THE WINNING MINDSET
Published in Sun Tennis (1992)
SELF-CONFIDENCE IN TENNIS
Perhaps the single most important mental ingredient professional tennis players such as Jim Courier and Monica Seles need for success on the tour is self-confidence. Entering Centre Court at Wimbledon to play the finals against a hard serving, net rushing opponent can raise doubts in even the best players. But these professionals overcome uncertainty by learning to control their thinking and maintaining a positive attitude.
Recreational players experience the same sorts of problems with their self-confidence. Have you ever been in the club championships or a tight tiebreak and had thoughts like “I can’t win this” or “I know I will double fault and lose the match”? Fortunately, recreational players can use the same techniques that the pros use to develop their self-confidence and maintain a positive attitude.
Tennis Player’s Litany. In order for muscles to get stronger, they have to be exercised. The same holds true for the “self-confidence muscle”. One exercise I have developed working with tennis players is the Tennis Player’s Litany (see side box). This series of positive self-statements acts to train you to think positively. Even if you do not believe the Litany at first, if you tell yourself something enough times you will start believing it. For best results, the Litany should be said out loud before you go to sleep at night, when you get up in the morning, and parts of it can be used before and during matches.
Active Positive Thinking. There are two steps in learning active positive thinking. First, you must stop making negative self-statements. To prevent this, it is helpful to have keywords such as “stop” or “positive”. Whenever a negative thought enters your mind, you can say the keyword which helps block out the negative thoughts. Second, you must replace these negative thoughts with positive ones. When negative thoughts pop up, you can immediately replace them with positive ones such as “I can hit my backhand” or “I can do better next game”.
Think like a coach. How you coach yourself while playing can also influence your self-confidence. There are two types of coaching: negative and positive. Negative coaching is self-defeating and emotional. For example, if you miss a shot, you could say “I can’t hit my forehand volley.” This negative feedback causes you to dwell on what you did wrong and have feelings of anger and frustration. But if you think like a coach, you can instruct yourself to correct the mistake. For example, you could say, “I swung on my forehand volley, but if I just block it next time, I can hit it well”. This approach provides information you can use to play better and you will feel more self-confident and relaxed.
By using these techniques, you can go from being your own worst enemy to your best ally. With a little time and effort, this new positive attitude not only enables you to play better, but it also makes playing tennis a lot more fun.
TENNIS PLAYER’S LITANY
I LOVE TO PLAY TENNIS!
I AM A GOOD TENNIS PLAYER.
I ALWAYS THINK AND TALK POSITIVELY.
I AM CONFIDENT, RELAXED, AND FOCUSED WHEN I PLAY.
I HAVE FUN PLAYING TENNIS.
I LOVE TO PLAY TENNIS!
KEEPING COOL ON THE COURT
Imagine the pressure that Steffi Graf or Stephan Edberg feel in the final set of a Grand Slam event. Thousands of people are watching, there is money and the title on the line. I’ll bet you have felt similar pressure in matches you have been in. They might not have been at Roland Garros or Flushing Meadows, but they were important to you.
Whether a touring pro or a weekend player, the reaction is the same. Your heart pounds, your knees shake, your breathing is shallow, your muscles get tense, and you feel lightheaded and faint. You also have negative thoughts and you have trouble concentrating. ANXIETY has just set in! At any level of tennis, the ability to overcome anxiety will determine how well you play. So how can you overcome anxiety and stay cool on the courts?
One useful technique is called progressive relaxation. This involves tightening and relaxing major muscle groups: legs, chest and back, arms and shoulders, and face and neck. This method enables you to control your muscle tension, so when you are in a pressure-packed game situation, you have the ability to relax and play better. Here’s how to do progressive relaxation:
Begin with the legs. Tighten your leg muscles up for three seconds, then relax (do it twice). Next, do the same thing for the other muscle groups. Finally, tighten your whole body for three seconds, and relax. Progressive relaxation can be done before the match, during changeovers, or between points.
Another obvious, yet often neglected, way to reduce anxiety is simply to take some slow, deep breaths. Deep breaths will lower your heart rate and relax your muscles. Muscles can not function effectively without adequate oxygen, so by taking deep breaths, muscles will feel looser and you will be able to play better.
Counter Irrational Thinking
Another significant cause of anxiety is irrational thinking. Anxious players tend to blows things out of proportion. How many times have you heard, “he is serving 300 miles per hours”, or “I haven’t made a shot all day”? So, to reduce anxiety, these statements should be countered, i.e., show that they are not true. For example, it might be useful for someone to point out that even Goran Ivanisevic can’t serve that fast or the fact that you just hit a great backhand passing shot. When this is done, anxious players usually see the absurdity of their thinking, relax, and are able to play better.
Perhaps the simplest and most hard to believe technique that is effective in reducing anxiety is the act of smiling. This does not mean finding something funny or laughing, rather simply raising the sides of the mouth and smiling.
Smiling influences our feelings in two ways. First, we are brought up believing that when we smile, we must be happy and relaxed. Second, research has shown that when we smile, biochemical changes result in a relaxing effect. So next time you begin to start to feel the pressure, breathe, tighten and relax your muscles, think realistic thoughts, and, most importantly, SMILE!
STAYING FOCUSED ON THE COURT
One of the most difficult things professional players have to deal with is maintaining concentration throughout the whole match. With increasing pressure and fatigue, thoughts can wander, resulting in mistakes and lost points and games. The same thing can happen to recreational players during matches. Things may pop into your head that have nothing to do with tennis, for example, being distracted by players around you or remembering what you have to do the next day. These problems boil down to one thing: the inability to focus on the things that will enable you to play well.
Good concentration involves focusing on only those things that are necessary for you to play your best such as the ball, your opponent, and yourself. Poor concentration involves focusing on things that hurt your tennis such as other people, things that happened yesterday or will happen tomorrow. Fortunately, there are several simple techniques that can be used to improve concentration.
First, when concentration begins to wander, reminders that I call keywords can be used to refocus attention. When you are distracted, you can repeat a keyword that enables you to regain the proper concentration and reminds you to do things that help you to play better. Keywords such as “loose”, “shoulders”, and “attack” are common. There are two good reasons to use keywords. First, repeating these keywords out loud or to yourself blocks out the distracting thoughts. Second, they remind you of things you need to do to play well.
Another way to improve concentration involves using a key object. This consists of picking an object to concentrate on when you are playing. The most obvious key object is the ball. You could also use the corner of the service box that you want to serve into. Also, breathing can be used as a key object to regain concentration. When concentration is lost, you can focus on your breathing by taking deep breaths. It helps you concentrate better and, by getting more oxygen into your body, you are able to relax and play better.
It is important to emphasize that good concentration takes time and practice. Here’s an exercise you can use. In alternate games, concentrate on something different and see what happens. For example, in one game think about the ball. The next game, focus only on your opponent. Finally, concentrate only on your body. This exercise will teach you to be aware of what you can concentrate on. It will also help you control your concentration.
By practicing these skills, you will develop the ability to maintain your concentration. But, if you lose your concentration, you will also have the skills to regain it.
Mental imagery is a technique that has been used by the world’s best tennis players for many years. It is common to see professionals close their eyes during changeovers and rehearse points. This technique can also be used to help recreational players to play their best.
Tennis Imagery refers to repeatedly imagining a tennis performance. Tennis Imagery involves the total reproduction of actual performance including visual, auditory, tactile, and muscular sensations. Thus, it is more than just “mental” rehearsal. Tennis Imagery can be used to enhance technical, mental, and physical aspects of tennis.
Developing a Tennis imagery Program
1. Goal-setting – Prior to beginning the Tennis Imagery sessions, you should ask yourself a question: What do I want to work on? Your goal can be technical, mental, or physical.
2. Performance hierarchy – You can make a list of tennis situations in order of the amount of pressure they provoke from least to most. In between these extremes should be situations of increasing difficulty and stress. You should be sure that your performance hierarchy is consistent with your ability. For example, if you are a beginner, then you should not imagine yourself playing Boris Becker at Wimbledon.
3. Step-by-step progression – You should begin your Tennis Imagery at the lowest step until you are able to perform well at that level. Then you can move on to the next step. Your goal is to imagine yourself playing well in your most pressured match situation.
4. Tennis Imagery sessions – Tennis Imagery sessions should be done in a quiet, comfortable place and should be done about three times a week for 5-10 minutes. Doing Tennis Imagery between points and on changeovers can also help.
5. What to imagine – During each session, choose a particular opponent and setting, then in your mind’s eye, play out several game scenarios while working on your chosen goal. For example, see and feel yourself hitting winning forehands or imagine yourself being relaxed in a tiebreak.
6. Rewind the film – Tennis Imagery is like a film running through your head. If you make a mistake, you should rewind the film and repeat it until you do it right. You should not let the error go by because then you are reinforcing the old, bad images you are trying to change.
By using Tennis Imagery, you will find that will be more self-confident and relaxed because you will actually be able to see yourself playing well. Tennis Imagery can then help you to play better and enjoy your tennis more.
THE MENTAL EDGE FOR TENNIS
Published in Various Tennis Periodicals (1992-99)
PLAYING YOUR BEST AS THE FAVORITE AND THE UNDERDOG
As you walk onto the court you are the clear favorite. You are simply better than your opponent. You know you will win the match. But as the match starts, you just don’t feel right. Your head isn’t in the match and your body feels sluggish. Before you know it, you’re down 1-5. You’re in trouble. How could this happen?!?!?
