You are leading by a set and a break, and have just hit a clean winner to set up three match points. Serving for the match, you suddenly become nervous and hit a double fault, followed by another. Your heart rate goes up and your mind goes foggy. An hour later, you walk off the court as the loser.
Although tennis is a physical game, it’s almost impossible to win a match without a strong mindset.But why do some players thrive on pressure while others choke? HEAD.com spoke to two leading sports psychologists about their tennis mental game secrets.
Whether you consider yourself mentally weak, or think you have the mental fortitude of Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer, any player of any level can always improve their tennis mind game. Tennis mental toughness is something that can be learnt through tennis mental training techniques.
How much of tennis is mental?
Although tennis is first and foremost about hitting serves and forehands and backhands, people often wonder what percentage of tennis is mental.
‘Tennis requires a huge degree of mental strength,’ says sports psychologist Professor Andy Lane of the London-based Centre for Health & Human Performance. ‘Winning and losing is done by the finest margins.’
Although the mental side of the game is important, players have to be competent in four different areas: physical, tactical, technical as well as psychological, according to performance consultant Roberto Forzoni.
‘I strongly believe that, in any sport, the better your psychology, the more you are going to enjoy that sport, and the more you are going to achieve in that sport,’ said Forzoni, a former national performance psychology manager of the British Lawn Tennis Association who has worked with former world No 1 Andy Murray and former junior Wimbledon champion Laura Robson.
How do you build mental toughness in tennis?
Losing from a winning position is never fun. Which begs the question: what happens when a player chokes?
Players who choke are likely to be struggling with ‘a lack of ability to stay focused on what’s important,’ saysForzoni, a former football player, coach and manager who has also worked with numerous professional football clubs.
For example, a player who takes the first set easily may already be thinking about winning the match instead of staying in the present. Or a player can be so disappointed about hitting a bad shot, or losing a game or a set, that he or she loses focus and can’t stop thinking about past mistakes.
‘We call it “living in the past or the future” and the secret is to try and get back to the present all the time,’ addsForzoni. ‘The quicker you can do that, the better. When a player chokes, they generally take their eye off what’s important in that particular moment.’
How do you keep calm and mentally prepare for a tennis match?
Forzoni advises players who struggle to close out matches to adopt certain routines. So what are his main mental tennis tips and tricks?
‘You need to train your mind to be able to accept that something can go wrong,’ Forzoni said. ‘This can be done off the court by talking about a lot of “What if?” scenarios. That’s a great tool and skill for a player to learn. What if you lose the first set 6-2? – what’s your response going to be? What if you win the first set 6-0? – what’s your response going to be?’
By talking through the various match scenarios, players will learn to ‘control the controllables’ through tennis mental training, according to Forzoni. In other words, they won’t get anxious when something happens that’s outside their control, for example when their opponent hits a winning shot.
‘It all comes back to: what is the process you are going to do, what have you practised every day, and can you replicate that in a match?’ said Forzoni.
How to win a tennis match mentally?
Both Forzoni and Lane cited multiple Grand Slam champions Nadal, Federer and Novak Djokovic as prime examples of mentally strong players.
Take for instance last year’s men’s semifinal on the clay courts of Roland-Garros between Nadal and Federer, which was played in extremely testing conditions. The remnants of Storm Miguel, which had struck the French coast with wind speeds of up to 130 kilometres-per-hour, were so fierce they even sent chairs flying and occasionally had the players covered in clouds of red dust on the centre court.
Although Federer struggled to execute his offensive game plan in high winds, Nadal appeared to be utterly unaffected by the conditions, displaying superb footwork to win in straight sets.
‘What is mental toughness?’ asksForzoni, answering with:‘It’s probably that ability to stay focused on what you are doing, at the expense of everything else that is going on.
‘So if you’re playing in terrible weather, and chairs are going around in the wind, that’s irrelevant. We call it noise, it’s just interference. If you can ignore that interference and focus on what you are there to do, then you’re giving yourself the best change to have the best performance on that day.’
How can I improve my mental game?
Here are Forzoni’s and Lane’s top five tennis psychology tips:
Work on your self-confidence
‘Tennis players need to introspect, and call on inner reserves to maintain self-confidence during a game,’ saysAndy Lane. ‘Studies have shown that winning tennis players report high levels of self-confidence and low anxiety, are able to control emotions before competition and can use adaptive coping skills.’
Develop performance routines
‘The brain and memory are very complex,’ says Lane. ‘Sometimes we find it difficult to remove negative thoughts in situations that require us to be positive. When I work with athletes, I try to encourage them to record as many positive features from their training and competition as possible. For example, where tennis players have had a very good session practicing serves, it is important that they recall as much information from that practice session as soon as possible.’
Accept you won’t always play at your best
‘Not even the game’s most successful players play at their best level in all of their matches,’ says Roberto Forzoni. ‘Let’s say a player competes in 20 matches. The player may view two of those as great while two might be seen as not very good. It is how they perform in the other 16 matches that’s likely to determine their level of success – so have that in mind for 80% of the matches you play.’
There’s no such thing as ‘having a bad day’
Never speak in terms of ‘having a bad day’ as this gives you an excuse to continue having a bad day, according to Forzoni. Making excuses beforehand is a form of ‘self-handicapping behaviour’, which stops you changing the situation.
Be comfortable being uncomfortable
This attitude ‘epitomises the journey in sport,’ saysForzoni. Being uncomfortable is part of playing sports ‘so learn to be comfortable with it.’