“I had a time machine, all right. Sure, it can’t help me change the past, but it did help me leave the past behind. What it does best, though, is travel into the future. I can close my eyes and go wherever I want, and once I’m there, I can see good things happen.” Tom, aged 10.
This quote is from a book written by Pat Flynn, 48, Australian children’s author, father of two and extremely handy tennis player.
It follows the adventures of Tom Connors, a budding tennis star, whose confidence is shattered after he suffers a crushing loss to his arch rival Zac in the final of a local tournament. He eventually triumphs after his teacher shows him the power of his mind, teaching us that it’s only with a dose of self-kindness and self-belief that we give ourselves a chance to achieve our goals.
With more than a casual nod to life imitating art, Flynn took on board some of the advice dished out by Tom’s fictitious teacher, Miss Hobbie, and turned it towards his own tennis career.
“I got this brief from Penguin to write a book for the Stuff Happens series about mindfulness,” Pat remembers. “But I didn’t really understand what that meant back then. I ended up writing a book more about visualisation and the power of affirmation, but it sent me on a journey.
“As part of my research for the book I went to see a hypnotist and she got me to think of a match where everything went wrong and then shrink it down to a single dot on a page. She then asked me to picture a beautiful day where I was enjoying playing and letting my body just do it.
“That weekend, I had a doubles tournament and I played really well, so I decided to take things a bit further. I downloaded a hypnosis script about getting in the zone. So each night I’m listening to this stuff. Then we won an event in Brisbane a couple of weeks later.”
As a result of that victory, Pat and his partner Helen Parsons were given the opportunity to compete as the Queensland representatives in the 2014 Australian Open Win-A-Wildcard event with a main draw berth in the mixed doubles championships up for grabs.
While they were eventually knocked out in the semifinals at Melbourne Park, it was a very impressive result.
“I felt like I’d turned a bit of a corner,” Pat says. “It’s been a long journey since then and I’m not such a fan of hypnosis these days, but it got me interested in the mind, getting past some of the fears I had and playing some decent tennis again.”
Flynn was a prodigious junior talent, spending three years at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) before going on to play another four years at the University of Texas.
He was a finalist at the Australian Open Junior Championships back in 1984 and had a career-high world ranking of No.390 two years later.
Flynn grew up on a dairy farm about an hour out of Brisbane with three siblings and 11 cousins. “There were five families living on a 600-acre property,” he says. “We all had separate houses but we’d walk across the bush and see each other on the weekends. It was a good, fun upbringing.”
At nine, Flynn was introduced to tennis by his father, Peter – a keen player who’d once lost to Rod Laver and Frank Gorman in the final of the Queensland under-17 doubles title. They practiced on the local ‘ant bed’ tennis courts – a popular surface in Queensland in the 1960s and 70s using dirt taken from ant’s nests – until Peter built a bitumen court on their farm.
“It wasn’t a very good court,” Pat recalls. “It used to leave black marks over everything.”
In Pat’s first ever tournament, he lost in the final, 11-9 in the third set (no tiebreakers back then), and learnt about the fickle nature of competition.
“I remember being close to winning and seeing tears stream down my opponent’s face. I felt sorry for him and eased up a bit; next thing I knew he was beaming and I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.”
It was a lesson that would be repeated – Pat hated losing but didn’t always feel great about winning. Nevertheless, after that first tournament, he was hooked on tennis. Pat finished sixth at the State under-11 titles, before his family moved to Northern California for six months when Peter, a university lecturer at QUT, was offered an exchange with San Jose State University.
Once there, Pat began practicing daily and playing tournaments most weekends. When he returned to Australia, he won the state title without dropping a set.
From the age of 12, he remained in the top two players in the country for his age, travelling twice to the US with the junior Australian team before his admission into the AIS as a 15-year-old. “I was the youngest by more than a year,” he says. “Rubbing shoulders with older players like Darren Cahill, Peter Carter and Simon Youl meant I learnt a lot by osmosis.”
