USTA Norcal has partnered with Mental Training, INC. (MTI) to offer our members regular tips, "Mental Band-Aids," helping you to be mentally tough for every match By Dr. Bob Neff, Mental Trainer®.
For more information on our partner Mental Training, Inc. (MTI) and the deeply discounted CAP program (Coaches, Athletes, Parents) for USTA Norcal members please visit usta-nc.mticap.com.
MENTAL TRAINING TIP #14 -Improving Your Sleep
Have you ever tried to stay up for 48 hours straight? That’s two days AND two nights! I wouldn't suggest trying it because it’s not safe. What happens is you lose control of your thoughts, emotions, coordination, reaction time and endurance; some people even start hallucinating and hearing things!
The key is for you to remember that getting even one bad night of sleep affects those things as well (not as much, obviously, but enough). By "bad" I mean not getting enough sleep or poor quality. Professional athletes know that they need to go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time for at least three days (and ideally a full week) prior to their competition, if they want to perform at their best. They also need to stay away from drinks with caffeine and alcohol that can lower their sleep quality.
MENTAL TRAINING TIP #13 - Performing Better in Matches
Most amateur athletes perform better in practice than matches. It’s understandable, there’s no pressure, no trophy, no consequence if they lose. Well, that’s the secret to improving match play – practice with consequences so you can learn to control your thoughts and emotions. We’ve helped players get really creative so they’re downright miserable in practice (at first anyway). It’s best to go gradually, but here are some of the more effective consequences that prepare tennis players for competition.
After an error or not earning the point: pick up all the balls after practice one at a time, pick up trash around the court, do something embarrassing; take away a point or a game next time you play; reduce your practice time; have to do an undesirable chore (btw, refrain from using physical activity as punishment since you need it to improve). You could also change the conditions to increase pressure: play in front of spectators; make a bet; compete; practice with noise (headphones); videotape your play; plan to post video on YouTube. Remember that matches are just an opportunity to get some feedback so you know how well you’ve been practicing.
MENTAL TRAINING TIP #12 - Controlling Anger
We’ve all seen the hotheads who yell and abuse racquets after playing badly. Why do they do that?! Does it help them play better? Does it improve their reputation? Do they enjoy the game of tennis more?
The answer to all these questions is of course, NO!
They do it because they initially thought it would send the message to other players that they’re much better than they look. Unfortunately, what it really says is, "I’m mentally weak and deserve to be missing all these shots!" So what’s the best way to control anger? It’s a combination of 3 things actually: 1) Be more "matter of fact" by describing your shots accurately, like a radio play-by-play announcer, "That forehand passingshot down the line was long by 3 inches and wide by 2 inches" 2) Use a between-point ritual (BPR) that involves leaving the past behind you (see Tip #3); and, 3) Take 3 deep breaths before you say anything after the point ends. Those 3 are a pretty good place to start.
MENTAL TRAINING TIP #11 - Overcoming Nervousness
I can still hear my high school coach, "If you’re nervous it means you’re ready." He was doing the best he could with the limited information he had at the time... but he was wrong. We know now that great athletes perform their best by reducing and often eliminating nervousness altogether. THAT’s the real sign that they’re ready to compete.
The way they do it is simple, but not always easy. Ready for their secret? Ok, they temporarily stop caring about the outcome. Yep, they truly don’t care if they win or lose, because they aren’t thinking about it. Their thoughts are in the present thinking about what they’re going to do next. Easier said than done, but there it is! Give it a try.
MENTAL TRAINING TIP #10 - Finding Your Zone
This is what all athletes look to do each time they play. But do you know how to find your Zone? Can you play your best when it matters the most? Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- The Zone ONLY occurs when your thoughts are in the present
- Your emotions need to be calm
- Your mind needs to be quiet
- Your confidence needs to be high
- You need to be carefree about the outcome while you’re playing
We know the best players in the world all describe their Zone this way... calm, confident, carefree, motivated and focused. For this to have a chance of happening for you, you also need to be fit, move well, have efficient swings, and know high percentage strategies. That’s why the zone happens more at the elite levels, regardless of whether athletes are winning or losing.
It’s a surprise for a lot of young athletes, but the zone does not equal winning. The zone is when you are playing your best. As such, it’s possible to zone even if you’re losing. It’s much more difficult of course, but we see it often at the top levels. These top athletes have realized that it’s better to focus on controllable things and let the score be what it is. Follow these guidelines and you’ll find your zone more often too.
MENTAL TRAINING TIP #9 - Mental Toughness Tennis Quotes
What do some of the greatest tennis players think about mental training? Here’s a collection of quotes:
"One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation." Arthur Ashe (won 3 grand slams, putting him among best ever from the United States, inducted into International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985, his self-confidence helped him overcome many obstacles during his career as he was the first African-American player ever selected to the United States Davis Cup team and the only black man to ever win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open).
