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Mental Toughness In Tennis – 9 Easy Ways To Conquer Your Fears

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Tennis is the type of game that requires a sound mind to win. Being mostly an individual sport, the mind can often make or break a player. With no teammates to rely on, the tennis player is left bare, exposed to battle his mental demons at every turn.

The mental side of tennis has been discussed endlessly. We’ve seen professional players crumble under pressure like sand castles washed over by a raging tide. On a world stage, we’ve witnessed this time and again on the mens’ and womens’ professional tours.

We’ve also seen players rise to the occasion with ice in their veins. These players are seemingly impervious to distractions, getting the job done under the most difficult circumstances. We marvel at these players and herald them as heroes.

Building up a sound mind that is determined and disciplined takes time. While physical prowess comes and goes, the mind is the one thing in tennis you can always control. Your outlook, expectations and mindset are entirely determined by you alone.

In this post, you’ll learn 9 easy ways to maximize your mental prowess in tennis. These tips will strengthen your mental resolve and better your play.

 

Stay Positive

When playing a match, you’ll undoubtedly be faced with adversity. When it hits you, you’ll need to deal with it effectively. Doing so will give you the best odds of winning the match.

The most effective way to deal with adversity is to stay positive. Staying positive means positive self-talk and positive body language. I know this is easier said than done, but it’s entirely possible.

The next time you go into a match, try to be positive on every point, from beginning to end no matter what. You’ll notice a big difference in your outlook and play afterwards.

You can remain positive by not criticizing yourself for mistakes. Instead let go of them and constantly repeat positive phrases to yourself. You also need to stand tall in your posture and avoid moping, sulking, and other negative body language.

I know this is a tall task for some people, but the more you practice it, the easier it will become. When I first started playing tennis, I was not very positive at all. I was John McEnroe without any talent.

However, once I began to shift into being a positive person and player, the differences were so stark that I realized it was the only way going forward. Today, even if I’m playing my worst, I stay positive knowing that it will afford me the greatest chance of winning the match.

The next time you play a match, go into it with a positive mind set. Even if it’s totally against how you usually think, it can’t hurt to try. You may just be surprised at the results.

 

Avoid Distractions

This is a big mental demon that many tennis players suffer from. While it’s true tennis players are more finicky than most other athletes about surrounding conditions, those distractions need to be put out of mind to win.

Any time you play tennis, there will always be distractions. Those distractions come in two forms. Either they are internal, as in something negative in your personal life. Or they are external and happening during play – such as noise, bad weather, others playing next to you, etc.

If you really want to win in tennis, you need to be single-mindedly focused and in the present. Thinking about personal situations (internal distractions) during play will only hinder your performance.

This is where meditation can be very helpful. By meditating on one thing only, you can train your mind to block out all distractions.

Meditation can also be applied on the tennis court. By training my mind through meditation, I’m so focused during my matches, I totally forget about everything else in my life. I feel like I’m completely immersed in tennis when I play. It really does work.

External distractions are different, as they are typically unexpected. Sometimes you never quite know how the weather will be, who will be playing next to you, or what kind of noises will be present during the match.

Through the years, I’ve experienced a lot on the tennis court. I’ve seen strong-minded players block out the toughest of distractions. And I’ve also seen weak-minded players driven to tears over the smallest of distractions. Who do you think plays better?

Before your next match, resolve to leave internal distractions at home. And when you arrive to the court, make a deal with yourself that just for this match, you’re not going to pay any attention to external distractions. If you don’t see a positive difference in your play afterwards, I’d be surprised.

 

Hit The Delete Button

 

When playing a match, mistakes are inevitable. Sometimes those mistakes are forced by our opponent and we can’t be too hard on ourselves for that. But sometimes they’re unforced and just blatantly bad shots on our part.

When we hit a bad shot, we can’t be hard on ourselves either. Instead we need to “hit the delete button” and forget about it. A friend of mine, named Leon, (who I play doubles with) always tells me to “hit the delete button” after I make a bad shot.

