Playing Unconscious Tennis

Teachers clarify four approximate stages of learning. New to the game, you are unconscious of your incompetence (pretty harsh eh). Take a few lessons and you become conscious of your incompetence. More practice and lessons and now you achieve occasional conscious competence. And if you reach the heights you will finally experience unconscious competence.

Certainly this creates a simplistic dichotomy – but also highlights how much mental effort occurs to play well.

Consider the following scenario with an unusual degree of unconscious competence – the server hits a big one, you ready to stroke it, the ball lands very close to the line, you meet the ball cleanly if not perfectly, and then a moment after the fact you see the ball out and call it so. Has this ever happened to you? Somehow in the wink of an eye your unconscious mind noted “fault” and felt “no problem,” but the stroke was already underway, you could not stop at that point, but uncannily you hit the ball perfectly. Worse, on the subsequent second serve you wonder why you can’t hit that ball as well.

Somehow Roger Federer knows this story.  Five consecutive US Opens and five consecutive Wimbledon’s.  And within that amazing run Fed hit the lines so many darn times.  In fact, in the early days of his run Agassi presented his greatest challenge.  At the US Open he beat Agassi in 5 sets in the 04’ quarters, and 4 sets in the 05’ finals, but what stands out in my mind was his Palm Springs 2004 semifinal victory, 46 64 63 – where on so many occasions after 8, 10 and 12 ball exchanges Roger absolutely hit the lines with repeated winners.  At that point in time his supreme confidence removed all doubt.  And doubt, to my mind, is the conscious estimation of possible failure.  Within that 10 grand slam run, Fed played unconscious tennis, and it showed.

Roger may rise yet again, but these days he appears less able to play the ball to the lines, and as regards Nadal that may be a necessity.  In fact, in his recent loss to Andy Murray at the BNP Paribas Open, he indicated perhaps an inability to thread the needle. The following post match comments from Federer tell the story, “Murray is a great counter puncher and reads the game really well.  He knows he doesn’t have to play close to the lines because he can cover the court really well. I think that calms him down mentally. I think that is why he’s playing so well.”  This type of observation never occurred during his Grand Slam run – I hope he finds that form again.  That said,  unconscious competence is darn hard to achieve, much less reachieve.

Takeaways.  I am not exactly sure how to advise you to access your unconscious tennis genie.  But I do believe that by exploring how those unconscious moments feel (when the ball is barely out just as you are stroking it) you can get a handle on playing less with your conscious mind and more by letting muscle memory take center stage.

Postscript.  For another look at playing out of your mind, in this case as regards Arthur Ashe, check out Levels of the Game by John McPhee.


  • Abe

    Reply Reply May 16, 2009

    Hi Jim
    Excellent post, I know just what you mean.
    Another example of unconscious playing is when the opponent hits a powerful shot at you and you somehow react and return it just us good, but then comes the floater, which gives you all the time in the world to think about it, and this one you shank.

    It also happens in table tennis where suddenly you’re hitting 2 or 3 balls at blazing speed until you realize the amazing thing you’re doing and think about it, that’s when you miss.

  • Pat Yongpradit

    Reply Reply May 12, 2009

    Hi Jim,

    I really enjoy your posts and appreciate your analysis of the sport.

  • Paul Miller

    Reply Reply May 1, 2009

    Jim: Great picture of Federer. It looks like he is going to be real late on his shot. Is this a common thing we hackers do-start our swing far too early and use up our power before hitting the ball?
    Great article and interesting concept. I guess I need to consider all of my opponent’s shots out and calmly return them.

  • Brian Antecki

    Reply Reply April 10, 2009

    Jim, great job on your tips. Your insite is invaluable. Thank you for sharing.

    Brian Antecki

    • Jim

      Reply Reply April 17, 2009

      Brian – thanks for the note

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