Mental Equipment Syndicated Column – August 1, 1995 – Dr. John F. Murray – Tennis is often called a “mental” sport. What does this mean? In my opinion, it accents the types of demands placed upon the player.
For example, high priorities include having a well thought out pre-match strategy, making rapid and accurate decisions under fire, adjusting as necessary, and staying calm and focused. It’s much like playing chess, but a whole lot more fun and better for the body! Mental factors are also essential in developing physical tools for the game (e.g., efficient strokes, proper footwork, fitness), for without quality instruction and knowledge, progress can be very difficult. Unlike in some other sports, sheer athletic ability and brute strength play a less prominent role. What is really needed in tennis is more advanced software. Enter imagery.
Imagery, also called visualization, was recently described by Vealey and Walter (1993) as a mental technique that programs the human mind to respond as programmed, by using all the senses to recreate or create an experience. Mahoney (1977) described imagery as one of four categories of cognitive skills important in athletic performance, and Suinn (1984) developed a popular version of imagery called visual motor behavior rehearsal (VMBR). Whenever we imagine ourselves performing an action in the absence of physical practice, we are said to be using imagery. Although research into the merits of imagery lags far behind the practice of the technique, many tennis players find imagery helpful. It is used for rehearsing new skills, practicing and refining existing skills, preparing for particular points, and readying for an entire match. Studies have shown imagery to be helpful in a variety of ways such as reducing warm-up decrement, lowering anxiety, and increasing self-confidence.
How is this technique implemented? First, it should be recognized that, like any skill, practice is necessary. Most tennis players spend enormous time and energy improving their strokes and other physical skills, while neglecting mental practice. Ask yourself what percentage of your practice time is spent hitting balls versus developing essential mental skills through techniques such as imagery. You may discover that you are ignoring this crucial part of your game. Jimmy Connors once said that tennis is 70% mental skills. Are you even spending 7% of your practice time using mental techniques?
One note of caution, imagery may hurt your game if your understanding of strategy and/or strokes is deficient. In fact, you’ll just reinforce bad habits. Before getting started, make sure your knowledge and basic skills are intact. If you are a professional or advanced tennis player, this should pose few difficulties. Beginners and intermediates should schedule regular lessons with their local professional to monitor their progress.
Imagery can be practiced by lying down in a quiet room, fully relaxed, with eyes closed. This longer version lasts anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. It is often used prior to a match and helps prepare the player mentally. Here, the player rehearses a perfect performance, often visualizing a complete match point by point. A shorter version of imagery, lasting only a few seconds, can be used during match play. For example, prior to serving, the player visualizes a perfect serve to a strategical location. Imagery is also useful to familiarize the player with high percentage shot sequences, developing anticipation skills for a quicker and more effective response during the actual point.
Some individuals have a more natural ability to form visual images than others. Here are some tips for those with difficulty forming images:
(1) Try thinking in pictures rather than words
(2) Look at pictures or videos prior to using imagery
(3) Stay in a quiet, relaxed and calm environment to avoid distractions
Here are some general principles to enhance imagery:
(1) Make the imagery seem as realistic as possible by including all senses, in full color and detail, within a similar emotional context
(2) Practice imagery regularly as it may take months before seeing improvement
(3) Believe that imagery works, as your attitudes and expectations enhance the effect
(4) Keep a focused yet relaxed attention while using imagery
(5) Internal imagery is most effective. Picture yourself actually accomplishing the feat (from your minds eye), rather than viewing yourself from the outside looking in.
(6) Only imagine perfection. This will boost your self- confidence and reinforce good habits.
In closing, imagery is a potent mental technique that will raise the level of your game if your basic skills and understanding of tennis are solid. Just don’t let your opponent know what you’re thinking!