Use Your Mind to Improve Your Tennis Game

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.

Control Negativity

 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.

Improve Concentration

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.

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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.

Stan Wawrinka Upsets Novak Djokovic in U.S. Open Final

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Allen Fox

Thoughts on Novak Djokovic – Stan Wawrinka: Overall I thought the problem Djokovic had was that he was not match tough and Wawrinka was. His match with Monfils may have also hit his confidence in that he was so fouled up in the course of it that he was double faulting and missing every other groundstroke.

Djokovic needed all his skills today against a Wawrinka, who was hitting extraordinarily heavily and accurately. Unfortunately for him, today he didn’t have them.

Djokovic’s lack of confidence showed up in several areas. First, it was on the pressure points. His percentages of capitalizing on break points were horrendous – three out of 17 opportunities. Secondly, he relied on defense rather than offense too much and allowed Wawrinka to set up and hit more from the center of the court than he should have. In response, Wawrinka had him running and scraping from corner to corner.

Djokovic just didn’t seem to want to take his normal risks. (As an aside, I was surprised when the announcers said, somewhere deep in the third set, that Djokovic looked fresher than Wawrinka. I didn’t think that was possible since Djokovic was doing far more of the running.)

When Djokovic did get control of the point and started to hit his inside-out forehands, he did not hit it wide enough and allowed Wawrinka to hurt him with down-the-line backhands. He also lacked the confidence to hit the inside-in forehands. When he tried it he usually missed. This allowed Wawrinka to remain closer to his backhand corner and do less recovering to the center, since he did not have to worry about Djokovic hitting to his forehand.

In summary, I thought Stan Wawrinka played an excellent match and took stern advantage of Novak Djokovic’s defensiveness. He handled the pressure well, kept going for his shots, and deserved to take the title.

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Hello Parents, Are You Ready To Let Go?

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Todd Widom

At sixteen years old I was one of the top juniors in the United States. My dream from when I was a young boy was to be a professional tennis player. I had dreams of playing in front of big crowds on television and on the best stages in the world. I was starting to grow and I was getting stronger due to some very intense physical and tennis training that I was doing on a daily basis.

In 1999 I was preparing for an important junior tournament, I booked my airline ticket, a rental car for my mom or coach to drive and a hotel room. In 1999 you signed up for tournaments by sending your entry fee and entry form either by mail or occasionally by fax with a payment to follow. Nowadays, the tournament entry system is simple as you just click a couple of buttons on your computer or phone and you are signed up. When the entry list came out for the tournament my name was not on the list and I started to panic. I called the tournament director and they said they did not receive my entry form. I was devastated.

What you must remember is that when I was growing up through USTA tournaments, the children in my generation played a fraction of the tournaments that the children play today.  I would spend a couple of months training for one particular big tournament. Some juniors today play as many tournaments as I did when I was a professional player.

I sat down with Pierre Arnold, my coach, my father figure, and my mentor and he said that I’m going to go to Elkin, North Carolina and play a $15,000 professional futures tournament since I could not go to the junior tournament. To save precious funds, I was also going to drive there from South Florida since I had been driving for a couple of months and I had a reliable car.

When I was fifteen with my drivers permit I was driving myself and my mother around daily to tennis practices that were thirty minutes from our house or tennis tournaments on the weekends, so I had logged many hours of driving by the time I got my license. I was very mature as a young man due to certain circumstances growing up in my family, so Pierre and my mother trusted me in driving solo for twelve hours to North Carolina.

I had no cell phone, but my mother did and she gave me her cell phone which if you remember probably weighed five pounds and could barely fit in your pocket. Her cell phone only worked in the state of Florida, so the second I got into Georgia the phone no longer worked and I would have to use a calling card at a pay phone to let her know I was all right.

I packed my bags, stringing machine, and a bunch of CD’s that my brother had made for me and the trek in my Volkswagen Jetta five speed manual with crank windows. The only thing electric in this car was a button that you could press that would pop the trunk open.  My mom called me every hour while I was in the state of Florida and when I got out of Florida, every time I would stop for gas I would call her on a pay phone to let her know I was ok.

At this time, there were no GPS units as I had a TripTik from the AAA. At one point I actually thought I was in North Carolina, but in actuality I was in South Carolina which meant I had another ninety minutes to drive. Finally after twelve hours of driving, I made it to Elkin, North Carolina and met up with some tennis buddies from South Florida. The only two establishments in Elkin at this time were a Cracker Barrel and a movie theater, along with a park that had 20 – 30 hard courts.

It rained for a couple of days straight and my buddies and I were bored out of our minds. We passed the time by doing a bunch of fitness exercises and tried to stay busy during these boring rainy days. It was okay because I was excited to just hang around all these great players and coaches. I was always trying to pick up great tips and better ways to improve my skills. I would warm anyone up and just spend all day at the courts watching matches and trying to learn. I ended up losing in the third round of qualifying to a French guy ranked about 500 in the world in a close competitive match.

As I was planning the drive home, I actually found another player who lost in the same round as me and we drove back to South Florida together. We left the day after we lost at 5 am so I could make it back home for dinner.  We split the cost of gas which we both thought was fair and we drove the twelve hours back home. I obviously called my mom a lot when I got into Florida but looking back on this trip, it makes you think what kind of parenting and coaching that I had throughout my adolescence.