However enviable it may seem, being the favorite going into a match is one of the most difficult positions to be in in tennis. You’re in a no-win situation. If you win, it’s no big deal. You were expected to win. If you lose, it’s a huge blow because it simply shouldn’t happen. But it is a common scenario that affects the world’s best players. We’ve all seen top-10 players in early round matches at a Grand Slam struggle early. They may lose the first set before rebounding to win the match or they never recover and are ousted early in a big upset.
So why does the favorite often not play like the sure thing they are supposed to be. The problem starts with overconfidence, knowing that you’re going to win. This absolute certainty produces a variety of mental and physical change ensure that you won’t perform up to the level that made you the favorite in the first place.
The first thing that goes mentally is your motivation. You know you’re going to win, so you think you don’t need to work as hard to win. You don’t put quite as much effort in your game as you need to play well. Then your intensity drops. You no longer have the oxygen, blood flow, and adrenaline that makes you strong and quick. Finally, you lose your focus. Instead of being focused on the process, that is, what you need to do to play your best, you’re already in the locker room patting yourself on the back for a match that you haven,’ even played yet.
Combating the Favorite Blues
Avoiding this letdown, what I call the Favorite Blues, involves taking active steps to change your mental and physical states before and at the start of your match. To show everyone why you are the favorite, follow these suggestions:
1. Be confident, but not overconfident. Combating the Favorite Blues starts with your attitude toward the match. You want to be confident in your ability to play well and win, but you don’t want to assume that a victory is a foregone conclusion. The fact is, on any given day, if two players are even remotely close in ability, anything can happen. Winning is never a certainty. You don’t know if your opponent has improved since you last played or whether you’re totally on your own game. Have respect for your opponent and know that if you play your best you will win.
2. Get your intensity up. If you’re the favorite, you can assume that you’ll start the match with insufficient intensity to play your best. So actively “rev your engine” before you go on court and in the first few games of the match. Jump rope five minutes before you start. Jump up and down and keep moving between points. Don’t sit down on changeovers. Use high energy self-talk (e.g., “Let’s go!” “Come on!”) and body language (e.g., slap your thigh, pump your fist).
3. Keep a process focus. Since you expect to win, it’s easy to focus on the outcome, that is, your win, rather than on the process, that is, what you need to do to play well. Remember, the outcome occurs after the match ends, so focusing on it actually interferes with you achieving that desired outcome. But if you focus on the process, for example, getting your first serve in, hitting deep, or coming in on short balls, then you’re more likely to play well and the result will be that you have a greater chance of attaining the outcome you want, namely, the victory you so richly deserve.
Walking on the court, you know you don’t have a chance. You’ve played your opponent before and he or she crushed you. Sure enough, in the first few games, you don’t play well and you fall behind 0-3 even though your opponent doesn’t seem as good as you remembered. What do you do?!?!?
Being the underdog is the most enviable of positions to be in for a match. You’re in a no-lose situation. If you do lose, you were supposed to. But if you win, what a coup that would be. But most players don’t think that way. Most likely, you go into a match in which you’re the underdog with very little confidence. You already know the outcome of the match and it’s not a good one for you. Since you know you’re going to lose, you get nervous before the match because you’re going to look like a jerk losing to this player again. With this attitude and the accompanying anxiety, your focus is shot too. You’re so focused on how badly you’re going to play, well, that’s how you’re likely to play.
Give the Underdog Some Bite
1. Believe you have a chance. The great thing about tennis is that the match has to be played to find out who wins. So there really is no certainty. Anything is possible. If the 60th player in the world can beat Sampras or Hingis on any given day, then you have a chance with your opponent today.
2. Realize what the favorite feels. You can pretty much expect that your favored opponent is going to be feeling what I described above. They have a lot to lose and will probably not be on their game at the start of the match. If you can come out strong, you may be able to put them on the defensive and rattle them enough to win the match.
3. Have a strategy. Having played your opponent before (or checking them out during warm-up), look for some chinks in their armor. Make a game plan that exploits a weakness early in the match. With a few well-placed shots, you can make them go from overconfident to under-confident very quickly.
4. Chill out. To play well, you need to lower your intensity and get rid of your anxiety. Before the match, go off by yourself, listen to some calming music, do some deep breathing and relaxation exercises. Once the match starts, slow the pace of the match, take deep breaths, and relax your body between points. Use a lot of positive and calming self-talk (e.g., “Stay cool.” “Easy does it.”).
Regardless of whether you’re the favorite or the underdog, the goal is to play the best you can. If you play good tennis, you’re more likely to win. But if you don’t, at least you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you did the best you could.
ACHIEVING PRIME TENNIS
Mental Edge Pyramid
The Mental Edge Pyramid provides you with a way of understanding the development of mental skills. The Mental Edge Pyramid describes the Prime Four (motivation, confidence, intensity, and focus) that are critical for developing the Mental Edge. These four factors will progressively lead you to Prime Tennis. Prime Tennis is defined as being able to play at a consistently high level under the most challenging conditions.
Playing your best evolves from a sound foundation of Mental Edge skills. These Mental Edge skills influence each other in a particular order that leads to Prime Tennis. At the base of the Pyramid, prime motivation ensures total preparation including physical, technical, and mental training. Prime motivation leads to prime confidence in your tennis ability, truly believing you can playing your best. Prime confidence results in prime intensity which enables you to stay relaxed and overcome challenges during matches. Prime intensity then produces prime focus while playing where you are totally concentrated on what you need to do to play your best. The culmination of the Mental Edge Pyramid is Prime Tennis.
Positive Change Formula
Change of any sort, whether technical, physical, or mental, does not occur automatically. Change due to trial and error is slow and inefficient. Positive change requires three steps. First, an awareness of what you are currently doing and how you need to improve. Second, controlling that which you want to improve. Third, putting in the necessary repetition to ingrain the positive change fully. So developing your mental skills as well as your tennis skills involves an awareness of your mental, physical, and technical abilities, taking active steps to control them, and having sufficient repetition to make the changes automatic, thus producing positive change, which puts you on the road to Prime Tennis.
Benefiting from the Mental Edge
Developing the Mental Edge will provide you with several important benefits to your tennis. You will have a greater understanding of what contributes to and interferes with playing your best. You will have more information and understanding of mental preparation for your tennis. You will develop Mental Edge skills that will enable you to play to the best of your ability. You will have the skills to overcome the challenges that you will face in your tennis. Finally, you will play consistently better, gain more satisfaction from your tennis, and just plain have more fun.
Remember, “The gem can not be polished without friction, nor people perfected without trials.”
WALK THE WALK FOR MORE CONFIDENCE
Confidence is the most important mental ingredient for success in tennis. One technique that most people are not aware of for building and maintaining self-confidence involves how you carry yourself. How you walk and move can influence how you think and feel. In other words, you have to learn how to “Walk the Walk”.
If your body is down, your thoughts and feelings will be down. If your body is up, your thoughts and feelings will be up. Examples of not walking the walk include head and eyes down, shoulders slouched, feet dragging, and no energy in your step. Walking the walk involves holding your head high, chin up, eyes forward and focused, shoulders back, arms swinging, and bounce in your step.
It is very difficult to be walking the walk and saying things like “I stink,” “I’m awful,” and “I can’t do this.” Similarly, it hard to be not walking the walk and saying, “I am a great tennis player,” “I am confident in my ability,” and “I know how to handle pressure.” This is because, in both cases, what you are saying to yourself is inconsistent with how you are carrying yourself.
Walking the walk is a skill that, like any other skill, takes awareness, control, and repetition to master. You can learn to walk the walk in practice by being aware of how you carry yourself and focusing on making positive physical changes when you walk. Exaggerating positive body language will further sensitize you to how you carry yourself. Then in matches continue to walk the walk. Between points and on changeovers, make sure your entire body is up and positive. This is especially important when you are not playing well or you are behind. In time, you will naturally walk the walk and your game will stay as up and positive as your body. By walking the walk, you will find that you naturally feel more positive and energetic.
Remember, “The gunslinger rule – Have confidence, swagger, come out smoking.”
TYPES OF NEGATIVE THINKING
Though negative thinking is something that should be avoiding as much as possible, it is a normal response to poor play. In fact, some negative thinking is healthy because it means that you care about how you are playing. However, the wrong kind of negative thinking can be very harmful to your tennis.
There are two types of negative thinking. The first kind, give up negative thinking, is associated with feelings of depression and helplessness. You say things like, “There is nothing I can do to play better” or “No matter how hard I try, I just can’t do it.” Give up negative thinking also causes you to dwell on past performances, focusing on mistakes made and bad results in recent matches. This type of thinking hurts confidence, focus, and motivation. Quite simply, there is never a place for give up negative thinking the mind of a tennis player.
The second kind is called fire up negative thinking. Fire up negative thinking produces feelings of anger, energy and being psyched up. You say things such as, “I hate playing poorly and I’m going to play better the next match,” “I am so mad that I am going to work twice as hard in practice this week.” The focus of fire up negative thinking is on doing better in the future. As a result, fire up negative thinking can be useful. However, it should not last more than a few days because negative thinking and emotions require a lot of energy that could be better used for training and matches.
