Visualization In Tennis: Teaching It And Training It!

Dr. Earlynn Lauer, mental coach at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, joins Coach Johnny and Dr. L to discuss how to teach tennis players to train visualization and transfer it to matches effectively. This episode ranges from the benefits of visualization to the different ways to use it. Furthermore, ways to lead your own visualization sessions are covered, as well as how to progress it over time (including practicing on court). Tennis coaches, parents and players who listen to this episode will have a much better idea how to apply visualization to their daily training and matches


J: Welcome to compete like a champion. You're here with mental skills specialist Dr. Larry Lauer and Johnny Parkes, with USTA Player Development. Today, we're in Episode Two of our corona crisis here, so we're recording via Google Hangouts, and we're going to get into what we would have wanted to last week, which is a little bit of a part two to visualization. And today we've got special guest, Dr. Earlynn Lauer, who's part of Dr. Larry Lauer's mental performance team, no relation.
E: Thank you. Hi.
J: Welcome. Welcome. Welcome. Larry, first of all, before we kick off, talk about your addition to your mental performance team and maybe what uh, you know, what Earlynn is doing to really push forwards the mental skill space with the juniors?
L: Yeah, thanks Johnny, and Earlynn can add to this as well, but just what she's provided, she's at our national campus in Orlando, we now have mental coaches in each of our national training centers. But we have two in Orlando now, Earlynn and myself, and what it allows us to do is to cover across the span of the players that we train more comprehensively. Before, you know, I was stretched across juniors to transitional pros, to pros and now with Dr. E coming on board, she's able to focus more on the youngest ones, the juniors, that space 13-14's, even some of the 15's and really build up the base of knowledge and of skill, and then applying those things in practices and matches. So Earlynn's been awesome and doing a great job and it's been very essential in our building of the base understanding with our junior players and our coaches. So Earlynn, is that incorrect at all or?
E: I wouldn't say it's incorrect at all, but I would also highlight that I've been able to work with Johnny and the rest of the people over in player ID in helping out with their camps and working not only with the 13, 14, and 15, but I've been privileged enough to work with, you know, 11-12-year-olds as well, I think even, you know, a couple of 10 year olds depending on who is invited to those camps. So my age range with the USTA really spans that like 14-15 and under space and and I love working with that group, so it's been really fun
L: Keeping in mind too, that Earlynn's research was helping, in how do we help children learn mental skills and how do they apply it, so and she did several evaluation studies for us with one of our tennis centers and how we're teaching mental skills to kids. So it was not only her ability to teach and her understanding of the field and the theory and the research, but her knowledge of how to apply that in teaching it to children, getting them to apply it in a tennis arena so and so that's why it was a perfect match. And it's certainly working out great. And yeah, and part of what we're doing, JP, is we're teaching visualization to the kids in these camps that are coming through this Spring.
J: Absolutely. I was lucky enough to sit on quite a few adultery sessions so far and they're really good quality information that gets really great engagement out of the kids. So really appreciate what you're doing, Dr. E, but what I'm interested in is okay, that's what you're doing for us, which is awesome, but what were you doing before you joined us?
E: Yeah. So before I joined player development, I was a professor at Western, an assistant professor at Western Illinois University in sport psychology and wellness. I still am able to, with my position, teach some courses even now at that university and also at Adler in sports psychology, so I still dabble in helping graduate students kind of get into my same position of applied sport psych. And I went from being the researcher, thinking about this work and interacting with participants and collecting interviews and trying to gain knowledge to actually really interacting with this population and disseminating some of that information, and teaching and applying some of the research that I was doing. So it's been a dream to get to actually take something that I was so interested in abstractly and get to apply it and use it every day.
J: That's awesome. Well, that's great that you're able to then obviously bring a lot of that research that you're doing to what we're doing now, but also great that you continue to do some of the things you were doing before that you obviously enjoy. So seems like they kind of go hand in hand as well, being able to practice the teaching part, and then obviously, being able to put things together. And so that's awesome. I mean, great stuff. So two weeks ago, we started talking about visualization, and Larry gave us some great information on what visualization actually is. Now, before we kick off, because this episode we really wanted to dive into it more in more detail about how we teach it but then also how we train it and giving the listeners, whether it's players, coaches, parents, a deeper understanding as to how to actually use it effectively. And so maybe before we kick off here, Larry, we could give the listeners just a brief overview of that part one on what visualization is, and then maybe let's start talking about how it works and the ways in which players use visualization. We can kind of just do a good spin off here of our different perspectives. But I guess, before we get that that visualization background, what is your first experience with visualization?
