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Visualisation Skills for Tennis

By Jeffrey Hodges B.Sc. M.Sc.(Hons) B.Ed.

In the previous issue I spoke of the importance of developing the seven mental skills of the sports mind :

* Positive Self Motivation

* Powerful Goal Achievement Strategies

* Emotional State Mastery

* Positive Mental Attitude

* Strong Concentration & Focusing Abilities

* Positive Self Image & Unshakeable Self Confidence

* Precision Visualisation Skills

I want to begin in this issue with a discussion on Visualisation for Successful Tennis, because I believe Visualisation is the foundational and most important mental skill - one which all players want to master first.

This is because all the other mental skills require competent visualisation techniques .... to achieve goals, you have to see yourself doing so; to improve a technical aspect of your tennis game you have to be able to clearly picture what you need to do; to change a limiting emotional reaction or behaviour, it's essential that you imagine yourself into the new response; in order to build self confidence, you will want to develop your self image; and so on.


Visualisation is a common skill we all use all the time; to achieve anything, to do anything, we first 'see' ourselves doing it.

So visualisation is not something strange or difficult or esoteric, but something we all constantly use in order to function in the world ..... we all can visualise. The trouble is, most people use visualisation negatively - they imagine all the bad things that could happen, and then hope they don't!

The important thing to realise is that we human beings are a lot like guided missiles - we move in the direction of our regular and consistent thoughts and imaginings; we move toward what we picture in our mind - particularly what we picture with vividness and strong feeling.

Whenever we associate a vivid picture with a strong feeling, it has a magnetic attraction - so be careful of what you picture with feeling, because you will be pulled in that direction.

A classic example of this process in action is given by the tennis player who has just serve a first serve fault. As he or she prepares to hit their second serve, an image comes to their mind of double faulting - perhaps even recalling a previous time when they had done so. As they picture this memory, they see it vividly, and of course they feel again the embarrassment they experienced then. They then tell themselves, "Now I don't want to double fault!".

But of course it's too late .... they've already visually programmed themselves with clear pictures and powerful feelings to do just that! As the ball is tossed he or she tenses up because they're afraid of failing, and then watch with dismay as it flies straight into the net.

Why did this happen? Despite all his verbal commands to himself not to hit double fault, he did just that.

Has anything like that ever happened to you? Have you ever commanded yourself not to do something, only to find it happening despite all your conscious efforts? Maybe you've said to yourself, "Now this time I'm not going to get nervous and stammer when I present the talk", and yet you did!



There's a wonderful book by Tim Gallwey called the Inner Game of Tennis, and in it he talks about the concept of the two selves. Tim Gallwey was a tennis coach, and he noticed people talking to themselves on the court, and from this he suggested that we actually have two 'selves'.

Self 1 is the conscious, 'telling' self, and its the part of us that is always telling us to "Keep your wrist firm", "Watch the ball", "Follow through", or whatever. Self 2 is our non-conscious 'doing' self, and it is the part of us that Self 1 is giving the commands to. You could call Self 1 our conscious mind, and self 2 our body.

Now the interesting thing about self 2, our body, is that is understands vivid pictures and images better than it does words. It's similar to a computer in that it understands a particular programming language ..... however the programming language of self 2 is not MS DOS or WINDOWS XP, but rather vivid visual images. Self 2 is a very competent servant and it accurately follows the instructions given to it in its language.

However most people try to program self 2 with words - they verbally command their body to do something without having a clearly visualised and precise picture of exactly what they want to happen. But it just doesn't work effectively - it's a bit like talking in a foreign language.

If I said "Suwari waza katate mochi nikkajo osai ni", would you know what I wanted you to do?

It's just the same when you try to 'talk' to your body - it just doesn't understand the words you use. The way to command, or 'program' your body effectively is to use vivid images - particularly images associated with strong feeling, or what I call 'feel-mages'.

This concept is supported by comments from champion sportspeople. Jack Nicklaus has said "I never hit a shot, even in practice, without having a clear, in focus picture of it in my mind." Greg Liganus, after hitting his head on the diving board in one of his dives in the 1988 Olympics, was asked by one of the television crews if he wanted a copy of the dive to see where he went wrong. He refused, saying he didn't even want to consider the possibility that Greg Liganus could hit his head on a diving board!

