I believe one of the most overlooked areas of training and competing in tennis is also one of the areas that most tennis players have HUGE amount of room to improve. Yes, I’m talking about the mental side of the game. Sports psychology research demonstrates over and over that using several techniques to improve your “mental toughness” will lead to measurable improvement in your performance! IMPROVED PERFORMANCE! Why would you not work on this? In addition to making you a better tennis player, these techniques make the game more enjoyable, and they make you more fun to be around (AKA, a better teammate). So why don’t more people focus on this part of the game? I think it is in part because of a lack of understanding that this can be just as difficult to develop as the perfect forehand stroke.
Most tennis players are probably aware of what they should be doing between points. I am always amazed watching how calm and positive professional tennis players stay in some high pressure and challenging moments. Just like the rest of us, they miss shots that should have been easy for them, they face missed calls, they play in wind, they have “bad days”, and they play opponents that are “treeing”. Professional players’ ability to recover quickly from negative circumstances constantly amazes me! How many pro players do you see that display negative energy, body language, and self-talk? We can see that pro players have developed the mental part of their game to the same elevated level as their conditioning and stroke production. Another way to think about this is to consider who your toughest opponents are. I’m guessing you don’t mind playing the opponent that is on an emotional roller coaster. You can count on them to at some point get down on themselves and give you a couple of easy games because they are so mad at themselves. But, playing the person that is positive and energetic throughout the match…you know that is always a difficult opponent.
It really boils down to a couple of factors that you should be working on throughout practice and matches. These are the key to understanding that if you don’t do this in practice, you will not do it in matches.
Step 1, use positive body language. Your shoulders should be raised, take deep breaths, walk with confidence, move your feet as the point is about to start.
Step 2, use positive self-talk. It helps to have a key phrase or two that you are constantly telling yourself between points. For example, “I’m playing great;” “my backhand is working well;” or “I love tiebreakers.”
Step 3, find a way to channel anger/frustration into positive energy and intensity. Mental toughness does not just mean not yelling at yourself and not throwing your racket. It means being positive, intense, and aggressive! Think Rafa!
Virtually all of the best players I have coached have highly developed mental toughness strategies. I am aware that it is easier to be positive when the match is going your way, but your job is to get better at staying positive even when the match isn’t going your way. The less time you spend telling yourself how horrible you are, or how unlucky you are, the more time you will have to focus on what you need to do in the next point to give yourself the best chance to succeed. As we all know, tennis is an incredibly mentally challenging sport. It can feel like you are all alone on the court and everything is against you. Be your own best supporter out there, which will improve your performance, and make the game more enjoyable to play!