With Wimbledon in full flow, I’ve been thinking a lot about tennis, and how it relates to music in terms of the performance mindset. Roger Federer, arguably the greatest tennis player of all time recently said in an interview that he still gets nervous on Centre Court. Horrowitz, one of the greatest pianists of all time had a break from his career because of nerves.

The mind games of a tennis player

In my performance coaching practice I teach my clients that the mind games of a tennis player are identical to that of a musician. So much that W.Timothy Gallwey’s book, The Inner Game of Tennis was shortly followed by The Inner Game of Music. If the mind games are the same, then as musicians, why do we not practice all the things tennis players and other professional athletes are so accustomed with? There is so much we can learn from them about how to focus our mind during performance. I am particularly interested in tennis, because it seems that more than other sports mindset alone can be the difference between being champion and coming second. Not to say this is not true of other sports, but I think it is far more visible in tennis.

The importance of flow

In The Inner Game of Tennis, Tim Gallwey talks about how players aspire to ‘play out of their mind.’ He emphasises the importance of not over-thinking or over-trying. The state he is referring to is being in flow, or in ‘the zone.’ Many musicians can relate to this. When you hear a tennis player interviewed after a match which went well they will often say ‘everything felt right, I wasn’t really thinking too hard, it just happened, I was in the zone.’

So how do tennis players get into the zone? One way is focus on the present moment, a kind of mindfulness. They are not thinking of the bigger goal of winning the match, the set, the game, or even the point. They are focusing only on each ball as they hit it. They focus on what they can do with each ball to either defend or attack their opponent. The end result is either that they win or lose the point. Of course some points will feel more important than others, and there will be a bigger game plan, but in the moment they are only focused on how they can successfully hit the ball each time. The same goes for each match within a tournament. They are only focusing on one match at a time, because it is not relevant in the moment to think about what happens after this match.

Think about how you can apply this mentality as a musician, perhaps thinking phrase by phrase, piece by piece and being mindful of how it feels to be creating and shaping your sound as you go along. It can also be helpful not to get too fixed on the overall outcome of a performance or audition. If you are too caught up in ‘winning’ as happens in tennis you can easily mess up the process because of the pressure you put yourself under.

Another important factor in performance is not over-trying, and letting things just happen. Professional tennis players, as do professional musicians spend hours everyday practising. Tennis players will work on and off the court practising various aspects of their game and improving their fitness. The match that they reach is just a natural extension of the time spent practising their skill.

Whilst in the performance of an important match they will be looking to play with their instinct, not consciously think too much, let movement and reflex happen naturally, whilst maintaining a focus and a positive intention to hit the ball well each time, something we can easily translate into the act of playing our instrument. We need to trust that we have put in the work.

Positive visualisation

Tennis players and other athletes seem to have mastered the art of positive visualisation, and we are still catching up in the music world. In many cases musicians have never even heard of the idea of visualising a performance. Tennis players will visualise themselves playing their match well in advance, seeing themselves playing well, looking confident, and maybe even things like seeing the ball bigger and themselves moving faster. As musicians we can learn so much from the practice of this in helping us to prepare for performances in exactly the same way.

The body language of confidence

A final note is on body language. When you look at someone like Federer, most of the time his body language is either positive or very neutral. It is rare that you see him stoop over, look disappointed or react negatively in any way which shows through his body language. When you look at other players, the moment they start to show negative signs in their body language often the whole game starts to unravel for them. Not only does it affirm their own negative thoughts, but their opponent notices and cashes in on it.

In music, the same could be said about unconfident body language on stage. If we play a mistake and pull a face or hunch up in embarrassment, the audience will probably notice our mistake. If we carry on with positive body language they probably won’t even notice. Positive physiology gives your brain the impression you are in control and feel confident. In a way, it tricks the brain.

How can I help?

So if you come to see me at my performance coaching practice in Dulwich or Clerkenwell or attend one of my workshops in Central London, we will apply all of this to the way you approach performance, and in a relatively short space of time you will start to embrace more of a performance mindset as a musician, instead of just hoping things will go well. As with everything, it’s all about preparation and practice, but sometimes you just need a helping hand to guide you through the process and work through your fears and anything which may be stopping you from performing at your best.