Tennis is definitely an individual game. Player has to deal with different obstacles only by himself. Of course there is a parent or coach sitting next to the court but this support won’t be enough while facing break point in the final set or while missing an easy put away into the fence. Player is the only person who knows what is going inside and only he can apply specific routines to get the most of own mental skills.
Mental aspect in tennis pays crucial role at all levels. It doesn’t matter if you play at regional level or you face the opponent in Wimbledon’s final you will have to learn how to deal with your emotions in the most effective way. As we know playing time during each match is only around 20-30% of the total time. It means that the rest (70-80%) of time player uses to think and talk to himself. „Come on”, „You suck”, „How can you miss this ball”, „Now” are typical examples that we can hear many times during each competitive game. But these are only the words that spectators, parents, and coaches can hear. Internal thinking and talking processes are known only for an athlete so we can only imagine how many „opportunities” player has to motivate or to get down on himself.
This scenario is not existent only among inexperienced juniors. We can see that even top players in the world have ups and downs according to their emotional control. Stan Wawrinka can point at his head after great shots just to break his racquet few gems later after an easy mistake. Novak Djokovic deals with emotions really well while adjusting his strings in the racquet but we know that he can have times where his racquet has to be replaced. Andy Murray? This guy is a typical example of a player who puts a lot of obstacles in front of him just by saying all these wrong things after lost points. Tennis is the same at all levels – we have playing time and we have resting time. What we do when we rest have a crucial impact on our game. So how should we approach our passive time?
We have to understand that emotions are not helping us during tennis match. Especially negative emotions lead to taking too much risk, chosing wrong decisions and not taking time between the points to plan the next one. But there is a light in the tunnel: you can learn how to control your emotions by focusing on your self-talk. There are 3 variations of self-talk but only one is completely effective for athletes. Working on self-talk will let players understand how little words can help them play better tennis so they will be more conscious about own activities between the points.
3 self-talk possibilities:
- Negative self talk
This one is the worst one. A lot of players punish themselves by saying terrible words after lost point. „You can’t play tennis”, „You are stupid” or „How can I lose to this guy” are examples of words that lead to decrease in performance. Too many times athletes don’t understand connection between self-talk and performance so that is why they don’t try to change it. Showing what is going on after negative self-talk will make players conscious about this connection and motivate them to work on this bad habit.
- Neutral self-talk
Being neutral means being in between positive and negative. It doesn’t give you much of each option so that is why it is neutral. From the coaching point of view this self-talk is much better than negative one so while working on changing bad habits coach can guide player through neutral state before they reach positive one. Neutral slogans are „OK nothing happened”, „Next time” or „Everyone makes mistakes”.
- Positive self-talk
This is the Holy Grail of self-talk in sport. If you are able to talk positively no matter what happened during the last point you are on the right way to achieve top level of performance. Unfortunately too many players don’t understand what being positive means. It is not about being happy – it is about seeing the reason of your activities and trying to be your best version. If you miss the ball tell yourself: „Next time I will bend my knees more. Come on!”. If you are playing great but your opponent is better during first 3 gems use words: „My game is solid. He can’t play like that for longer time. Be patient”. If you lost a tough match 6/7 in the final set calm down and say: „Little details decided about the result but it is only one match. I will come back stronger. I can do better than that”.
Every time we have 20 seconds between the points we have an opportunity to think or talk. 3 variations are ready. Remember to take the positive one. You wouldn’t like to hear from your coach negative or neutral words after lost points so don’t do the same. Only positive people get to the top!
Marcin Bieniek is a professional tennis coach and founder of instructional website http://tennisisland.us. Marcin has been working with USTA, top 100 ITF and WTA/ATP players. He is a frequent contributor to TennisPro and TenisKlub magazines and he was a speaker at International Coaching Tennis Symposium 2016 at Hilton Head Island, USA.