Training for Lucidity

USTA NTRP National Championship March 31, 2023

Because my blogs need to be approved by CWS’ compliance personnel, I do my best to ensure they are done by Friday so that the reviewers don’t have to work on weekends. Given that the blog is published on Mondays, there are times when events have transpired that may have altered what I wrote had there not been such a delay. Such is life.

I’m writing this blog from Surprise, AZ, where I’m scheduled to play in my first national tennis tournament. I’m competing in the 55 and over 4.0 level in singles. I have two matches on Friday and two on Saturday. Playing on Sunday is a function of how well I do on the previous two days. This post is being written prior to playing my first match, so it will be forward-looking in terms of my preparation versus reporting on how I did.

USTA League Gary Carmell 12_31_2022

After learning that I qualified for the nationals, I naturally wanted to be very intentional about my training and preparation for the tournament. A couple of weeks ago, I attended the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament in Indian Wells. One of the great things about going to the tournament is that one is free to roam around and watch some of the top players practice.

This is a picture of the top men’s player in the world, Carlos Alcaraz, having a practice match with another top player. Next to him is the number two woman, Aryna Sabalenka, playing Ons Jabeur, another highly-ranked player from Tunisia.

Aryna Sabalenka BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament in Indian Wells 2023

Here are Sabalenka and Jabeur resting together after going all out in their practice match. It’s nice to see their camaraderie.

Aryna Sabalenka Ons Jabeur resting Indian Wells 2023

I always try to glean some takeaways from watching others play tennis or anything in which I’m trying to improve in life. So what did I learn from watching these great players practice? From the outset, how hard they play in practice was abundantly clear.

Even though the tournament was starting the next day for these players, they were not holding back one iota. 

Of course, I’m nowhere near these players in terms of conditioning, but it made me realize that if I’m going to continue to improve and prepare for tournaments effectively, then I have to adopt the attitude that I’m going to wear out versus rust away.  It’s important for me to play matches with full intensity to prepare for tournament play so that I’m used to live fire, playing under pressure, and giving it my all to find those wellsprings of determination and grit to help me persevere. Of course, I don’t want to go overboard such that my energy is depleted or my body is impaired from overexertion, but I have learned that I actually don’t mind playing with a little pain. Physical discomfort is inevitable if one plays enough, so the more I can get used to it, the stronger my resilience should be. Like everything I work on in my preparation, hopefully, this too will put me in a better competitive position than my opponents, who may not be as used to the grind.

A very important statistic for quantitative-minded tennis players is that 25% of errors come from returns of serves. Add to this that, on average, for every point that ends with a winning shot, three end in errors.Click To Tweet

Thus, the more one can control one’s errors and force opponents to make them, the better one’s chances of winning the match. Given these statistics, one of the lowest-hanging fruits is to practice returns of serve.

When I want to work on something to improve my tennis game, I invariably turn to YouTube. One of the instructors I really enjoy watching is Patrick Mouratoglou, who coached Serena Williams for ten years. He was at Indian Wells, coaching one of the players competing there. I had to take his picture as I was a bit star-struck. I learned a lot from him about improving my returns of serve by watching a 20-minute video he recently posted.

Patrick Mouratoglou who coached Serena Williams for ten years

I also took this picture of Sabalenka, who is perfectly situated to prepare for returning Jabeur’s serve. This was a great visual for me to sear into my brain when preparing to return my opponent’s serve.

Sabalenka returning Jabeur’s serve Indian Wells 2023

I think the highlight for me of Indian Wells was watching Elena Rybakina play in the semis and finals. She won Wimbledon and lost in the finals of the Australian Open to Sabalenks. The Indian Wells final was a rematch between the two. After a 78-minute first set, which, as an aside, went longer than the entire match of the Men’s final, Rybakina was able to capitalize on many untimely Sabalenka double faults and other crucial mistakes to come out on top. I was most impressed with her incredible composure and the action she would take to calm herself down. She was never outwardly rattled. In fact, she would show virtually no emotion, while Sabalenka looked like every point was agony for her, even the ones she won. There was very little indication she was having fun because she is so hard on herself. Yet, off the court, she has such a charming, vibrant, and positive personality. The contrast is something to behold and was worthy of filing this away mentally as I strive to be cheerful off the court and positive yet still intensely focused on the court. Body language and facial expressions can reveal so much and can either help demoralize an opponent or improve their confidence. I want to do all I can to be in the former camp.

I loved how when Rybakina felt like she needed to regain composure when it was her serve, she would go a few feet back behind the baseline, turn her back to her opponent, and march in place while bouncing the ball down and up on the ground with her racket. It was a seemingly very effective way to have her reset, and is something that I have started to apply when I’m feeling a little frazzled on the court. It has definitely been helpful to me.

Rybakina being interviewed after winning BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament in Indian Wells 2023

Here is Rybakina being interviewed after winning the tournament.

My Training

Besides working out with a trainer two mornings per week and doing my best to push through challenging exercises by constantly reminding myself of how this can only help me during very long and competitive points and can aid in my stamina and overall endurance, I have played some singles matches, doubles to keep my reflexes sharp, take a couple of lessons, and read a very good book called Lucidity in Sports: Get Clarity of Mind When Under Pressure to help me better prepare for the tournament.