You want to have a positive focus, and you want to communicate with your body in a way that it understands - by giving it clear, vivid images.

It could be said that your level of performance is directly related to the precision of your visual communication, and the level of trust you can establish between your self 1 and self 2.


There is overwhelming scientific and anecdotal evidence which demonstrates the undeniable fact that visualisation can improve your sports performances - there are numerous scientific studies which have shown its effectiveness. In my own research, the feedback I've received from athletes is that they improved their performance from 10% to 50%!

I'd like to share one classic example of the power of visualisation with you. Colonel George Hall was captured by the Vietnamese in the war and incarcerated in a POW camp for seven years - five and a half of which were spent in solitary confinement. Prior to the war, Colonel Hall was a golfer, playing off a handicap of four, and to keep himself from going crazy in prison, every day he would visualise playing a round of golf. He would play each shot, and each hole in his mind, and every day he'd play a different golf course.

When he was finally released and returned to the USA, shortly afterward he was invited to play in a celebrity Pro-Am tournament, and despite being underweight and suffering from malnutrition from his ordeal, he hit a round of 76 ... right on his handicap, despite not having held a golf club for over seven years!

Visualisation works - but do you know why?

It works because visualisation has a measurable, physiological effect on our body. When you visualise doing a movement, play, stroke, shot, or performance, there is a measurable response by the specific muscles used in that activity in response to your imagined movements.

For instance, in order to do a tennis serve in reality, a specific 'program' of neuro-muscular circuits has to fire in order for that to happen. However, if I just vividly imagine doing a tennis serve, it's been found that micro-muscular stimulation occurs in those same muscles used to do the serve in 'reality'.

In fact, neurologically, your body can't tell the difference between a 'real' experience, and a vividly imagined one. You consciously know one experience is real and the other is imagined, but at the cellular level, your body can't tell the difference. For example, think of the last time you had a nightmare .... and now think of a time you had a fright in 'reality'.

Was the fear you experienced in the dream any different from the fear you experienced in response to the 'real' event? It wasn't was it? Your heart still pounded the same and your hands still felt clammy. Perhaps you even jerked your arm up in the dream in response to the imagined events! It was only a dream, but your body still responded like it was real didn't it?

Because there is this muscular response to visualised activity, it makes it possible to 'program in' desired shots, strokes, plays, movements, behaviours, and even emotional responses prior to doing them. In other words you can 'groove in' to your body at a cellular level, a 'muscle memory' of what you want your body to do.

Further, visualisation allows you to practice your techniques perfectly - without error, and so 'groove in' the optimum neural pathway for future successful performance.

In the next issue, I'll conclude our discussion on Visualisation by explaining how to best visualise, and list six different ways to use visualisation to improve YOUR tennis game!

About Jeffrey Hodges B.Sc.(AES) M.Sc.(Hons)
Jeffrey Hodges is a performance consultant to elite athletes, sporting teams and corporate clients. He is the author of the widely acclaimed "Sportsmind - An Athlete's Guide to Superperformance Through Mental & Emotional Training" and "Champion Thoughts, Champion Feelings"; creator of the Sportsmind performance enhancement workshops and audio tapes; and Director of the Sportsmind Institute for Human Performance Research.

He is a NLP Master Practitioner and Associate Trainer, and his Sportsmind programs have been endorsed by the NSW Dept Sport & Recreation, and recommended by top sportsclubs and successful athletes. Jeffrey has competed in many sports, notably Volleyball, Squash, Soccer and Golf, and currently trains in Aikido, holding a black belt.

Some of his clients to date include :
Australian Rugby Union
St. Joseph's College
Woodlands Golf Club
Financial Institutions Remuneration Group (FIRG)
Societe Generale
Qld. Swimming
Network for Fitness Professionals
North Sydney and Penrith Rugby League Clubs
Qld. Athletics Assn
NSW Netball Assn
Northern Inland Academy of Sport
Victorian Soaring Assn
Orange Agricultural College Equestrian School
Qld and NSW Departments of Sport and Recreation
Qld Academy of Sport
and the RAAF.

For more information, contact :
FLAXTON Qld. Australia. 4560.
PHONE 61 7 5445 7994
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