TennisPro Magazine of the Professional Tennis Registry – Apr 11, 2002 – John F. Murray -Tennis professionals around the word – listen up. I know you’ve heard it a thousand times tennis is played and won in the head, psychological skills are essential, and the mental game accounts for up to 95% of performance. You may believe these statements, but there’s a whole lot more. Simply realizing that tennis is a mental sport is about as helpful as knowing that groundstrokes and mobility rule at Roland Garros, or that the serve is a major weapon at Wimbledon. Respect for the mental game is a necessary starting point, but its only the beginning. Players and coaches who practice mental skills properly and consistently gain a distinct advantage. Whats really incredible is that many athletes have not really figured this out yet, so this is your chance to gain a true advantage. In this high tech age of training, if your not winning the mental game you’ve already lost!
The Mental Steroid Myth
Many players and coaches only train their mental skills occasionally, or hire a sport psychologist to provide brief services right before an important event. These approaches will temporarily help improve focus and motivation, but this last second cramming before the big exam is far from optimal. Is very important to understand that there are no Å“mental steroids on the market. Quick fix approaches rarely to lead to meaningful long-term improvement.
In my work with individual athletes and teams, Ive found that it usually takes a few sessions involving discussion, evaluation, and basic education to set a foundation from which higher mental strengths can grow. Every tennis player is like a grand piano, uniquely crafted and requiring individual attention and expert tuning. Key mental building bocks are introduced and practiced in a group setting, but players benefit most from individual discussions involving issues such as motivation and distractions. Time is needed for trial and error, patience and supportive accurate feedback. What works well for one player may not work for another. Informed tennis coaches can help by introducing basic mental skills to enhance performance, and sport psychology workshops are useful in gaining accurate information.
For more serious problems, or difficulties off the court, coaches, parents, and athletes are always advised to seek professional help. Common distractions include relationship problems, perfectionism , or more severe problems like intense anger, depression, or anxiety. Although most athletes are well adjusted and emotionally healthy, coaches need to be aware that their studentd overall well being is most important, and leads to the greatest improvements on the court too!
Thinking that mental skills will grow with only occasional practice is as ridiculous as assuming that your top juniors should practice serving once a month. The difference between winning and losing is often so subtle it goes unrecognized. Upon closer inspection, however, this difference is revealed in areas such as confidence, stress, and attention control. Players and coaches intuitively know how important proper management of thoughts and feelings are, but many become frustrated when they cannot maintain mental supremacy. The reason for this is simple. They do not practice or teach mental skills regularly, and often have incomplete or inaccurate knowledge. Confidence that is not regularly practiced will be as inconsistent as groundstrokes drilled only once a week. Players wanting mental toughness need solid facts, self-understanding, and someone to guide them along.
Setting the Stage
You may be thinking – OK, I’m a firm believer in the mental game, but what does all of this really mean? What exactly are these elusive strategies and techniques that supposedly spell the difference in the closest matches? And how do I practice these skills? If you are asking these questions you’re definitely not alone. Many elite athletes are still unclear about what it means to know and practice the mental game. Many top players already have a strong mental game without really knowing it. They may have had a great mentor or tremendous street smarts. Even the most naturally strong mental players, however, can improve their performances by paying close attention to the tools of sport psychology.
Sport psychology is both a science and a cutting edge profession that developed to meet the challenges of high performance situations. While there are no mental steroid quick fixes available, there are years of serious research available in articles and textbooks widely distributed throughout a vast sea of knowledge in professional journals at universities. Sport psychologists have spent years accessing and evaluating the knowledge needed to improve performance, and have experience utilizing this knowledge in practice. Many have conducted research to answer sport related questions. For example, my doctoral dissertation found that social support (caring & emotional support as well as help & guidance) helped injured players from the 1996 national champion Florida Gators football team to adjust better to injury. Sport psychologists bridge the gap between what is known and what is actually practiced.
A Mind-Body System
Although Ive used the term “mental skills, the human being is really whole unit in which the mental and physical constantly interact. We’re really talking about Å“mind-body skills or Å“psychological skills.Thoughts and feelings influence physical actions and sensations, and vice versa. If youre anxious in anticipation of a challenging tennis match, your muscles often tighten up and your breathing become quicker and shallow. If you are confident and poised, on the other hand, your thoughts are clearer and actions smoother and more deliberate. So mental skillsis a cliche and were really talking about the whole range of human experience including thoughts, feelings, actions and physical sensations.
In addition to these modes of experience, my research shows that there are distinct groups of skills that have an enormous effect on tennis performance. Although this article is too short to address all these strategies, they are outlined in my new book, Smart Tennis: How to Play and Win the Mental Game (www.SmartTennis.com). For the time being, Ill highlight some of the features of the following 4 skills: Confidence, Attention Control, Imagery, and Energy Control.