"I fear no one, but respect everyone." Roger Federer (held number one position in the ATP rankings for 237 consecutive weeks and 285 weeks overall, has won more Grand Slam singles titles than anyone else, he is the only male player in tennis history to have reached the title match of each Grand Slam tournament at least 5 times, considered by many to be the greatest player of all time).
"Losing is not my enemy. Fear of losing is my enemy." Rafael Nadal (former #1 in the world, "The King of Clay", and has prompted many experts to regard him as the greatest clay court player of all time, as of the beginning of 2012, Nadal has won ten Grand Slam singles titles, He is the second male player to complete the Career Golden Slam (winner of the four grand slams and the Olympic Gold medal).
"I'm not afraid of anyone, but sometimes I'm afraid of myself. The mental part is very important." Justine Henin (former #1 in the world, Henin won 43 WTA singles titles and seven Grand Slam singles titles. Tennis experts cite her mental toughness, the completeness and variety of her game, her footspeed and footwork, and her one-handed backhand as the principal reasons for her success).
"Control the things you can control – let the rest go." Sam Stosur (She won the 2011 US Open singles title and was a finalist at the 2010 French Open. She is a former world No. 1 on the WTA Tour in doubles with Lisa Raymond from the United States).
"I never look back, I look forward." Steffi Graf (In total, Graf won 22 Grand Slam singles titles, was the first and only tennis player (male or female) to achieve the Calendar Year Golden Slam by winning all four Grand Slam singles titles and the Olympic gold medal in the same calendar year, was ranked World No. 1 by the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) for a record 377 total weeks—the longest period for which any player, male or female, has held the number one ranking since the WTA and ATP began issuing rankings).
"Tennis is 90% mental" - Jimmy Connors - is an American and former World No. 1 tennis player. Connors held the top ranking for 160 consecutive weeks from July 29, 1974 to August 22, 1977 (record at that time) and an additional eight times during his career (a total of 268 weeks). He won eight Grand Slam singles titles and two Grand Slam doubles titles with Ilie Nastase.
"Ninety percent of my game is mental. It's my concentration that has gotten me this far." – Chris Evert (She is a former world number 1 professional tennis player from the United States. She won 18 Grand Slam singles championships, Evert's career win–loss record in singles matches of 1,309–146 (89.96%) is the best of any professional player man or woman in the Open Era. On Clay courts her career match win loss rate of 94.05% (316/20) remains a WTA record).
MENTAL TRAINING TIP #8, Minimizing
We’ve found this little skill to be very popular with elite athletes. The way minimizing works is by reducing the significance or importance of an upcoming event. The result is less stress, anxiety and pressure, which usually results in higher quality performances.
One of our elite gymnasts did very well at the 2008 Olympics because she was able to minimize the importance of her final routine (the one that eventually won her a gold medal!). Obviously the routine was important, but she said things like: "This is just another routine – no different from any of the other thousands of routines I’ve practiced." She used several other mental skills as well, like visualization, gap training and positive self-talk, but it was the minimizing that calmed her nerves in that moment, and allowed her to perform her best even though over a billion people were watching her on TV!
So how might this work for tennis players like you? First, you need to believe that tournaments are just opportunities for you to get some feedback about how well you’re practicing and preparing. That way, every tournament has benefit, but equal benefit. So when you say, "this is just another match, no different from any of the other hundreds of matches I’ve played," you have to believe it. You’ll feel much more "carefree" and relaxed, which will enable your best tennis to come out.
MENTAL TRAINING TIP #7, Sensation Training
Sit comfortably, close your eyes and pay attention to the sensation of air going in and out of your nose. Then shift your focus to your feet and become aware of what they feel like in your shoes. Gradually work your way up your body, becoming aware of any sensations you have, like the feeling of your clothes on your skin, your butt in the chair, etc.
Each athlete has an ideal (and unique) amount of muscle tension that produces peak performances. This is called the "arousal-performance" relationship. As your arousal (or intensity) increases, so does performance, but only up to a point. If intensity keeps going up, performance will begin getting worse. Great athletes have learned what their ideal intensity is, and they use various techniques like self-talk, breathing and muscle tension to control intensity. The scanning in this Sensation Training drill also puts you in the present and improves your "awareness skills" - the heart of emotion control. Most athletes aren't aware of their thoughts and spend too much time in the past or future.
Improving your awareness will help you scan your mind and body, control your muscle tension, see what you’re thinking and feeling, and find your ideal quickly and efficiently.
MENTAL TRAINING TIP #6, Shadow PlayTM
Wouldn’t it be great if you could play a perfect match!? Imagine everything ideal - all your shots, movement, tactics, even your mental skills. Well now you can, using MTI’s Shadow Play™ concept. It simply involves you "shadow swinging" as you move around the court playing the point. You’ll swing at every shot in the point but not actually hit anything except your serves. You’ll visualize perfect shots and points.
Here’s how to do it:
- Head out to a court by yourself with your racket and a basket of balls
- get warmed up and stretched while you decide who you want to play against – it could be anyone – a friend, someone ranked ahead of you, or a pro.
