Three Tennis Lessons to Bring to Your Mindfulness Practice

The skills we cultivate by playing tennis can also help us be more mindful—even if you've never before picked up a racket.

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Success in tennis is based on a simple principle: The present is all that matters. It sounds easy, except it’s not. A Harvard study showed that the brain likes to wander 47 percent of the time, and when it does, it doesn’t usually lead to happy thoughts.

Part of the challenge is that the brain is built to scan for danger. It’s the oncoming bus or runaway bear – a necessary survival skill, which we carry with us into everything we do. “We’re in vigilance mode all the time,” says Jeff Bostic, M.D., psychiatrist at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. It’s a hard thing to shut off.

This week the French Open begins. The best players in the world will make inconceivable winners and also dump easy put-aways into the net. The prize money and crowd size might be larger, but for anyone picking up a racquet, the challenge is the same of how to stay “in the moment”. Fundamentally, it’s about quieting your mind. Settling all of the busy thoughts in your head. “You’re getting rid of the noise,” Bostic says. And, just like anything else, it takes practice.

Fundamentally, it’s about quieting your mind. Settling all of the busy thoughts in your head.

That’s why tennis players might be some of the most mindful athletes on the planet. Think about it: There’s an opponent who’s trying to disrupt you, an audience trying to distract you, and the excitement of a fast-paced match where focus is the name of the game. At the BNP Paribas Open in March, Serena Williams faced Victoria Azarenka, an atypical second round face-off of Grand Slam winners and former No. 1s. It was tight, and Williams won 7-6, 6-3. Afterwards she said, “You can’t really enjoy it, because then you’ll lose focus. You’ve got to kind of stay in the moment.”

Three Lessons from Tennis to Bring to your Mindfulness Practice

These three approaches and tactics can help you achieve and maintain focus:

1. Check your expectations.

You can walk into a tennis match confident that you’ll win every point, but that idea has to co-exist with the fact that a satisfying win comes against an equal or slightly better opponent. You could play your best and still lose—and the same is true of all things in life. That reality can frustrate you, creating a devolving loop of inner turmoil that will cause you to lose composure. In tennis, realistically embracing your challenges can lower your stress and ultimately help you improve your game, Bostic says. It’s good advice to practice off the court, as well.

2. Choose where you place your focus.

In tennis, it’s easy to watch your opponent, but that’s not your best focus point. Instead, watch the ball come off your opponent’s strings, says Chris Evert, ESPN tennis analyst. This keeps your concentration high, in real time, and you’ll learn to identify the direction and spin. You’ll be in control. React once the ball crosses the net, and it’s too late. Likewise, finding the right focal point for your meditation practice (your breath? your body?) can help you learn to choose where you place your focus, so you can learn to respond rather than react.

3. Create rituals and stick to them.

Three bounces of the ball. Two little hops before a return. One word—reach, jump—to activate your muscle memory. The simpler your routines are the better, Bostic says. The consistency keeps you from thinking about the score, keeps you in the moment, keeps you from trying to be heroic and stretching beyond what you’re ready for. When we create a routine for our meditation practice, we’re not trying to be the best meditators, we’re trying to be more intentional human beings. The more we activate the intentional brain, the stronger it gets.

None of this guarantees victory. Results aren’t really controllable, because change is constant and what worked today might not work tomorrow. But, if you can maintain your focus, if you can hone your intentional mind, you can enjoy the game, the problem-solving, going from Plan A to B to C—not only in sport, but also in life. You can then walk off the court (or away from your meditation cushion) and see what you did well, and what you have to work on.

It’s not singularly about a loss, but about a more comprehensive picture. “It’s fine to be serious and want to win. That’s why you play,” Bostic says. “But you want to balance it with learning from the match, because this is not survival. You’ll get to play hundreds of times.”