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Go With the Flow
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In my era of competitive junior tennis, players used a slang phrase to describe when they (or other players) were playing their best. It went something like this: "I was treeing out of my mind today". Or, "He was treeing out his mind." Or in a more frustrating moment on the court, you might hear a player say, "How is this guy treeing so hard out here?" At the time, I didn't pay much attention to the details of that phrase, but we all immediately knew what it meant. If you were talking about yourself, it was a compliment. If you were referring to your opponent during the match, you were basically saying they were playing above their level. I'm not sure who first coined that phrase, or if they even knew that what they were saying actually does have a close connection to what occurs for a player when they are playing their best. Now that I have a graduate degree in Sport Psychology, I have a better sense of what it meant - and why it allows players to perform at their best.

Damon Valentino of FlowSport
In today's vernacular, we might talk about getting into "the zone" or being in a "flow state". Before we talk about how to reach these states, let's spend a moment defining what these phrases mean.

The godfather of flow is positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. His research has given some concrete language to what may seem like a mysterious state. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is "a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it. When someone is in flow they feel strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities."

Take a moment and think about when you are at your best. What does it feel like? What are you saying to yourself? How was your play different than usual? I asked some Division I college players to try and describe what it feels like when they are at their best. Here are some quotes: "It's almost like I know where the ball is going before my opponent hits it." "I lose track of time." "I feel like I'm watching a movie of myself playing the match." If any of these sound familiar to you, then you have probably experienced flow. We now know that this experience isn't random. These players didn't just luck their way into a flow state. They put in the hard work on and off the court to put themselves in the best position possible. And even then, there are no guarantees. Here are some steps you can take to give yourself the best chance to experience flow.

 

1. Focus on perfecting your skills: Tennis is a game of variability. Each ball that you hit has its own height, speed, spin and direction. And that is before you even hit it. No two shots are ever the same, which means the combination is limitless. If you approach practice sessions with this in mind, you will stay curious and fascinated with each shot. Focus your attention on (a) determining what shot your opponent hit to you (b) what shot you will choose to hit back. This exercise is neverending, and it's a great way to play the game with more artistry (and less robotic). It's also a great way to create the right conditions to experience flow.

2. Set goals that have immediate feedback: It's great to have farreaching goals, but they tend to pull you from the moment. To find flow, you have to stay in the moment. By setting goals that have immediate feedback, you are not only learning something new, but you are also training yourself to be more present.

3. Keep raising the stakes: Once you achieve a goal, set a new one. If you don't, it's easy to get bored. When we are bored, we start dreaming about doing something other than what we are currently doing. Setting a goal that is just out of reach will improve your game and keep you in the moment. Two great ways to cultivate the conditions of flow.

4. Enjoy the immediate experience: Experience isn't good or bad. It's what you are doing right now! Learning to enjoy the moment is amazing flow training.

 

Whether it's called "treeing" "the zone" or "flow state", looking to experience it should be the aim of any tournament player. Not only will you become a better player, but you will undoubtedly find more enjoyment too.

 

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About Damon Valentino

Damon Valentino has over two decades of experience as a high school tennis coach, independent school educator and teaching tennis professional. Valentino is a former nationally-ranked junior and full-scholarship Michigan State tennis player, and he holds a Master's degree in Sport Psychology from John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill, CA. Valentino uses mental skills techniques to help people perform at an optimal level. You can learn more at his website - or contact him online or via email.
 
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