at this tournament than anyone, why?
I like the Senior tennis because there is none of the worrying about NTRP ratings, the skill levels, you are playing guys that just enjoy playing the game, they are happy just to still be out there, to have legs and still be playing the game. Its just enjoyable.

Why is tennis so valuable in your life?
I think you need a reason to get up every day, either family, a wife, pets whatever it is, a job for us its tennis. You got to have goals that you want to achieve and have something to look forward to the next day, if you don’t you deteriorate very quickly. Ive seen it with my friends and family, you loose your livelihood and in a year you are dead. You have to have a reason to get up every day.

What’s the dynamic of these senior tournaments that’s so compelling?

There are a few players that are here for the glory and the gold championship balls, the rest of us are here to rub shoulders with them. This is the cream of the tennis crop, the best of the best. We can hit with them, they are gracious enough to hit with us, they respect us and the abilities that we have and its fun to test our abilities against them.

What’s it like playing in a Senior Grand Slam tournament?

I love doing it, three years about I had the chance to play for a bronze ball here at this tournament, I was so excited. It’s an unbelievable feeling. Even though I was lucky to get there it was an unbelievable feeling just having the chance to try and win one.

Player Profile

Louis Grajeda of San Diego in action in the US National Indoor Championships, Boise Idaho.

Louie Grajeda, Jamul, California

Louie Grajeda didn't start playing tennis until High School in the tennis-mad town of San Diego. Once he started playing he knew he was hooked for life. He started playing tournaments and has a long history of wins on the sun-baked courts of Southern California. Louie is a tour favorite, a friend to all and a game competitior.

How do you prepare for a National Tournament?

You go to Orbits, book a flight, get on a plane up here and show up.

Have you been practicing?

Yes, I practice at home, outdoors so these indoor courts are a little different for us. It’s really nice here; I like the facilities in Boise. I played here last year and at a lot of places, these are very nice courts.

Baby boomers are getting older, our opponents in tournaments getting younger Whats it like playing guys your own age?

“I think the thing that I like most about senior tennis is that it’s a level playing field, everyone is the same age. You get out and play the younger guys in tournaments, we’ve all lost a step or two but at this level everyone is still competitive, you have a chance, everyone has a chance. We can keep playing up until we are 90 and still be competitive within your group. This is really nice for us.

We all wanted to play on the pro tour when we were young, is this an extension of that dream?

“Yes in a way, and a lot of us started out really late in the game, but now we are competitive. A lot of the guys are playing for computer ranking points, tournaments like this do help and allow us to chase the dream.