In discussing the mental game of tennis, what are the factors that separate great competitors from average players?
What are the characteristics of a winning tennis player and how can tennis players at all levels learn from our professional tennis champions?
The game of tennis is as much mental as it is physical. Some would argue that the former actually takes precedence over the latter. In the higher levels of the sport, this is certainly true. When you have reached a competitive level, you are measuring yourself up against other players who have similarly done what you have done.
They’ve also trained and practiced all their strokes and they’ve worked on their physical fitness. Now, out on the court, it must be decided who is the better player. Sometimes, there is a clear physical edge. But more frequently, the edge is mental. Why else would it be so common for a 40 year old weekend player to beat a teenager who hits harder and runs faster? It is because a lot of times, the older guy is more experienced, disciplined, calm and focused.
Focus and Concentration in the Mental Game of Tennis
Focus and concentration are two terms that are often used interchangeably when talking about the mental game of tennis. Developing your ability to focus requires great self-discipline, which is evident in one’s general approach to the game. From discipline, a player cultivates awareness about what’s important and what’s not.
Before a match, a player should be aware of a lot of things including first and foremost, himself. This self-awareness is based upon the knowledge of his or her ability and skill level, strengths and weaknesses, physical condition and how he or she is feeling at that point in time. Specific things like little injuries, fatigue and illnesses are taken into account and assessed properly.
Mental Game of Tennis Starting With The Off Court Preparation
Obviously, one should not even go out and play if these are too bad or can potentially worsen. If you are able to play despite feeling a little less than 100%, then you should assess what steps you can take in order to increase your chance of winning. For example, if you are feeling a little fatigued then you should pay more attention to what you eat before playing, making sure that you consume the right energy-providing food. Then, once you get to the court, you should warm up properly so you can get into more of a groove when the actual match starts.
Mental Game of Tennis: The Planning Element
You can also plan to play more aggressively in order to keep the points shorter. You should also be prepared with what you bring on court. If you have blisters on your hands, bring band aids. If you are feeling a little sore here and there, bring the appropriate support strap. The food and drinks you bring should also be of the right kind. If the weather is really hot, for instance, bring more water and sports drinks than usual. You should have also hydrated yourself properly before the match.
The mental game of tennis is also evident when you consider your pre-match planning and strategizing. Within this, you take stock of your strokes and compare it to your opponent’s. You shouldfigure out what you do well and what you don’t side by side with those of your opponent’s.
When you have considered this, you should try to devise a strategy to maximize your strengths and minimize exposure of your weaknesses while trying to do the opposite with your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.
Mental Game of Tennis: Setting a Strategy for Playing Your Opponent
Corollary to this, the strategy that you work out should put you in a position on the court where you are in control of the rallies. For example, if both you and your opponent have strong forehands but mediocre backhands, then you can choose to play chiefly to your opponent’s backhand and run around your own backhand whenever possible.
Your opponent will try to do the same, so the match will come down to execution. If you have developed your mental game, you will stand a better chance of executing this strategy better as the match unfolds, especially when the so-called ‘important’ stages of the match comes.
Executing a strategy successfully hinges on your ability to play tactical shots. These are shots that win the point outright, set you up to finish the point or draw an error because it is the type of shot that your opponent hates. Going back to the example above, let’s say that aside from both of you having forehands stronger than backhands, you also are more comfortable hitting flat and slice shots while your opponent is more of a topspin player.
Improving Your Mental Game of Tennis Through Decision Making
Topspin increases the margin of error so you don’t want to be involved in long rallies because chances are, he will outlast you in those types of points. So you should be aggressive, take the ball on the rise and hit it flat and hard to his backhand as much as possible.
When you are given the ball on your own backhand, slice it back but be sure to keep it low. Let’s also say hypothetically that your opponent likes to stay at the baseline and can run side to side all day while you are slightly better at coming to the net.
You cannot just come to the net on any ball because he is fast and his topspin will make the ball dip down low as you try to close in, giving you a difficult volley. So what you should do is to hit short and low slices that force him off the baseline and try to hit shots moving diagonally. If you find that he is uncomfortable doing this, you can take advantage by coming to the net to knock away easy volleys or watch his attempted passing shots go awry. Notice how much the mental game of tennis dictates the physical and technical aspects.
Using Smart Tennis Tactics in The Mental Game of Tennis
If awareness is vital to preparing properly for a match, it is equally crucial once the match starts and as it progresses. Let’s go back once again to the hypothetical match up mentioned above. If your opponent is somehow hitting his backhand well that day, you have to find a way to break it down. As the weaker side, it is still the side you should prefer to attack. However, you should change your way of attacking it.
