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Being present

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.

Anything can be done mindfully – that is, with full awareness of what’s happening right now, in the present moment, with no judgment or rumination. The purpose of doing something mindfully is to really be there, with what you are doing, rather than mindlessly, which is doing something without full attention, or just for the sake of getting it over with. One can wash dishes mindfully. One can have a conversation mindfully. One can eat mindfully. One can also do these things without much awareness or attention, just simply “going through the motions.”

I’ve conducted a neat exercise with athletes, extracted from the work of psychologist Mark Williams and colleagues along with mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn. It’s called the Raisin Exercise. The activity leads the participants, through a script, to eat a raisin mindfully. In other words, becoming aware of the feel, the size, the shape, the unique features, the smell, the taste, and the flavor before swallowing. The whole process takes over 5 minutes – far longer than it would take the average person to eat the average raisin – and is the true meaning of “eating one raisin at a time.”

Eating all of our food in such a manner would surely be unrealistic and tedious. But there is value in “getting to know” what you are doing (this is how many athletes describe the experience with the raisin) and truly “being with” what you are doing, as the experience seems richer and the learning seems deeper. Most of the ‘mindfully-eaten’ raisins seemed to carry more flavor for the players than the ‘mindlessly-eaten’ ones.

For a tennis player, for instance, feeling the texture of the tennis ball in one’s nondominant hand before tossing to serve is a mindful process – it brings richer attention to the act of holding the ball – but for some players, that may not be a helpful activity in maximizing tournament performance. There are certain things we should be mindful of, and certain things we shouldn’t be mindful of while competing and training. Everyone’s list will be a bit different.
But it bodes the question: “What demands my full attention right now?” Surely a helpful question to be posed in considering how to optimally prepare and compete.

For many of us, being mindful of our breathing, our pace between shots, the feel of the ball against the bat, or of letting go of past mistakes may all be useful. Answering the question “What demands my full attention right now?” will guide us closer towards “playing one point/pitch/shift at a time.” And that, ultimately, is a major goal in the mental game.

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