L: My first, interesting, when it when it was intentionally taught to me or, you know, I had a football coach when I was in varsity football back in Keystone High School in Pennsylvania, and we were preparing for our playoff run. And I remember in the fall, being on the football field and the coach saying, you know, lie down on your back. 50-60 guys are laying on the field and he started talking about different plays and formations and things that we were going to be going through that Saturday when we played our game. And I just remember thinking, Oh, this is odd and something I hadn't done intentionally before. No one's ever asked me to do that, but I enjoyed it. I think a lot of the guys went to sleep, unfortunately, but after a long hard practice, but that was my first entree into actually someone teaching me visualization and then as I got into it more as a baseball player, using it prior to hitting and imagining what pitches a pitcher might throw and myself hitting the ball where I wanted to. You know, I started to use it more and more and then for ice hockey and, and stuff, but yeah, kind of an interesting first entree into it and totally off the cuff, but understanding that we're doing visualization all the time, and I for sure was at least daydreaming about my sports ever before my football coach asked me to visualize on the field.
J: I'm pleased you weren't one of those players sleeping on the field. And...
L: No, I was a good student of the game. I wasn't as good at playing it, but I was a good student of the game.
J: What about, what about you? What's your first memory?
L: Yeah, so I apologize to all of my previous youth sport coaches, because I don't remember having gone through like the visualization script or any sort of activity in sport. I did a number of sports like growing up, soccer and then transition to tennis when I was 12-13. But on my own, I remember reading Brad Gilbert's Winning Ugly and getting really into that and starting to do visualization on my own and getting into a journal, and so from a support perspective, I remember using these different techniques kind of on my own outside of the sport setting, not really with a coach, just thinking about my game and thinking about the strokes that I wanted to improve and trying to see them. My thought when this question was posed to me before our podcast was about, using it in academics, which is a weird example, but I did Science Olympiad as a high schooler because I was a really cool nerd, and we had this event where there were two people and one had to describe some random object that was constructed out of like Lincoln Logs or Kinnex or pencils or just any random things, and the other one had to describe how to make it and he would get the sheet from your partner and then have to make the thing yourself. So one could view it and had to write it down, the other had to like then construct it from the same materials. And so I would use visualization quite a bit in like trying to see and picture and move things in my mind as I was, as I was making them, because I was I was the builder. And so for me, that was one of my earlier memories and as I was thinking about it, something that I think would be important to consider as we talked about this, but it's really natural for our brains to do it. And for some people, that ability to move things in their minds and to have that perspective can be really useful.
L: Well, and it's the other way that we think, right? We think in language and words and we think in images. Those images, sometimes people refer to them as movies in the mind. I remember Dr. Jim Lehrer talking about going to the movies in your mind with your serve and playing out a point, but this is, these are the ways that we think and so certainly if you're not taking advantage of as a performer or you're not coaching that side of it, you're missing out on something. But, JP, how about you? I'm sure in your sporting background that, you know, these English coaches who are well ahead of us here in the US would have taught you visualization, right?
J: Uh, well Yeah, I definitely I had a tennis coach that helped me with one specific area. In the team sports I played in growing up not so much, but yeah, the one example that really comes to mind with me is I remember when I was young, let's say I don't know 10 years old, I was really trying to work, or 10-11 years old, I was really trying to work on my kick serve. I was really trying to get it down the T on the deuce side of the court. I couldn't really get it to my opponents backhand, so you know, obviously there's some skill level I was working on there with getting, you know, being able to pronate more and get the kick serve going, but what really started to help was after I came back from a tournament, he asked me how it went. I said, not very good. I mean, I double faulted quite a few times, and I couldn't hit the spot, whatever. He goes, Well, when you miss your first serve, what do you think about? And I'm like, Well, I'm actually when I go to pick up the ball from the now or whatever I'm thinking, just don't miss, just don't miss, right? Maybe I gave this example before, but what he started to do with me in that next lesson was, and this is why I asked you in the first part, Larry, about visualizing specific targets or target areas. He basically said to me, he goes, okay, look at that triangle that you can see from centerline service line and net strap is a triangle that you can make, again, referenced that in the first part, and he said okay, you're gonna, you've missed your first serve, I want you to go to the net, pick up the ball and on the way back, I just want you to visualize that triangle. That is the triangle that you're going to hit the serve into. So I do that, come back hit my serve. Alright, got a little bit better, go do it again, walk to the net, pick up a ball, come back. And as I'm walking back, I'm just visualizing this target area, this triangle that I want to hit into. And sure enough, like over time, it's you know, okay, this doesn't feel weird. It's, you know, it's a challenge, right? In my mind I want to hit it in this target zone, so I'm challenging myself. But when it really started to click was is when I actually was in a match and I really, every time I went to pick up a ball I'm starting to think about this target area. So instead of my mind being just don't miss, just don't miss, I'm actually starting to think right, I'm going to hit the ball in that triangle. And I really did start to see a big difference over time. So that's really.. And my kick serve ended up being one of the best parts of my game. As I go up to my first serve as a kick serve, whether that be on the ad side or the deuce side, was actually one of my best weapons in college was being able to have a big kicker and being able to hit spots. And I really attribute that now to what I did back then in visualizing these certain targets and challenging myself to do that. So I think it was this switch from basically self fulfilling prophecy of just don't miss, just don't miss. Well guess what, you miss and then now being a bit more proactive with, it's almost like a quiet confidence, isn't it, that oh, I've got this target zone, and so I'm assuming that I'm going to make it, so... Anyway, that's my first part.
