8 February

It's all in the mind

All sport can be mentally tough, but the one-on-one format of tennis, played over a couple of hours, can make it uniquely challenging. So how to cope? Lauren Povey, a cognitive behavioural therapist at the Priory Hospital in Chelmsford has some tips

Naomi Osaka’s performance in the final of the Australian Open was a masterclass in finding mental strength. She was 7-6, 5-3, 40-0 up on Petra Kvitova’s serve and just when the title was hers for the taking, she wobbled. Kvitova pounced and won the second set. A distraught Osaka seemed to be in meltdown. But she took a bathroom break, came back and played, poker-faced, and calm as you like to win the set, the match and the championship. Afterwards, she said, she shut down her feelings, emptied her mind and “did what I’ve been practising my whole life in a way. I didn’t waste any energy reacting too much.”

Local Tennis League players are unlikely to find themselves in a Grand Slam final, nerves and anxiety can get the best of anyone in a match. “While you may think that your performance is just driven by external factors like your opponents, the weather or an injury, it is also influenced by what you think you can and can’t do as a result of these external factors,” says Povey. “We can’t stop our thoughts but we can change how we choose to respond to them.” 

Matches can be won or lost in the head, so you need to put as much effort into the mental side of the game as the physical. The first step, says Povey, is to recognising what's going on in your mind. After a match, write down the moments you became anxious, think about what you thought, how you felt and how you went on to behave.

  • What for example made you anxious? Was it the thought of the match, during the warm up or at a particular point in the game? 
  • What were your thoughts? Did you think you were going to lose? That you were going to make a mistake? That you were hopeless?
  • What will happen if you keep thinking like this? Will it make you doubt yourself? Stop your love of the game? Lose you the match?
  • How can you challenge your negative thoughts and what would be a healthier way to think? That, for example you are playing for fun and enjoyment? That you are doing the best you can? That every game is a chance to improve?

In your next match, make a conscious effort not to dwell on negative thoughts. When you feel them welling up, focus on your experience, skill and the previous achievements you have made instead. According to Povey, once you are well-versed in this technique, you will be able to pause and redirect yourself away from negative thoughts the moment they arise so that they don’t distract you.

Secondly, visualise your success rather than your failure. In the lead-up to a match, regularly visualise the achievement that you want. "This will act as a non-verbal instruction, training your body to act confidently in moments when you otherwise would have been nervous," says Povey. "Just like any skill you use in your sport, it needs to be practised to be perfected." 

  • Find a private calm space and make yourself comfortable
  • Take a few slow deep breaths and close your eyes
  • Set the scene and make it feel as though you are actually there. What’s the venue? What are you wearing? What can you hear?
  • If you have been struggling with a shot or strategy, picture yourself doing it perfectly and with confidence
  • If you get distracted by negative thoughts during a match, imagine yourself poised, relaxed and focused, performing exactly the way you want to

Finally, swap your negative inner dialogue for positive self-talk. Worry can you make you focus on the worst. Stop your inner critic having a go at you!

  • Before the match, prepare yourself: Think, "I’m going to play as well as I can and enjoy it."
  • During the match, say to yourself: “Concentrate on what is going on, not on how you feel”; “This is just anxiety, I know it will pass” 
  • After the match: remember to give yourself praise. Think: “I did it, I’m getting better”; “I’m making progress”; “I did that well”

Even when things don’t go quite to plan, take the time to review what happened. Any small step that you make is progress!


Lauren Povey is a cognitive behavioural therapist who supports people with anxiety at the Priory Hospital in Chelmsford. The Priory Group is the leading independent provider of behavioural care in the UK, caring for around 30,000 people a year for conditions including depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and self-harming. The Group is organised into three divisions – healthcare, education and children’s services, and adult care. The Priory Group is owned by NASDAQ-listed Acadia Healthcare, which is recognised as a global leader in behavioural health.