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Tennis - The Art of Disciplined Abandon

Montague Ullman,M.D.

Director, Division of Parapsychology and Psychophysics, Dept. of Psychiatry Maimonides Medical Center Brooklyn, New York Professor of Psychiatry State University of New York Downstate Medical Center Brooklyn, New York

The Five Minute Hour, Copyright, 1976, Geigy Pharmaceuticals, Ardsley, New York.

What does one's mental health have to do with his tennis style? Can you tell anything about one from the other? Possibly. It just may be that the basic ingredients of good tennis style can provide a good understanding of the mental health of the player.

While the concept of mental health is complicated, and each has his own definition, there may be a few generally agreed-upon ingredients. For example, most of us believe that mental health is a relative rather than an absolute state of affairs. There are no absolute standards against which it can be measured relative to where we have been or where we are going. Are we growing and realizing more of our potential? Or are we standing still, or moving backward? One basic ingredient is a concept of change - of becoming, of movement, or of self-realization.

From this derives the concept of effectiveness-mastery of problems presented by the social and natural environment so that growth is safeguarded and satisfactions outweigh frustrations and defeat. Effectiveness encompasses a capacity to learn from experiences. Learning, in turn, involves some humility in the face of life's complexities and in the capacity to recognize and deal with the unintended consequences of our acts.

These concepts are somewhat general. Zeroing in on a specific task can help to identify specific mental health components, including focused attention, accurate conceptualization of the problem, and the capacity to develop an appropriate response. Self-obvious, perhaps. Yet, in practice there are many things that can go astray. Focused attention implies the ability to filter out from the complex, never-ending stimuli constantly vying for our attention all but those necessary to accomplish a given task. Accurate conceptualization involves an understanding of the laws governing the physical, social, and psychological forces that shape and determine a given situation. An appropriate response, in return, is contingent on the foregoing plus the capacity to motivate or respond.

Let's further define some features of positive mental health. There is the capacity to act without breaking the sense of unity between the body and the mind, the physical and the mental. There is the sense of mastery, satisfaction, and joy in becoming more than we were. There is a sense of openness and a capacity for new experience which may perhaps be called the natural creativity of everyday life. Finally, there is the recognition of necessity - the realization that our freedom is contingent on understanding the operation of certain laws of nature and society that limit our freedom.

There is another important ingredient in mental health - the ability to transcend a narrow self-interest. This may manifest itself in love or in concern or respect for our fellow man.

But let's get back to tennis. Everything we have said about mental health can be reduced to a phrase that will serve as a bridge to the world of tennis: disciplined abandon. This is the link, the connection. Both good mental health and good tennis playing employ the art of disciplined abandon. To understand this more fully let us first consider some of the bodily or physical analogues to some of the things we have been discussing in the mental sphere.

Motor acts become learned after a sequence of events that begins with sensation, followed by the organization of sensations into perceptual structures, which in turn is followed by conceptualization and response. In new situations, each of these stages is consciously experienced and developed. Once the pattern has become mastered through repetition the various sequences occur automatically with little or no conscious attention being paid to them. In other words, they become automatic, unconscious, or, in tennis parlance, grooved. What we have learned is then available to us whenever it is needed.

Any particular sequence of acts can be understood as a blend of mental and physical mechanisms in an everchanging balance in response to the changing nature of the situations in which we find ourselves. The appropriateness of our responses depends on striking the proper balance between conscious control, motor patterns learned from the past, and reflex behavior.

We can now add to the psychological and emotional factors of mental health the graceful and proper use of our bodies, respect for its limitations, and knowledge of its capacities. Mental health cannot be separated from physical well-being, which in turn depends on knowing and heeding our bodies. Just as we come to trust our intellectual appraisal of situations and let our judgment guide us accordingly, so there are many situations in which we must trust our bodily response and allow that response to occur.

Now let's take another look at the phrase used earlier - disciplined abandon. "Discipline" encompasses all that we have alluded to in connection with learning, training, knowledge, understanding, in short, the trial and effort needed to acquire the intellectual component to our response system. It is the analytical and preparatory phase of that system. Once this is achieved we rely on our bodies to carry out the appropriate response. This is where the quality of "abandon" comes in. When the body is allowed to function in accordance with its own laws, the resulting movements are usually free-flowing and graceful. But to be true to one's own physical structure is more easily said than done. It involves the giving of oneself to oneself, and in that sense is an act of love as much as any other act of love. Skilled dancing is a good example of this. It develops joy and love in both the dancer and the audience. Another good example is tennis. Really good players are engaged in a love affair with the sport.

There are, of course, many things that interfere with the capacity to maintain an optimal state of disciplined abandon in our dealings with ourselves and the world. Fears, inhibitions, ignorance, and past conditioning all operate to maintain a status quo that may be too heavily weighted on either the side of discipline or the side of abandon. Certain psychological factors make their limiting presence felt in encounters with the physical aspects of our environment (as in any sport), in encounters with others (interpersonal), and in our dealings with ourselves (intrapersonal). To the extent that these factors inhibit or limit, our responses will lack the grace, the appropriateness, and the satisfaction they would otherwise afford. Rather, our responses will tend to be stereotyped, rigid, perseverative, fixed, awkward, compulsive, or lacking in satisfaction. In short, they will tend to differ from those responses we have identified with mental health. When responses of this type prevail we begin to talk about mental illness.

