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Zen and the Art of Tennis

It’s nearing the end of summer, and in NYC that means it is time once again for the US Open. Watching the elite play tennis is a great reminder of the precision and focus it takes to excel at physical movement. While it seems from the outside that the players have total command over their bodies, a big part of their success has to do with their inner game. To truly be “in the zone,” they need to have a calm and focused mind.

For many of us, that’s not so easy to do. One thought leads to another, and another. It’s estimated that the human brain has 60,000 thoughts per day! So what can we learn from the mindset of the very best tennis players that can help us in our own pursuits?

Tennis Players

Re-thinking the relationships of the mind
In The Inner Game of Tennis, W. Timothy Gallwey explains that the “voice” of consciousness can be seen as a separate entity from the side of ourselves that performs the task at hand. Trouble arises when we allow our conscious mind to apply a critical response to the actions performed by the rest of our nervous system.

When you think about it, the human body is amazingly capable. Right now, for example, your brain is interpreting the symbols on this page, mapping them with combinations of symbols you’ve seen in the past, and giving them meaning. This is all happening without your control, and just goes to show that, when left unencumbered, your mind can get a lot accomplished.

You and I have already learned the skills we need in order to perform; even if we haven’t, we need stillness in the mind in order to learn. One way to nurture the relationship between the conscious and the subconscious is to recognize the natural abilities your body already has. Once the thinking mind begins to acknowledge the power that lies within the unconscious mind — and learn to let learning take place — the relationship between these two modes of “thought” will improve.

Letting go of judgment
The first step in clearing the mind and building a culture of learning within yourself is to notice when you are applying judgment to your actions. The critiquing mind actually interrupts our body when it is trying to perform, leading to stiffness, over-gripping, and (sometimes) injury.

Instead of commanding the body to move in a certain way (“Move your feet when you serve! Don’t over-rotate your shoulder!”), we can take a stance of non-judgmental detachment. By honoring the natural abilities we already have and communicating with the subconscious in a way that doesn’t interrupt it’s natural flow, we begin to see improvement in performance. Instead of demanding a specific movement pattern, we can train our minds to attend to other things — the height of the ball when it crosses the net, for example — and allow our body to do its thing.

Practicing Relaxed Awareness
Relaxed awareness allows us to build the mental space we need in order to see these entrenched mental patterns, whatever they are, and learn to build a calm, relaxed focus when practicing or performing. Also known as situational awareness, relaxed awareness is the practice of allowing your thoughts to pass by without seizing them and/or reacting to them.

Bruce Lee was on to something when he compared his thoughts to water: during relaxed awareness, the still mind sees a reflection, but does not make any attempt to judge, categorize, or become attached to what it sees. In Bruce Lee: Artist of Life, he writes that this state is “not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling was not sticky or blocked. Therefore in order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.”

We are capable of achieving a high level of agility and grace when left to our natural state. It is only when we let go of the critical, conscious mind and begin to trust ourselves when the true magic happens.

If you’re interested in learning more about this, here are a few places to start:

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Sharon Suzuki

The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey

Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel

Bruce Lee: Artist of Life by Bruce Lee and John Little


– Davis Erin Anderson, September 2014