At first this seems like it could be difficult to do. Some people really like to hark on their mistakes and use negative self-talk and body language to reinforce their errors. Does McEnroe come to mind? However, I find that most mistakes are technical and cannot be easily corrected during a match.

As a result, it’s best to accept your mistakes and forget about them. We’re all trying our best on the tennis court. 99 percent of us are not professional players who have the time to practice every day. Realize that tennis is a difficult sport and mistakes are part of the game.

Once you understand that, you can let go of them and move on. The worst-case scenario of making too many mistakes, is you lose the match. In the grand scheme of your life, one lost match at the club level is not very important.

By putting mistakes or losses into that context, it’s easier to let them go. Additionally, you’re bound to play better the next point if you forget the previous one.

This took me a while to learn, but it’s so true. Only focus on the point at hand. By “hitting the delete button” I was able to raise my game and feel better while I played. I recommend you do the same. Thanks, Leon.

 

Sportsmanship

While winning is the primary goal of competitive athletes, many recreational players compete for the fun and exercise. When bad sportsmanship creeps into match play no matter what the intentions are, it ruins the experience for everyone.

For this reason, good sportsmanship should be a part of your play in every match. This means, not antagonizing other players or boasting of your play. It also means not cheating or arguing over close calls.

I play in a very competitive singles league, and I see bad sportsmanship every week, as well as good sportsmanship from time-to-time. It always seems like the same players are either good sportsman or bad sportsman. And there’s a reason for it.

If you’re a bad sport, people see that. Those people will judge you negatively and won’t want to include you in future matches or social events. Additionally, they’ll view you as a cheater, sore loser, and complainer.

I know some of you are very competitive and want to win badly but do it inside the rules and protocols of tennis. Remember, if you ostracize yourself, you’ll have a very small pool of players to hit with. If you consistently vex people with your attitude and actions, nobody will want to play with you.

If you watch the top professional players in the world like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, you’ll see that 99% of the time they hold themselves to the highest value of good sportsmanship. It’s not a coincidence they’re also the best players.

A great player doesn’t need to do all the things bad sportsman do to win a match. The great player wins because of his ability alone. Resorting to bad sportsmanship is a dead-end road that only fosters negativity and poor play.

During future matches, resolve to give the benefit of doubt to your opponent on close line calls, especially on their side of the court – where it’s truly their call. Don’t say things to your opponent that will incite them, and don’t play mind games.

Petty tricks like that are best left in other sports, not tennis. Let your tennis be pure. Be the better man or woman on the court. The other players will respect and like you a lot more.

 

Pre-Game Routine

Pre-game routines are used by many professional athletes across all sports. By doing the same things before every match, it creates an atmosphere of comfortability and soothes the nerves.

Pre-match routines also put you into the right mind-frame for a match. By performing the same rituals repeatedly before you play, your mind automatically switches into a competitive mode. It’s like Pavlov’s dog experiment. A stimulus produces a conditioned response.

Players like Rafael Nadal use the pregame ritual to psych themselves up and control their environment. By limiting the variables that happen just before and during a match, athletes like Nadal can more easily stay focused on the competition and avoid distractions.

An example of pre-match routine is packing your tennis bag the same way for every match. Others might include stretching a certain way, visualizing the match, or even eating the same food.
These habits or rituals provide a feeling of comfort before the stress of the match. Such rituals also increase confidence. The reason is simple. Previous such routines led to winning. Therefore, present and future routines will lead to winning as well.

If you don’t currently use a pre-match routine, try to create one for yourself. It doesn’t need be complex. I like to pack my tennis bag the same way, warm up in the same way, and wear the same clothes (I have several of the same sneakers, socks, shirts, and shorts).

By the time I start playing a match, I feel comfortable and in the right mind-set for competitive play. Pre-match routines eliminate randomness and distractions, so if you don’t currently use one, I highly recommend starting one.

 

Focus In Between Points

When playing a match, there’s often more time in between points and games then actual time playing. While focusing during the actual point is critical for success, how and what you focus on between points is just as important.