- Spin for serve as usual and begin playing the first game;
- If you are serving, hit the serve and then move around the court with perfect footwork and form;
- You can play every point or just several key points in each game;
- Practice playing the most likely shot sequences (ie. Fh cross, approach line, volley cross, OH);
- Be sure to practice an ideal "between point ritual" (switch the racket, control your eyes, breathe/relax, visualize);
This is a great way to do "deliberate practice" (see the Malcolm Gladwell book called Outliers). Being productive with limited time is how hundreds of pro players over the years have enhanced their visualization, confidence, movement and match toughness.
Bandaids are great, but they’re temporary! The Mental Tips you’re learning are like bandaids. However, if you have big tennis goals, like earning a scholarship or playing at a consistently high level, you’ll want to start following a mental training program designed for your needs, that will permanently improve your game. We’ve designed it for you! It’s the first totally online mental training program that has video modules for you, your parents and your coaches. It’s called CAP (for Coaches, Athletes and Parents). It’s simple, affordable and will help you play your best when it matters the most.
MENTAL TRAINING TIP #5, GAP Training. What you’re about to read is perhaps the most important mental skill to learn because it unlocks all the other mental skills. GAP Training is all about awareness of thoughts. If you can’t recognize what you’re thinking, unwanted emotions will follow and you’ll be helpless to change them. So here’s what to do:
- Sit in a quiet place and focus on how the air feels going in and out of your nose.
- Then move your attention to your thoughts.
- As soon as you notice the thought, it will temporarily drift away and you’ll be left in the "GAP" between thoughts.
- Your goal is to become aware of thoughts that come into your mind, letting them go, and returning to the space in-between your thoughts. Having lots of thoughts is out of your control right now.
RECOGNIZING those thoughts is what your goal is. Once you learn to recognize, and then classify them as helpful or harmful, you will gain the power necessary to think positively.
MENTAL TRAINING TIP #4, Visualize. We find most tennis players already do some kind of visualization and don’t even know it. Try this – can you remember each shot of the last game you played? Start on the first point– what did you hit and where did it go? Congrats, you’re visualizing! Now, visualization is a skill that gets clearer and more controllable with practice. This is what you want – the ability to create ideal pictures in your mind. You eventually want them to be so clear, you can even imagine what the shot feels like. Before you know it, your actual shot will consistently match your images! A lot of professional tennis players all over the world use this technique and claim that it’s their most important mental skill.
MENTAL TRAINING TIP #3, Take Notes for Confidence. Before your match or tournament go around the facility and take notes about conditions you will play in. Notice how fast/slow the surface of the court is, where the sun is on which times of the day, wind conditions, if there is water on the courts or if you need to bring your own, know the altitude of the facility (it might help you choose the right tension for your strings), etc. Be as detailed as possible.
This step will help you better prepare for every match, and enhance your confidence as you play. Fear is really the opposite of confidence, and what causes so many to play tight and make errors. Increasing your knowledge of the unknown (ie. the opponent, facility and conditions) is one of the best ways to reduce fear and build confidence.
MENTAL TRAINING TIP #2, Are You Performing Between Points? Between Point Ritual: Maybe you’ve heard this amazing stat before - that there is only 10-15min of actual tennis for every hour you’re playing a match. In other words, the actual time you spend engaged in a point is quite small compared to the time it takes between points. Since there is so much time between points, it can have a big effect on the way you play the next point.
So, we recommend using your time REALLY well, to basically put the last point behind you, recover and prepare for the next point. To do this, we’ve create an ideal between point ritual: 1) Switch the Racket: out of your dominant hand to relax your arm and prevent a hanging racket; 2) Control Your Eyes: so they generally stay on your court – thoughts tend to follow eyes; Breathe/Relax: nervousness tends to produce shallow breathing and tense muscles; and, Visualize: see what you’re about to do to start the next point.
When you say all 4 parts together, it rhymes: Switch the racket, Control the eyes, Breath/relax, and Visualize.
MENTAL TIP #1, This One Is Critical: The week prior to a match, don't change what you typically do with regard to your normal preparation (strokes, warm-up, routines, food, etc.). Yes, my first tip is to be cautious about what tips you add! However, there is one big exception - sleep.
I strongly suggest preparing yourself for matches by going to sleep and getting up at approximately the same time for an entire week prior. Trying to play after getting a few less hours than you're used to, or getting up a few hours earlier than normal, can affect your coordination, emotion control and decision making (ie. your performance!). Assume you'll have an early match and get yourself used to being up early. You'll have a big advantage over other players.
Detailed and practiced mental preparation allows players to take full advantage of all their physical and technical training more consistently, resulting in better performance and happier tennis players. Look for our monthly "Mental Bandaids" and check USTA Norcal's Facebook page for weekly mental training tips!
For more information on our partner Mental Training Inc. (MTI) and the deeply discounted CAP Program (Coaches, Athletes, Parents) for USTA Norcal members please visit usta-nc.mticap.com.