Remember, “Person who says, “it can not be done”, should not interrupt person who is doing it.”
TRUST YOUR ABILITY IN MATCHES
A disagreement I have gotten into with coaches involves whether it is good for players to think about technique right before and during a matches. They argue that if they don’t think about technique they won’t play well. But it is my belief that if you focus on technique you will do that technique well, but your overall game will suffer because you are not thinking about hitting out and playing aggressively.
There is a time and a place for technique. That time is during training. It is here that you question and analyze your tennis and focus on a particular part of your game in order to develop it. By doing this, the new technique becomes, with practice, second nature and it will then help you to play better in matches.
But when a match arrives, you shouldn’t question, doubt, analyze, or get technical. If you do not have a technique down by the time you get to the court, you will not be able to use it effectively in the match. Whatever ability you bring to the match believe in it, and play the best you can with what you have. Simply put, TRUST YOURSELF to play the very best you can on that day.
Remember, “Limits are only what any of us are inside of.”
DETERMINING YOUR PRIME INTENSITY
Perhaps the single most important thing you need to do before and during a tennis match is reach and maintain your prime intensity. Intensity refers to amount of adrenaline, oxygen, and blood flow your body has. Too much intensity and your muscles are tight, you can’t breath, and your body is shaking from fear. Too little intensity and you feel tired, unmotivated, and weak. In either case, you do not play your best.
Before you reach your prime intensity, you have to know what it is. To do this recall several occasions when you played your very best and very poorly. Remember how your body felt, for example, when you played well, you may have felt energized, your heart was pounding, and you had a good sweat going before your match. When you played poorly, you might have been shaking, had difficulty breathing, and your muscles were tense. Next, remember your thoughts and feelings. In good matches, you may have been very positive and felt happy and excited. In bad matches, you may have been thinking negatively and been a little afraid. Also, note the event, the level of competition, and the match site. When you had a good match, it might have been on your favorite surface, say clay, at a lower level of competition, and on a beautiful day with ideal conditions. When you had a poor match, it may have been on cement, on a windy, overcast day. The chances are there are some common factors associated with when you played well and others when you played poorly.
Once you establish those common factors related to good and bad tennis in matches, you can actively work to avoid the factors connected with poor play and reproduce the factors associated with good play. By identifying your prime intensity, you have taken a first important step to controlling your match rather than the match (and your opponent) controlling you.
Remember, “Do the thing you fear the most and keep doing it… that is the quickest and surest way ever yet discovered to overcome fear.”
TOTAL COMMITMENT TO YOUR TENNIS
For players on the pro tours, being the best tennis player they can be is simple, but not easy. It is simple because all that is required is that they do everything possible to be their best. It is not easy because to do everything requires Total Commitment. Whether you are a touring pro or a junior with big dreams, Total Commitment means hard work and patience both on and off the court.
When touring professionals walk onto the court, there is no room for being tentative. If they let up or back off during a match, defeat is a certainty. For players of all levels of ability, one of the most important things you must do when you get onto the court is to be totally committed to playing your very best.
Unfortunately, as you develop, you will often come upon an opponent or conditions that you think are over your head. You may be uncertain about playing well. This uncertainty creates doubts and anxiety. If you try to play when you are uncertain, you are going to play tentatively and give up at the first sign of trouble. This is discouraging.
So before you begin a match, make sure that you are focused on playing to the best of your ability. During a match, constantly remind yourself that the only way you are going to play well and have a chance to win is by playing aggressively and going for your shots. Make sure you are totally committed to doing it all the way. By being committed, you will play better, make fewer mistakes, improve faster, and have a whole lot more fun. If you have Total Commitment, at the end of the match, you won’t have to ask yourself the saddest question there is, “I wonder what could have been?”
Remember, “If you don’t got no guts, you don’t get no glory.”
CONTROL OR NOT TO CONTROL
The life of a professional tennis player is stressful. There are many things that they can worry about and which can make them depressed, angry, frustrated, and distracted, all of which will hurt their tennis. Unfortunately, many players, pros or junior players, worry about the wrong things. The big problem is that people get stressed out about things over which they have absolutely no control, i.e., they can’t do a thing about them. In a tennis player’s life, there are some things they should think about and other they shouldn’t.
Things that you should pay attention to are those things over which you do have control. These things include your physical condition, effort, attitude, thoughts, emotions, behavior, equipment, preparation, and performance. All of these are within your control, so by thinking about them and working on them, you can improve. Things that should not affect players include opponents’ attitudes, thoughts, emotions, behavior, and performances, coaches, officials, seeding, weather, and court conditions.
The next time you find that yourself worrying about something, ask yourself one question: “Is the thing that I am worried about under my control?” If it is not, let it go and focus on things you can control. If it is within your control, instead of worrying about, do something about it!
Remember, “The human body is the only thing we have that we can control to some degree, and the mental control the physical.”
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
A major source of stress for professional tennis players, and players at all levels of ability, is the unexpected things that come up before and during matches. The natural reaction to unexpected events is to back off, become tentative and anxious, and lose confidence and focus. Unexpected events hurt performance.
During a match, all kinds of things can wrong for a tennis player. On the way to matches, you can lose equipment and bags. At matches, racquets can get broken, schedules can be changed, and strings can break. If you are not prepared, you will react negatively to these unexpected occurrences and this will hurt your tennis.
The best way to deal with this problem is to Expect the Unexpected. This can be accomplished easily. Take a sheet of paper and on the left side of the page, make a list of all the things that can go wrong in a match. Then, on the right side, list solutions to these occurrences. For example, if your racquets are stolen, you should know someone beforehand who has extra frames that are similar to your own and who is willing to lend them. Or, if you break shoe lace, you can carry some extras in your racquet bag. Using this strategy, you can reduce your stress by making the unexpected no longer unexpected.
Remember, “Whenever we’re afraid, it’s because we don’t know enough. If we understood enough, we would never be afraid.”
Becoming a better tennis player is, at the same time, satisfying and frustrating. It is wonderful to learn to hit new shots or become more consistent. However, improving is a slow and difficult process. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to learning is focusing on the skills as you play.
Typically, you will be thinking about the new skill as you begin a practice drill or match, but quickly forget it as more important things come up like getting the ball over the net or winning points. So instead of focusing on and practicing the new skill, you go back to your old style. The result is that you become more skilled at doing the wrong things. That is, you get better at getting worse.
A strategy for maintaining the focus on the new skill is called the keyword progression. A keyword is a word that, when repeated, will remind you of the new technique that you are working on. Whenever you get instruction from a teaching pro or coach, reduce it to one highly descriptive word that you are able to focus on when playing. For example, keywords such as “shoulders,” “turn,” and “reach” can be used. Once you have decided on a keyword, you can begin the progression.
First, when you are playing, say the keyword repeatedly out loud while you are hitting. By saying it out loud, you are constantly reminding yourself to practice the skill. Second, once you are able to do the skill in this way, you can then say the keyword quietly to yourself. Finally, you will know you have learned the new skill when you are able to execute the skill without saying the keyword at all. By using the keyword progression, you will learn new skills more quickly, thus resulting in better match play and making tennis more fun and satisfying.
Remember, “Concentrate on one thing at a time, and rule out all outside influences that don’t have any real bearing on the task at hand.”
PRE-MATCH AND BETWEEN-POINT PREPARATION
On the day of a match, the time you spend before your match is the most crucial period of match preparation. All of the hours of practice you spend on the courts may go for naught if you do not use your pre-match time wisely. What you think, feel, and do before a match will dictate how well you play in the match. This pre-match period should ensure that you are physically and mentally ready to performance your best consistently. All of your energy must be effectively directed toward achieving Prime Tennis.
Prime Tennis is a concept I developed in reaction to my dislike of the phrase, peak performance, which is widely used by sport psychologist, coaches, and players. I see two things inherently wrong with peak performance. First, a peak is by nature very narrow, meaning that a high level of performance can not last long. Second, an inevitable part of a peak is the accompanying valley. So peak performance may mean one or two great matches, but also more average or poor ones.
In contrast, Prime Tennis denotes a consistently high level of performance across the year. Prime Tennis then should be your goal. To achieve Prime Tennis, you must do three things before a match: (1) Prepare your equipment; (2) Warm up your body completely and move toward prime intensity; and (3) Have prime confidence and focus. You can ensure this total preparation by actively taking control of your time and space before a match.
Key Pre-Match Factors
Tournament Site. Where you do your pre-match preparation can have an significant impact on your match readiness, particularly in how it affects your match focus. Some players are easily distracted by all of the activity in and around the tournament site. The competitors, officials, and others can draw your focus away from your preparation and putting on your “match face,” resulting in inadequate readiness and poor match performance. If this describes you, it is important for you to get away from this hub of activity and move off by yourself. By doing so, you can focus on what you need to in order to get ready.
Other players are focused too inwardly, too aware of their thoughts, emotions, and how their body feels. This self-absorption usually results in negative thinking, increased anxiety, poor match focus, and subpar performance. If this describes you, it is best for you to stay around the tournament site activity. This draws your narrow focus outside yourself and, at the same time, allows you to focus sufficiently on your pre-match preparation.
