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Tennis Strategy #35 Conscious Habit Formation

In order to make changes in your game for the better you first will have to make some very good objective observations about the state of how you play. Then you will need to have a clear vision of how you want to execute on court on a regular basis, so that it’s second nature. From there you will need to understand that your consciousness will play a major role in how quickly you assimilate these things into your game.


Unconscious Becomes Conscious

If we presume for a moment that a recent theory in neuroscience is true, that decisions are unconscious, then become conscious about a half second later, there are implications for how to train in tennis. You have your natural instincts and drives, and then you have the habits that you have layered on top of those. When your natural instincts and drives overrule your habits, then you will revert back to a former way of playing. For instance, I used to be a very non-aggressive retrieving baseliner, happy to run down many balls until my opponent might miss. But I felt like every time I went for a shot to win a point outright, I would miss. From that baseline of training and instinctual play, I had to establish much better habits of playing with controlled aggression. So, in the midst of playing a match I would have to remind myself at the first moment that I was non-aggressive, to ‘stay aggressive’. Or a mantra of ‘controlled aggression, controlled aggression’.


Take An Inventory, Make A Plan

1. Take Stock Of Your Game

2. Get a Vision Of Where You Want To Go

3. Discover The Stumbling Blocks

4. Build The Habits To Overcome

5. Have a Strategy To Maintain Performance

6. Allow It To Become Automated

It’s fascinating to watch one of the very best players in the world realize that they have not played a point the way they really wanted to play it. It happens less than 1% of the time, but you can see when they are a little disappointed in themselves. They also realize that everyone at their level also brings a lot to the table, so out of an understanding of mutual respect, they don’t get too bothered when the other player dictates play for a short period of time, because that’s why there is prize money on the line, and it’s compelling theatre, because the outcome is not predetermined. Upsets happen, because a player may be completely on, in their element, playing on their favorite surface, in front of a hometown crowd, playing for their country or any number of amazing intangible situations that can bring out the very best in their game.


To preface the final paragraph, I want to define a few terms.

Unconsciously Incompetent - You don’t know what you don’t know. Don’t worry, everyone has this to some degree. There are things you don’t currently know until you face them, or they are brought to light. My hope is that you will discover many nuanced truths in this book to help enlighten your path.

Consciously Incompetent - You know that you don’t know. This is where cognitive dissonance lives. When you discover there was something you didn’t know, it can actually cause physical pain and stress. It might take some time to recover. This is where you will have to go through some difficulty to start learning what it is you want to do instead of what you have been doing. Some people resist taking lessons because they fear exposure, but a coach is not going to discourage you, instead they will help build you up if they are any good at all.

Consciously Competent - This is the stage where you apprehend what you are to do, but you have to pay close attention to what you are doing in order to do it. Doing that enough times will start to allow you to cross what James Clear in Atomic Habits calls The Habit Barrier. Once you can begin to habitually do what you want, then you move to…

Unconsciously Competent - This is what you will get when you really truly practice with intentionality. The vast majority of tennis players do not really practice. They go, play a couple of sets of doubles with their USTA team, call that practice and feel like they put in the work. Actual practice means getting a basket and hitting 100 serves, it means using a ball machine and hitting 500 forehands and backhands, using that one technique you want to make habitual. It means practicing hitting the shot you want after a different shot, so that you can learn to shift more easily into it. Roger Federer was asked “How do you hit these shots?”, he said something to the effect of “Over time we all have hit millions of tennis shots, had good coaching and made it our own, so in reality none of us can tell you how we do it.” Which is a nice and humble response, but the short answer is habit formation into Unconscious Competence.


The Progression

The point here being that it’s going to take effort to move forward. You will need to navigate the progression of being unconsciously incompetent, to consciously competent, onward to consciously competent (this is where the magic happens), until you finally arrive at unconsciously competent. Of course when you realize that in one moment you were consciously incompetent for a moment you will need to become consciously competent for moments before returning to unconscious competence.


***

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