L: That's really good, JP, and what your coach did was give you something to focus on action you're going to take versus what you're trying to avoid. And well, let's talk about how the brain doesn't compute don't's and no's, it computes the actions. So 'don't double fault', the brain initially is going to have an image of the ball going into the net or going long. So you're trying to avoid something, you're usually going to create it. I think, very smart on your coach's part to actually give you something very visual and something that captured your mind, right? Because that's part of this too is that imagery or visualization, if it captures the focus, the mind, then you stop thinking about all the other stuff. The score, the fact that it's windy, or the fact that, you know, you're not very comfortable with a serve yet. And that's what that's doing, right? And so you're changing the focus and you're putting on an action that you're going to take, typically performance is going to improve.
J: I think what helped me to there was is that I wasn't focused, because I was obviously working on the actual technical skill of having a better serve, but he did not give me that as a focus on when I played matches. He was actually just trying to give me an actionable item to work on as opposed to thinking too technical, which we know that obviously if you're competing, if you start thinking to technical performance goes down, but I think that helped massively too. It took my mind off actually trying to execute the technical skill and actually focus on something a little bit more manageable, which was a target area and actually working on the skill of how to think before I go and try and execute that serve, you know?
L: But it also gets into like implicit learning, too, right? Because if I focus you on a goal, I'm trying to hit a target, you're going to do what it takes to get the ball in that triangle versus saying, okay, you need to pronate more, you need to do this technically. And again, I think what we find and Johnny, you've studied this area quite a bit, is that, using that approach, athletes will get it there and do what it takes to get it there, instead of us focusing them so much on technique or focusing on what we don't want to have happen. And again, coming back to this topic of visualization, visualization is a wonderful way to do this because it's captivating to the mind. It's not just words, it's images and it evokes a lot of emotion as you do it.
J: Yeah. Perfect. So, I mean, essentially, we almost gave an overview there of visualization and the imagery, but is there anything you want to add because it'd be great for us to start diving into how it actually works and the ways in which players can use it? Well, let me give a quick overview and a couple things we talked about in the previous podcast, visualization. First thing is it's, scientifically, it's considered imagery, this idea that you're creating images in your mind. And in these images, it's not just your sense of sight. It's your kinesthetic, your field, it's a smell, it's a sound, it's the taste. And the more that you engage your senses, you create this lifelike experience, it becomes real in your mind. And so you're creating an imagined experience that actually isn't existing in reality right now. So you're going to the movies in your mind if you want to think of it that way, but in doing so, you're recreating certain memories, or you're creating new experiences in your mind, so that you're able to plan and rehearse for something that's about to occur which, in sport, this happens all the time in any performance, preparing for a speech, about to do your lines, when you're acting, about to perform musically, in all these situations you are, often you're imagining how that experience is going to go and if you train this part of you, then that experience, you can prepare better and feel more ready. And what you hear often from performers, is that been there done that feeling? Because I visualize it or imagined it, I feel like I've been there when that situation comes up in the match or in that performance. So I think you hear that often with visualization and imagery. Now, why, how or why does it work? Well, we covered this in the last podcast episode, like I said, there's a number of different theories here. I don't really want to dig into all of them right now, I'd rather get more into the into the practical, but understanding that as you are imagining experiences, your brain is working. So the theory is it's sending signals to those muscles. So when you are working on that serve, and you're imagining that target, your brain was creating all those connections in the neurons, sending those signals to the muscles, and so whether you think about it is this psycho neuromuscular connection that's happening as you practice these things, or how you're coding it in the brain, a specific coordination of movements or how you're going to do something and a routine or in a performance, you're mentally preparing your creating these connections in the brain so you can apply it better later. The other theory that's really popular is this idea that as you do this visualization or imagery, it has an effect on other mental skills, other qualities, your confidence, your commitment to your game, your readiness to perform. You feel much more prepared as you mentally do these reps. And finally, what I would say is that these reps don't cost you anything physically. And we can only hit so many serves before our shoulder starts to break down. You can be imagining your serve and getting good reps, and again, the higher quality that you do this with, the better those reps get and they almost get to or do get to a level of the physical practice. But in this performance, you get to control fully the outcome of the shot, and when you're executing in real life, we know there's some variability to that. So, Earlynn anything you would add to them?