Who to Interact With? Another critical influence on your pre-match readiness is who you interact with prior to the start of your match. You should only be around people who will assist you in your preparation including coaches, family, and friends who help you become totally ready. You should actively avoid anyone who interferes with this process including chatty competitors, officials giving unwanted match information, and media.
In sum, specify what you need to do to be totally prepared to play your best, decide where you can best accomplish your preparation, and identify who can assist and who will interfere with your preparation. With this information, you can develop an effective pre-match routine to ensure total preparation and Prime Tennis.
Why Pre-Match Routines? Routines have many benefits to your pre-match preparation. They guarantee completion of every important aspect of match preparation. Routines build physical, mental, and emotional consistency, which will result in more competitive consistency. They enhance familiarity of competitive situations and decrease the likelihood of unexpected things occurring. Routines increase feelings of control, thereby raising confidence and reducing anxiety. Regardless of the importance of the match, by using a well-practiced routine, you will condition your mind and body into feeling that this is just another match.
Routines vs. Rituals. The goal of routines is to totally prepare you for your match. Everything done in a routine serves a specific function in preparing yourself. Routines are flexible; adjustments can be made to adapt to the situation, for example, a delay at the start of a match due to a long prior match. So you control routines. In contrast, rituals control you. Rituals involve anything that does not have a specific purpose in match preparation. Rituals are inflexible and superstitious. Rituals must be done or you will not believe that you can play well. Seek out routines and avoid rituals!
Prime Tennis Funnel. A pre-match routine acts as a funnel, which involves a narrowing of effort, energy, and focus as you approach the start of the match. Each step closer to the match should lead you to that unique state of readiness in which you are physically, mentally, and emotionally primed to play your best. What will emerge from this funnel is Prime Tennis.
Components of a Pre-Match Routine. Your pre-match routine should comprise everything that you need to do to be totally prepared for your match. This includes meals (e.g., carbo loading), match strategy (e.g., use serve and volley game), equipment (e.g., strings and grips properly prepared), physical warm-up (e.g., run, stretch, stroke warm-up, adjust intensity), and mental preparation (e.g., mental imagery, positive thinking, match focus).
Developing a Pre-Match Routine. Though the above factors are common to most if not all pre-match routines, there is no one ideal routine that works for everyone. In other words, routines are very personal. They should reflect your own individual personality and style.
In order to develop an effective personalized pre-match routine, you can use the following guidelines. First, write down what you need to do before a match to be totally prepared. Second, using your knowledge of pre-match activities and the tournament site, order your needs chronologically leading up to the start of the match and specify where each step of your routine can be best accomplished. Third, experiment with your routine at subsequent tournaments. You will probably have to fine tune it until you find a routine that you are completely comfortable with. Finally, routines only have value if used consistently. If you ask top players such as Steffi Graf and Pete Sampras about their routines, most will describe one that they have been using for years. So make a routine a part of your match preparation and it will assist you in achieving your own Prime Tennis.
As with pre-match preparation, the 25 seconds you spend between points will often determine how you play during points. So you should use that time to ensure that you are maximally ready to play your best. This can be best accomplished by developed an effective between-points routine that includes everything you need to do that will lead to Prime Tennis. This routine can best be organized with what I call the 3 R’s: Rest, Refocus, Recharge.
Rest. Tennis can be physically demanding. Long points can leave you breathing heavily and your muscles fatigued. So immediately after the conclusion of a point, you must take steps to rest and recover for the next point. To do this, turn your back to the court, take several controlled deep breaths, and relax your muscles, particularly in your neck and shoulders. This step should take 5-10 seconds.
Refocus. There is a tendency for many players to dwell on the previous point, particularly if important and poorly played. Maintaining this past focus is unproductive because the previous point can’t be changed and focusing on it will not help you play the next point. So this step of the 3 R’s should be directed toward focusing on what you need to do to play the next point well. First, direct your focus inward, taking your mind off your opponent and the court surroundings. Second, briefly examine the last point and learn from it. For example, you may have just gotten passed by a cross-court forehand for the fourth time. Third, consider your strategy for the upcoming point. Finally, decide on your strategy for the next point, for instance, by hitting an approach shot to your opponent’s backhand. Most importantly, as you walk to the line to serve or receive, you should know exactly what you want to do on that point. This step should take about 10 seconds.
Recharge. During the previous 15-20 seconds, your body has had a decrease in intensity and your focus is narrow and inwardly directly. As you move to begin the next point, you need to do two things. First, increase your intensity to get your adrenaline flowing and the energy you need to play well. This be done by moving, jumping around, using high-energy self-talk (e.g., “let’s go” and “hustle”) and positive body language (e.g., pump your fist and slap your thigh). Next, redirect your focus and point strategy outward onto your opponent and the game situation.
When you come to the line to serve and receive you should be mentally and physically ready to play the next point as well as you can.
As with pre-match routines, between-point routines are also personal. How you accomplish the 3 R’s will depend on your individual personality and style. You can apply the guidelines I described above for pre-match routines to your between-point routine to develop one that works best for you.
By developing pre-match and between-point routines, you will be better prepared to begin a match and to start every point. These routines will ingrain a consistent pattern of skills and habits that will result in a consistently higher level of play, that is, you will more often play Prime Tennis.
SELF-CONFIDENCE IN TENNIS
Perhaps the single most important mental ingredient professional tennis players need for success on the professional tennis tours is self-confidence. Entering the stadium court for the finals of an event, waiting to receive serve from Boris Becker or Steffi Graf, and being down 5-1 in a final set tiebreak can raise doubts in even the best players. But touring professionals and recreational players alike can overcome uncertainty by learning to control their thinking, maintain a positive attitude, and develop self-confidence by using some simple, yet effective techniques. The goal of these exercises is to reduce negative thinking and increase positive thinking.
Walk the Walk
How you carry yourself, move, and walk influences what you think and how you feel. If your body is down, your thoughts and feelings will be negative. If your body is up, your thoughts and feelings will be positive. Simply put, it is hard to feel down when your body is up.
Because of this, it is important to learn to walk the walk. Not walking the walking involves moving like a loser: head and eyes down, shoulders hunched, feet dragging, and no energy in your step. In contrast, walking the walk means moving like a champion: head high, chin up, eyes forward, shoulders back, arms swinging, and a bounce in your step.
Learning to walk the walk takes practice and should be rehearsed both during practice and matches, when you are winning and especially when you are losing, and both on and off the court. Within a short time, you will find that you do not get discouraged and are able to maintain a positive attitude even in the toughest matches.
Tennis Player’s Litany
In order for muscles to get stronger, they have to be exercised. The same holds true for the “self-confidence muscle”. One exercise I have developed working with tennis players is the Tennis Player’s Litany (see side box). This series of positive self-statements acts to train you to think positively. Even if you do not believe the Litany at first, if you tell yourself something enough times you will start believing it. For best results, the Litany should be said out loud before you go to sleep at night, when you get up in the morning, and before practice and matches.
TENNIS PLAYER’S LITANY
I LOVE TO PLAY TENNIS!
I AM A GOOD TENNIS PLAYER.
I ALWAYS THINK AND TALK POSITIVELY.
I AM CONFIDENT, RELAXED, AND FOCUSED WHEN I PLAY.
I HAVE FUN PLAYING TENNIS.
I LOVE TO PLAY TENNIS!
Active Positive Thinking
There are two steps in learning active positive thinking. First, you must stop making negative self-statements. To prevent this, it is helpful to have keywords such as “stop” or “positive”. Whenever a negative thought enters your mind, you can repeat the keyword. These keywords help to block the negative thoughts and refocus your concentration in a positive direction. Second, you must replace these negative thoughts with positive ones. It is useful to make up positive phrases such as “I can return this serve” or “I can do better next set” beforehand, so that when negative thoughts start to pop up, you can immediately replace them with positive ones.
Think Like Your Coach
How you coach yourself while practicing and playing matches can also influence your self-confidence. There are two types of coaching: negative and positive. Negative coaching is self-defeating and emotional. For example, if you double fault, you could say “I just can’t serve”. This negative feedback causes you to dwell on what you did wrong and have feelings of anger and frustration. What results is even poorer play and lower self-confidence.
However, if you think like your coach, you can give yourself instructions that will enable you to correct the mistake. For example, you could say, “I double faulted because my toss is too low, but if I get my toss up, I will be able to serve better next game”. This approach provides information you can use to play better and you will feel more self-confident and relaxed.
By using these techniques, you can go from being your own worst enemy to your best ally on the court. With a little time and effort, this new positive attitude not only enables you to play better and against more challenging opponents, but it also makes tennis a lot more fun and satisfying.
COACHING YOUNG PLAYERS
Published in USPTA News Journal (1992)
RESPONSIBLE TOURNAMENT SELECTION
One of the most difficult tasks for coaches from the development level to the professional tours is seeing that their athletes develop in a consistent and progressive manner. This process involves many decisions such as what is the appropriate level of off-season physical training, how much on-court training do they need, and how often should players compete in order to reach their developmental goals. The latter issue, namely, tournament selection, may be the most important issue because competition is the bottom line in a tennis player’s life.
Why Responsible Tournament Selection?
Responsible tournament selection is critical because the competitive season is very long and physically demanding. This problem was illustrated recently by a touring pro who, in one year, played in almost 50 tournaments and exhibitions and attained a high world ranking. Unfortunately, the next year he slumped considerably and developed a chronic injury that has sidelined him indefinitely.
