Mental preparation for consistent tennis performances
By Anca Dumitrescu, Miami (Ohio)
One of the areas that differentiate the best players from the rest is their consistent results over the span of an extended time. Most players have good days which typically translate into good matches. However, they also have bad days which typically translate into bad matches. Their performance tends to go up and down throughout the course of a season as does their form. However, the best players are able to maintain their good form for longer than most and more so, they are able to be successful on those days when they don’t hit the ball as clean as they are capable off.
What allows players to post consistent performances for an extended period of time? The answer is one which is often taken for granted: Preparation. We are all very familiar with the actual hitting routines most players go through before the beginning of the match. In this article however I will explore the mental preparation which plays an important role in a player’s ability to reach ad maintain a good emotional state in the face of adversity and give himself and herself the best opportunity to actually put into play all the drills developed in practice.
There are two important aspects of mental preparation which will allow one to have strong on court performances:
1. Pre match preparation.
Pre match mental preparation includes routines which allow a player to reach an optimal emotional state at the start of a match. In that state, a player may feel a little nervous about the start yet at the same time the player feels secure in his or hers ability and clear about the game plan. While such routines are typically a lot shorter than the actual physical warmup, they are as important in allowing a player to have strong performances despite the normal ups and downs in form throughout the year.
The very first step towards a good pre match preparation is simply accepting that most likely you will feel some sort of nerves before the beginning of the match. It is a natural phenomenon when facing competition and simply shows that you are involved and care about that event. The balancing act comes in not allowing nerves to turn into fear or become a distraction in your preparation for your match. Here are a few tips for reaching a balanced emotional state before the start of your match:
Visualization helps players mentally prepare for the beginning of the match and different challenges one may experience throughout that particular match. Such challenges include: the opponent coming out and playing great; frustration with the surrounding fans, dealing with the elements, dealing with the perceived pressure of the moment or personal insecurities about ones game. Every player has areas which tend to make them more nervous and it is important to identify these areas and visualize strategies which allow one to overcome such emotional obstacles. For example if you feel hesitant about playing a quality opponent who hits the ball extremely hard and flat, visualize yourself staying low and compact through your swings and see yourself moving quickly around the court and defending the corners with good depth. If you can create a strong image in your mind and persuade yourself that you can out-move such an opponent you are very likely to actually succeed in your strategy.
In addition to visualization, most professional players use scouting reports to help them prepare for their upcoming matches. These reports may include information on their opponents’ tendencies and shot selection. I found that players are able to get to a better start in their matches when they know ahead of time what style of player they are facing in singles and the common tendencies of their doubles opponents. ( It is important that such reports are kept simple and include 2-3 points. If they are too long and complicated, the players is likely to forget that information or tend to over-think on the court)By having information on another player’s style, players can devise a strong game plan with patterns of play that they tend to implement in that particular match and which are likely to yield positive results.
Other common pre match routines include certain intense physical exercises like sprints which allow players to feel loose and energetic at the start of a match. Listening to certain songs is also a popular pre match routine which allows players to feel confident and visualize a strong performance.
The same way a balanced emotional state is individual to each player, so is that player’s particular pre match preparation. Finding the perfect preparation may require a little trial and error and at times the found strategies need little adjustments. However, the most important thing about your pre match preparation is its consistency. The same way you tend to have a consistent warm up routine, your metal preparation routine needs to also be consistent. While you cannot control your opponent, the elements or the fans, you can control your pre match preparation and the more consistent it is, the more you are likely to have a consistent start of the match.
While your pre match routines allow you to find the optimal emotional state at the beginning of a match, routines allow you to maintain that emotional state throughout the duration of that match.
Routines include all activities that you engage in between points, games and sets. You have 25 seconds between each point, 90 seconds on each game change and 2 minutes between sets. What you do in those moments of break between points and games can have a critical impact on the consistency of your performance during the actual points.
Popular rituals between points include looking at the strings, walking back to the fence, breathing exercises or bouncing up and down before the serve or the return. Rituals allow a player to relax and refocus after playing a bad point and reinforce self confidence after good point. They help rebuild momentum when you lost it and maintain it when you gain it. They allow you to find a moment of peace and total control until the point starts again and other factors such as your opponent or the wind can influence the actual play. If you watch the best players such as Nadal or Sharapova you will notice that they perform the same routines between points and games. No matter whether they win or lose a point or a game, their rituals remain consistent throughout the match.
These small rituals are a source of confidence and these players know that the more consistent they are with their routines, the more likely they are to play consistently at a high level.
In tennis, players always fight for control and consistency. In this battle we sometimes forget that control is not something we totally have over the result of a match but that the result of a match is influenced by many variables. However, a solid and consistent pre match preparation provides a venue for players to reach a balanced emotional state at the start of a match which will give them the best possible opportunity to start on a high note. In addition to pre match routines, rituals between points and games allow a player to maintain that balanced emotional state throughout a match and maintain a clam and focused mind in the face of adversity. As such, even on days when they don’t hit the ball great players can make good tactical decisions and likely achieve their desired result.