E: Um, I don't think so yet. I think there are some really good connections when we get to how to teach it and how to integrate it as a coach. to not forget about these kind of things or to really, as a coach, take the initiative, make the effort to learn a little bit about these different theories and why imagery works and some of the research and science behind it because it'll make it so much more effective in imparting that information and telling athletes about the why when you want to integrate it into your coaching. Because if you're just doing it without any of that kind of background information or helping athletes understand why it's helpful, then it might not stick as well as you would want it to.
L: And I think today, you know, E and JP, that young players are really interested in brain science. They're interested in how the brain works. I feel it's qualitatively different from when I was growing up, or I didn't really care, I just wanted to perform. But I do think because of the way the world is today, information being at your fingertips, and players, young people always searching for the answers on Google, etc. I do think they're inquisitive about the brain, many players, and they're interested in how it works. So that provides credence to why we're doing imagery or visualization. Oh, okay, I get it, this is why and now I can start to buy into that. The other way to do that, obviously, is to talk about other players that use visualization or imagery. Bianca Andreescu talks about using creative visualization as a way to prepare, and to perform in pressure moments. We've heard athletes across the board talking about visualization. In fact, I think I mentioned this in the last podcast, in a study of performers, the mental skill that was most highest rated, was actually mental rehearsal, using imagery or visualization to prepare for a competition. So this is a tool that athletes have been using for many decades. You can probably go back, way back in time even before we were studying this starting in the early 1900s, with Coleman Griffith. So it's been going on for a long time. And I think, really what we want to focus on is how can we maximize this skill that we all have?
J: Yeah, absolutely. And it comes in, as you mentioned, it comes in many shapes and forms, right? So the ways in which players can use visualization, there's a few words here that you've written down here, Larry, that I really love how you phrase them is, the ways in which we can use visualization there is before we play, so pre play that you've labeled as rehearsal, which I love that name for it. There's replay, which is after, which is reflection. So we have rehearsal, reflection, then there's the practice of the routine of visualization. You've got to use visualization to enhance skill learning, and then also you've put down here, healing. So all that, so rehearsal, reflection, the practice of routines, the enhancement of the skill, and the healing, elaborate on that just a little bit more before we talk about what actually is a quality visualization session.
L: Yeah, sure. I think you know,E, please jump in here that there's so many different ways to use visualization and we're only sort of scratching the surface when we ask a player to imagine hitting a shot or a couple shots. And you can imagine, really anything that you can be creative with in your mind, but I have players who imagine whole performances. They imagine their whole day and how it's going to play out, just this feeling ready and prepared for the day. So you can imagine, you can pre play, or rehearse what's about to happen. Now think about this, you meet with your coach at dinner to talk about the game plan for tomorrow, and as a junior, you usually don't have videos, so you're relying on words on what your coach is saying. But we know that images are probably more powerful in terms of rehearsing for a competition, so and then you go into your brain, and you begin to imagine the courts you're going to play on, you imagine the scene, you imagine how you're going to play, and specific things that you like to do within your game and then how you're trying to break down your opponent. This creates this readiness, this mental readiness to perform. So there's the rehearsal, which I sometimes called a pre play to help the younger athletes understand how we're using it, and then the replay like a reflection, so I can be stepping back after a long training day and think about what were the highlights of what happened today. What did I do well? So often athletes focus on either what happened first, what happened last, or what they didn't like. And often it's the third and what they didn't like about the practice day or the match. And so by coaches intentionally having players reflect using imagery or visualization on some of the best parts of the day, and things that they learned, you're now enhancing retention, that ability to call and again the next time they train or play, as well as you're enhancing their ability to take that skill and possibly apply it in a new situation. So absolutely essential, if people are listening, if you get anything from this, have your players visualize at the start of the day, h how they're going to be successful and what they're gonna work on and commit to it, and then at the end of the day, visualize what they learned and the good things that happened on that day, so you're enhancing the learning cycle. Then there's these other ways you can be imagining, you know, we talk about routines all the time on here, JP, one of my routines I'm going to use in the match, well, I can play those through in my mind, different situations. Well, what if my opponent starts really fast and hot, and I'm down 0-3? Here's me, what I'm going to do in the changeover, here's how I'm going to think about it. So you're creating these routines, or it could be their base greenlight routine of what are my steps, this is a way to learn that and enhance your ability to do that once competition starts. And so there's so many different ways you can use it, you talked about in terms of learning the serve,the kick serve on the deuce side and the T, all the different skills and then I think we can we can do a whole podcast on healing imagery, and there's a lot of thought on this and just how effective it is. But it's the idea that something's going on in the body, maybe you have an injury or an illness and you imagine that part of that body healing itself, and you imagine maybe strengthening in that part of the body as well. So if you have a muscular injury, you imagine those fibers coming back together stronger, and then the actual movement and how you're going to feel great, this is a great way not only to enhance recovery, but also to help athletes more seamlessly come back to competition after a major injury. And that's how we'll often use the visualization to help them in that situation. E, what do you think?