It was made very clear at a young age that if I wanted to be successful in tennis or in life in general, I was going to have to be very mature for my age and rely on no one to hold my hand throughout my life. It was preached that no one was going to do anything for me, and if someone did do something for me, I was very lucky.

I was going to have to take the initiative on many things in my life and learn as I go along because many times I could not have my mom or coach travel with me to tournaments. I hung around the courts all day and hit with anyone that needed to hit whether it was a pro or a kid, and I studied matches at the courts. I knew that one day I would be doing this full time for a living so I needed to be a sponge and be around successful coaches and players.

Now I get to share my  knowledge with the young people that I train on a daily basis, which I find  very rewarding when you start to see improvements in not only their tennis game, but also their maturity and how they carry themselves as a young adult. These life skills that are acquired through tennis and discipline will stick with these young people for the rest of their lives. I know they did for me.

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Lucas Pouille Beats Rafael Nadal in Incredible Five-Set Match

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Allen Fox

The Rafael Nadal – Lucas Pouille match was too nerve-wracking for my old nervous system! Pouille hit every line on the court, and gave Nadal some serious roadwork. As a Nadal fan, I hate it when he is totally on the defense as he was here, just being chased around and scratching and scraping for points. The only consistent and serious attack Nadal had was his approach and volley.

Pouille hits the ball flat and hard, the perfect counter to Nadal’s high-bouncing, short forehands. Nadal was basically dependent upon Pouille getting nervous and missing. And it almost worked. On Pouille’s third matchpoint on his own serve at 6-5 in the 5th set tie-breaker, his first serve almost hit Nadal on the fly. And Nadal then had his chance at 6-6 with a short forehand approach, which he missed. To his credit, Pouille came up with the goods and finally hit a winner on his last matchpoint.

In addition to his flat groundstroke winners, Pouille made quite a bit of money with net attacks, as Nadal was so far back that Pouille had too much time to cut off the passing shots.

Where has this guy Lucas Pouille been? And to his credit, Rafael Nadal played his usual gutsy, never-say-die match and fought his heart out to the end. Nervous as I was for him, he almost outlasted me, and I was laying in bed watching my big flat-screen.

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Fitness During Tournaments for Tennis Players Trying to be Elite

This past December I had a discussion with a young touring professional  who was having trouble sustaining his level of fitness during matches on the ATP tour. He had some very good chances to win matches against good players, but he would run out of gas and not be able to sustain his level of play. After telling me his physical issues during his matches, he asked me if he should be doing fitness during tournaments. My quick response was of course.

Working out during tournaments

The vast majority of your children are not going to do what this article is discussing. To be elite in this sport, you have to be different than the rest, and it is the small things that make the biggest difference if you want to be special. If you do not go above and beyond the call of duty, you will be like the rest.  It all depends what your child wants out of their tennis.

Included in this article is information on fitness for those who are trying to become elite junior tennis players. The norm for a junior tennis player is to warm up for their match, play their match, maybe stretch 5 to 10 minutes, get food, maybe play another match or go to the movies, or hang out with their tennis friends for the rest of the day. If the junior tennis player trains well for a tournament, they should be physically fit entering each and every tournament.

The reality is that if this player does not keep up their level of fitness during tournaments, they will be out of shape when they come back to train once their tournament is complete. For every day they skip doing some physical fitness during a tournament, they will lose a bit of their physical conditioning, which will have to be boosted up again when they come home to train.

Doing fitness during a tournament will help maintain one’s fitness level and it is not about becoming more fit or stronger. You want to try your best to maintain your level of fitness so that when you get home to train, you are not starting from scratch, and you can keep progressing to becoming more fit and stronger. From a parental perspective I know what you are thinking: I do not want my child to be tired for their next match the next day, I want them fresh.

If your child has been training well and is fit, doing 30 minutes of exercises is going to keep them sharp, because they should be used to doing lots of tough physical work at home. If your child has two tough matches in a day at a tournament, then doing anything strenuous is not too smart, but if your child has some easy matches or one easy match, I would highly recommend them doing some very sport specific exercises to keep them sharp at tournaments.

This comes down to common sense. For example, if your child has an easy match or two in one day, they definitely should proceed to do fitness for at least 20 to 30 minutes. They should do tennis specific movements to keep their fast twitch muscles firing for the matches the next day. They could also do some body weight exercises, core or band work for some upper body strength.

If your child had a brutal day at a tournament and is tired, they should have a very good cool down session and recover well for the next match. This may consist of a light jog or bike ride to flush out all the lactic acid that developed in their muscles. Then you need a great recovery plan to make sure your child wakes up the next day with a fresh body so that they are able to compete again. I will discuss the recovery plan in a future article.

As I discussed earlier in the article, most kids are not going to do this without someone helping them, and if they do this on their own, you have a very special mature young person on your hands. Tennis is becoming a more physical game and the ball is going faster generation after generation. I can tell you that many injuries come from improper training.

Also, tennis players who have become out of shape and then trying to push their bodies to higher levels of fitness or tennis when their bodies cannot handle that type of training at that moment, is a recipe for injuries. When a player is at a tournament, it is all about trying to maintain your level of fitness so that when you come home to train, you are not out of shape and having to start from zero.

I always tell the players I train on a daily basis, that if you think your matches at tennis tournaments are very tough physically, then you are not fit enough. Your training should always be tougher physically than your tournament matches, and if this is not the case, then you need to train tougher physically. Best of luck and remember that going to tournaments are fun, but you also need to keep up with your fitness if you want to keep progressing physically.

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