If you’re like most tennis players, you’re playing poorly and losing more often than you should.
You may not realize it yet, but this is often due to your mental game of tennis. By this, I mean how your mind affects your play. As tennis writer Tim Gallwey pointed out, there is an opponent in every tennis player’s head more formidable than the one across the net.
With this in mind, here are three mental toughness tips for tennis to get you winning and keep you winning.
GAME FACE is your psyche up on the day you compete.
It’s your alter ego, your sun energy, your force of will, your ‘for the love of the game’ attitude.
You need GAME FACE because winning at the highest levels of sport is as thin as a razor’s edge.
It’s not the best team or athlete who wins on competition day. It’s the athlete who performs the best who wins.
A common mistake your competitors make the day of the event is a) doing nothing or b) using some silly superstition.
This is leaving your psyche up to chance, and I do NOT recommend it. Unless you have a GAME FACE routine, you simply will not be able to overcome your nerves to be able to create the confidence needed to win.
Usually, to have your best GAME FACE, you need a specific ‘psyche up’ ritual. Here’s a great tip from Serena Williams:
On September 3, 2008 at the U.S. Open, Serena Williams is head-to-head with her sister, Venus, and finds herself in a hole on the first set. During the changeover, Serena reaches for a little match book she keeps during every tournament. In Serena’s words:
“This time, it reads: ‘Your destiny has begun, Serena. Remember your people I’m proud of you. Keep it up. U R capable of anything!’
…and as I set the book back in my tennis bag and press a towel to my face, I softly speak these same words into the fabric: ‘You are capable of anything, Serena.’ I stand and start to move to my side of the court. I think, Here you go, Serena. Here you go.”1
Get your GAME FACE on and keep it on during your event using a specific ritual like reading a match book, listening to a song, or repeating a particular mantra.
The best ones are where you drop all modesty and step up and claim your greatness in your mind, no matter how red your face gets.
They Never Boo a Bum
Most tennis players lose their confidence the moment a big distraction shows up, like criticism.
They worry about things like impressing coaches, making mistakes, a bad start, and intimidating opponents.
Champion athletes, though, think differently.
They make a firm, unequivocal decision to become impervious to distractions.
Take Eddie Arcaro, who was one of the most celebrated jockeys in America. Arcaro was the winner of five Kentucky Derbys and 22 million dollars in purses over a 25 year career.
In an interview with Mike Wallace, Arcaro confessed that it used to bother him when fans booed him.
WALLACE: After you lose a race, Eddie, it’s common practice for the fans to boo you; maybe some of them even curse at you. Does that bother you at all?
ARCARO: It did at one time in my life, Mike. It affected me terribly, I think the fellow that helped me more than anybody was “Old Granny Rice”, who wrote a poem about me. The name of it was entitled, ‘Eddie, They Never Boo A Bum.’ It kind of helped me out.”2
In the words of Dale Carnegie, “No one ever kicks a dead dog…when you are kicked and criticized, remember it is often done because it gives the kicker a feeling of importance. It means you are accomplishing something and are worthy of attention.”3
Arcaro was not only impervious to criticism.
He was impervious to losing.
How do I know?
Arcaro lost the first 250 CONSECUTIVE races of his horse racing career.
That’s why you need to decide that it’s only the courtroom of YOUR mind that counts. Your basic mental position is, “You’re in MY REALITY now.”
This will keep you thick-skinned enough to shrug off the doubters.
Trust Yourself – Really!
Here’s an email I got recently:
I recently came across your site in search of a way to help my mental tennis game.
I’ve progressed from college to professional and I’m starting to play professional tournaments this year. When I practice, I play the way I should. Excellent execution, proper technique, proper footwork, carefree of errors, and above all I’m hitting the heck out of the ball.
Lately when I play matches I’m turning into a different player. My level isn’t nearly close to that of my ability. I’m an over-analyzer and have a mind that runs a million thoughts at a time.
I need to find a way to not care or to calm my thoughts.
For example I have a slightly weaker side on the backhand. I dread the ball coming to that side so I cause all sorts errors that don’t happen in practice.
How do I trust my shots more? Any suggestions?
–Frustrated Yet Talented
Dear Frustrated Yet Talented,
I feel your pain.
Being over-analytical is not fun. In fact, it sucks.
I can speak with authority on this subject, because it did it for years.
And, to be honest, your note made me mad.
It made me mad at all the sports psych books and experts out there who have told you that it’s actually possible to “not care.”
Not caring about your sport (or winning) is impossible because you’re an intense, fiery athlete.
You’ll always care.
This is a good thing, even when sport hurts.
It’s a good thing because you can only become truly excellent if you care.
What about “calming your mind?”
This you CAN do.
But not the way you think.
A lot of athletes have been told they can just “park” anxiety but telling themselves to put it out of their mind. So when it doesn’t work, they criticize themselves and wonder why they are so mentally ‘weak’.
Here’s the problem.
If the source of the anxiety is you and your skills, you can’t “park” it.
Your anxiety is trying to get you to pay attention to a problem.
In your case, the problem is your backhand.
Rather than dread the ball coming your way, I would like you deal with your backhand issues directly.
What’s the technical problem is with your backhand? Do you know?
Do you know how to correct it in matches?
If so, getting balls to your backhand side is wonderful because you can set a goal to improve it.
If not, you need to find those answers – fast.
Notice that I’m not taking a superficial approach. There are principles or ‘natural laws’ that govern success in every area of life.
The natural law here is self-acceptance. You must face your fears about your backhand.
Self-trust means that you’re ‘handling your business’ in tennis – not running away from it by wishing the ball never comes to you.
Get to the truth about your backhand and starting fixing it, and your anxiety will melt faster than an ice cube in Palm Springs.
1Williams, Serena. Queen of the Court: An Autobiography. Simon & Schuster, 2009.
2Arco, Eddie. The Mike Wallace Interview. 9/8/75. Audio available at: http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/multimedia/video/2008/wallace/arcaro_eddie.html
3Carnegie, Dale. How to Enjoy Your Life and Your Job. Simon * Schuster, 1970.