E: Yeah, I just wanted to add, I'm glad that you made that connection to Johnny is example of the serve and using that image to help with the kick serve on the second serve. But I think this notion of rehearsal or pre play can be big, it can be before you start your whole day or before you start your practice. And the thing is that you want to accomplish or seeing yourself doing certain things well, or accomplishing certain tasks, but it can also be small and that's where it's embedded into routines. So, between points, if it's, or between serves, right, like for Johnny's example, if it's okay, I can see this target, I can visualize that and now that gives me an idea of where I want my ball to land. Or even in the player ID camps, we talked with athletes about visualizing a serve-plusoe pattern, if they're serving, and integrating that right into their between point routine. That's a version of pre play as well, it's just on a much smaller scale, and it's reinforcing pre play or rehearsal in general because athletes are doing it hopefully on every single point. It's becoming normal for them because they're doing it within their routine. It's drawing on something that for a lot of athletes, it's pretty normal, especially youth athletes in terms of their likeliness to visualize or daydream or dream or play pretend, of course, you know, playing pretend this is more for the even younger athletes, but really, we're drawing on things that they already do well, and we're finding more and more ways to integrate that notion of pre play or rehearsal. Not just before the day starts, but all throughout the day.
L: And I'm going to pick up with what you're saying, E, cause that's great, because then you have to train visualization in five minute increments, but also in 25, because that's what you have between points, but also in three seconds. So you train your visualization imagery in different time periods as well, depending on what you're trying to achieve. Five minutes might be that five minutes you take before the match to sit quietly, you're listening to music, you're imagining your performance to get yourself ready. The 25 is well what you have, maybe between points and maybe sitting in the changeover. And the three is what E is talking about what you really have when you go through your green light routine, and you're moving from the response to the recovery. And now I'm at the back fence and I'm thinking about what's my next point going to be that serve-plus-one, return-plus-one, you're imagining it in your mind. And if you're using visualization and imagery, that's a much more powerful way to move your mind from the past, or jumping out in the future because you're captivating your mind with an image. There's a triangle, I'm hitting it, I practed it, I can do that. That's the plan, commit, go. Now you can quiet the mind and move into the fourth stage of a routine which is a ready stage, where you are moving your attention to the external and less on your internal thoughts. So, great point by E. We have to train it in these different timeframes and actually have players in practice use it in these different timeframes, so they get comfortable with it. It has so many applications, you're in the gym, and you're warming up, and you're now walking to the courts, you can do 30 seconds of imagery or visualization of how that practice is going to go. And if you did the five minutes at the beginning of the day, it gets really easy to access that quicker than if you're trying to create it from nothing, if that makes sense.
J: Yeah. So you're really setting the stage, I mean, that's that's really important to do, so you can refer back to that as you said I think. So before we, okay, we want to train visualization, what is the stage, what is the environment that we need to set first? So what sets up a quality visualization session?
E: I'll take this one to start, I would think, and, Larry, please jump in here, but for me, it's going back to, depending on where athletes are in terms of if we're talking about just doing this for the very first time, I think some information and talking about the why and how it's going to help them is going to be essential at some level. Whether that is pulling from some of the knowledge that we talked about with the theories. I have the luxury of just being a mental coach and being able to talk about this specifically for my whole time that I'm working with athletes. So I like to tell a story about Stewin and his research with Alpine skiers, which is basically the explanation for the psycho neuromuscular theory that they were hooked up to electrodes and Larry is absolutely spot on in that kids like to learn about brain science because they were so interested in this. And when they went down the hill, their legs were firing at a lower level, but with the same parts as if they were doing it for real. So some little piece of information that's going to capture any athlete, whether they're a kid or not in terms of what we're doing here and why this works. Quickly rolling that into actually trying and doing this and getting in a state where they can practice, I think it's really important initially, that athletes aren't in an area where they're distractible, that they're comfortable and that they have an idea of what they need to be visualizing at that moment. I think too, there's a learning curve to visualizing, right? To visualizing effectively. We talk about vividness, so being able to see something, or experience something with all six of the senses, like Larry mentioned before, so sight, smell, taste, touch, sound, and the kinesthetic or the movement sense. Unfortunately, whenever I ask children about the sixth sense, that joke never lands. They're too young. Or I'm too old.
L: A little bit of both.