But let's get back to tennis. The game provides a full panorama in microcosm of what mental health is all about. It brings us in contact with a natural or physical environment-the ball, the court surface, the wind, the sun; a social environment - our opponent, and possibly an audience; and, finally, with ourselves - our character, attitudes, physiology, and capacity for bodily performance. Let us look at some of the limiting psychological factors as they affect each of these components.

The Physical Task

The single most important task is to hit the ball properly. This involves anticipation, preparation, a stroke, and a follow-through. As an example of a limiting psychological factor operating in relation to our encounter with a physical task we may cite the very common fault of failing to follow through. In terms of our analysis, this represents an error on the "discipline" side of things. The task of making contact with the ball has been overly controlled, so that the momentum generated from a free-flowing stroke, a stroke where the body itself has really taken over, is simply not there. Once contact has been made with the ball, the task is over as far as the brain is concerned, and since the task hadn't been turned over to the body (in this case a free-swinging arm), the follow-through, if any, dissipates into a limp and ineffectual motion. When properly executed the follow-through is the last half of a single graceful movement. If we push the psychological analogy a bit further we might look upon a failure of this kind as reflecting (1) an overly controlled approach to living, and (2) a tendency to rely too exclusively on one's mind in a situation requiring more of an investment in a trust of the bodily component necessary for the successful completion of the act. Technically, this latter failing in its more extreme form is referred to as the "omnipotence of thought."

The Social Scene

The social context, whether it is limited to the duo playing the game or encompasses an audience, is a veritable booby trap triggering all kinds of complexes. These rise to the surface as various neurotic attitudes which, having no appropriate connection with the game itself, simply intrude in away that is generally disagreeable to all parties concerned. If a player is exhibitionistically inclined the court offers a ready-made stage and often a captive audience. The exhibitionism can come through his general behavior, style of play, or dress, but, $'r4 however it appears, it signifies that part of his effort is deflected from the game itself and impressed into the service of living out a fantasy, the purpose and goal of which will vary among individuals. It may be to win approval, make an impression, or gain respect. He is in effect engaged in two different tasks at the same time-dealing with a rapidly moving object, the tennis ball, and trying to act in such a way that will elicit the desired effect from his opponent, the audience, or both. This inevitably has a limiting effect both on the player's, mental health as well as his game, since it fractures one of the cardinal rules governing-the capacity for focused attention.

Let us take something that is a little harder to identify and separate as a limiting factor. Competitiveness is a positive quality in a tennis player and a necessity if one is making tennis his career. Competitiveness can be healthy or unhealthy. Healthy competitiveness has to do with the keen desire to win; unhealthy competitiveness has to do with the fear of losing. In the first instance the healthy competitor does his best to win, but to win at a game. There may be money and fame involved, but it remains a game. In the second instance, the player is driven to win because his entire sense of worth as a person is at stake. The underlying premise here is that he can only be a person if he defeats another person. The price of failure is not disappointment, as it is in the first instance, but devastation and loss of self-esteem. There should be no loss of self-esteem connected to losing when one has tried his best.

We sometimes see the other side of this coin - a fear of winning. An underlying mechanism here is that one's sense of self-esteem is tied up with a compulsive need for approval under all circumstances. This leads the player, if the anxiety is great enough, into interpreting winning as inevitably alienating or offending his partner, something to be avoided at any cost. Again, the mind is focused on two different goals.

Another common, all too human mechanism, but nevertheless self-defeating, is the tendency to blame someone or something for one's own shortcomings. Who has not observed tennis players take out their frustrations on the racket, the ball, the doubles partner, and sometimes the linesmen? What lies behind a scapegoating attitude is an inability to accept blame. This is not to be confused with justifiable anger. It has to do with the player's inability to recognize and admit to himself his own mistake. It is as if an error is not an inevitable part of any fast-moving game, but rather that it once again signifies a devastating blow to one's sense of value as a person. This is, of course, characteristically so for perfectionists who, on the court, are not only trying to play the game, but are at the same time trying to maintain this kind of burdensome self-image. Mental health and good tennis are impaired under these circumstances not only because the player's attention is on two different goals simultaneously (playing tennis and maintaining an unrealistic self-image), but because he is also limiting his own growth potential. The most favorable circumstance for growth is to learn from one's own mistakes. If one is blind to his mistakes he is seriously jeopardizing his capacity for growth and to that extent undermining his mental health as well as his game of tennis.

The lntrapsychic Scene

What about the person himself? How does he stand in his own way, apart from any effects he is seeking to create or avoid in others? To understand this we have to examine in greater detail the way in which he addresses himself to the task of properly hitting a tennis ball.

