‘You have to train your mind as much as your body‘ – Venus Williams.
‘If we all trained our minds as much as we are training our muscles and physical body, I think we would achieve and maximize our potential‘ – Novak Djokovic.
Although I have picked out the above quotes from Venus and Novak, virtually every top player recognizes the importance of sport psychology for tennis players. As many have remarked, all of the leading players have high levels of physical fitness and good shots. What distinguishes them from each other is their mental strength. When you see Nadal or Djokovic play a big point, even when there are huge sums of money at stake and millions are watching, you will notice that they are not tentative.
Instead, they are positive and aggressive, demonstrating how much they want to win without lapsing into excessive caution. This does not mean that they are immune to feelings of tension and nervousness: it is simply that they have worked extremely hard on controlling and dealing with such feelings. The most important fact to understand is that we can all work on our mental skills, whatever our age, experience or level of play. If we want to improve our tennis, we must treat training our mind as being at least as important as working on our forehand.
There are many different types of mental training that can help you to play better tennis. Just as you can train your body through anything from pilates to running up sandbanks carrying weights, you can benefit from working on different aspects of your mind using a range of methods. I will look at some of the most important tennis psychology tips in this article, as well as looking at the suitability of mental skills training for seniors.
Sport Psychology For Seniors
The first thing to address here is whether over-40s tennis players should really bother with mental training. It is not that long ago that it was common to think that working with a psychologist was something people only do if they have serious mental health issues. A lot of people in this age group still carry that attitude with them, and would never consider consulting a professional to help them with their mental skills. These same people would think nothing of spending thousands of pounds on technical coaching. As a result, there are many players out there with lovely shots, but who are very fragile when faced with a match situation.
If you do not want to be one of those players who play well in practice but less so in matches, it is time to forget your preconceptions and embrace mental skills training. It does not matter whether you are 40 or 80, you can still learn new skills that will help you to play at a level close to your best more often, and to win more matches when you are not playing well. As a starting point, read about some of the most useful techniques in this article and think about what might be of help to you.
Whatever the level you play at, there will be certain situations where you begin to feel nervous. For a professional this might be a deciding tie-break or any part of a major final. For a keen amateur it could be playing the deciding rubber of an important league match, or trying to close out a singles match against an opponent they have never beaten. The true significance of the moment does not really matter, as a player gets nervous because THEY regard it as important, and possibly, consciously or subconsciously, doubt their ability to do what they need to do.
This emphasises an important point: people make themselves nervous: the situation is rarely genuinely life or death. If the player is causing the issue through their own interpretation of the circumstances, it stands to reason that they have the ability to make themselves feel calmer. The simplest way to do this is to work on alleviating the symptoms of nervousness through relaxation.
The idea of being able to relax whenever you feel levels of tension rising is a deceptively simple one. A player may think that just taking a few deep breaths prior to an important point or game will be sufficient, but without practice this rarely works. When you are nervous you tend to breath more quickly than normal, and not as deeply.
Thus, if you just try to take some deep breaths at a tense moment, you are not likely to be breathing as deeply or slowly as you think you are. The answer to this issue is to learn a technique known as ‘abdominal breathing’.
This technique can ensure that you take a full breath, even when you are nervous. You must sit or stand in a good posture, and imagine that your lungs are split into three parts. You focus on filling the lower part first, pushing your stomach out, then the middle section, expanding your ribcage. Finally, you pull back your shoulders to allow you to fill the top section. To breathe out, you slowly reverse this process.
This technique should be practised every day until you are proficient at it. When you can do it well, it will ensure that the deep breaths you take before an important point are indeed full and slow, and the technique itself will give you something other than the situation to focus on.
There is one other popular technique for relaxing your body during a tense match, known as ‘progressive muscle relaxation‘. Like abdominal breathing, this method requires quite a lot of practice before it will be useful in a match situation. In its simplest form, it involves tensing individual muscle groups and then allowing them to relax.
