This week we expanded our Coaching Corner to the mental realm and spoke with Chris Harwood, Professor of Sport Psychology from Loughborough University, who tells us how to apply our mental skills when under pressure...
Tennis is one of the toughest sports in which to train and compete from a mental perspective. The individual nature of the game, the brutal scoring system, and the need to repeatedly coordinate technique, movement and decision making every 1.5 seconds are only a select few of the many psychological demands facing players. Then there’s the dead time – the seconds and minutes between points and changeovers that make up over 60% of your match…and you have to mentally manage this too so that the time when you aren’t playing doesn't rip up the quality of the next point! You will already recognise how your own thoughts, feelings and behaviour can influence the smoothness and technical fluency of your on-court performance.
Psychological attributes and skills such as motivation, concentration, emotional control, confidence and resilience form critical parts of your mental toughness ‘armoury’ as players. Mastering these skills is important in helping you to perform your best tennis particularly at those key moments in a match when you see yourself getting close to the finish line.
Mental training and sport psychology is as much an established science as physical training and conditioning but an often neglected area of committed practice because unlike being able to see your biceps get bigger through dumb bell curls, it’s not easy to see your brain get bigger…hence many players simply don't follow through on the strategies.
However, here are a few tips to that will help you maintain a more composed, positive and confident focus in those moments when it’s getting close and you are feeling the heat.
1. You have a consistent between point routine (Accepting the last point – win/lose, Building plans for the next, Committing to a target and strategy – the A, B, Cs – Accept, Build, Commit) that you try to apply on all points not just on ‘the big ones’. Using positive self-talk to move yourself on, composing and recovering using 3-4 deep breaths as you collect the balls, creating a sense of stillness in your focus on the ball and serve as you momentarily visualise the target. The more you have a conditioned routine to all of the ‘normal points’ the better and more confident your brain will be to cope with what may be perceived as the more important points.
2. You recognise and remember all of the strengths that have got you into this position. It’s easy for the mind to jump to the finish line when it sees it in tennis and worry about not getting over it when its so close. There is a tendency to fear messing up and worry about losing a 5-4 service game to take the set or match well before the player is actually playing their first point at 5-4. There is a fear of the consequences or personal disappointment of ‘losing it from here’ so to speak. However, players have to take a moment to recognise how hard they have worked and how they have played to earn the opportunity in the first place. Let’s focus on this first! These moments will help them to focus attention and value on what they should be doing now, not what may happen from time travelling 5 minutes ahead like Dr. Who.
Remember WIN – ‘Whats Important Now’ in terms of strategy and effort. Going through this process will shift your thinking to one of what you can control and ‘all I can do and aim to do is to keep doing X, Y, Z’. Top players refer to this as ‘staying focused on the process’ because ‘their process of competing’ is the only thing they can control….(i.e., there is zero value in giving mental energy to anything else)
3. You can cope with the prolonged uncertainty. Many players have a tendency to want to get things over with, mainly because nervous players really don't like feeling the nerves – they aren’t the most pleasant symptoms. However, with well-practiced (and I mean practiced a lot!) breathing techniques and compassionate self-talk (e.g., not saying ‘you’re useless, why bother!’ to yourself), players will find that they’ll start to get to grips with these ‘closing out’ situations. Importantly, good players recognize that it shouldn’t be a rush and that these games won’t necessarily come easy. One important fact to remember here is that the only point you can’t afford to lose is match-point down and you are currently in a much better position than this. The opponent has a right to fight given that you are trying to hammer the final nail in their coffin so you have to expect some resistance even if they’ll only be metaphorically throwing the kitchen sink at you over the net.
Hence, take a breath and remember to be the best you can be on each individual point and don't panic if its 0-15 or 15-30, 30-30 or even break point and the plan of serving out to love hasn't come off! Focus on your process and expect to be tested.
Tennis is a sport where great players understand that closing out a match may not happen the first time, and the best players deal with this prolonged uncertainty. Knowing this also helps them to focus on the opportunity that is presented at that point with a little less pressure.
So there you have it, building mental strength is key to achieving your potential in a tough sport like Tennis. Thank you so much to Chris for sharing his expertise and we've definitely learnt some valuable tools there!
We hope when you next get back on court you'll be able to start utilising these skills to improve your game, let us know if you do and how it has impacted your tennis via firstname.lastname@example.org