E: A little bit of both, but they answer me as if it's like a sincere question, which it is, but it's also a joke, but I digress. So we talk about vividness, and then controllability, so making sure that anybody who's using visualization has a degree of being able to control what they're experiencing and what they're seeing and those two things, take some practice. takes some time and are a bit difficult to do right and to do well. So starting simple and progressing from things that are maybe shorter, more simple, whether that's seeing a single shot, yourself executing a single shot, whether that's seeing yourself on a tennis court and trying to pull as much detail as possible, whether that's seeing yourself moving from one part of the court to the other, or even seeing yourself in your room and being able to pick out as much detail as possible. All of those are more simple visualizations that then you could progress to being more difficult, more nuanced to require even more vividness and require even more from you in terms of controllability. So those would be a few of my things. I don't know if I was jumping ahead too much. But Larry, please fill in the gaps for me.
L: No, those are excellent, E, and I think this is how you ask players to evaluate the experience for at least, you know, did you imagine what you wanted to imagine? Did it feel lifelike or vivid? Was it like you were there? Were your senses engaged? And if so, you hope that it evokes emotion, because that emotion is going to create a more memorable experience. And if you're creating that memory, a positive memory, it's much easier to retain that later at another time when you need it during the performance.
J: Yeah, so...
L: I was just gonna add, sorry JP.
J: All good.
L: So along those lines, you want to create this distraction free environment. You want to have them trained first, and just get comfortable with it and working at it. If they have trouble controlling the visualization, you can do very simple exercises like just imagine a tennis ball in your mind or holding your racket, and then put the ball in a racket and now dribble the ball. So you can really do things that they're used to doing. If they have trouble with vividness or adding senses, then you need to isolate and work on the ones that they have trouble with, and then bring them back into a full visualization. So most players can see things but feeling it or touching it, which are very important for tennis visualization, you may need to isolate that. I like to talk about maybe like how you feel when you make connection with the ball, but also your movements and getting the focus on your legs and how that feels as well. I think that's important individualization. The way I like the flow often is, and E was sort of pointing this out, is start with the simple, like create the scene of the scenario you want to be in. The court you want to be on, the weather conditions, your feelings, how you're excited, how you're ready to bring in different senses, but just start slowly with the creating the scene, the net, the net post, the lines, so that they can kind of get into the flow of it. And then come in with a little bit more complex things, like okay, now you carry your bag over and you put movement in, and this is how the dirt feels on your feet, and you open the zipper and you can hear it opening and you open the can of balls. So you start adding things, details in the longer visualizations, so they get this life like feel, they're able to control it. And then you bring in movement. You maybe start with just hitting forehands up the middle, which is going to be easier than I'm being pulled out wide, and I have I'm hitting a backhand slice and I'm playing out 5 to 10 shots. So I do think there's a progression that you build in. Some of your players will get it quickly because they daydream a lot. Others will need more time to do this. The other thing I'll add in terms of teaching this is creating that distraction free zone is not just the environment, it's in your own head. So doing mindful breathing, diaphragmatic breathing as a way to quiet the mind, and it enhances the visualization or imagery experience.
J: Yeah, absolutely. As someone who's taken Dr. E's script to be able to use this with a couple different camps, the breathing to me was a huge, huge part of teeing up this optimal environment to be able to really, first of all, I think, take visualization seriously. I think sometimes with the younger kids, it's like, you know, I'm gonna open my eyes and look around, see who else has got their eyes closed? You know, like, it really does set the tone or felt like that breathing was the biggest part in creating the optimal environment. So I thought that was the diaphragmatic, I can't even say.
L: Diaphragmatic.
E: Deep breathing.
J: Deep breathing.
L: Using the diaphragm to breathe.
J: Yes, I'm just never gonna say that word. I literally cannot say that word. I do it every time.
L: Let me save you, Johnny, here, because I think that, you know, again, coaches is you want to do this with your visualization. Practice with your players, don't have the parents sitting there watching them, or other coaches. Create an environment where they don't feel like they're being watched or judged. So you want to do it in a room, people aren't looking in, not passing by. Noises are pretty much being canceled out. I know that in clubs there's no noise cancellation, soundproof rooms, but do the best you can. So I think that's important. And then as you move along, and you're working on this, yeah, the buy-in at first can be tough with kids. Let them joke around, let them get the fart noises out, etc. But now, okay, guys, gals, let's take it seriously because mental training is serious and at some point you'll be in a match where you're in the changeover and you're unsure what to do, and you're going to go into your head and try to figure it out, then the more you can control your visualization, and imagine your success, the better you're going to do when you step back out on that court.
