Ash Barty is one of Australia’s most unheralded sporting champions. She is the current world #1 in women’s tennis and played played top professional cricket during a break from tennis a few years ago. Her cricket coach said this about Barty’s abilities …
“Her skill from the first time she picked up a bat was outstanding from a coach’s perspective… She never missed a ball in her first session… That’s what attracted me as a coach to her as a player, her ability to pick up things really quickly.” Andy Richards (Coach Brisbane Heat 20-20 Cricket Team)
Last night, Ash won her 3 round match playing in front of a non-existent, home crowd at Melbourne Park. A 5-day COVID lockdown of Victoria means tennis fans will have to watch from home. That means players will slog it out in empty, cavernous stadiums with only ball kids, coaches and a solitary umpire present.
In last night press conference Ash was asked to reflect on the experience of playing in an empty stadium and without the buzz and noise of an adoring home crowd. Her response revealed a clue about what she chooses to focus on and see when playing tennis and cricket at the highest level. No wonder Ash never missed a ball in the cricket nets!
“You can narrow your focus in to listen to the sound of the ball. I find it a way where I can listen to the spin the opponent is hitting on the ball, the pace it’s coming.” Ash Barty
Ash is obviously a student on the Inner Game of Tennis – a book title and tennis philosophy by Timothy Gallwey. This book had a profound impact on my own tennis game and on my life that followed. He proposes that tennis is a metaphor for life in that we watch events in our lives coming toward us. But, just watching approaching events (e.g. a tennis ball; criticism from a manager) is not enough to respond at our very best. When approaching events are fast moving and catch us off guard, we need to be completely present and see oncoming events in ways that place us in the best position to respond. Like any sport, tennis is a game of processing information about the oncoming ball – it’s speed, spin, trajectory, weight and even the sound all contribute to the clarity of our picture of the event. The more information we notice and process, the clearer our picture of the way things really are.
Beyond events (like a single tennis ball spinning as it approaches), we can also extend our noticing skills to see patterns and learn even more about the world around us. Patterns are collections of events over time that show trends (like in tennis when we learn to predict where our opponent will hit the ball based on past rallies and previous matches) … but I’ll leave this concept for another post!
In sum, learn to present to oncoming events and narrow your focus on all the information being offered in that moment.