Let’s face it, no matter what level of competitive tennis you play it is inevitable that you will find yourself in a “big point” situation. In other words, a point that could change the momentum of a match either positively or negatively. How you approach these situations is highly connected to the margin of successful or unsuccessful outcomes you experience. It could be said that the best players in the world do very well under pressure, and they capitalize on “big points.” Although this may be true, you must take into consideration the fact that players at this level have practiced relentlessly for these points and developed specific tasks for their brain and body to follow in order to maximize successful outcomes. With this article, I hope to introduce you to some of these tasks and eventually you will be able to tweak them so they work for your own personal needs.
First off, I would like to cite an ITF (International Tennis Federation) grant sponsored study done on the positive and negative turning points in tennis by Ana Soares (POR).
“Nine male professional players or ex-players from five different countries, aged between 26 and 72 years (M = 44, SD = 15), were interviewed. All participants had played in the main event of a Grand Slam and played for their country’s Davis Cup. The highest ranked player interviewed was number seven in the world and the lowest ranked player was in the top 190. The median value of the best rankings was 48.”
“A series of in-depth semi-structured interviews was conducted. Interviews lasted between 29 and 88 minutes (M = 61, SD = 24). An inductive thematic analysis was used, which allowed the emerging themes to be closed linked to the data (Braun & Clarke, 2006).”
Strategies to capitalize on with positive turning points
When dealing with a positive turning point, participants emphasized continuity: keeping to routines between points and keeping the same tactics that they used to get to the positive situation.
Strategies to cope with negative turning points
“When contemplating how a player can cope with a negative turning point, participants gave many examples of in-between points strategies and match play strategies.”
Regarding in-between points strategies, players described going back to their routines after a negative turning point: “Usually, I turn to my rituals, like, I turn to the towel or ask the ball boy for the towel” (participant D). The same player mentioned that he would do this routine but “try to go a bit slower.” Taking breaks, such as “asking for the trainer”, “going to the toilet, taking time between points: that is, breaking his rhythm,” (participant I) is a strategy that participants referred to as important after experiencing a negative turning point.
“When a player is faced with a situation that happens frequently and is consistently becoming a negative turning point, a player can develop an alternative, specific strategy to cope with it. For example, a player described that when the opponent went off-court, he would also leave and made sure the opponent was coming back to the court first.”
Practical Implications for Recreational Players
I took this a step further and decided to test the players at our Academy which varies in age and ability. Players are 9 – 18 years old and include high school/middle school tennis players as well as tournament level players. I had all of the kids play “tournament intensity” matches. While the players were warming up I instructed the coaches to watch closely for both positive and negative situations, or possible “turning points.” When they saw these great points, and not so great points I asked the coaches to instruct the kids to do a perimeter run, which is approximately a quarter of a mile. We did not tell the kids why they were running, as we wanted to be as neutral as possible and have them mentally navigate through this situation themselves. The goal was to see how they would respond mentally, and if it would have an effect on the overall outcome of their match.
There were a couple close matches, but in the majority of matches there was one person dominating, especially on the higher-level courts. This run takes enough time to think about why they were running, how their match was going, or completely forget about their match and get upset at the fact that they had to run. Regardless, I wanted to see how this unforeseen break in momentum would affect their performance and overall outcome, if at all. Interestingly enough, our highest-level court saw the most significant results.
This particular courts’ perimeter run was prompted when player 1 was down 3-0 and had just hit a ball into the fence out of anger. Both players thought they were in trouble for something (which they were not.) Player 1 went on to state that he “hit the ball into the fence on accident because he tripped.” Even though this was not true and there should have been some sort of disciplinary intervention for this act, this was not the reason player 1 was running. After returning from their perimeter run, there was a significant change in player 1’s attitude and performance. Shortly thereafter, the score changed to 3 – 3. After seeing this I instructed whichever coach was roaming around that court to have players 1 and 2 do another perimeter run after player 1 hits a “great shot.” The purpose of this was to see if player 1 could maintain his lead after winning a few straight games. It seemed that after the second run, player 1 had started to maintain and control his emotions a little better. Possibly because he had gotten used to the idea that we were making everyone randomly run. Player 2 also zoned in a little bit more mentally and the score concluded at 4 – 4 when I called time, and the players brought the balls in.
Upon bringing everyone in for a quick huddle, I asked all the players to grab a piece of paper and a pen to write down why they thought they had to run at the time they did. Interestingly enough, almost every single one of the players said “because I wasn’t moving my feet,” “for conditioning,” “to make us work hard,” “I wasn’t working hard enough” in one way or another. Incidentally, this made me think to myself that first of all, these players know they could have been working harder than they were. Secondly, all of them were emotionally involved with their match, or the fact that they had to run. Either way, they responded with either being happy or sad, which are two of our most basic human emotions. Nonetheless, none of them had a specific way of how to navigate their way through these emotions. One of the players was so angry that they had to run that she was walking most of the perimeter run.
It’s ok to be happy, mad or sad etc., but the key is to use these emotions to improve your performance. Nothing is going to happen if you just tell yourself to be positive, something needs to change. On the other hand, if you are winning – you will want to maintain what you’re doing, but at the same time be aware of how you got there. At all times, be extremely cognizant of what’s happening and give yourself simple tasks to complete. You will want to gradually work your way up in the level of difficulty of these tasks. As a player, if I personally had to run, I would have thought back to how the match was going, and what happened when my coach made me run. Then I would think to myself, “ok, I’m going to get back, get a drink of water and start fresh. I’m going to focus on the things I am in complete control of, like moving my feet, split stepping, and taking my time in between points. I am not going to care about the score.” Yes, I probably would have been a little upset I had to run during the middle of my “tournament intensity” match, but in order to get through this I would first have to realize my situation. There is no way I would be able to get out of the run, so I am not in control of that. However, my coach did not give us a time limit so I’m going to take my time with this run and make sure that I finish after my opponent which will give me plenty of time to reset and work through all the emotions going through my head. Now that is something I’m in control of.
Routines that might work for you:
- Tie your shoe (Yes, even if it is already tied, un-tie it.)
- Go to the bathroom.
- Call a medical time out (Careful with what you say it’s for. A smart opponent will probably notice and attack whatever is “injured.” For example, if you say your left hand hurts a smart opponent will probably then attack your backhand. (righty’s)
- Go to your towel & use up all the time you are allowed every point.
- Look at your strings.
- Bounce the ball a specific amount of times that works for you.
- Grab the same ball you won the last point with.
- Write something on your racket. A quote or acronym that means something to you. Take a look at this to focus in.
- Give yourself a task to distract your thoughts from being negative. For example, split step before every ball, say “bounce hit” every time you hit, play a specific pattern you know you can do etc.
Conclusion: Your focus should always be on various aspects of performance, and not the end result. By the same token, your focus should not be static. Your focus should be dynamic so that if something is not working, you are able to re-focus on a different task immediately. If you are focused on results (something we’re not always in control of) when you play, I can guarantee you will put a lot of unnecessary mental stress on yourself. Never ignore your emotions because they are what drive us to maintain and progress towards our goals. It is perfectly ok to have emotions on the tennis court, and as a matter of fact, it is encouraged. However, it is important for tennis players to develop strategies that help us maintain positivity and work through negativity.
- Carlos Bermudez Tennis