The authors are firm believers that all athletes should strive to be in a state of lucidity, and while the book is about cultivating it and applying it in sports, it has huge benefits in everyday life as well. It helps strengthen and improve one’s awareness, presence, and patience, fosters a calm demeanor and better decision-making, and makes one feel more alive.

According to the authors, this is what is required to be lucid.

To be lucid, a person is in direct interaction with their environment and is totally immersed in the present moment and actions. The state of lucidity involves ongoing action that calls for discernment, the correctness of perception, decision, and action of the individual. It requires immediate feedback in which success validates the gesture. Most importantly, the attention is focused on the task rather than oneself. You do not observe yourself; you are immersed in what you do.  

The state of lucidity requires full availability of body and mind. As a result, the activity of the prefrontal cortex decreases, which has the effect of putting an end to internal chatter and planning logics. The individual is no longer in a state of “wanting to do” but is now “letting it be.” Intuition takes precedence over the rational, such is the state of flow.

This is a good description of being in the flow state. It’s the culmination of training one’s mind and body and consistently learning and applying one’s craft to constantly challenge oneself and learn and grow by looking at every interaction in the arena as a mechanism for gaining feedback to help correct and improve.

I have never been a big user of visualization and affirmations.

Perhaps it’s because there haven’t been many areas of my life that elicit anxiety and fears to the extent that I feel I have to proactively manage them through concentrated effort and preparation. One endeavor that is known to instill fear in many people is public speaking. For some reason, however, it’s the opposite with me as I find that it energizes me and is something I look forward to. With tennis, however, I have experienced a degree of nervousness and anxiety such that letting them come and go of their own volition has not served me well. I have also had to contend with frustration, anger, perfectionism, self-loathing, and behaviors that are not always the most becoming. Clearly, I have needed to improve dramatically in this area of emotional control and managing fear and anxiety to lessen their impact on my performance. With that being said, however, I feel like I have made great strides in these areas, but of course, I have more ground to gain.

Reading the book helped convince me that it was worth a try to craft some affirmations so that when I enter the court, I will have a healthy mindset, and hopefully, they will aid me in becoming more aware when these parasitic thoughts and feelings arise so that I can nip them in the bud far sooner than before. The subconscious mind does not make a distinction between reality and what you tell yourself. It records everything you say, do, and believe and hugely influences our reactions. So when you react in a way that surprises you, then look to what might be buried deep in your psyche:  those experiences, traumas, reactions by others, and self-talk that have been seared into your subconscious. As Peter Gabriel says, 

I’m digging in the dirt 

To find the places I got hurt

Open up the places I got hurt

I have repeatedly read and been told that it’s best not to form affirmations that are negative in the sense of saying I won’t do something because the brain often processes it that I will. For example, if I say that I won’t yell out after missing a point, this will often plant a seed that I will yell out. As a result, I did my best to structure my positive affirmations and focused on only those things I can control.

So this is what I wrote last week while sitting and having dinner at a local restaurant and brewery to help me prepare for the tournament.

This is my first serious attempt at writing affirmations, and I’m pleased that I did.

  • The court is my haven, home, and slice of heaven (pun intended)
  • Every point will be an opportunity to learn and experiment
  • There are no emergencies
  • I am proud of where I am and how much work I have put in to get here
  • I will have fun. After all, it is only a game
  • I will respect my opponent and myself
  • If I internalize, then I will fertilize
  • I will maintain a curious mind throughout the match
  • I will seek clarity at all times
  • I will commit to my shots
  • I will play with determination, intelligence, and grace
  • I will remember that tennis can be magical and a thing of beauty
  • I will seek to tire out my opponent
  • I will control the corners
  • I will be grateful for the opportunity to play and being healthy to do so
  • I will demoralize and instill fear in my opponent through my consistency, ability to get to most balls, overall effort, my determination, shot selection, shot capabilities, pace, placement, emotional control, and overall conditioning
  • My body language, posture, and fluidity will convey great confidence
  • I have trained and prepared to be exactly where I am

I must confess that I am now in the camp of seeing the benefits of writing down affirmations. There is absolutely no downside and unlimited upside, so with such an asymmetrical payoff, why wouldn’t I use this time tested too? Now the real test will be if I can effectively incorporate visualization into my routine and life overall. After all, writing comes much easier to me, but sitting alone with my thoughts and eyes closed and training myself to relax, stay still for a long time, and conjure up great details to visualize is far more challenging. 

Applying the lessons learned from watching tennis at Indian Wells and reading the book about lucidity reminds me yet again how much I can improve my experience and performance on the court with these tools and strategies and how much better my life can be off the court as I apply them there as well.

I look forward to reporting on how I did.

One comment on “Training for Lucidity
  1. Bob Serr says:

    Thanks Gary for this blog, I grew up using all types of positive affirmations, I had to because of the negative environment I was raised in.I had to fight the status qua of not being good enough. It worked and I excelled in the business areas of my life. Although there was a down side to using affirmation and I then needed to find the proper balance. You know the ego and pride that seeps into how one goes about striving to accomplish a sense of worth. I know that you are watchful and keen to the balances in your life. I wish I knew you were in the Phoenix area, it would have been great to watch you athletic craft. Be well and see you next month at the annual dinner.

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