Psychology plays an important role in tennis and pretty much every other sport. It takes not only physical but a lot of mental effort to reach your pinnacle performance level. Sport psychology is a science, well researched and established. It draws on a wealth of knowledge from a variety of fields and disciplines such as physiology, biomechanics, kinesiology and psychology.
Sport psychology looks at many factors that affect performance, and how taking part in sport can have an impact on the mental and physical level of the participant. Sports psychology can help improve, guide and develop an athlete’s level in their chosen field, or even help them recover from injury. It’s an incredibly important field, one that both professional and amateurs can learn from.
Although all of the top athletes will have a sport psychologist working in the background to help improve their game, it doesn’t mean that these techniques are out of our reach. Here are some practices that you should take into account if you’re looking to improve your tennis game.
Automatic Negative Thoughts, or ANT, are a real problem for athletes at all levels. ANTs are the negative ideas about your abilities or even the outcome of a game that suddenly pop into your head. These thoughts are often not considered or invited, they come without your permission or desire. It was Aaron Beck, a founder of the concept of cognitive therapy, who came to the conclusion that ANTs destroy our “best self” and because of this they send us on a path to a cycle of misery. This leads to more ANTs being generated and then we become stuck in negative thought.
As a tennis player, ANTs can affect you in more ways than you might realize. Firstly, you will become aware of your negative thoughts and feel tensions. Secondly, you can be unaware of your negative thoughts directly, which can lead to emotions that can impair your judgment and actually affect physical abilities.
Luckily, there are methods to fight off the demons that ANTs can create. Dan Abrahams used to be a professional golf player, he is now a highly regarded sport psychologist and has worked with many top athletes to overcome ANTs. In an interesting interview he has described how techniques that he used with football players can even be applied to poker players – and if they work for mind sports, they can certainly be used to improve your tennis game. The idea is to have a “match script,” listing things within your control and actual methods to help your game. This mantra of skills you already have helps control your ANTs and gets your game back on track. A “match script” can guide you through the negativity and actually make you get out even stronger mentally.
Even top players can sometimes lose their concentration. Perhaps the crowd at Wimbledon is making too much noise, or a plane distracts them. In 2014, at Wimbledon, Andy Murray saw red when his match against Grigor Dimitrov was moved forward to catch up after rain breaks. His play was visibly affected and his language was certainly colorful. His pre-match routine was broken and rather than concentrating on his game he ended up focusing on his anger.
We’re all human, and sometimes losing your concentration is unavoidable. However, there are some ways and tricks you can use to ensure that you will get it back when it’s most important. R.M. Nideffer defines four different types of concentration in sports psychology: external wide, external narrow, internal wide and internal narrow.
Understanding the differences of these four concentrations are not essential for basic tennis psychology. However, being aware that they exist and that a player moves through them as they play is. As is understanding how you can regain your concentration throughout your game.
There are two methods for improving your concentration: emptying your mind and focusing on a solution. When you empty your mind you are removing any negative or redundant thoughts. One way of doing this is utilizing the Inner Game – a theory developed by Timothy Gallwey in 1974. His Inner Game approach looks at a technique called “letting it happen”. What this means is developing a trust in your own ability and that of your body to develop with training and performance. This approach can take time, but more experienced players can empty their mind on command when they are thinking too much.
Focusing on a solution can become very useful when the game isn’t going your way. For example, perhaps you’re playing against someone who has a weak backhand and you want to play to take advantage of that. Your mind can’t be totally clear, as you are thinking about and planning around a solution. You have to clear your mind before you hit the ball to ensure the play is instinctive. Don’t stay in the problem, find a solution, plan for it and then play with a clear mind.
Improve Self Confidence
This is perhaps the toughest challenge that any tennis player faces, from the top to the bottom. Generally it is understood that there are two types of confidence: fragile and permanent.
Most tennis players have fragile confidence, they are able to tell themselves that they will win as long as the outcome looks favorable to them. As soon as this situation changes their confidence is lost, hence it is fragile. Permanent confidence is achieved when a tennis player believes that they can win. Their confidence is not reliant completely on the outcome of one match.
So how do you improve your confidence? Firstly, it’s important to understand that nothing is certain, even if you have total confidence in your ability to win, you cannot predict that, so there will always be some doubt. If you realize this, you can start to take control of your confidence. Rather than criticizing yourself when you make a mistake, understand that you don’t have control of everything. Mistakes can come from losing concentration, or allowing your emotions to get the better of you – this is human nature and out of your control. Instead of punishing yourself for your mistakes, and damaging your self-confidence it helps to realize and accept that mistakes are part of life and will happen from time to time. As you understand this your true permanent confidence will grow, as will your mental toughness which will help you achieve your goals.
In 2002 Roger Federer decided that he needed to be mentally tougher to win. This was a result of losing matches to many lesser players. Consequently, he became the premier player until Rafa Nadal took over his place. He built up his mental toughness that he could beat opposition on all surfaces. His mental toughness allowed him to win against Federer when no other player could. Today we see players such as Andy Murray using sport psychology and mental toughness to break through the tennis monopoly.
Changing the way your mind works as you play tennis will take time. But with a few simple exercises and practice, you can develop a strong mind to help improve your tennis game at any level. It would be a shame to only train your body when your mind can contribute so much to your performance.