This makes sense, as Cahill went on to coach Lleyton Hewitt, Andre Agassi and Simona Halep, while Carter coached Roger Federer before tragically dying in a car accident.
The only drawback, Pat says, was that while the older players hit the Canberra nightclubs on the weekends, he would ride his bike to the Belconnen mall on Friday nights for a milkshake.
His social life may have been at a standstill, but Pat’s tennis started taking off. At 16, he beat highly world-ranked juniors David Wheaton and Arnaud Boetsch and scored wins over seasoned professionals such as Peter Rennert (an American former world No.40).
“Because I was doing well, I started getting a fair bit of attention from the coaches. I was basically a very good defender, I was fit and could run all day, I had pretty good concentration and didn’t make too many mistakes.
“Their thoughts were that if I could just develop a big shot, like a big forehand or a better serve, I could do even better. They started picking apart my technique, and in some ways, that was the beginning of the end for me. The more technical we got into it, the worse I started to do.”
Flynn says the simple truth was that he was starting to think too much. “If you try too hard, you’re in trouble. I needed to trust myself and let go of the outcome.”
“I remember playing at the French Open Juniors and intently watching the seams of the ball as it flew through the air, like Timothy Gallwey talks about in The Inner Game of Tennis. He’s saying just get your mind interested in it, but I was watching the ball so hard that I’d be hitting it and keeping my head there for a second longer. I remember Lew Hoad was watching the match with Ray Ruffels and he said to him, ‘What’s that kid looking at?’”
“It’s hard to know exactly why things started going wrong for me but it seemed to be a combination of my brain causing my body to over-tighten and, the way the game was changing, guys started to overpower me.”
Undeterred, Pat continued to ply his trade via the US college system, but he felt like he was constantly on the search for a secret. “I thought that if I could just find a way to turn things around I would be able to make a living out of playing tennis, but it was becoming harder.”
Still looking for answers, he finished college and for ten years had a world ranking. But in that time he only played one full year on the circuit. Eventually, Flynn wound things back, limiting his professional outings to the Australian tour with coaching gigs in between.
At the age of 25, he moved to South Australia as a development coach working with the coaches who trained the likes of Lleyton Hewitt and Alicia Molik.
“It was exciting. I finally learned modern technique, and it also gave me plenty of time to practice and play competitively. In my late 20s, I went back on the circuit for one more shot, but was surprised to find myself still tightening up and going into my shell. After a while, I realised I was going nowhere. I felt like it was over and it was time to move on.”
Flynn completed a Dip Ed and became a high school English teacher, continuing his interest in tennis by writing about it in magazines. This flourished into a desire to write his own books for the youth market.
“I wrote a series of books about a skateboarder,” he says. “I took up skateboarding myself because I couldn’t do any of those things when I was playing tennis. So I’m 30, and I’m skating with the kids I am teaching. It was a nice change, although I was still playing some local tennis tournaments.”
Enter Tom Connors and the art of mindfulness. Had Pat inadvertently stumbled across the tennis secret he had spent much of his life searching for?
What transpired after the book was published was a more dedicated approach to a level of tennis he had not attempted for nearly 20 years. “I started wondering how good I could get at my age if I applied the knowledge and experience I had now. Maybe it was some kind of redemption… to win the inner game.”
Unfinished business? “Yeah. Definitely.”
With a somewhat informal goal of reaching the top 100 in Australian Open men’s rankings within a one-year stint, Flynn set about his task.
“I read all the books on getting the best out of yourself,” he says. “They all pointed to similar things in how people are maximising their performance across a variety of fields, such as detaching from the outcome and working on the process.”
Flynn started well, notching up a win against a player ranked 50th in Australia in just his second tournament back.
“It was interesting,” he says. “I was playing great but I remember thinking that I didn’t care if I won or lost. I just thought ‘I’m just going to keep my muscles loose, go for my shots and see what happens.’”
But then the unthinkable happened. Or in fact, quite the contrary. The thinkable.
“The same old feeling of expectation crept back in. I had a big loss and I found myself right back in the same place I was years and years ago. All of my bad habits were back.”
