There was a woman who did readings using both the Western Zodiac and the Chinese Zodiac. She told me my Western Zodiac sign, Leo, guided the public me, the persona I show to the world, while my Chinese sign was my inner self. The saying goes in Chinese astrology that your animal "hides in your heart."
Well, that explains a lot. Especially in tennis. I so want to be aggressive on the court, forcing the action, making deep approach shots and coming to net. But my Rabbit wants to stay back on the baseline. Bunny's content just to get the ball back over the net and watch, wide-eyed, to see what my Worthy Opponent will do next.
In this match, I could only wish that Rabbit would remain hidden in my heart, because Bunny was leaving droppings all over the damned court.
I used everything I could think of to keep my focus on the ball, and not on my fear. I wiggled my toes in my shoes. Yep, I'm here. I took slow, deep breaths. Yep, I'm alive. I tried to see the seams of the ball. Yep, I'm playing tennis.
Oh, good God, I'm playing tennis.
My Worthy Opponent had clean service games, winning them with nary a point gained on my side. I could barely return her serve. They had a lot of top spin, and were on top of me in a blink. It took me several games, Haters -- games, not points -- to consider standing back a bit to give myself more time. That's what fear does to me. It takes away my ability to think on the court.
Performance coach Jeff Greenwald, in his book, The Best Tennis of Your Life, says fear comes from wanting to avoid the bad feelings that come with trying and failing. "It's the avoidance of fear that is in your way," he writes. "And the only effective way to deal with this pattern is to begin facing your fears head on."
Make the call to someone you want to play with, hit out on your shots, play the tournament, don't give up in matches, stand tall when things aren't going your way, practice hard, tell your partner what you need. The more you face your fear, the easier it gets, and the better you will play.
Okay, that's one way of going from bunny to lion. But just wanting it doesn't make it so. I like the idea of facing the fact that I'm scared. Just acknowledging its presence gives it less power. I'm scared. AND I'm going to get to every ball. I'm scared. AND I'm going to see the hit. I'm scared. AND I'm going to turn, and extend the butt of my racquet all the way through the shot.
In In Pursuit of Excellence, sports shrink Terry Orlick advises turning fear into focus. "An absolute connection or full engagement with the step in front of you clears your mind of all other thoughts and relaxes your body enough to have a great performance. Pure focused connection works wonders here."
This is the conundrum of Tennis Hate. How do I get pure focused connection when I'm filled with fear? How do I get out of my own way? How do I shift gears? Sometimes, it feels like I can't will myself into a better mindset. It's my sick mind trying to heal itself. Where will I get that power?
The power, Greenwald and Orlick are suggesting, is in bringing myself back to the present moment, to the ball. Just the ball. Just the job ahead. See the ball, hit the ball. Repeat.
"During the event, focus on the doing," says Orlick. "A cat pursuing a mouse [or a lion chasing a rabbit] is not thinking about what she should be thinking about. She is focused on the doing." He suggests developing refocusing strategies to use during moments of fear. We've all seen the greats doing this between points. Kim Clijsters, rearranging her strings. Maria Sharapova walking to the back of the court, taking a few breaths and bouncing on her toes. Rafael Nadal cleaning the red clay off the baseline and stubbing the toes of his shoes against the ground, one foot at a time.
The thing is, we Haters have to practice these actions, too, not just our volleys and groundstrokes and serves. That means embracing these pressure situations. They're our sandbox. We get to practice our re-centering techniques there.
We get to shape our destiny, overriding the alignment of the stars.