Mastering the mental game of tennis

Published by Ruth Anderson

Stanislas Wawrinka at the French Open
Negative thoughts and self-doubt can sometimes prove to be tougher opponents than the person standing on the other side of the net. But like ground strokes, the mental side of your game can also be trained.

Negative thoughts and self-doubt can sometimes prove to be tougher opponents than the person standing on the other side of the net. But like ground strokes, the mental side of your game can also be trained.

What defines a tennis champion? We are continually striving to understand what is required to succeed at the highest level of competition and discover the ideal state to perform. Players invest hours on the training court refining technique and developing the physical ability required for optimal performance, but surprisingly little attention is paid to the psychological skills required to compete.

Tennis is a mental game. All elite players have the physical and technical ability to excel on the court but what defines a champion is the ability to thrive under the pressure of competition. In the critical moments of a match, it is the player who is able to embrace the challenge and take control of their psychological state that will perform at their best.

A tennis match is full of distractions that are outside of your ability to control. The opponent, umpiring decisions, weather delays and performing in front of a large crowd can all distract players from executing their game plans. What can become the largest distraction during the match is not the player on the other side of the net but your own state of mind.

Overwhelming anxiety, doubt in your ability to perform, pervasive thoughts about results, concentration lapses during critical moments can all interfere with your ability to execute your skills. You may be the physically and technically superior player on the court, but if you don’t have the ability to control your psychological state when under pressure you will limit your capacity to win.

Pressure can be helpful or harmful to your performance, depending on how you choose to respond. You can learn to thrive under pressure by enthusiastically accepting the challenges that confront you and utilising psychological strategies that will create a winning mindset in all areas of your life.

Manage your mental health
Mental health is a significant and often neglected aspect of general wellbeing. It was estimated in the Australian National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing that one quarter of people aged 16–34 years met the criteria for one or more mental disorders. Recent research with elite athletes has found that mental health prevalence rates are similar to the rates identified in the community, and 46 per cent of athletes in the study identified experiencing at least one symptom of a mental health problem.

Paying equal attention to both your physical and mental health should be an integral part of your daily training routine. It is important to be proactive in responding to any significant changes in your mood, thoughts, or behaviour to maintain good mental health. Creating a balanced lifestyle, developing coping strategies to effectively deal with stress, and sustaining supportive relationships with friends and family will all contribute to your psychological wellbeing.

If you commit to enhancing your mental health off the court, you will strengthen the psychological skills required to perform on the court.

Think like a winner
Your thoughts are the most important tool in taking control of yourself and your performance. If you think about the results or focus on winning a match, the more likely you will be to undermine your capacity to win. Pressure will naturally trigger self-doubt and generate negative or anxious thoughts, but it will only be detrimental to your performance if you choose to believe what the thoughts are telling you. You can’t control what thought comes into your mind, but you can control how you deal with it.

Be assertive in taking charge of what you think and you will put yourself in the best position to win. Positive thoughts focused on executing your match plan will assist you to achieve the optimal psychological state for peak performance. Develop the ability to recognise unhelpful thoughts and change your perspective by focusing on a constructive thought to minimise the influence your thoughts have over your behaviour and actions. You have a choice about the way you think.

Learn to relax
Anxiety is the natural enemy for every competitive athlete, but is an experience that needs to be embraced as an integral part of the competitive environment. The key is to learn how to take control of your anxiety before it takes control of you.

A level of anxiety facilitates your performance, by activating your body and focusing your mind. Anxiety becomes debilitative to your performance when you feel overwhelmed by the physical and psychological symptoms. Learning to relax promotes control of anxiety and facilitates recovery by reducing physical tension and calming the mind. The cumulative effects of stress, the worry about impending performances, and the acute anxiety experienced during critical moments in a match can all be assisted with relaxation exercises.

The simplest way to train to relax is by the use of iPhone apps that provide convenient access to information and relaxation tracks. Relaxation HQ (available on the App Store) will equip you with the tools required for relaxation for sport performance, and Smiling Mind is a free iPhone app providing mindful meditation for general wellbeing. You can have a powerful influence on your anxiety by developing the skill to relax your body and mind.

Believe in your ability
Success isn’t defined by a result, but by your capacity to perform to the best of your ability. You can’t predict what matches or tournaments you will win, but you can ensure that you maximise your physical, technical, and psychological skills. Maintain positive expectations about yourself and your ability to perform successfully. Focus on building confidence in your capacity to execute your skills, and see what results you are able to achieve.

You can develop self-confidence by reinforcing your strengths and learning ways to think and act confidently.

Relish the challenge of testing your abilities in a high-pressure situation, and bounce back from disappointments and setbacks by learning from your experiences.

Knowledge is power. If you actively utilise your experiences – both the good and the difficult – you will become a confident and resilient competitor.

Consider psychological recovery
Tennis is a sport of psychological endurance. Players are required to sustain the optimal psychological state for the duration of a match, regain the state for the next match, and maintain their psychological wellbeing over consecutive tournaments.

The psychological recovery process assists players to cope with, and recover from, a match to ensure performance standards can be maintained throughout a tournament. A win or a loss will generate strong emotions and it is critical to ensure these are dealt with in a constructive way.

Debriefing matches effectively and utilising relaxation exercises will enable you to self-regulate the psychological factors experienced during a match. Implementing psychological recovery strategies will facilitate healthy sleeping patterns during a tournament and enhance your general wellbeing.

You can only expect psychological strategies for sport performance to make a positive impact on the court when you are actively managing your psychological functioning across all areas of your life. Confident and constructive ways of thinking, alongside the ability to tolerate and deal with emotion, will contribute to your ability to stay strong during the critical moments of a match.

Don’t limit your ability to achieve by neglecting your psychological wellbeing, and commit to developing a healthy mind and body. You can stay in control of your mental game by creating a champion’s mindset that will contribute to success on and off the tennis court.

Ruth Anderson is the Director of MiND HQ, which provides psychology services to individuals and teams, giving them the knowledge and skills required to achieve optimal performance on and off the sporting field.

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