However, instead of once again capitulating to the rising fear, a seminal moment came when Flynn reread The Inner Game of Tennis, the book that had helped him play some of his best tennis at 16. At the time, he’d used the book to help his concentration, but this time Pat says he finally understood Gallwey’s message of using non-judgmental awareness as a tool for natural learning.
“I stopped telling myself what to do and started to notice what was actually happening. The more I directed my attention in an interested way towards relevant things such as my body and the ball, the better I started to play.”
This path led to further research on mindfulness, and Flynn began meditating daily.
“When you're playing tennis you want to be almost completely in the sensing part of your brain,” he says. “You want to be feeling your body and seeing, hearing and feeling the ball. You just sense the racquet head, how fast the ball’s coming, and everything happens automatically.”
“The only way to strengthen that sensing part of your brain is by practice, by meditating, and by introducing mindfulness into your daily life – whether that’s feeling your body while you stretch, listening properly to your kids, or watching the dirt as you sweep the floor. When I’m on court, I remind myself to come back to the here and now by focussing on things like the ball and my breath, rather than listening to the inner voice that tells me I’m going to lose if I don’t try harder. And I try to play with an attitude of self-kindness rather than self-criticism.”
“I’ve still got a lot to learn though. I’ll be washing the dishes when thoughts about the next tournament and who I’m playing come up. Will I win or lose? What will happen to my ranking? It’s a big change just to focus on what I’m doing and bring my attention back, but I can feel my brain changing. I can feel it on the tennis court too. I handle stress much better and I can sort of just feel my way through the doubts and fears.”
Perhaps the best example of this occurred during Flynn’s unprecedented run to the main draw of an Australian Pro Tour event in Toowoomba. During his second round qualifying match against Ivan Goluza, a world-ranked player some 27 years his junior, Flynn says he started anticipating where his opponent was going to serve the ball.
“I’d have a feeling that he was going to serve up the middle, serve body, and I was almost always right. There have been things like that, which I can’t quite explain. I’m just more in tune with what’s going on.”
While Flynn lost in the opening round of the main draw to a rising Australian teenager, Adam Walton, his effort to reach that stage of a professional ITF Futures event propelled him well inside the top 200 in Australia.
At the time of writing he is ranked 168, with a few more tournaments to go before his experimental year is up. To put that into perspective, only 12 players in the top 200 are over 30-years-old, and Flynn is the oldest by 11 years. Ranked below him, the next youngest player is Lleyton Hewitt, 13 years Flynn’s junior.
“For the first time in my life, I’m just letting my body hit whatever shot it wants to rather than controlling it with some kind of mental instruction. Now I just let my intuition take over and hit the shot that feels right. My rhythm has completely changed as a result, and I’m now starting to play a more enjoyable style of tennis where I’m using drop shots, angles, and creating easier power as my muscles are more relaxed.”
“I was a conceptual learner and the way you are taught tennis is that coaches tell you what to do and you do it. You can lose that trust in your body’s own ability to do the right thing at the right time. And once you've lost that trust, the seeds of doubt are sitting right there. You think more, your mind goes faster and you start doubting yourself.
“That’s where my career eventually got to. Too much thinking, too much analysing and too much tension. So now I’m practising mindfulness on and off the court and I can really feel the difference in my ability to stay in the moment.”
Whether or not Flynn reaches his goal seems immaterial these days. “I’m just going to do this for a year and see what happens. Hopefully I can help some other people learn some of the lessons that I have.”
Many of us would love to travel back in time and use our present-day knowledge to change the things we regret. This is what inspired Pat Flynn’s comeback as he searched for a way to finally reach his potential on the tennis court. But what he learned is something that he wasn’t looking for; something that can help us all. The only way to truly change is to make peace with the only life we ever get to experience – the one lived right now. And that’s where the dial on his time machine is firmly set.
Pat Flynn has started a blog about his journey at www.awaretennis.com.
Writer David Packman is also a registered meditation teacher.