Playing too much can cause fatigue, produce burnout, and, as demonstrated above, result in injury and illness. This is especially important because many important tournaments are at the end of the year. It is all too common for players to say “I can’t wait for this tournament to be over with” or “The season is almost over, great”. This is not a good attitude to have entering key tournaments. Rather, players need to maintain their attitude, motivation, and health in order to perform well to the very end of the season.
When to Play
Players should only compete when a tournament meets certain criteria. As a general rule, tournaments should serve a specific purpose in fulfilling players’ seasonal goals. More specifically, first, players should compete when they need more tournament experience. Second, they should play for qualification purposes. Third, when they have the opportunity to compete against their peers or to gauge their progress. Fourth, competing is advisable when players need some matches under their belt before an important tournament. Finally, keep in mind that tournaments should provide positive learning experiences for the players that benefits their development.
When Not to Play
Players should never compete to build their confidence. Confidence does not come from competing, it comes from sound preparation. Typically then, players will come out of a “confidence-building” tournament with less confidence than they had before.
Players should never enter a tournament because they know they will win. This is, in fact, a no-win situation. If they win, little is gained because they are expected to win. If they lose, it can be a severe blow to their confidence.
Players should never compete unless they are totally prepared to play their best. If they are not totally prepared, either mentally or physically, they will not play well and the experience will hurt them.
Players should never enter a tournament to break out of a slump. If a player is in a slump, competing is not the way to get out of it. The pressure they place on themselves to break out of the slump will almost ensure that they will not play well. Rather, players get out of slumps by relieving themselves of the pressure, understanding why they are in the slump, and, through proper training, progressively raising their level of play.
Finally, players should never compete for no reason, just for the sake of playing. Invariably, motivation will be low and poor play will be inevitable.
In sum, coaches should, in planning a player’s tournament schedule, consider these criteria and carefully select tournaments that will facilitate the player’s long-term development. Ultimately, coaches should follow one basic rule: players should only compete when they have more to gain than lose.
TALK TO YOUR ATHLETE
Understanding your athletes is one of a coach’s primary responsibilities. Knowing players’ needs, what motivates them, and what is happening in their lives is critical to your work with them. This, however, is not an easy task. You can not read minds and you are often responsible for a large number of players. Keeping track of them is a job in itself. But this information is essential for you in order to enhance their tennis experience.
What information do you need to know to best serve your athletes? You need to know about their needs in training, at tournaments, as part of the team, and issues going on off the court.
1. Since off-season training and preparation is typically the foundation of the tournament season, you want to understand your athletes’ motivational needs. Do they need to be pushed hard by you, encouraged and supported very positively, paired with a motivated athlete, or can they be left alone because they are self-motivated?
2. An important part of leading a team or training group is maintaining harmony and reducing conflict. Knowing the interpersonal needs of your athletes will benefit them by making the team experience more positive and you by having everyone get along better. So for each athlete, you want to know how they best fit into the team. Do they like to be alone or around teammates, who are their friends on the team, and what communication problems and conflicts do they have with teammates?
3. While training on-court, you want to make sure that the coaching you give each athlete is understood. So you want to ask them what their learning style is. Do they learn best with verbal, visual, or kinesthetic instruction? Do they need to be given technical cues to remind them of what they are working on?
4. On the day of a match, your interaction with the athletes can significantly affect how they play. But it is not often clear what you should do with them. For example, before their match, does the athlete like to be talked to or left alone? Does he or she like to be given some technical, motivational, or performance cues? Since the pre-match period is critical to their tournament performance, this is information that is important for you to know.
5. Finally, athletes are not in a vacuum while on the court. Issues that are present off the court will certainly influence their tennis. So you should make an effort to understand each athlete’s life away from the team including family and social relationships, health concerns, and school performance.
Obtaining the Information
In order to understand your athletes fully, you need clear information that you can best obtain by placing the onus on them. That is, give them the opportunity to supply you with the necessary information. You can get this useful information by having them complete a brief questionnaire, which I call the Talk to Your Coach Questionnaire (see Appendix A) which you may then study at your leisure. It is also useful to put each athlete’s information on an index card that you may refer to when needed.
1. What motivates you most in training?
2. Who are your friends on the team and with whom do you get along?
3. What are the most common types of conflicts that arise within the team?
4. Which type of instruction do you learn from best: verbal, visual, kinesthetic, or a combination?
5. What should and shouldn’t I do in the start area to help you prepare for your match (talked to or left alone, given technical cues)?
6. What are some things in your life off the court that I should know to help me work with you best (e.g., family, social, school, health)?
The time that players spend before their match is the most crucial period of match preparation. What they think, feel, and do prior to play will dictate how well they perform in the match. Due to this importance, coaches can help ensure that each athlete is optimally prepared.
Players have three goals before their match. First, their equipment should be ideally prepared. Second, their bodies must be warmed up and at an optimal level of intensity. Third, they must be confident in their ability and focused on performing their best in the match.
There are several key factors that will either help or hinder players’ preparation prior to their match. The first question is: where at the tournament site can they best accomplish their preparation? This will depend largely on their concentration style. If they tend to think too much, they should stay amid all the activity of the tournament and get prepared. If they tend to be distracted by the activity, they should go off by themselves to prepare.
Next, players must decide what they need to do to be totally prepared. As just discussed, there are three major areas, but within each of them, every athlete has particular things they like to do. For example, each player may have specific exercises he or she likes to do to get physically ready. Coaches should assist their players to develop structured routines that enable them to fully prepare themselves in the three areas.
Players then need to determine who they must interact with and what they should avoid in their preparation. They should only interact with those individuals at the tournament site who can facilitate their preparation, for example, coaches. Conversely, players should identify who and what they should avoid that might interfere with their preparation such as chatty players, officials, parents, and unwanted tournament information.
In sum, coaches should assist their players in identifying what they need to do to be totally prepared to play their best. Players may then develop a pre-match management plan that enables them to control these factors, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will play their best match.
POST-SEASON COACH EVALUATION
As coaches know from their work with athletes, improvement in any particular area comes from being made aware of a weakness and then working on improving it. Despite this knowledge, coaches are themselves rarely evaluated in any organized and systematic manner as a means of developing their abilities. Moreover, even more rarely is feedback obtained from those individuals who are the recipients of the coaches’ skills, namely, the players.
A common practice that occurs within the field of higher education is the evaluation of teachers by students. This information is used as constructive feedback for the future development of the teacher and in hiring and promotion procedures. This same process could be used to the benefit of the profession of coaching and the sport of tennis as a whole.
Drawing on the teacher evaluation form used in the School of Psychology at Nova University (where I hold a faculty position), adapting a form for tennis coaching would assess performance in a variety of areas on a five-point scale (1: poor; 2: below average; 3: average; 4: good; 5: excellent). Along with each numerical rating, a section for comments would enable players to provide specific feedback to the coaches.
1. Coaching knowledge – The depth and breadth of knowledge that the coach possesses in the areas of technique, physical and mental training, and equipment.
2. Manner and explanation – The ability of the coach to clearly convey relevant information to players.
3. Enthusiasm and stimulation – The amount of energy and love for the sport that the coach brings to his or her coaching responsibilities.
4. Attitude toward the athletes – The manner in which the coach treats the players in terms of respect, concern, and discipline.
5. The coach generally – How the player views the coach in general.
In addition to these assessments by the players, other important areas of coaching performance could be evaluated by the program director and head coach. Of particular note are the coaches’ off-court responsibilities including organizational and administrative capabilities, interpersonal skills with other staff members, parents, and individuals in the tennis industry, and intrapersonal attributes such as initiative and time management skills.
In taking this approach, it is important for coaches to view this process positively and constructively rather than being perceived as threatening. In fact, using such an systematic approach to coach evaluation would benefit coaches by removing potential arbitrariness and subjectivity from the decision-making process in hiring, pay raises, and promotions. On a more personal level, it would enable coaches to obtain clear information that they could use to improve their coaching.
MOTIVATING DEVELOPING TENNIS PLAYERS
The quality of any tennis performance is influenced by three factors: ability, motivation, and the difficulty of the task. Of these factors, only one, motivation, is entirely within the control of the player. Consequently, coaches should focus much of their energy on developing and maintaining a high level of motivation in their players. This task is not easy because of the length and intensity of the competitive season and the mental, emotional, and physical stress the athletes are under during this period.
What is Motivation?
Simply put, motivation is the ability to initiate and persist at a task. This desire to participate in an activity comes from the belief that it provides some type of intrinsic (e.g., satisfaction, joy) or extrinsic (e.g., validation from others, wealth) rewards. At a practical level, it is these rewards that enable players to keep working hard in the face of boredom, fatigue, physical pain, and the desire to do other things. Though intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can both be effective in the short term with players, research has shown that intrinsic motivation provides the longest lasting effect on participation and achievement. This is because the presence of extrinsic rewards can vary or, quite possibly, disappear. However, tennis players have control over their intrinsic rewards and can utilize them at any time. Thus, with all players, self-motivation is ideal.
Highly self-motivated players are willing to do everything they can to become the best that they can be and are not dependent on others for rewards. This drive must be directed into physical conditioning, technical training, mental preparation, and general lifestyle including diet, sleep, school, family and social relationships. A simple progression helps illustrate the importance of motivation to performance: High Motivation ! Total Preparation ! Maximum Performance.
