Learning to stay in control and in focus
Tennis is a mental game. Whether players want to acknowledge it or not, their mindset determines how they strategize, how they move, and how they react to points. Mental toughness, or trusting your ability and yourself, is a weapon in tennis and allows players who do not lead in aces or winners to find a way to win big matches.
Something to remember is that your mind controls your body. In other words, you control your movement to the ball, your impact point, and your body language. It’s a lot to think about, trust me, as I tend to overthink everything I do. I struggled mentally in matches because of four things:
- Focusing on my errors and what I did wrong. In doing so, instead of being mentally focused on the match at hand and most importantly, the ball, my attention is directed to the position of my wrist or my swing or my follow through. We have a very limited attention span as humans, meaning we can only focus on so many things at once. And, while we may not realize it, focusing on our mistakes and trying to tweak little things in our game will deter our concentration and confidence. It is important to make the mistake and move on. Hone in on your game plan and your movement on the court.
- Losing site of a strategy and hitting without purpose. When I lose my mentality on court, my train of thought vanishes and I find myself hitting neutral balls without intent. My intensity and awareness drops, and soon I am down in the game, struggling to keep up with the opponents’ shots that were once easy to handle. Having a strategy and purpose with shots is important to keep your opponent off balance and to remain mentally aware of court positioning.
- Lack of intensity in movement and intention. This is one of the biggest areas I struggled in. Nearly every time a point started, I was unaware that I was not taking little steps or moving around to the ball coming directly at me. While at times I was still able to get the ball back over, it was not of high quality and my footwork did not allow me to execute a game plan. My coach helped me realize that the lack of footwork stemmed from a lack of intensity. My mind was not searching for ways to move around the ball or to hit bigger. Rather, I was thinking about getting the ball in or “cutting the corner” and just side stepping to hit the ball. Increased intensity, I discovered, put more pressure on my opponent and allowed me to position my body to hit a better, more confident shot.
- Negative or neutral body language. In regards to negative body language, a lot of players struggle to contain their emotions. One of the best pieces of advice I received from the sports psychologist at Drake was the 3 second rule: after you hit a great shot, celebrate for three seconds and then move on. The same goes for a missed shot. You can think about the shot for three seconds and then move on. This rule helped me keep a strong mentality throughout long matches and to not let the results of one single shot affect my mood and mindset. In regards to neutral body language, I personally struggled to show positive emotions when hitting a great shot. While a lot of good players yell or get excited, I believed I should be hitting great shots consistently and so I never really celebrated my winners. In doing so, I never showed positive body language and the negative body language consumed my game when I missed. Make sure to throw in a fist bump and feel that surge of excitement with good shots because that boost of energy can elevate your mentality on court.
However, there are lots of ways to improve your mental game. One way that helps me personally on court is visualization. My favorite tennis pro, Novak Djokovic, believes in the power and practice of visualization. Regularly visualizing yourself playing a perfect tennis match sets up a subconscious “roadmap” for your body to follow on court and can grow your self-confidence.