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6 BIG mistakes players make between points

Understanding how to be mentally tough
By: Roberto Forzoni
Added:
04/02/10

Six costly mistakes tennis players make between points

Roberto Forzoni

Introduction

Whilst athletes from different sports tend to believe their sport is ‘psychologically’ the toughest sport, most elite performers understand and agree upon the need to be psychologically tough, whatever sport they play. On many occasions, the result can be influenced massively, by the mental toughness of each competitor. When players of similar abilities play, the winner tends to be the player that, on the day, was mentally tougher. Being able to play nice tennis with effective strokes does not necessarily win competitive tennis matches; it takes a real high level of consistent effort and commitment to give yourself the best opportunity to win a match. Brad Gilbert is a perfect example of this; admitting he possessed limited talent when compared to many on the tour, he compensated by working on his mental toughness and achieved a high level of success in his tennis career, rising to a top ten position, and gaining the respect of everyone in the game. His continued success whilst coaching both Andre Agassi and Andy Murray, demonstrated the benefits of incorporating a ‘mental’ component to a tennis philosophy (Brad’s book ‘Winning Ugly’ is a highly recommended read). Having had the privilege of working with both Brad Gilbert and Andy Murray, I witnessed first hand, how beneficial this could be. Andy has developed into a real ‘tough’ player (and is a great role model on the benefits of a commitment to continuous and relentless hard work).

“Never, ever, underestimate the difference your mental toughness can make to your result”

Most success in sport comes down to a combination of talent and relentless hard work. The hard work helps to develop robust technique, strong psychological skills and of course, physical fitness, and their sub components. I am continually surprised, therefore, that one component of this success base is continually left to chance or at least experiential tendencies. Many tennis programmes continue without the massive benefits of a structured and progressive psychology programme or training regime, and coaches and performance directors are continually surprised at the lack of expected progress with their players. The main reason is the lack of understanding of psychology, and even more, the lack of skills to deliver a psychology programme. There are of course exceptions, and I have been most impressed with the work Paul Dent undertakes both within the LTA Coach Education system and at the Bromley High Performance Centre, and Helen Emms at the Gosling Tennis Centre, to name but two. Their success is a credit to their centres and ultimately forward thinking Performance Directors, who give time and financial support to integrating psychology components into their tennis programmes.

Whether working with either World class or amateur players, I come across similar negative issues in players performances that could be eradicated reasonably quickly by working on their ‘match psychology’.

In this article I will focus on the six common costly mistakes players make between points:

1. Fail to manage their emotions

One of the best skills I believe a tennis player can take on court is that of acceptance. Whatever has happened has happened. Accept it. There is nothing you can do to change it, but you can change what happens next (including your response to an error). The best way to do this is to focus on what you do well, your game plan, your strategy. Some players like focusing on the tactical aspects of the point, others on the technical, whilst some just want to get into auto-mode and just play. Whatever your preference, unless you can manage your emotions, you will make it more difficult to get where you need to be.

Don’t think this is just a negative emotional control. When things are going well or when you have hit a great shot, you still need to be able to control and manage your emotions so you don’t get carried away. Be mindful of your emotional temperature on court and learn quickly to control it. Don’t kid yourself that by showing everyone how disappointed you are they will think the mistake you just made was unusual. They’ll probably think you’re just another player that cannot control themselves.

2. Become fortune-tellers

Many players do strange things between points. One of the worst things they can do is become what I will call ‘fortune tellers’ or ‘story tellers’; it goes something like this: “if I lose this game I’ll lose the match” (when it is not the last game!), or “If I don’t change now I’m finished”, “I can’t beat this player”  etc. In other words they are making predictions on the outcome of the match. This may well become a self-fulfilling prophecy and your thoughts will help ensure your prediction will come true.
One nice thing about the sport of tennis, compared with many other sports, is that there is no time limit, so your opponent cannot slow the clock down when leading. They have to finish the match off. This gives you a wonderful opportunity to always be in with a chance, if…..and there is always an ‘if”. Check what your ‘ifs’ might be. Some examples would be…”I’ll give myself the best chance of winning….if I stick to my game plan…if I accept I will make mistakes…if I can get more depth and spin on that forehand cross court” etc.
So between points don’t waste precious time telling yourself a story or predicting the future. Instead, reflect on what parts of your game plan and strategy are working, and how you can improve the parts that are not working as well as they could be.

3. Forget their game plan

When I ask players what they were thinking when the match appeared to slip away from them, they will often respond by saying “I don’t know”. Certainly at that stage, their carefully crafted and worked on game plan appears to be a distant thought. Why? If you have worked on a game plan all week, or simply on a specific strategy or shot, then that is what you take into the match. If it was important to work on then it will be important to employ WHEN THE PRESSURE IS ON! One of the strongest pieces of advice I offer players for their between point routines is to quickly refocus on their game plan.

“Don’t forget, confidence comes from preparation and the thought you are in control”

4. Forget their routines

Players tend to go through phases of using routines. On many occasions, routines are introduced to the player who is going through a rough time. The routines are adhered to for a while and then forgotten and the cycle repeats itself. Routines should be looked at like washing yourself – a bit of a chore but a good idea to do it every day!
Why are routines so helpful? Confidence comes from preparation, and knowing you are in control of a situation; if, therefore, you develop routines that you use all the time, they will help in every other of the ‘unforced errors’ mentioned here. You know you are in control of your routines, being in control is a major component of confidence, so routines enhance confidence. Basically, good robust routines keep you on track and again, are another (essential) component that can help maximize your opportunity of winning tennis matches. Use them and use them all the time.


5. Focus on external factors

External factors include anything you might be distracted by on court, including your opponent, your coach, parents, friends of spectators. By letting your focus drift in this way, without the trained skill to get back to where you need to be, when you need to be there, you are coming out of the ‘zone of maximum performance performance. So train yourself to ignore the distractions that are going on all around you, including the need to constantly look at your coach or parent between every point. They can do little to help you and their facial expression may well be misinterpreted by you any way. So you end up feeling worse more of the time than you do feeling better.

6. Focus on uncontrollable factors

Uncontrollable factors include both internal and external factors. The internal factors are the thought processes you choose to have between points. Choose being the appropriate word.  You choose what you think about, and thinking of distracting and uncontrollable factors is unhelpful. The controllable factors will be your attitude, work rate, shot execution, responses to good and bad shots, response to your opponent’s behaviour or the way they are playing. Remember, you cannot always control what is happening, but you can control the way you response. Be a good responder. Focus on what you do and give yourself the best opportunity to get the best out of the game.

Conclusion

Above I’ve outlined six of the most common problems I come across with tennis players at every level, whether it is playing at a Slam or an afternoon ladies session at the local club!

One strategy you might use to keep you on track between points is to use cue cards or notes. Serena Williams is a great example of an immensely talented and physically strong player, ensuring her mental game is a good as her technical and physical game; she will often use cue cards or notes between points to keep her where she needs to be and to avoid the six costly mistakes tennis players make between points. Why don’t you try it too?

Remember, it’s not a matter of being positive, rather, have a plan and the resolve to stick to it whatever happens.

Learn how to avoid these six costly mistakes and you will be amazed how quickly your game will improve.



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