Symptoms of Low Motivation
It is not often difficult to identify those players who lack motivation. These athletes have a lack of interest in some or all aspects of training, give less than 100% effort, and may skip training altogether. They also may shorten their training routines or practices, use minor injuries to get out of training and take unnecessary days off.
Regular Training Partners
No matter how hard players train alone, they will work that much harder if they have someone pushing them. A useful way to increase motivation is have players work in pairs. This is especially effective if the players are of similar ability, and have similar goals and training programs. On any given day of training, at least one of them will be motivated to work hard. They will also be more dedicated if they know someone else is counting on them.
Identify Greatest Competitor
Another effective motivator is to ask your players who is their greatest competitors. Have them place the name or a picture of that competitor where they can see it regularly. Also, you can periodically ask them whether they are working as hard as their competitor.
The more players can reminded to stay motivated, the more it will sink in. A useful way to constantly remind them is to identify some motivating keywords, e.g., hustle, go for it, phrases, e.g., “if you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly,” and photographs, e.g., Sampras or Graf, and place them around the club house, particularly above the door as they go to practice or train.
Ask Daily Questions
Finally, there are two questions that you can ask your players at the beginning and end of every day. Before training, ask your them, “What can you do today to become the best tennis player you can be?” After training, ask them, “Did you do everything possible today to become the best player you can be?”
It is reinforcing for players to see improvement in different areas of their training and performances. An effective way for them to clearly see their progress is by keeping a training diary. Maintaining a detailed training log enables players to record important aspects of tournament preparation such as physical, technical, and mental training. It also enables them to track their match performances. Plotting improvement provides clear and tangible evidence to players providing reinforcement to their efforts which increases their motivation. Training diaries are also useful means of identifying the causes of overtraining, illness, injuries, and performance slumps and streaks.
Quality vs. Quantity
Having players with high self-motivation is a worthy goal. However, highly motivated players must also be monitored and “reined in” at times. These players often have the belief that sheer quantity is the way to develop fully. For example, if one hour of drilling is good, then two hours will be even better. They often lose sight of the importance of quality in their training. An important theme to instill in them is, “Don’t train hard, train SMART!!” Along with this idea, you must show them how training smart, rather than hard, will lead them to their competitive goals. You can facilitate this process by indicating how placing quantity over quality can result in staleness, burnout, illness, injury, and slumps.
DEVELOPING AN OFF-COURT TENNIS IMAGERY PROGRAM
Tennis imagery is used by virtually all great players in their training and competitive play. Considerable research has also shown that combining mental imagery with actual practice facilitates learning and improves performance better than practice alone. Tennis imagery is one of the most powerful tools players have to enhance the quality of their competitive preparation and performances because it enables players to develop and integrate all aspects of their game including technique, tactics, and mental skills. Tennis imagery may be used prior to and during the tournament season and can provide mental, physical, and technical benefits. Coaches can make tennis imagery sessions a part of training and help the athletes to develop their own tennis imagery programs. These programs may be organized in team meetings during pre-season training.
Set Imagery Goals
Most players at all levels of tennis use imagery in some way, most typically in the form of daydreaming about their play. Goals are what enables these random imagery experiences to become a valuable part of training. Tennis imagery goals provide purpose and focus to the imagery. Coaches can assist players in deciding what they want to focus on in their tennis imagery. For example, athletes may have a significant technical flaw that needs to be improved. They may want to improve their self-confidence or other mental area. Some component of overall performance may be the emphasis such as being more consistent or aggressive.
In setting these objectives, players should focus performance rather than outcome goals. That is, imagery should address specific areas related to improving the quality of their play rather than on seeing themselves win. Simply put, if players imagine themselves playing well, they are more likely to do their best and winning is the probable result.
Climb Competitive Imagery Ladder
Players must create a competition ladder of tournaments in which they will be competing in the upcoming season. The ladder should start with the least important tournaments and increase through more important tournaments up to the most important tournament in which they will compete. Tennis imagery is then begun at the lowest level of the competitive ladder. Players should stay at that rung until they can reach their tennis imagery goal. When that is achieved, they should stay at that step for several imagery sessions to reinforce positive images, thoughts, and feelings. Players then should work their way up the ladder until they reach their tennis imagery goal at the top of the ladder.
Match-Specific Tennis Imagery
Players should not imagine themselves playing on some court in some match at some tournament. Rather, they should choose a particular tournament and site, e.g., 18s at Kalamazoo. Players can then select a different match for every tennis imagery session, thus reaching their tennis imagery goals on different courts and in varying events and conditions. One thing that must be emphasized to players is that tournaments, sites, and conditions should be appropriate to their competitive levels.
What to Imagine?
Since a tennis match can last up to several hours, it would not be realistic for players to imagine playing an entire match. Rather, they should select 4-5 critical match situations and imagine themselves playing them. For example, key situations might include the opening game, closing out a set, being down a break, and playing a tiebreak. Coaches can help players choose the situations that are most appropriate for their game. For instance, a player might have tendency to let down when ahead or tank when behind. Imagery focused on these situations would enable the player to practice positive responses to them.
Enhancing Tennis Imagery Quality
Total reproduction. Imagery is more than just mental. It involves players seeing and feeling themselves playing their best. Good imagery should be a total reproduction of the actual tennis experience. It should include all of the thoughts, emotions, and senses (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) that are experienced during an actual match.
Imagine realistic conditions. It is important that players imagine themselves performing under realistic conditions. That is, if players are not seeded and will be playing on outside courts, they should imagine themselves playing under these conditions. They should only imagine themselves playing under ideal conditions if they are usually seeded and play on the center courts. Players should always do imagery under those conditions in which they normally compete.
Imagine realistic performance. Players should focus on playing well rather than perfectly in their imagery. For example, junior players imagining themselves playing under tough conditions against a difficult opponent should not see themselves playing flawlessly like a pro. Instead, they should picture themselves playing within their ability and coping well with the difficulties.
Tennis Imagery Sessions
Tennis imagery sessions should be done 3-4 times per week. Tennis imagery should not be done too often because, as with any type of training, players can get burned out on it. A quiet, comfortable area where they will not be disturbed should be set aside. Each session should last about 10 minutes. Players may expect to see some results in 6-8 weeks.
Tennis Imagery Journal
One difficulty with tennis imagery is that, unlike physical or on-court training, the results are not tangible. An effective way to deal with this problem is for players to keep a tennis imagery journal. These logs should record key aspects of every imagery session including the quality of the imagined performance, any thoughts and feelings that occur, problems that emerged, and what they need to work on for the next session. Tennis imagery journals enable players to see progress in their imagery, thereby making it more rewarding.
Tennis Imagery is a Skill
It is important to emphasize that tennis imagery is a skill that, like any other skill, will develop with time. Coaches may find players who can’t seem to imagine themselves playing clearly or they make errors in their imagined performances. Both of these are natural and expected. But if players are patient and put time and effort into an organized tennis imagery program, they will become skilled at imagery in a short time and will gain the many benefits tennis imagery has to offer.
ON-COURT MENTAL EDGE TRAINING
Some of the most effective Mental Edge training can be done on the court during regular practice. Incorporating Mental Edge skills into on-court preparation will enhance the quality of the training and reinforce the value of the Mental Edge training to the players.
On-Court Tennis Imagery
Tennis imagery can be useful at three phases of drilling. First, typically after you have given feedback following a drill, players will say they understand. How well the instruction sinks in questionable. In order to ensure that players really process the feedback, have them close their eyes and imagine themselves doing the technical change for 15 seconds. This practice serves two purposes. It increases the likelihood that they will remember the instruction. Also, since visual information transfers to the muscles better than verbal information, the imagery will enhance the learning of the skill. Additionally, if players have a good drill, they should mentally review how they hit, so they will remember the feelings associated with it.
Second, players in group training settings often spend more time standing around than hitting. That time is usually spent talking, i.e., wasting time. Instead, players can use this time to increase the quality of their training. During this time, they can close their eyes and imagine themselves doing the new skill in the next drill. This will further ingrain your feedback and facilitate the learning process.
Third, players should use imagery just prior to their next drill. Before beginning to hit, they should briefly imagine what they want to work on. This further ingrains the new skill and establishes effective concentration for the drill.
Tennis Key Words
Maintaining concentration when working on technique is one of the biggest difficulties players have during training. Typically, at the end of a drill, coaches will provide some kind of lengthy technical instruction. However, it is likely that the players can not retain the entire instruction they were just given and, often, they forget what they are working on by the time they begin the next drill. In addition, even if players are thinking about the new skill before the drill, as soon as it begins, other more salient factors such as getting the ball over the net may push the new technique out of their mind. Quite simply, if players are not thinking about the skill, they will not work on it. If they don’t work on it, they will not learn it.
Coaches can assist the learning process with the use of tennis key words. After the detailed instruction, coaches should reduce the information to one or two words. For example, from a discussion of effective volleying, the tennis word, “block” could be used. Then, during drills and practice matches players may go through a tennis key word learning progression.
The first step in this progression is for players to say the key word outloud repeated during drills and hitting. This repetition ensures that the key word and the corresponding technique are remembered and practiced. Once the players are able to execute the skill while saying the key word outloud, they can then say the key word to themselves. The ultimate goal of this strategy is for players to be able to do the skill without conscious thought. When this occurs, they will have mastered the skill and will be able to use the technique effectively in tournaments.
