Happy Fun Ball

By Greg Chertok, Director of Mental Training at CourtSense, a high performance junior tennis academy in Bergen County, NJ, as well as private consultant with Telos Sport Psychology in the greater NY area. Greg has a Masters of Education in Counseling/Sport Psychology from Boston University and is a certified consultant with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. He has worked with athletes from the junior to Olympic level.

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Often with groups of athletes, I run an interactive exercise called the Happy Fun Ball. The objective of the game is to pass around a small beach ball in the air, and to record as many consecutive passes as possible without the ball hitting the ground.
A remarkably simple – and enjoyable – exercise, but one that reveals great truths about ourselves when things are not going according to plan. The exercise is difficult in that it requires full coordination and collaboration from each “teammate.” This often doesn’t happen, especially when each player has his or her own views on what the best approach should be.

When things go poorly, as they almost always do at first, personalities emerge: the yellers/fighters, the passive spectators, the “tankers”, the jokesters, the leaders. Likely, how one responds to stress in an exercise like this is similar in nature to his or her response on the court when stress hits.

Furthermore, interaction between some teammates usually becomes strained, and communication may take on a frustrated and belligerent tone. Again, likely similar to how these players interact and communicate with themselves on the court in moments of stress. And such communication takes place without conscious awareness. I often record the dialogues and exchanges during the exercise and reveal it to them afterwards, which makes for a comical (albeit unsettling) depiction of how poorly we communicate when frustrated and tense.

Awareness is key: awareness of our own thoughts and our own language during practices and matches will reveal rich and helpful information, as our self-talk influences our motivation levels, enjoyment, and persistence in the face of failure.

It begins with awareness. Pay attention to how you talk to yourself when things go well and, just as importantly, when things go poorly. Only then can you make a meaningful change.