E: Something that I want to add to that, because those are really good points is, especially with kids, I try to assume nothing. Not necessarily assume that they know nothing, but not try to put my head into their head because I was 10 or 11, but a long time ago, and I don't maybe know exactly what it's like for them. So something that I have done, especially when working with groups, so if, you know, you're a coach and you're at an academy and you have more than one athlete and you're thinking that, okay, this might work for you know, if I have the undivided attention of one but how do I do this with more than one and how do I do this effectively, and even more importantly, how do I make this specific and useful enough for each and every one of the athletes that I'm working with in this group is to on that topic of assuming nothing, get them really involved by responding to questions, or I even have them write it down. So something that I start with is for them on the tennis court, if we know the six senses, like what do they notice, or they see on a court that's familiar to them? So at the National camps, we have, you know, hard true courts, I'll make it specific to that green clay. What can they see smell, taste, touch, hear? And then we'll follow that kind of progression, basically, having them write out their script. So what exactly do you do when your name is called for a match? You know, do you grab your bag? What color is your bag? What kind of bag do you have? You have, you know, a Babolat, a Wilson, what? You know, what do you do to start a point even, having them write out, like, tell me how you're going to win the first point of your match? Right? So you step up to the line, and what kind of point are you going to play because that gives you information, like that gives them information and get them really involved for what they're going to visualize. And they have a really clear plan. So, especially with younger kids, making the abstract stuff, this isn't necessary so much with older kids, if that's, you know, more natural for them to think and hold all that information in their head, but for the younger ones, putting it down on paper, getting them involved helps to get it specific, so then you can, you know, get more specific as they get more practice, get more difficult, and you can follow that progression.
L: Specificity is important. Being real is important. You don't ask players to visualize a bunch of aces when they're 12, and they're hitting the ball over the net and dropping it in, so and not hitting aces. So I think, be realistic. You want players to imagine competitive points. Some where they're on the offense, some where they're on the defense, and they're transitioning to offense. And along these lines as they get better at visualization, and get comfortable with it, having them imagine missing, and then coming back and playing well and using our routines to do that, so responding well to adversity. And, you know, just Michael Phelps, the many time gold medal winning swimmer, he'll imagine the perfect race, but then he'll imagine some form of adversity and how he's going to deal with that as well. And that paid off with a gold medal in 2008 in one of the gold medal races where his goggles broke, and water was flooding in. He couldn't see where he was going. But he remembered preparing for these kinds of situations. He started counting his strokes. He knew exactly, timing it when he was going to hit the wall, so he didn't slow down to hit the wall, he ended up winning gold anyway. So I think that you want to get to a point with your athletes where it's very real. It's very vivid. It's specific to the things they're going to do in the performance. So they can imagine how they're going to play when they go out there. And the reality of tennis is that it's messy and there's a lot of adversity, so you want to prepare for those situations. Particularly though, in teaching it I don't start with adversity, I start with seeing kind of their best self, add some senses to it. And as they get comfortable with that, we then start bringing in well, what happens when you're not at your best? Okay, well, what can you do about that? What's your routine and how do you want to play after that? Getting back to their best self. So I think there's a progression there as well, as we talk about this thing, and then I think it's doing visualization in the classroom, or in a room, but you have to progress to where they're doing it on the court.
J: That was going to be my biggest question here, is okay, this is all unbelievable information for being able to train it will teach it and then obviously train it. But where does the rubber meet the road and being able to transfer it to competition, because I think sometimes with any skill, that's the toughest part, right, is what we take from practice to the competitive environment where there's a bit more pressure on and a lot of things going through the mind. So where, you know what helps in that transferring a skill that they may have now hopefully developed a routine within practice on to the competitive court?
L: I think what helps for the transfer is to try to take simple visualizations and take them to the court as you're practicing. A simple one I like to do is to visualize while you're serving, and just targets and imagine how you're going to hit that serve. And as they get more advanced, they can imagine the trajectory of the ball or how it's going to bounce and go. That's a good one, visualizing before you return, imagining how you're going to hit the ball, just one shot. Then as you move along, they can be visualizing in the changeover and imagining what that first point is going to be like when they come back on the court. They can be doing it in their green light routine. So as you're practicing the between point routines in training, even in match or point play in training, having them go through the green light, but use imagery or visualization to plan the point they're about the play. But I think you want to put it in the environment and understand that they're going to struggle, understand that emotion is going to block visualization a lot of times, and that's where we need to get to, is get in those dirty environments, and work and communicate and ask like, Okay, are you using visualization? How is it working? How can we make it better? Oh, I gotta make sure I take my deep breath and clear my head, so then I can focus on seeing the serve that I want to hit. So These are all things that you're going to be working through on the court with your players. And I believe that you need to dedicate time to this on the court. Because if you're trying to teach technical or tactical things, and then you just kind of, oh, by the way visualization, your players are not going to get it the same as if you say, okay, we're really going to work at this. We're going to take, you know, 10 minutes in practice for a while to talk about the visualization, how you're using it as you practice and then when you play practice matches, this is going to be part of what we do. So
E: Yeah, I would just add, to distill two points from Larry, it sounds like repetition and like in practice, so using it and practice and reminders. I can't stress enough like kids are juniors, they need reminders for these things. They're not gonna get it the first day or you know, like just constantly asking, you know, are you doing you're visualizing? How can you be doing it here? So and giving them like you said, Larry, giving them really opportunities to do that and that would be the repetition. The one thing that I would add, and this I'm pulling from some of the junior boys coaches from one of the national camps that I worked a little while ago, they did such a great job of like them responding or being knowledgeable about visualizing in the moment. So a question from an athlete was like, okay, so I can visualize my serve-plus-one, but what if they, what if my opponent puts the ball where I didn't expect it? And the coach responded like, well, visualizing your serve-plus-one, it gives you a plan and a plan is so useful, you can always adjust your plan and adjusting is way better than having no plan and not knowing what you want to do at all. So in that way, you know, they're further instilling the usefulness of visualizing because of their knowledge while responding to that question or, you know, helping the learning of that athlete.