To begin with, you sit or lie comfortably and, beginning with your face, tense each group of muscles (e.g. eyes, mouth & cheeks, neck, etc) one at a time for a few seconds. After tensing each muscle group, allow it to relax, imagining any residual tension drifting away. Work systematically down your body until you reach your feet. This will take several minutes, but by the end of this process your whole body should feel relaxed.
Obviously, you would not have time to do this during a tennis match, so you need to move on to a more advanced version. When you have mastered the basic method, the next stage is to begin by closing your eyes and identifying which muscle groups are tense. Having done this, you can use the tense and relax method you have been practising, but only on those muscles. This is much quicker than the basic technique, but there is still one further refinement you can work on.
The most advanced method again requires you to start by scanning your whole body for tense muscles, but, this time, instead of tensing these muscle groups further, simply relax them. After all, they are already tense, so there should be no need to tense them further. When you have mastered this, you can identify tense areas during a match and relax them.
Both of the methods described in this section work on your body, although it is your mind that is causing the tension. The underlying principle is that it is very difficult for your mind to stay tense in a relaxed body. These approaches can be very useful for a quick fix if an issue arises. There are other methods which focus more on your state of mind.
Although ‘self talk’ sounds like jargon, it is pretty clear what it means. During a tennis match we all talk to ourselves to some degree. This self talk, which generally takes place purely in our head, is often not particularly helpful. Players often criticise themselves for making poor decisions, or simply failing to make a shot. In certain cases, they are heavily self-critical for losing points where their opponent simply played well.
Sometimes players even remind themselves of the possible negative repercussions if they continue to play poorly, or lose a specific point. If these comments were coming from a friend at courtside, the player probably would not regard them as a very good friend! We need to think about what kind of statements would be helpful and encouraging, and focus on saying these instead.
The first step in improving our self talk is to prevent ourselves from saying things which are known to be unhelpful. Something called ‘thought stopping’ is the first stage. This is very simple: if we become aware of an unhelpful thought forming, or we start to say something negative, we say: ‘Stop!’, or give some other signal like a thigh slap. This signal tells us to stop the unhelpful thought, and can work for a time. In the medium term, it can be better to find a way of replacing the negative thought, or at least modifying it, as simply suppressing these thoughts does not prevent them recurring.
‘Thought replacement’ involves replacing negative thoughts with more positive ones. An example might be replacing: ‘You’re playing really badly!’ with: ‘Relax and you’ll start to play really well’. A similar idea is that of ‘reframing‘, where you put an idea into a different context to enable you to interpret it more positively.
Thus, if your instinct is to say: ‘You always play rubbish in the wind’, try saying: ‘Conditions are tough for both of us, but I’m starting to adjust and play better.’ Either of these approaches requires a significant amount of practice, and it is usually a good idea to keep a diary of your self talk during matches and practice sessions. Writing down your thoughts gives you a chance to prepare alternative versions, which you can then practice using in relevant situations until they become second nature.
Many leading tennis players make extensive use of visualisation before and during matches. Essentially, it is a technique which involves ‘seeing’ what you plan to do in your mind and experiencing it as though it was actually happening. As an example, prior to a big match you might visualise yourself moving well and playing in a relaxed, aggressive style, feeling everything as you expect it to occur in the match. If you wish, you can practice a specific technique, such as the serve, or prepare yourself to close out the match by rehearsing how you will approach the decisive points. Not everyone finds visualisation easy to achieve, but some of those who use it find it extremely useful.
As with all worthwhile psychological techniques, you will need to put in quite a lot of work before you can benefit from visualisation. As a starting point, there are a number of simple exercises you can practice. In order to practice visualisation, you must begin by relaxing, so you need to sit comfortably, close your eyes, and breathe slowly and deeply for at least a minute.
Having done this, the first exercise involves imagining yourself playing your sport. Keeping your eyes closed, visualise yourself rallying steadily from just behind the baseline. Most people prefer to do this through their own eyes, whereas some like to see themselves as though they were on a video. Whichever you prefer, experience all of the sensory inputs that would be there if you were on court.
