We often see athletes getting fired up for a game. In football, for instance, players huddle up before kickoff. Sometimes you see them bouncing up and down as if they are ready to rush off toward a death battle, just like the ones in the movie Braveheart. Freedom! It’s really quite impressive, but is it effective? Think about it. There’s this tremendous build up of energy that needs to be released. The autonomic nervous system fills the body with stress hormones, preparing one for serious action. Yet, with the exception of the special team players, most football players will see not action for some time, especially field goal kickers and and the second string quarterback.

Time deflates the sympathetic nervous system’s intensity, bringing on the parasympathetic response and its peaceful restorative state. In other words, the body goes from preparedness to hit to preparedness to sit! Yet, it’s not just sports such as football in which intensity is misplaced. In sports like tennis, intensity has a place. However, it takes time and experience to understand when and how to apply intensity in tennis. Take the serve for instance, it’s best to be relaxed when tossing the ball but then explode when actually serving. Similarly, when preparing to hit the forehand, a nice relaxed backswing is better than an intense and powerful backswing. Indeed, I don’t even know what the latter means. Striking the ball with power, however, is good.

Intensity is often used to mask anxiety. When we are nervous, we have several options. The first option is to run away, the ‘flight’ in the ‘fight or flight’ response. The second is to pump ourselves up, essentially re-conceptualizing our anxiety into intensity. The third is to calm down. Unless there’s an immediate outlet for intensity, such as punching a heavy bag, or unless fighting is unavoidable, it’s best to relax. Using relaxation techniques prepare the individual to approach the competitive situation mindfully, focusing attention on critical task cues, and preparing the body to employ intensity when really necessary. Returning to tennis and the forehand, when a tennis player encodes cues indicating that a forehand is immanent, the first step is to initiate the backswing, racquet head high, elbow extended, body moving to the correct position to ensure the extended racquet will met the ball correctly. When done correctly, the body is aligned to meet the ball such that the trajectory of the struck ball matches the tennis player’s game plan, for instance landing to the opponent’s backhand side. When the ball is at the correct distance from the strike point, somewhere just in front of the tennis player’s body, the racquet head will drop below the ball and the swing is initiated. If the tennis player is good, the motion will maximize racquet speed by using torso rotation and forward momentum. It’s only during this final portion when the racquet is moving forward, on it’s low to high trajectory, that the tennis player will act with maximum intensity. Finally, to ensure the ball returns to the court after being hit with such great speed and power, the racquet head will climb to an apex, ending with the racquet’s butt facing the target, as if the tennis player were about to kiss the bicep.

Once the ball has been hit, intensity is reduced as the tennis player returns to a ready position, a position that prepares the athlete for what comes next, and this depends upon the opponent’s response to the stroke just hit. If however the player does not reduce intensity after the shot and the situation dictates a soft response, such as a drop shot, this response will be difficult to execute as the body is simply too pumped up to hit such a soft shot. In this scenario, it is possible that even if the tennis player is in the correct position to respond, the response will be too hard and the ball will sail out or be placed in a favorable position for the opponent to capitalize upon.

Intensity in sports like tennis must be saved for the appropriate moments. Good tennis players and athletes in general, learn to conserve energy and apply maximal effort only at the right moment. This requires a great deal of training as only under the guidance of an expert will one learn when to explode and when to prepare. When playing tennis, I like to break down my shots into preparation and execution. When preparing I want to ensure my body is in perfect position to execute the stroke. To do so, I visualize the prototypical shot as demonstrated by one of my many instructors over the years. When executing, I explode into the shot, still focusing on executing the shot in the prototypical fashion. The only difference is that I add the explosion. Then, I end the shot in a way that will ensure the ball lands within the court, outside the service line and just inside the baseline. This is not really easy to do for many tennis players. Indeed, I witness many athletes at lower tennis levels being overly intense when they lack the ability to control the shot. For instance, if one has not mastered topspin, unless the ball is being hit from high to low, the ball will not return into the court.

I find it amusing when I watch tennis players hit balls hard without topspin and then complain that the ball didn’t go in, or even attempt to will the ball to land in the court when it has absolutely no chance of doing so. If one has yet to master topspin, it’s best to master it. If one has a match in the mean time, crank down on the intensity. Once one masters topspin, and has learned to hit the prototypical ground strokes, one will have learned to manage intensity, as it’s only necessary to be intense when delivering the blow. Bruce Lee, the famous martial artist, wrote that when one strikes the opponent, the entire energy of the body is channeled to the point of contact. Yet before that, one is in a very peaceful but prepared state. One conserves energy so that one can deliver that perfect blow and focus attention on more peaceful pursuits. Peace is also the essence of tennis. One is mindful of the situation and responds in a well prepared fashion and with intensity but only as the situation dictates. There is much wisdom in the skilled tennis player.

My goal with this post was to demonstrate that although intensity is a necessary part of sport, it should only occur when required. At all other times, one must be aware and prepare to respond as the situation requires. Too much intensity will detract from one’s ability to successfully prepare and execute when needed. Aware and Prepare; I like that!