Many tennis players get down on themselves with negative thoughts about their abilities, or lose confidence when the going gets rough. Once they learn that confidence is a skill that can be controlled, and that expecting the best is necessary all the time, they make huge strides. Confidence is a foundation from which many other skills emerge. Players who feel, act and think with confidence always raise the level of their game. Winning can never be controlled . The opponent may be stronger, smarter, more experienced, better looking, or meaner. But confidence will make you a better player.
It’s also important to realize that too much confidence can be negative. Players who expect that success will come without hard work are wrong. Those who think that just showing up will allow their mental supremacy to shine will be terribly disappointed. Overconfidence is as much a killer as self-defeating thoughts and negativity. What’s needed is healthy balance between expecting the absolute best every moment, and the humble realization that the opponent wants to eat your lunch, dinner and midnight snacks! Act, think and feel that you will prevail, but even with a 6-0, 3-0 lead, never let these realizations steal from effort, intensity and focus.
With confidence in check, many players still run into trouble because they do not remain properly focused on the immediate task. We’ve heard the words focus and concentration from the time we were tennis infants, and for good reason. Tennis is a beautifully complex sport. Players are constantly bombarded by internal and external distractions, and forced to make fast and accurate decisions. Intruding thoughts, feelings, sounds or physical sensations remove the player from the goal of keeping the ball in play, looking for an opportunity to gain an advantage, or executing properly. To improve attention control players need to remain centered in the present. Many obsess over the previous point, worry about the score, or let outside noises or sights affect them. These distractions make it very hard to perform your best.
Think of your attention on the page you are currently reading. If youre not optimally focused on these words, or allow other thoughts to intrude, youll forget what you just read. You cannot think of two thoughts at once. On the other hand, if you are too intense in your focus, you get caught up with each word or sentence, and may miss the overall meaning. This is how attention works on the tennis court too. Players need to develop a fine balance between directing awareness on what is relevant, while blocking out needless distractions.
If you’ve ever dreamed of travelling in a time machine, then imagery, or visualization, is your vehicle of choice. It is a marvelous time machine because it allows you to go back into the past, or forward into the future to improve performance. This ability to simulate images, thoughts, feelings, and even positive psychological states such as confidence and focus, needs to be well maintained and used regularly. I encourage players to practice imagery frequently, for the vividness of an image is essential, and gaining control over images takes time. Imagery helps players by increasing their practice time (even if it’s only a simulated reality) and can be achieved even when they are miles from a tennis court, or on an airplane!
Imagery allows players to rehearse new skills, prepare for competition, and better manage many distractions including stress and fear. It may provide a more organized mental plan, add meaning to competition, or improve specific skills and strategies. Encourage your students to imagine only perfection in shot execution, to make it appear realistic but challenging (e.g., imagine competitive points that are eventually won), and to conduct imagery in real time. It’s also better to mostly use an “internal view,a perspective in which you perceive that you are actually in the situation – looking out toward the court and the opponent. This is contrasted with the “external view,the view we have of ourselves when watching a videotape of our matches. The “external view helps for specific techniques involving form such as the serve.
Intensity and energy are terms used to describe an arousing agent of the mind and body that gives us fuel for performance. While physical sources of fuel include proper nutrition, sleep, and fitness, psychological fuel is equally important for performance. Mind-body energy includes active moods, determination, competitive excitement, social influences, confidence & self-esteem, and imagery and self-talk. This energy needs to be properly available, in the right form, and balanced for high performance. Players run into difficulty when their energy levels fall either too low, or rise too high. Players may become too relaxed, bored or less intense, or they may have the opposite problem and become stressed, anxious, or angry. For example, choking occurs when high fearful energy is combined with perceptions of an important situation. This results in conscious and overly careful play, and mistakes.
Gaining control over energy sources is extremely important. Players seeking to maximize their energy levels need to begin by examining the relationship between their intensity levels and performance. Some players are naturally more highly energized, while others prefer to remain cool and calm. As a general principle, tennis players usually benefit by keeping their energy levels on the lower end of the scale. Too much energy is a more frequent problem in tennis than too little energy. This is in part because tennis is a complex sport involving multiple quick decisions and highly refined motor skills. Contrast this with the demands made on a 340 pound offensive lineman, weight lifter, or sprinter.
Much of my work with tennis players involves helping them learn to relax more effectively, breath better, and deal with the stress of competition. There are many ways to gain control over out energy levels and finding the balance is key. After reviewing a player performance, and discussing their thoughts and feelings, it become clearer which situations, thoughts, feeling, actions and physical sensations led to the greatest energy problems. On- and off-court exercises are very useful.
Whether you’re working with an 8-year-old beginner, professional player, or 88 year old veteran, you can no longer afford to ignore the mental side of the game. By investing seriously in mind-body skills, you’ll be tapping into an exciting frontier that holds promise as a tremendous source of enhanced performance, greater fun, and increased understanding. Good luck in your quest!