I already mentioned staying positive and putting errors out of mind. So what should a player think about between points? What’s best to focus on during these junctures to provide the best chances of winning?

I personally focus on one of three different things. First is positive self-talk/visualization. Second, I think about strategy. And third, I use a meditation technique where I focus all my attention on one object (like the strings of my racket).

I’ll elaborate on each one so they’re clear. I’ll say this first. You can select one of these techniques and stick with it for the whole match. Or you may decide to vary them during play. Either will work fine.

During those moments between points, positive self-talk and visualization are great ways to spend your time. They make you feel better about your game and keep you on the right track.

In my own experience, I clearly play better when engaging in positive self-talk and visualization. Keep in mind, these are only tools to be used between points. While playing points, you must be in the moment, reacting and responding with a still mind.

The second technique is to think about strategy. By doing so, you reinforce your game plan. You can also boost confidence, knowing you have a good battle plan to follow.

During the heat of battle, it’s easy to lose sight of the plan. This is especially true for one-on-one sports like tennis. For this reason, it’s good to draw up a plan of attack before the match and focus on it between points and games.

The last mental technique I use is more like a pure meditation. I’ll pick one object to look at (like my tennis strings) and eliminate all other thoughts. This keeps my mind centered and still, which usually carries over into the point.

I first learned of this one in college. My college coach mentioned it to me and I saw other players doing it. Often they would adjust their strings will meditating on them.
Give these proven techniques a try the next time you’re in a match. At the least, use positive self-talk during the match. This alone will improve your results without doing anything more.

 

Anchors

An anchor is a particular action a player performs to trigger a specific feeling. For example, a fist pump, a beating of the chest, or a raising a finger to the sky are all actions that produce corresponding feelings.

I’ll use Nadal as another example. Often before matches he’ll do a host of OCD type things, capping it off with a sprint from the net to the baseline. I’m sure these things pump him up for the coming contest. At this point, you may be wondering how this differs from a pregame ritual?

The pregame ritual is done exclusively before the match begins. An anchor can be used any time before or during the match. For example, when playing a match, an anchor could be a certain word or phrase you say to yourself that triggers strong emotions. Or it might be a physical action you do, like clapping your hands or holding your racket in a certain way. Anchors need to be programmed before use. I’ll elaborate on this soon.

As a personal example of an anchor, when I’m facing adversity in a match and I need motivation and energy, I tell myself, “I’m the best” and I tap my chest twice with a closed fist.

Sometimes I’ll speak the words out loud to myself. Other times I internalize them. My opponent often has no idea I am performing an anchor. The anchor immediately elicits a strong emotion in me that I use to play better. It also raises my energy levels.

All anchors need to be correlated with an experience or feeling. Otherwise they are just empty actions and ineffective. For example, my anchor correlates with hard work and difficult practice sessions.

Every time I practice hard and put in the work, I’ll perform my anchor (tell myself “I’m the best” and tap my chest twice). When I then execute the anchor during the match, it harkens memories of my very hard practice sessions.

That then triggers a positive cascade of thoughts.

  • The first one is, “I worked hard to prepare for this match, so there’s no question of my conditioning or work ethic.” Check.
  • The second is that my competitor probably hasn’t worked as hard as me, so I therefore deserve the win. Check.
  • The last thought I have is that I will prevail, and my opponent will fade down the stretch. Check.

Using this anchor has proved to be surprisingly effective for me against competition around my level.

Just by using an anchor alone, you’ll be a leg up on the competition. Most of your opponents don’t even know what an anchor is. Try creating your own and use it during the match. See how powerful it can be!

 

Win or Lose – Play Your Best

This one could have easily been titled “focus on the process, not the results”. If you want to play your best tennis, you must be willing to let go of the idea of winning.

I know it sounds contradictory to success, but it will take the pressure off during the match. If you are so tied up in winning or losing, you’ll certainly be tight and not play your best.

Instead your goal during the match should be to play your best on every shot. To play your best, you need your body to be loose and free-flowing. Instead of tightening up and controlling the ball, you’re better off hitting out and taking the risk of making mistakes.

