Books are magical and the most powerful of technologies. The fact that lines of ink on flattened pulp can transmit ideas, information, and inspiration to our minds remains remarkable to me. This post, one in the periodic “Brooks on Books” series (see “Recommendations on Recommending” and “What are You Reading?”) reviews four influential books related to tennis that offer lessons and strategies applicable to our lives on and off the court.
Deliberate Focus Quiets the Mind
Tim Gallwey’s slim 1974 classic The Inner Game of Tennis has informed coaches and players across sports and vocations. For example, recent editions include a forward from Pete Carroll, who has taught and applied approaches from this book as a college and professional football coach. The thesis of The Inner Game is that, to do anything well, one must master the ability to focus on the present moment and task at hand.
This is not a tennis “how to” book. Rather, Gallwey highlights the connection between our mental self-flagellation and performance on the tennis court. Overthinking and trying too hard create tension in the body and mind. As Gallwey writes, “the inner game… is played against… lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-condemnation… all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance.”
This book helped me relax when practicing and move past errors when playing. It includes techniques for directing your attention. For example, you can concentrate on specific things, such as the sound of the ball or the seams of the ball in play rather than on the score. In a way, Gallwey shows how tennis can help us practice living in the moment and focusing on the task at hand.
Learn and Plan
Winning Ugly by Brad Gilbert and Steve Jamison builds on the idea that players should work as hard on planning and thinking as they do on their physical skills. It says, “you can improve your tennis game fastest and the most if you improve the way you think.” This includes advance planning, scouting opponents, evaluating yourself, and truly understanding how, given your strengths and weaknesses, what strategy puts you in the best position to win.
Winning Ugly offers lots of practical advice related to warming up before a match, correcting strokes during a match, scouting, and building game plans and strategies. Throughout, Gilbert and Jamison emphasize the importance of making sure you are mentally and physically prepared. These are in your control.
The authors observe that this 1993 book, which focuses on the “administrative” left brain, complements Gallwey’s The Inner Game, which emphasizes the intuitive right brain. They write, “always believe that most of the time there is a way for you to win. You just have to find it.” In sum, have a plan and know what you’re trying to accomplish on the court.
Use Good Data
Many of us who go down the YouTube tennis rabbit hole eventually find videos by Craig O’Shannessy and his data-based analytics of tennis (click here for a great example). However, Craig and other data-driven tennis professionals stand on the shoulders of coaches and analysts such as Vic Braden who co-authored, with Robert Wool, Vic Braden’s Mental Tennis. This 1993 book advises “eliminate uncertainty where you can” by developing plans based on hard data.
The authors write, “your game is only as good as your data…Good data… is the reality of what is happening to the ball, to you, to your opponent…” Alternately, poor information prevents improvement. In this way, opinion and unsubstantiated assertions become enemies of progress. The only things that matter are those that help you concentrate effort and execute.
“Execution is the name of the game… getting into position to hit the ball, addressing it properly, and hitting it in the center of your strings…focus on the ball…The ball must be hit in a particular way… regardless at what point in the match… The ball…has no brain or emotions.”
Braden’s research findings hold up today. For example, while casual observers believe professional tennis players hit lasers from the baseline inches over the net, the data showed (and shows) the best players average four to seven feet (or more) above the net when hitting deep shots. Braden shares data on areas such as hitting crosscourt versus down the line, on return of serve, and approach shots. A key take home is the idea that focusing on and improving one element or stroke at a time can raise your entire tennis game.
Tennis is a game played within a larger human construct. John McPhee’s Levels of the Game, which alternates between the on-court action of the 1968 U.S. Open semi-final match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner and the off-court history and background of these two players, cuts a slice of U.S. cultural and social history with the tennis match.
One of the individuals profiled in the book is Dr. Robert Johnson, a black doctor who fell in love with tennis, built a court next to his house, and ended up supporting, mentoring, and coaching some of the greatest African American tennis players, including Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe. The book reminded me how, relatively speaking, we have it easy today. Most of us, most of the time, can go hit balls or enter tournaments without a lot of contrived hooptedoodle.
McPhee is a wonderful writer, and he captures the flow of the match and the character of those he wrote about. As Arthur Ashe told McPhee, “When you’re confident, you can do anything.”