Similar to the day of the match, it is useful for players to develop a routine in preparation for each drill. Too often, players are not adequately ready physically or mentally to have a quality drill. This results in poor training, little learning, and inefficient use of training time.
A sound pre-drill routine will last only about 10-15 seconds and should leave players totally prepared to have a drill that will further their development. There are two primary components to a pre-drill routine: focus and intensity. Players must be totally focused on what they want to accomplish in the drill and their body must be at the right level of intensity in order to be able to physically meet the demands of the drill.
A basic pre-drill routine can be summarized as the 3 R’s: Rest, Re-Focus, Rev. Following a previous drill, players will be breathing heavily from the exertion. First, having them begin a new drill while still out of breath will result in poor quality tennis. Having players focus on deep breathing and muscle relaxation will facilitate recovery. Second, players need to direct their focus on their goal for the next drill. This goal could be technical or tactical and can be focused on with a key word. Finally, players need to rev up their intensity so that they have the quickness, strength, and agility needed to accomplish the drill.
Thinking Too Much
Thinking too much, that is, being overly analytical is the bane of every tennis player in matches. Paralysis by analysis interferes with letting the body play the way it knows how to play. However, for most players, practice is a time that requires thinking. Before new skills and habits can learned and ingrained, they must be understood and focused on in a deliberate way. However, as the skills are acquired, players should think less and less about them. So when a match arrives, players are able to focus on only basic tactics, enabling the skills and habits that were learned through the thoughtful training process emerge automatically and result in a high level of play.
THE IMPORTANCE OF REST
Rest is perhaps the most under-rated training tool at a coach’s disposal. It is an absolutely critical part of any effective training program, yet it is often over-looked by coaches and players alike. A common mentality that has emerged from the “nose to the grind” attitude is that more is better, for example, if four miles of running is good, six will be better; if hitting two hoppers of serves is good, hitting four will be better.
Players are conditioned to believe that not training is a sign of weakness. Typical fears about rest held by athletes (and some coaches) include “I will lose my timing,” “I will get out of shape,” I will forget how to play,” and “I am lazy if I don’t practice.” Yet, as exercise physiologists have demonstrated, rest following a period of training is the time when the actual gains are made. This is when the body, which has been broken down from training, can repair and build itself beyond its previous level.
Rest as Part of Training and Competition
Rest is as important to competitive preparation as physical, technical, and mental training. Rest influences every aspect of a player’s performance: (1) physical condition (strength, flexibility, endurance); (2) mental state (confidence, anxiety, concentration, motivation); (3) ability to handle pressure; and (4) enjoyment in training and competition.
In addition to the wear-and-tear of training, the pressure of the regular tournament schedule and daily stressors unrelated to tennis will also wear players down. Regular rest guards against the accumulated long-term effects of the grind of the competitive season. Even if players do not feel tired does not mean they do not need rest.
There are four clear symptoms of the need for rest that coaches should watch for in their players. First, players who are always tired, yawning a lot, falling a sleep during the day, and dragging in training. Second, a loss of enjoyment, interest, and motivation to train is a sure sign of the need for rest. Third, lingering illness and injury that won’t quite go away suggests that the body does not have sufficient resources to repair itself at its current pace. Fourth, uncharacteristic emotional responses by players such as anger, frustration, or depression may indicate excessive fatigue. Players are very good at communicating (nonverbally) to coaches about how they feel. It is up to the coaches to recognize and act upon these signs.
Incorporate Rest into Training
Coaches can show players the importance of rest by making rest a regular part of the training regimen. This can be accomplished in several ways. Mandatory rest days can be scheduled once a week. The Monday after a tournaments is common. The intensity of training should also be varied depending upon the time of season, the upcoming tournament schedule, and how the players are feeling. This process, called periodization, is the new wave in training technology.
Players should also take extra days (perhaps 2-4 days) off following a stressful period of training or tournaments. For example, following a tournament with six matches in seven days, coaches should close the courts for up to three days. Coaches, if necessary, should force their players to rest even if they do not feel tired. Finally, coaches should plan time off (3-5 days) about three weeks before a major tournament. This will ensure that the players are fresh and fired up for the upcoming tournament.
Finally, coaches can not always tell when players need rest. One of the most important lessons coaches can teach their players is to listen to their body. Our bodies are very good at telling us when we need rest. The most apparent signals that players should look for are those mentioned above in Warning Signs. The most difficult thing is to get players to be aware of these signals and to act on them. This can be accomplished by educating players about the negative effects that fatigue has on tennis performance and showing them how incorporating rest into their training programs will contribute to the attainment of their competitive goals.
PLACING DEMANDS ON YOUNG ATHLETES
Self-esteem is the single most important thing that young people need to develop in order to be happy, successful, and productive adults. Self-esteem refers to peoples’ basic view of themselves that is reflected in statements such as, “I like myself,” “I am a good person,” or “I am a failure,” or “No one loves me.” Though there are many sophisticated ways to measure self-esteem, coaches can get a general sense of their players’ self-esteem by listening to how positive or negative their self-talk is, seeing how they react to success and failure (e.g., are they satisfied with their wins, are they able to constructively deal with failure?), and how dependent they are on success in tennis to how they feel about themselves.
Unfortunately, most people have a misconception about how to best develop self-esteem. Many people think that this is accomplished by constantly reinforcing, encouraging, and supporting children. This approach, however, does not develop confident people. Rather, it creates individuals who are dependent upon people and feel good about themselves only when reinforced by others.
The fact is that life, whether in tennis or the “real world,” can be difficult and stressful. It can be lonely and punitive. As an adult, there is not always someone there to pick people up and pat them on the back. If they can not pick themselves up, they are probably going to stay down. So it is important to teach young people how to do just that. This is the basis for developing self-esteem.
Self-esteem emerges by challenging young people and providing them with skills that they may use to meet those challenges. Thus, people with high self-esteem are those who have the confidence to expose themselves to challenges and possess the coping skills to effectively master these difficult experiences.
Self-esteem is developed by having young athletes set realistic and challenging goals and being shown how to achieve them. It is also protected and cultivated by showing players that the value of who they are does not depend on what they do or whether they win or lose. “Unconditional love” is a term that describes this last concern. Self-esteem is lost when young people feel unloved or feel that love and respect depend on meeting the expectations of others, particularly in the form of results.
The tough question is: “How do we help young people to develop these skills?”. The answer to that is by placing expectations and demands on them. Children do not naturally know to what level they should aspire. So they look to adults like parents and coaches to give them feedback about their expectations and their performances. Starting out, they are probably going to work until it becomes a little uncomfortable, then stop. If coaches don’t tell them that was not enough, they are going to conclude that that was far enough.
An essential lesson I have learned in my work with young athletes is that young people must learn to make choices. Moreover, in order to make choices, it is necessary to have alternatives from which to choose. Too many people these days do not make choices. Rather, they simply do what they have been brought up to believe they should do. It is important for coaches to provide the experiences from which young athletes can make informed decisions about the life they lead. For example, young people can not decide whether they want to work hard in their tennis unless they have, in fact, experienced pushing themselves to their limits. It is essential that they know what it is like to give 100% effort, to try their hardest. Once they have, they can then make a choice. I should point out that it is okay if they decide not to work their hardest. Not everyone has to be a superstar. There is great value in being a good friend, husband, or mother. The important thing is that they make an informed decision in the direction they choose to take their life.
What kinds of expectations should be placed on young people? They should not be ability-based demands. Due to heredity, people have only a certain amount of ability, whether intelligence or athletism, and they have little control over it. Moreover, I have known many people who were very bright or physically gifted, but they were not happy or successful. One difficulty for these people is that these abilities enabled them to succeed without expending much effort. To them, they did not have to do much to succeed. As a result, they had difficulty taking ownership of their successes, it was not really them succeeding.
As a result, the demands placed on the young people should be effort-based. These types of expectations are those that should emphasized. An important aspect of effort-based expectations is that they are controllable and a sense of control is a key contributor to high self-esteem. Learning the relationship between effort and results is one of the most valuable lessons people can learn because, though a cliche, the satisfaction and value from success does not come from the result, but rather from the process. Also, since effort is controllable, people can take ownership of their successes, they can say “I did it.”
In the face of our result-oriented society, it up to parents and coaches to temper this perspective with a healthier one that emphasizes the process over the outcome and effort over results. For example, after a match, coaches who ask players, “Did you win?” or “How did you do?” is sending a powerful signal that the result is the important thing. In contrast, questions such as, “How hard did you try?” or “Did you have fun?” convey a perspective that will build self-esteem. An overemphasis on winning or players seeing a connection between their results and how much their parents and coaches love them will lower self-esteem.
People think that since I am a psychologist, I believe in being very supportive and caring toward young people. Though these are important, they are also not enough. As I have said earlier, placing demands on them is most important and I encourage coaches to do so. This means being tough on them. However, this approach can be as damaging as it can constructive. Before the demands are placed on the young people, coaches must explain to players that they are going to be tough on them. Young athletes must understand that coaches are not doing it because they hate the players and think them a bad person. Rather, it is because coaches care for them, see something worthwhile in them, and want to help them bring that something special out. By explaining what coaches are going to do beforehand, players will not waste a lot of negative energy hating them. Also, coaches will be joining them in a partnership to help them explore the limits of their ability.
