Today I would like to offer you a couple tips on how to stop overthinking your technique, ball placement, strategy execution etc. during matches. Keep in mind that these things will take practice to work effectively. Although these tips may sound very simple, they are very important to consider. Tennis players should continuously train their mindfulness and mental toughness, just as they train their technique, movement and strategy.
It is important to understand that even professional players will find themselves navigating through mental obstacles during matches. Athletes usually run into problems when they are explicitly monitoring the motor skills of what they are doing. Explicitly monitoring yourself is when you are thinking about every small detail of your stroke, your feet etc. This is how you should be thinking during practice, but most certainly not during competition. Tennis players should focus on perfecting their implicit monitoring skills, otherwise known as auto-pilot mode. That being said here are a couple things that can help you shift from explicit to implicit monitoring during matches…
Step 1 – Acknowledge your thoughts, and what/how you are feeling. Different thoughts will be going through your head throughout matches, and it is especially important to be aware of thoughts that focus on the past or future. If you are not aware of your thoughts, it is impossible to challenge the negative ones.
Step 2 – Be sure to have plenty of tools in your toolbox – You cannot simply tell yourself to stop thinking a certain way and expect it to happen. As a matter of fact, it will only make matters worse. Instead, have a couple replacement thoughts in your toolbox BEFORE your matches and practice them to see which ones work best. Try to have a different “tool” for every scenario. For example, “wow, this guy/girl is such a pusher and I can’t stand playing pushers!!” Any tool you choose to use for this situation should be something you are in complete control of like “I’m going to take as many steps as I can before every shot.” You do not want to tell yourself things like “I’m going to win this point” or “don’t miss this.” These are two perfect examples of negative thoughts. Lastly, the mental tools you use should be specific to you. What works for one person may not work for the next.
My favorite tools to fix negativity
1. Opposites – If you are telling yourself “my forehand sucks” try telling yourself “my forehand is good.” You can also think about all the times you’ve hit great forehands.
2. Dual Tasking – Give yourself a simple task. For instance, you can count down from 500 from the beginning of the point to the end. Don’t over complicate the task, it should be simple.
3. Alphabet – Say the alphabet forwards or backwards throughout each point.
4. Indirect cues – Give yourself indirect cues like “make a circle on the back-swing.” This is something that is very simple and takes very little attention and effort to execute. Cues like “make a circle” involve many aspects of the stroke bio-mechanics, but by changing/simplifying the way you tell yourself something can completely change the way you execute a motor skill.
5. Repetition & muscle memory – Long story short, muscle memory is when PERMANENT changes to your brain, nerves and muscles take place through the repetition of a skill several hundred times. It is important to choose the correct path of muscle memory and not revert and reinforce what you are used to doing. If you are constantly practicing the correct way, that is what you will automatically do during a match without thinking about it. In addition, when you are practicing, over 90% of your strokes need to be good strokes. If you are hitting 100 balls and only 20 of them were “good” while 80 of them were mediocre, you have just trained and reinforced yourself to hit mediocre shots. If you are going into a match after this practice session, you will be hitting mainly “mediocre” shots because that is what your muscles have been trained to do. In order to change to the “good” strokes you will have to explicitly monitor what you are doing. As previously stated, you definitely don’t want to be doing that during matches. This is why professional and personalized insight is so important because we cannot always tell or see what we are doing. We have muscle memory to thank for this. Of course, there is way more to consider when speaking of what kind of repetition and how we learn the most effectively, but that is for another time.
– Carlos Bermudez Tennis