Think back to your last really close match. What were some of the things you experienced mentally and physically?
If you’re like any other human being facing adversity in a highly evaluative situation, you probably experienced some of the following sensations:
Rising blood pressure
Mentally, you possibly experienced
Poor, high risk shot selection
Loss of focus
A sense of being rushed or wanting to rush
These are some of the typical signs humans experience when they are stressed and can be summarized as Fight, Flight or Freeze Response. This response is hard-wired into our brains and at some point in human history this response helped us stay alive. When a predator jumped out from behind a rock, we needed our brain to kick into autopilot and make a decision about which action would help us survive. If we had engaged in a lengthy deliberation whether we could fight off the predator or whether running away would be best or freezing up would leave us undetected, well, we would have ended up as lunch most likely. What helped us in an evolutionary sense billions of years ago is no longer helpful. Unfortunately, our brains have not gotten the memo yet that a tennis match is not a life-treating event.
Knowing that this is what we’re facing when we compete, I believe that the 3 Key Mental Skills are
1. I experienced it many times in tight matches that I felt my heart was about to leap out my chest and my throat was so constricted that I felt I couldn’t get enough air.
Deliberate deep breathing will get as much oxygen as possible into your lungs and the crucial part of the brain responsible for rational decision making. It also gives you something to focus on if you count along to your in and out breath. Breathe in to a count of 4 and release the breath to a count of 5. Practice this first at home and then on court.
2. When I competed, I often had more difficulty dealing with my own negativity than anything that my opponent threw at me. Our self talk can be so abusive and unfair that we would never dare speak to anyone else in that way. But for some reason, we think it’s ok and “helpful” if we do it to ourselves. The above mentioned breathing creates the space necessary which we can use the skill of perspective change. You simply check your own thoughts with the question “Is this really true” when you go on about how bad your serve, forehand etc. is. The next step is to reframe the negative thought into a more positive and actionable one. Go from “my forehand is terrible” to “on the next forehand I will extend through the ball.” Again, you have to practice this every single day.
3. Lastly, the biggest help I could have given myself would have been to be kinder to myself. And I mean A LOT kinder. Instead of weighing every single shot as the make it or break it of my career I would have done much better to recognize that I’m human. That I will experience fear, anger and frustration and I’m doing the best I can with the tools I have at this moment. This is not to make excuses. It’s simply recognizing that tennis is an incredibly tough sport to play and that I need to be my own best friend. The question I ask my clients now a lot is if they can give themselves as much credit for every single point as they tear themselves down for every lost one. It’s so easy to lament every single shot we miss but it seems so hard to praise yourself for the many points we win. We take them for granted and we often don’t think that forcing errors is equal to hitting winners. “I should be making these shots” is what comes up a lot but in my (now kinder mind) I’m recognizing that no one shot is exactly the same as any other shot before. If I stop comparing the ball I just missed with one I made in practice 2 days ago, I can forgive myself for mistakes so much easier.
I know that I would have had a more successful career had I learned these skills early and worked on them deliberately and continually. I pieced together many of these things over the duration of my career and, obviously, I must have done a lot right to make it to the top 30. However, I did feel helpless and frustrated many times when I was out there by myself. Now that we know that all top athletes regard mental skills training just as essential as their athletic, technical and tactical development there is no reason why recreational players shouldn’t work on mental skills as well. I guarantee that if you put in the work it will pay big dividends.