Once this foundation has been established and the understanding is there, then it is the coach’s responsibility to place those demands on the young person strictly and consistently. It should be pointed out, also, that being tough does not mean being punitive. It does not mean being derogatory and humiliating. That is one thing that can really hurt self-esteem. Rather, being tough means setting standards and not allowing young people to stop until those standards have been met. By consistently applying these demands, young people will learn the relationship between effort and performance and, hopefully, internalize the great value in trying their hardest. This, in my view, should be the goal of coaches: teaching young people to discover what they are truly capable of. Having them learn that successful people are not those who are the smartest, most talented, or the best athletes, but rather are those who understand the meaning of effort and strive to do their best in every area of their life.
GOAL SETTING FOR BETTER PLAYER PERFORMANCE
One of the most widely used techniques to increase motivation among athletes is goal setting. Having players establish goals at different levels of training and competition will improve their effort and intensity. In order to ensure the value of goal setting, there are several components that must be included in a well-organized goal setting program.
Long term goals specify what the players ultimately want to achieve in their careers. Examples of long term goals include receiving a college scholarship or playing professionally. These objectives are similar to dreams because they are so far off they may seem unreachable. Due to their distance, these goals should be kept in the back of players’ minds, but not focused on often.
Seasonal goals indicate what the players want to accomplish in the coming season, such as reach a certain ranking or attain a new level of competition. These goals are important because they will dictate all subsequent goals that are set.
Competitive goals designate how players want to perform in particular tournaments during the season. Competitive goals might include a certain placing to qualify for the next tournament or players lowering their ranking to be named to a traveling team. These goals are critical because attaining them should lead to reaching their seasonal goals.
Training goals specify what players need to do in their physical, technical, and mental training that will enable them to reach their competitive goals. Training goals might involve increasing leg strength by 10%, working on down-the-line passing shots, or learning to control anxiety.
Lifestyle goals indicate what players need to do in their general lifestyle to reach the above goals, e.g., develop better sleeping habits, eating better, or being more disciplined studying.
As can be seen, these goals are incremental and progressive from the bottom to the top. In other words, the lower goals lead step-by-step to the higher goals.
In setting goals, it is important to follow several guidelines to maximize their value. First, goals should be challenging, but realistic and attainable. That is, they should be reachable, but only with hard work. Goals that are too easy or too hard have little usefulness because they will be reached without effort or are unreachable even with extreme effort, respectively.
Second, goals should be specific and concrete. For example, an ineffective goal is “I want to get stronger”, whereas a useful goal is “I want to increase my bench press 20% in the next three months”. They also should be objective, tangible, measurable, and time-limited.
Third, athletes should focus on the degree, rather than absolute attainment, of goals. Inevitably, not all goals will be reached, but there will almost always be improvement toward a goal. By emphasizing measurable improvement, changes in performance can be followed and progress can be rewarded.
Finally, goals should be examined and updated regularly. Some goals may turn out to be too easy and must be made more difficult. Other goals are too hard and must be eased. Also, goal setting is a process, there really is no end. When one goal is reached, a new higher goal should be established immediately. In addition, there does not need to be a goal for every aspect of performance all of the time. There are times when certain areas should be stressed and others should be de-emphasized.
In addition to the macro-goals described above, players can improve their motivation and the quality of their training on a daily basis by setting micro-goals. These goals specify exactly what the players want to accomplish every time they train. Coaches may assist players in developing micro-goals by simply asking them what they are working on before each training session. If the players do not know, they shouldn’t be allowed to train until they have a particular objective in mind. Micro-goals are an excellent means of helping athletes stay focused during training and increasing the quality and decreasing the quantity of training.
The role of the coach in the goal setting process is critical. Young players often do not have the experience or objectivity to set appropriate goals. Coaches can provide guidance as to the specific goals to which players should aspire, assist them in developing realistic, challenging, and measurable goals, and help them monitor their progress.
MAKE PARENTS YOUR ALLIES
When I ask tennis coaches what is the biggest challenge and stressor in their work with young players, the almost unanimous response is PARENTS! Coaches indicate that more often than not parents interfere with rather than facilitate their coaching. This is an unfortunate situation as parents have a powerful impact on players. Considering this, it is important for coaches to do what they can to make their allies.
Why Parents are Not Your Allies?
Though there are some strong examples to the contrary in tennis, most parents are not mean, malicious, and ill-intentioned. Most want the best for their children as players and young people. Unfortunately, many parents don’t know what is best for their children in their tennis. In other words, they are simply uneducated about how the roles they play can have a positive and negative influence on their children’s tennis experience.
Goals of Tennis Participation
The most basic thing parents need to know and accept are the primary goals that they should emphasize with their children. Specifically, their goals should be no greater than having tennis contribute to their children’s personal and social development, build their self-esteem, learn transferable life skills such as motivation, confidence, and focus, and gain a love of a lifetime sport. If young players achieve these goals, they are going to be happy and productive people. Any other goals like a college scholarship or a professional career would only be icing the cake.
Recommendations for Making Parents Your Allies
1. Establish mandatory parent-coach meetings to discuss your program’s philosophy and goals. These must be consistent between the parent and coach for the young player to benefit from tennis.
2. Identify specifically how parents’ behavior can help or hurt their child. For example, hugging and encouraging players whether they win or lose vs. showing negative emotions during matches.
3. Identify specifically how parents’ behavior can aid or undermine your coaching. For instance, making sure players are properly equipped and on time for practice vs. coaching their child away from your practices.
4. Create regular opportunities for parents to give input about their child. For example, establish office hours when parents can stop by or call. You can learn a great deal from each other to the child’s benefit.
5. Provide regular written progress reports to parents about how their child is developing physically, technically, competitively, and psychologically. They have a right to know.
6. Establish clear guidelines of appropriate and inappropriate behavior for parents like my Do’s and Don’t's of Tennis Parenting (see Note below).
7. When conflicts arise, act like an adult and treat the parents like adults. Your communications will be more amicable and productive.
8. Choose the appropriate setting for a discussion with parents, for example, in your office. Never speak to parents about important issues in front of players, coaches, or other parents.
9. Enlist parents within your program for advice and guidance about parent issues that arise.
10. Most important of all, create and foster an atmosphere of cooperation, mutual support, and communication aimed at providing the child with the most positive tennis experience possible.
LAYING THE FOUNDATION FOR PRIME TENNIS
There are many things that go into developing skilled tennis players. Physical conditioning, technique, tactics, and psychology require years of constant attention for young players to become the best they can be. Yet, underlying all of the information, exercises, techniques, and strategies are some basic and essential concepts that players and coaches must understand for everything else to follow.
Concept #1: Positive Change Formula
In order for any change to occur, whether physical, technical, or mental, in the most efficient and effective fashion, players must follow a three-step formula. One, players must become aware of what they are doing incorrectly and how to correct it. Two, players must control what they want to improve. Third, players must engage in sufficient repetition to ensure that the change is ingrained and automatic.
Concept #2: Prime Tennis
A common term to describe a high level of tennis is “peak performance.” But there are problems with peak performance. First, because a peak is very narrow, there can be few great performances. Second, an inherent part of a peak is that there have to be valleys. From this perspective, peak performance is not descriptive of what athletes should strive for. The dictionary defines “prime” as: “having the highest quality or value.” Prime Tennis means players being able to play their best consistently under the most challenging conditions. Prime Tennis should be your goal with players.
Concept #3: Prime Law of Tennis Training
The purpose of training is to develop effective skills and habits. With this in mind, you should be sure that every time your players train, whether on- or off-court, they are focused on instilling physical, technical, tactical, and mental skills and habits that will enable them to play Prime Tennis.
Concept #4: Prime Law of Match Preparation
Whatever players do in training, that is what they will do in matches. Two corollaries of this law are: If players don’t do it training, they will not be able to do it in a match. And if they need to do it in matches, they must do it in training. All efforts in training are directed toward what players need to do in matches. Two key areas in which this law is most relevant is with focus and intensity. Players must practice playing at 100% focus and intensity, so when they get to the match, they are entirely accustomed to it and the focus and intensity will allow them to play Prime Tennis.
Concept #5: Mental Skills are Skills
Many people think that mental skills are something players are born with or they are not. If not, they can never develop them. But it is important for players to understand that mental skills are skills, just like technical skills, and they can be learned in the same way. Like technical skills, mental skills are acquired with the Positive Change Formula, namely, awareness, control, and repetition.
Concept #6: Prime Tennis Pyramid
The Prime Tennis Pyramid is a progression of mental skills that lead to Prime Tennis. Motivation lies at the bottom of the pyramid because without the motivation to play, there would be no interest in improvement and competition. Prime motivation ensures total preparation. From motivation and preparation comes Confidence, players’ belief in their ability to play their best. Prime confidence gives players the desire to compete. From confidence comes Intensity, players’ ability to respond positively to the pressure of competition. Prime intensity enables players’ bodies to play their best. From intensity comes Focus, the ability to focus properly before and during matches. Prime focus allows players to stay focused and avoid distractions. From this pyramid comes Prime Tennis, players’ ability to play at a consistently high level under the most challenging conditions.