Jimmy Connors, who was formerly ranked as the number 1 tennis player in the world once said, “Tennis is 90% mental” and he is for the most part spot-on. Of course, when you are in the beginning stages of the tennis learning curve it is crucial to emphasize a balance between the various fundamental building blocks of development. Generally speaking, these can be broken down into movement, hand-eye coordination, strategy, technique, competition (any level) and mental training. As you progress through this developmental process I believe that mental training, strategy and movement start to drastically take over the pie-chart. With today’s tip I hope to offer some insight into how you can mentally prevent yourself from being tentative on big points.
Everyone at some point in time has faced that big point. However, it could be as simple as a break-point, a point that determines whether your team wins or loses, or maybe you tend to be tentative in general. This is usually not due to poor technique, but instead is mainly mental. I used to do the same thing mostly because I wanted to win those points so badly, and I knew that the opportunities I was facing were crucial to winning the match, so I played it safe. This was a huge mistake and I ended up losing more of these points than I won.
I didn’t figure out the solution until I had the opportunity to play for the University of Arizona where the athletic department sports psychologist gave our team lectures from time to time. During one of these lectures I told him, “Sometimes I find myself being tentative on crucial points, I play it safe and that is definitely not my game to do that. What can I do to mentally prepare myself for these points?” Our sports psychologist responded with a couple questions. First he said, “Well, what usually happens when you play it safe?” Me: “I usually lose the point since I am not hitting the ball very hard, I might change my stroke a little, and I am starting the point on the ropes.” Him: “What is the worst thing that would happen if you just go for your shots?” Me: “I miss my shot.” Him: “So it sounds like in both situations there is a chance of losing the point, but it sounds like you would have a better chance of winning the point if you just go for your shots and play your game.” Nothing mind blowing, but it helped me put my thoughts in perspective. This is something that I had not necessarily thought through before. Long story short, he told me to give myself a reminder in order to replace the thoughts of missing my shots on big points. I did this by writing “JGFI” (Just go for it) on the grips of all my rackets and I would look at it before every big point. This helped me to replace the thoughts of missing with something more positive and mentally productive.
This concept of “replacement thoughts” is very important to tennis players because the duration of matches can sometime be very long. This gives us more than enough time to process many thoughts about the ups and downs that naturally occur during tennis matches. The majority of these are like white noise in the back of our brains, but to fight the negative ones, you will want to give your brain a specific task in order to trick yourself. Personally, I look at my reminder “JGFI,” and then I try to watch the seams of the ball. However, you can give yourself any task that works for you. Just make sure it is simple and specific.
Lastly, I would like you to think about how “just going for it” can positively affect your percentages. Think about how commentators on television always make a comment on a pros service or return percentage if it is below 75% or so. What they don’t comment on is the amount of points won within that percentage. True, your percentage may only be 65% but you could be winning 90% of those points because of the greater pace/spin that you are investing in the shots you are “just going for.” This isn’t always true, but it happens way more than you think. If you soften up your serve or service-return to raise your percentages to 95%, that does NOT mean you are automatically winning more points. In fact, the opposite is usually the case. All you need is 55%, so just go for it!
As always, please feel free to ask any questions in the comment section below.
- Carlos Bermudez Tennis