At first, it seems like saying tennis is a mental game is a fallacy. There’s no doubt that tennis is a physical sport, but mental strength is key.
Yes, tennis is a mental game, and intensely so. At the top level, or whenever the competition is evenly matched, it’s psychology and mental strength that can make all the difference. You obviously won’t get very far without a decent serve and nimble return. Gear is also important, as is improving fitness levels.
Sports stars and athletes often talk about ‘peak performance’. This is not a mystical state. It simply describes a person getting into the zone and playing the best tennis possible for their ability. Hitting your A-game often is a mental skill.
Planning and Off-Court Preparation
Just as the physical preparation starts off-court, so too does the mental preparation. The two also tie together. Getting plenty of rest, eating a healthy, nutritious diet and exercising regularly will all contribute to better mental health.
Planning is also a case of taking note of the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses to develop a strategy before the match. For example, if an opposition player has a weaker backstroke, then you can aim to repeatedly play to their backhand. In this way, you are using your mind to win the game before it’s even started.
Be aware that your opponent can also catch on to this and make preparations of their own. In-game decision making needs to be flexible enough that you can deal with any situation.
It’s the same battle fought by poker players as they raise and re-raise each other. In tennis as in poker, adaptation is key. Now, you may wonder why we’re mentioning poker at all – read on and you’ll see.
Focus and Concentration
Another improvement that tennis players can learn from the mental game of poker pros, is to always keep the mind clear. A big part of the poker mental game is to keep your mind decluttered. A cluttered mind leads to mistakes, lack of sleep and inability to reach the zone.
Keeping it clear, on the other hand, will help you to play your A-game. Again, the same goes for tennis as in poker. Extensive training is important, but so is rest and recuperation. Get plenty of sleep prior to upcoming matches. It may even help to remove yourself from tennis for a while every now and then to completely refresh.
It also helps to practice selective attention. To be a tennis pro, you need to be able to block out the crowd and other distractions and just focus on the tennis. This comes with practice in competition. You can also improve this with practices that encourage single-pointed focus, such as meditation and yoga.
It’s one thing learning this focus off the courts, but how a player brings this focus to the court and stays in the moment for each and every point really sets the pros apart.
Pros and coaches from all types of sports often talk about mental toughness. The term takes on different meanings depending on who you speak to, but it refers to a player’s ability to stay mentally strong before, during and after a competition.
There’s no use slamming your racket every time you lose a game. Aside from being a bad display of etiquette, losing control of your emotions often leads to more mistakes. In poker, they call this ‘Tilt’ – losing one hand leads to a quick succession of bad moves before the player is swiftly eliminated.
You may have noticed that Maria Sharapova has a little technique for resetting herself – after every point she turns her back and then turns around to face her opponent again. It’s a way to say to put the last point behind her and be present with the point that is happening.
Mental toughness relies on being able to control emotions in this way. It is about striking the fine balance between having a winning attitude, but also managing expectations and understanding that mistakes are inevitable.
Part of this process is humility. If you play someone in tennis and they outplay you, then take this as an opportunity to learn from them and improve your game. If it was your own mistakes that cost you the point or match then be willing to accept that and make improvements.
Positive Winning Attitude
Still, it’s always important to have a positive winning attitude. Self-doubt doesn’t get you anywhere in sports and competition. You can practice affirmations and the like to improve this belief.
However, real confidence comes from real ability. There’s no trick to this. The more you can truly know that your stroke is at its best, that fitness is high, that you are primed for the match, the more confident you will feel.
This is another point where the physical and mental interact. Having tennis ability reinforces self-confidence, which allows you to bring more of your A-game to the match.
Of course, nobody can always be on their A-game, so it’s important to have a solid B-game too. But the idea is to stay ready to jump into the zone whenever you need to. Over time, you can develop confidence that perpetuates itself with every performance.
Just when you thought it was time to stop and take a rest, that the hard work was done, there’s one more point to take in… the mental game doesn’t stop once the match is over. There’s always room for improvement, so once you’ve had a rest take some time to review every aspect of your game.
Where did you lose points? Did your emotions get in the way or can you make certain improvements in training? What could you have done better? Were you on your A-game most of the time?
Every sports coach and player, from poker to rugby, football to tennis, has acknowledged the importance of the mental aspect of the game. Taking mental strength and focus into account and working to improve them will undoubtedly improve your tennis performance.