L: Yeah. And as you plan, E, then you quiet your mind and you can be present. Because you have a commitment versus things just happe randomly. And I think that's, in terms of doing this work, you need to talk to the athletes about why you plan and why you prepare, because they will do exactly what you said. They'll question it as maybe they should. Like a lot of times when you're 13, these plans don't work out, but the plan is much better, it gives you commitment, and gives you a quiet mind and you can trust your training once the ball becomes live, and you do it with a quiet mind. The other thing to think about is, the more you rep that, the more you practice it, the more your serve-plus-ones, return-plus-ones are going to work and if you can get them to work a fourth of the time, if you can get one point per game that you're able to run your serve-plus-onem your return-plus-one, that's awesome. And then as you become a pro, hopefully that you're at least a college player or a really good High School player, you can do that more often. But the pros certainly are doing that often, they're running their plus-ones, and it's helping them to get through matches, and to have to grind on every single point. They're planned and they know what they're going to do, and they have the weapons now to actually make that happen.
J: Awesome. Alrighty. So we're running short of time here, Dr. E and Dr. L, so let's do a three bullet point takeaway for training visualization and you're both pointing at each other, so I'm going to give it to Dr. E.
Okay, um, three bullet points. One would be a train yourself as a coach, so maybe gaining more information on visualizing, why it works, what it's about, doing additional readings, going to resources. Player Development has some resources for that specifically, so just so you know, you know, you can explain the why to the athletes, you can set up a good visualizing training program and you can respond to those athlete questions that they will inevitably have as they're trying to learn this new skill. Visualizing is just like any other skill on the tennis court, you are very knowledgeable of all that technical tactical, so having some knowledge about the mental is helpful as well, Two, I'll just pick up on the other two that I said so repetition, creating scenarios in practice to highlight these things, work on these things, giving athletes a lot of opportunities to practice and use the skill. The more normal it becomes for them, the more likely they are to use it on their own. And then three would be reminders and reinforcement. So whether it's asking questions about, you know, the quality of their visualizing, like Larry mentioned before, and it's how real was that for you? How controllable was it for you? Those are two questions that would be really important in the early stages of learning visualizing, whether it's reflecting on practice and the frequency or how often they use their visualizing and helping them to highlight places where they did really well or to answer questions about places where they may have missed or it may have been difficult for them to visualize effectively either between points on a changeover and then reinforcing, so if this is a behavior, if this is a skill, a thing that we would want them to do more often, we reinforce for that behavior, we give positive feedback, we say how we you know proud or happy we are with their using visualizing, or their improvement in their game as a result of their visualizing. People love to be positively reinforced for things and that would be a strategy to use to improve visualization as well.
J: Awesome. Awesome. Alright. Well, that was great stuff. Great recap, a great deeper dive into it. Dr. Larry, we are going to put up some resources on the show notes. Maybe we can put up there some homework, some things that they can do especially during this this period of time.
L: Yes, we can do that. For sure, JP. You're giving me a look like you're giving me work. So yes.
J: Awesome. I'm not trying to give you work. Well, I am.
L: Yes, you are.
J: Alrighty, Alrighty. Well, Dr. E, thank you so much for joining us. And again, you're doing some fantastic work with our juniors and putting the script together and helping, like really diving into these topics and doing a great job with the kids, so we appreciate yo, andu appreciate you taking the time to come on. That wraps it up for...
E: Thank you!
J: Yeah, Absolutely. Thank you, E. Thank you. Yeah, that wraps it up for this week's episode of Compete Like a Champion. As mentioned, we're going to put up some resources on the show notes. As always, check out our website And until next week, stay safe. Larry, Earlynn, we're checking out.