Practicing the Mental Skills of Tennis – On Court and Off

“As a director of a science museum, I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can engage people to think about how our world works. For science to be meaningful to people, it has to be relevant—and for myself, I have recently found this to be true out on the tennis court.

Physics comes alive as the racket hits the ball; every game is a biology lesson in how your body reacts to external forces; and your mind is constantly tested as you psychologically analyze your toughest opponent—yourself.

While I’ve never considered myself a ‘sporty’ person, I’ve used sports to connect people to science through various points in my career, so it’s always been in the background of my mind.

I’ve been an avid runner for the past ten years, but it wasn’t until I moved to the Upper Valley that I considered taking a deep dive into tennis. I wanted a way to work out while being social, and for a newcomer to the area, the RVC tennis clinics and lessons were a great way to establish a community of friendly, supportive faces.

When I first arrived at the Montshire, I mentioned my theoretical interest in playing tennis to a museum visitor while on the gallery floor. Surprisingly, she was an avid tennis player, and a regular on the RVC courts. Her advice was to take a lesson from a professional for an assessment of my next steps.

Aside from some technical instruction in middle school, I had never taken a private tennis lesson. I was nervous about jumping in because anything new as an adult can feel a little overwhelming (especially when you have coworkers and board members playing on the courts next to you).

My first session was in January 2016 with Josh Holt—he made me feel incredibly at ease, updated my grip, and helped determine that I should reacquaint myself with the game in the Advanced Beginner clinic that met on Mondays. I quickly signed up for a combo package to jump-start my tennis practice, playing five times with the clinic and four times with a pro.

My initial clinics were with Andrew Gunberg and Ben Thompson, and they made everyone feel comfortable while deepening our understanding of the game. I started taking private lessons with Tim Whitehead, and we spent a lot of time in our first sessions on technique, but also talking about the mental game of tennis.

My first private lessons were on the court next to the Intermediate clinic with Dave Bailey. Even though Dave was working with more advanced players, he’d watch me on my court too, and note my improvement—as would the other tennis professionals.

I decided to set a goal of advancing to the Intermediate clinic by the end of the year. I asked Tim what my next steps would be to do this, and he suggested playing at least three times a week.

While it wasn’t easy to find the time at first, I began to ease into figuring out how to keep playing to improve my game. I continued in Advanced Beginner clinics through November, and found a new group of tennis friends who were also improving week by week too. By November, through Tim and Andrew’s guidance, I was able to move into the Intermediate clinic, and am now taking my tennis game to the next level.

As my technique improved, Tim (who is a PTR Professional and NASM Certified Personal Trainer) and I set new goals for our private lessons. Our work is now a mix of cardio-intensive drills that help my footwork and quickness on the court, and core training to control my swings with precision. We create a bit of a tennis obstacle course, and I have seen a dramatic improvement with my game play and overall physical fitness.

The biggest benefit to my work on the courts has been the mental determination that has served me well in my professional life. A quote that you constantly hear in tennis training is, “bounce…hit.”

You have to realize that you will have thousands of opportunities to hit the ball, and you can’t get fixated on every single hit or you won’t be able to move forward. Being present with the ball every time, and not letting a bad shot derail your game has many amazing psychological benefits in professional settings.

I know that I still have a lot to learn on the courts and my game needs time to improve. Having the supportive staff at RVC to guide the journey has been a tremendous asset to my life in the Upper Valley, and I look forward to my next stage as I continue to hit the ball.”

Marcos Stafne, PhD

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