For a correct response the central issue has to be identified and has to become the object of focused attention. The basic issue in tennis centers around the relationship of the player and the ball. For our purposes we will consider only the factors influencing the player. The factors influencing the speed, pace, spin, and bounce of the ball are well-known and are of interest to us only to the extent that they pose the challenge the player has to meet. It is up to him to connect with the ball in such a way that once the contact is made it is his effort that determines its subsequent movement.

In tennis, focused attention is maintained visually; thus, the first cardinal rule of the game is to always keep one's eye on the ball. To be successful at this the player has to be capable of sustained focused attention under the very difficult circumstances of a constantly and rapidly changing external field. Two things tend to interfere with this kind of intense concentration. The first, as already mentioned, is the tendency to split and fragment one's attention because of the intrusion of personal hang-ups that are brought into play by the situation but are not related to the game itself. Visual attention falters as these other needs seek to gain expression.

There is another problem connected with, this stemming from another source. In tennis a player sometimes overlooks the fact that, even though he is playing against another person, his real opponent is the ball. In terms of his past conditioning he is not used to giving that high an order of priority to an inanimate object (a ball) over an animate object (a person). This leads to the player's error of occasionally looking to see where his opponent is rather than keeping his eye on the ball. This is particularly true during the act of serving when many people at the last critical moment just before impact take their eye off the ball, shifting their gaze to their opponent and the court to which they are serving. This, of course, is not only unnecessary, since the court is stationary and the opponent relatively fixed at the time of the service, but also results in blind rather than guided contact with the ball.

There is also another reason why the ball is sometimes hit blindly at the critical moment of service. There is a reflex tendency to blink when a sudden vigorous movement takes place close to one's face. The player has to understand and come to terms with this kind of reflex in order to maintain visual control of the situation throughout all the sequences of the service. This kind of reflex is also operative, of course, during the volley, when much fast activity occurs close by. Here it is more difficult to control the reflex and often unnecessary, as the speed of the action sometimes demands reflex rather than conscious control. It is less often a problem in connection with ordinary ground strokes.

Preparation for the stroke involves more than keeping one's eye on the ball. In addition to correct positioning there is the very important preparatory factor of the backswing. Why is there usually so much difficulty in getting one's arm back in time? There are probably a number of factors involved. In terms of the analysis of mental health factors I would say that under the stress of a rapidly changing external field (the movement of the tennis ball and all of the physical adjustments the tennis player must make to keep up with the ball) we tend to favor the illusion of psychological control over the actual preparatory physical movement (the backswing) needed by the body to gather sufficient momentum for a proper stroke. In other words, under stress, familiar control mechanisms based on the visual monitoring of the changing field assume a higher order of priority than the more cumbersome physical effort involved in getting the arm back. -1 Thus far we have discussed problems arising in connection with the preparatory phase of stroking. All of this is connected with the "disciplined" part of the act of "disciplined abandon." Now we come to "abandon." We must understand and accept the fact that when it comes to stroking the ball our mental faculties can only carry us up to a certain point. Our minds can help us make all of the necessary preliminary adjustments, but once the stroke is activated the body must be allowed to take over. If the correct preparations have been made, if the eye remains on the ball, if the backswing has been ample enough to involve the whole body, and the player trusts his body's natural movement, then the resulting stroke will be both graceful and powerful. It will also be experienced as a free swing, with all the exhilaration that any expression of freedom brings with it. It is directly analogous to trusting and going along with our emotional response, letting it happen rather than trying to control or deflect it. There is, in effect, a sense of abandon, but one occurring within limits set by the brain so that an effective action follows.

The major difficulty arising in connection with stroking is overreliance on mental control and insufficient trust in the body to carry the stroke through. Since most of our controlled motor acts involve our fingers, hands, and forearm, the stroke tends to be determined by these parts of the upper extremity. But a proper stroke can be executed only from the shoulder and must involve the entire arm. For this to happen we must' be willing to surrender the kind of control we can exert over our fingers, hand, and forearm, and allow for a much less mentally controllable movement starting from the shoulder. This-the combination of appropriate control and natural freedom of movement-is disciplined abandon.

We have noted the problems arising from an overemphasis on the "discipline" side of the equation. Equally disastrous results occur when undue emphasis is placed on the element of "abandon." Without the correct analysis and preparation the resulting stroke, even with an adequate backswing, may incorporate the quality of "abandon," but in a wild and unpredictable manner; this, of course, is simply disastrous. It is license rather than freedom, and only the latter is consistent with good mental health.

The reason for drawing the analogy between good mental health and good tennis is not simply because it makes an interesting exercise, but rather because, if the analogy is clearly understood, one can then maximize the carry-over from one to the other in both directions. The natural grace, power, and accuracy of a well-executed tennis stroke have much in common with the assertiveness and impact of an appropriate emotional response. In both there is an accurate sizing up of the situation and in both a trust in the body's own way of responding. In each instance the response is guided along appropriate channels, and both are free of inappropriate restraint and control. In each instance the response is appropriate to the problem and serves to move the situation forward in a constructive way. Each in its own way expresses the quality of disciplined abandon.