Training your mental game

Published by Matt Ahlberg

Rafael Nadal has a reputation for being one of the most intensely focused athletes on Tour. Photo: Getty Images
So much time is dedicated to improving technical skill and physical ability but how much time do you spend working on the mental game? Matt Ahlberg provides valuable advice.

Great players spend hours and hours on court getting the physical and technical things right. Along the way they will build up mental strengths as well. However, the mental game needs consistent focused attention if it is going to improve and be a strength for the athlete.

The higher the standard of tennis gets, the less it becomes about skill, because the difference in skill between players gets smaller and smaller. As success becomes less about who is more skillful, it will become more about who is mentally stronger.

So much time is dedicated to improving technical skill and physical ability but how much time do you spend working on the mental game?

Two ways that players and coaches of any level can incorporate the mental game into their training as a way to start to better develop the mental game are:

1. Having a focus or goal for every session.
2. Design physical sessions so that the mental game is deliberately worked on.

Focus/goal for every session

Setting a goal or focus point for every session is crucial for players to improve their ability to focus, their intensity in the session and their ability to stay process focused.

Having a specific goal for the session (such as moving to the ball quicker) gives a player a central focus point. This helps to improve a player’s ability to focus as every time they lose their focus (which happens to all players at some point) they have a central point or task to come back to.

In a practical sense this means that when a player is upset with a poor shot or worried about what people will think, or stressed about the score they will be better at taking their focus off these things and bringing it back onto something more useful (e.g., “quick feet”).

A specific training goal also helps players to work harder to achieve that goal. For example, if the goal is to get into position quicker then they will work harder to move quicker around the court to achieve the goal. This increase in effort not only translates to a good physical workout but also a positive and achievable focus for the session.

Finally, a specific focus point or goal is useful in a training session because over time players will get better at focusing on process and less on outcome which is important during a match. An outcome (or result/score) focus is rarely helpful during a match because most, if not all, players naturally want to win so thinking more about it isn’t actually that useful. Time and energy expended on stressing about scores and results increases pressure and decreases performance, so the ability to better control focus is a major benefit for any player.

Focusing on something which a player has control over (process/tasks) is of the most use. Improving a player’s ability to stay focused on process means they are better concentrated on constructing points, running hard for balls, and staying calm between points – ultimately assisting them to perform better and achieve the result anyway.

Designing physical sessions to work on the mental game

Another way of integrating training the mental game into physical and technical sessions is to actually design certain sessions so that some mental aspect is deliberately worked on.

For example, setting players the task of playing with an intense and professional attitude during a match-play session can be maximised by rewarding certain behaviours (such as positive displays after hitting a winner) and penalising certain behaviours (like throwing racquets). Determining the exact reward and penalties is up to the players and coaches and needs to be kept within reason.

Another idea for incorporating the mental game into training sessions is creating situations that test or stretch a player mentally so they have more chances to better manage their emotions. For example, asking one player to make some dubious calls during a match-play session is a way to test their opponent and see how well they manage themselves. The coach or sport psychologist needs to explain to both players afterwards what was happening so they are aware and can learn as much as possible from it.

These are very simple ideas but are ideas that can be incorporated by any athlete or coach if they are serious about trying to train their mental game so that it is stronger when it comes to match play.

Matt Ahlberg is a sport psychologist and director of Mental Notes Consulting. For further information, go to www.mentalnotesconsulting.com.au.

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