If he is getting into a groove hitting back your hard, flat shots, you can change it up by hitting high topspin shots to that side. Do not hit exclusively with topspin because, remember, that is what he prefers. You are only doing this to give him a different look from time to time. You can also try hitting wide to the forehand first before hitting an angle to the side T forcing him to hit backhands on the run.
This will put pressure on that wing and increase the likelihood that it will break down eventually. This ability to solve problems and adapt an alternative strategy requires mental flexibility which is just as important as physical flexibility.
Developing Mental Toughness for Tennis
For most people, the mental game of tennis is mainly about a player’s mental toughness. This certainly is one of the most admirable qualities that all the great champions have. Some have this innately more than others. But it can also be learned, practiced and improved. Ideally, learning about this should start at the beginning of a player’s development.
In actuality, mental toughness encompasses self-discipline and awareness and therefore extends from the pre-match preparation to the post match analysis. But in terms of tennis as competition per se, mental toughness is about how a player is able to concentrate throughout a match so that he or she plays at the highest possible level especially during the important stages.
Mental Game of Tennis: Blocking Out Distractions
To truly be effective mentally, a player has to know what to focus on and what to ignore. This selective attention is crucial because there are a lot of distractions on the court. The crowd, the adjacent courts and the conditions like the wind, sun (or lights if at night time), heat, rain, humidity and altitude all play a part in the way a match is played. If someone in the crowd shouts during a point or if a ball from the adjacent court rolls over to your court, you have to be able to deal with the distraction of having to play a let.
Dealing with Uncontrollable Factors
At the same time, these things are out of anyone’s control so a player must try not to let these things bother him. Dealing with the conditions is also a major part of the mental game of tennis. No one has control over nature so one must just be able to adapt to the conditions properly. For example, if you are serving into the sun, then it is important for you to get your first serve in because your opponent might be thinking that this is his opportunity to break.
The most mentally tough players all have rituals that help them forget about the last point and get back in focus for the next point. Forgetting about the last point is imperative especially after you have committed an error or a tactical misjudgement that leads to an easy winner for your opponent.
Mental Game of Tennis through Rituals
Common rituals include straightening the strings, taking practice swings, jogging in place and bouncing the ball a certain number of times before serving. What you do in between points is also useful for controlling the pace of a match.
If you are playing well, you might want to speed things up a bit to keep yourself going while if you are starting to lose a bit of your form, you should slow things down to calm down. But don’t take too much time because it becomes unfair to your opponent.
Conversely, trying to quick serve an opponent also doesn’t keep with the spirit of sportsmanship and fair play. The changes in the length of time between points should be as small as possible. Try to keep your time in between points at a consistent and reasonable length.
Mental Game of Tennis: Accepting Your Mistakes
Learning to control your emotions and keep a positive attitude is another essential skill in the mental game of tennis. Unforced errors are part of the game and this must be accepted by all players. This is something that can be learned at an early stage of a player’s development. The sport of tennis is not the easiest thing to learn. Inevitably, there will be more errors in the beginning.
It is at this time that a player should be taught to accept these mistakes and simply try to learn from them. If he or she displays any petulant behavior toward committing mistakes, this behavior should be corrected as soon as possible. Keeping calm and being patient with one’s progress will better equip a player to keep thinking positively and concentrate better in competitive situations.
Mental Game of Tennis: Developing a Positive Attitude
The last and probably most important aspect of the mental game of tennis is the development of a player’s attitude towards winning and losing. As a competitive sport, it is always required that a player try his or her very best in order to win. But doing so should always keep with the spirit of fair play.
It is one thing to make an honest mistake with a line call and quite another if you actively cheat an opponent. Above all, there should be respect for your opponent, and indeed even the officials.
Without respect, it will be very difficult to deal with losing and winning will not feel as fulfilling as it should.
Understanding That Losing and Winning is Part of Life and the Mental Game
In tennis, at the end of the day, you are only either a winner or a loser. It would be perfect if we could all just be winners all the time but that is impossible. Losing is as much a part of the game as winning. But in the mental game of tennis, you can find comfort in the fact that whatever happens, you can learn a lot from every match.
It helps to remember the famous line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” inscribed above the entrance to Wimbledon’s Centre Court: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same.” Apparently, as long as you learn and improve from every match, you’re going to be a winner every time!
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