Feel the soft racket grip in your hand: hear the sounds as the ball hits the court and flies accurately off your racket.
Smell the surroundings: maybe the flowers if you are outside, or the paint on the court and the fabric of the curtains if you are indoor.
Take your time: it should feel like you are really there.
You will move beyond the exercise described above to others which cover scenarios more likely to occur in a match. One crucial point is that you must be able to control the images you produce. It is not helpful if you can involuntarily produce extremely vivid images of yourself serving numerous double faults and feeling extremely embarrassed.
You must be able to control the image, so that you can visualise yourself preparing thoroughly for the next point following a double fault and serving in a smooth, efficient way. After several weeks of practising visualisation, you will be ready to use it in connection with matches. It allows you to prepare for the way you are going to feel when you step onto the court, and can also be used at changes of ends and between service points to rehearse what you plan to do.
This is not about imitating Nadal by worrying about the precise positioning of your drinks bottles. Instead, routines or rituals can be used between points and at changes of ends to make sure that you are properly prepared for the next point or game. If you do not use routines, this can be fine until things start to go against you.
You might begin to make a series of errors and be unable to stem the flow of points against you, or your original tactics may not be working and you might not be able to find an alternative. If you use routines effectively, you will be able to calm yourself when things are not going well, avoid dwelling on negative events, and give yourself the best chance of playing good tennis under pressure.
In tennis, you have a fixed amount of time between points and at changes of ends. The challenge is to use that time effectively and not allow negative images or self talk to creep in. An example of the kind of routine that could be used between points is as follows.
It is crucial, first of all, to clear your mind after the previous point if errors are not to develop into a slump. Many leading players like to turn away from the court for a few seconds or use a towel: either of these can act as a signal to stop thinking about the last point and move on to the next one.
Next, plan in your mind how you would like the next point to unfold tactically. For example, a wide serve to your opponent’s forehand, forcing a cross-court return, following which you smoothly stroke the ball into the open court. Close your eyes and visualise this. Take a deep breath and execute your plan. At the change of ends you have a little more time, so this is the moment to review the preceding games and consider any tactical alterations that might be necessary.
While tennis is a beautiful game, and you are fully at liberty to focus on playing as elegantly and stylishly as possible, a match is about beating the person at the other end of the court, who will be doing everything in their power to stop you winning. There are numerous psychological techniques which may not improve your tennis, but which may help you to overcome your opponent. A few simple examples are listed here.
- Unless you have a very big, reliable serve, never choose to serve first. Your opponent is not likely to serve at their best in the first game, and if you can break serve then it will give you an early psychological advantage.
- Make your positive self talk audible. This does not mean that you should engage in lots of brash yelling: just that your opponent should be able to hear that you are thinking positively.
- Try to make a few aggressive returns from their second serve. This will force them to try to hit better second serves and is likely to produce double faults.
- Use an occasional underarm serve. This is completely legal and no warning is necessary, but it can break the concentration of players who do not know the rules.
- Stand in close when they are about to serve from time to time. This will break their serving rhythm and can bring double faults.
- Jog back into position after the change of ends, to emphasise that you have plenty of energy left.
There are many more possibilities. The important point is, these ideas are all within the rules, but they are designed to break your opponent’s rhythm and stop them from playing as well as they can, or to emphasise to them that you are a difficult opponent.
This article has only scratched the surface of what a sport psychologist can teach you. They would also be able to help you with any of your own specific issues concerning confidence, overcoming injuries, and so on. Remember that training your mind is just as important as training your body. As a starting point, I have outlined some of the basics of:
– Self Talk
as well as the principles of on-court psychological warfare. As you develop your knowledge of these areas, set yourself some time-bounded goals, based more on process than outcome, in order that you remain motivated to progress. Most of all, however, I would recommend consulting a sport psychologist as readily as you consult a coach. Your game will improve, and you will probably win more matches.
READ MORE: 5 Tennis Tips For Older Players