If you make too many mistakes during the match, just realize your technique is the culprit. You’ll need to improve your technique (during practice, not during the match) to cut down on those mistakes. You can still hit out on the ball during matches if you add more spin and less drive to keep it in play.

I often see club level players berating themselves after mistakes. Soon after, they are playing as tight as a drum, afraid to make more mistakes. What these players don’t understand is that their technique is the main issue. The sad part is they never work to correct their technique and so they’re play never improves.

Playing tight may win you a match here or there, but in the long run you’ll never reach your potential. If you watch the professional players, you’ll see them hitting out on every ball no matter if it’s the first point of the match or the last.

It used to surprise me that the pros would simply go for every shot, even when facing match point. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t hit softer and keep the ball in play? The answer is when you reach a certain level of play, controlling the ball to win doesn’t work.

Believe me, I’ve been playing at the 4.5-5.0 level for a long time. I can tell you that controlling the ball and keeping it in play by hitting safely does not work against good players. It’s even more so at the pro level. Imagine trying to play safely against a guy like Dominic Thiem? He’d rip your head off!

While this mental strategy is good for adults, it’s especially pertinent to children and beginners. Children are in a phase where they’re developing their games physically and technique-wise. Beginners are in a development stage too. Thinking only about winning should be way off the radar of young and beginner players.

Such players should focus exclusively on their technique and their growth. Matches should be viewed as intense practice sessions, where winning or losing makes no difference. This is the way all great players started.

The next time you play a match, think about the worst thing that will happen if you lose. Nobody really cares if you win or lose. And hardly anyone is going to remember the score weeks, months, or years later.

Just go out and play your best game and forget about the score. Try it for at least one match and see how it makes a difference in your play. Keep in mind, you’re not playing carelessly. You’re playing care-free – and that’s a big difference.

 

Be Accountable

Everyone in this world has an ego. We all have our ups and downs and want people to view us in the best possible light. For this reason, we often don’t like to take the blame for things – even if they’re our fault.

It’s the same in tennis when we lose. It’s so easy to blame distractions and other people rather than ourselves. For most people, it makes them feel better to place the blame on anything or anybody but themselves.

While this is a short-term strategy for feeling better, in the long term it hurts us. People who don’t take accountability for their actions are in denial of their flaws. And if you’re in denial of your flaws, you’ll never improve and grow up.

All great athletes and leaders take ownership of their mistakes and shortcomings. Only by doing so, can you honestly see them and begin to improve. All the great athletes in sports history took accountability of their play. When they spotted a weakness in their game, they immediate sought to work on it.

You should as well. The next time you lose a match, determine why you lost. Maybe it’s because of a weak second serve or a poor backhand. Whatever the reason, own up to it, take full responsibility for the loss, and resolve to work on your weakness.

This is the way of a mature individual and the only path to true growth as a player. Even if you have several weak points in your game, you need to own up them. If so, work on them all and seek to improve.

The point of playing tennis at the club/recreational level is to have fun, get exercise, socialize a bit, and become better. You’ll undoubtedly become a better person and player when you take full responsibility for all your losses while working to shore up the shortcomings.

 

Final Thoughts

The mental side of sports and tennis is a huge component to their success. At the club level, your biggest priority should be on improving, not winning. By taking ownership of your faults and working on them, the winning will gradually take care of itself.

Don’t just read this post and do nothing. Use the information in here to enhance your game. Your mental framework is so important in tennis. Whatever the mind conceives, it achieves.
Trust me, I’ve been there and done that when it comes to mind set in tennis. I know what works and what doesn’t after 25 years of play. I’ve also read Winning Ugly, The Inner Game of Tennis and Vic Braden’s Mental Tennis more times than I care to say.

Use the tips in this post to grow better – not just in tennis but in life. I can guarantee you they work. They sure have for me and for the thousands of athletes who’ve been using them through the years.

If you have any questions about the mental game of tennis, just ask me in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!

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