The majority of my tennis research and experimentation over the last year has been into the mind game and how we can overcome the negativity and fear that prevent us from playing our best tennis. I’ve written about how meditation and yoga practices can help us develop the ability to stay in the moment and reduce anxiety and about how preventing the fight or flight response is crucial for staying relaxed.
And while I do think that regularly meditating during yoga classes has helped me improve my ability to stay calm and focused, there are a few techniques I employ during matches (and practice) that can help me stay in a positive, relaxed state or get me back there if I’ve become nervous, negative or distracted.
These are things you can try in between points:
The first technique is really just to remind yourself about all of your other tools you have available. It’s so easy to come up with goals and strategies that we’re going to use during a tennis session and then completely forget about them until after. I like to use visual cues to remind myself of what I’m working on between points so that I don’t forget. I like to write acronyms on the throat of my racquet so I see it whenever I look down between points. In this year’s club championship, for instance, my plan between points was to:
- Breath (deep breaths through my nose, longer exhales than inhales to calm the heart rate)
- Targets (choose targets for all of my shots and commit to them)
- Rehearse (visualize where my serve return was going to go)
- Split Step (at the time, I was working on split stepping on every shot including the serve return. This was a bit of a last resort – I know that working on technique in competition isn’t really advised, but I find that when I’m really struggling mentally, focusing on just one technical aspect over and over is calming)
You could also write notes to yourself on paper or right on your water bottle for review during changeovers, but I find that having reminders right on my racquet is more accessible and also subtle – only you will know you’re doing it.
When stress during tennis matches cause us to enter “fight or flight” mode, our breathing and heart rates naturally speed up. Slow, deep breathing with a particular focus on long exhales can help our heart rates slow down which helps us feel more calm. You can also count, say, 2 seconds on the inhale and 4 on the exhale, or whatever rhythm feels good to you, which has the added benefit of giving your mind something to focus on that isn’t frustrating (like the break point you’re facing or the easy volley you just dumped into the net).
Rehearse or Visualize (your game plan)
I took an online course this year called “Big Point Player Blueprint” through Gladiator Tennis Training which taught me to visualize points before they happen. While the shot you hit often depends on your opponents’ actions, you can have a general plan to follow whenever you’re able to. This could be, for instance, to hit deep to the middle or to your opponents’ backhand whenever you’re under pressure, or to hit to the open court and move your opponent back and forth whenever you can be offensive. Like counting breaths, rehearsing your game plan reminds you of your plan, and also focuses your mental attention away from distraction and negativity and puts it on something productive.
Trade expectation for appreciation
This is one that I need to remind myself of it the most since my tendency is to become negative with myself when I don’t play the way I think I should. When we play with expectation we can become frustrated if things don’t go our way. Think of how much easier it is to play as the underdog, or to not get upset over unforced errors when you’re working on something new compared to being the favourite or inexplicably messing up your bread and butter shots.
While it’s difficult not to expect things of ourselves, particularly when we’ve been working on certain aspects of our games and expect to see improvement, we can try to reframe our thinking away from expectation and towards appreciation to help us stay positive when things don’t go our way on the court. I’m someone who has struggled with injuries quite a bit, so my strategy is to be grateful that I’m on the court at all. Other things I’ll do is look up at the sky and appreciate the setting I get to play tennis in, or even to think about the family that I get to go home to after the match, regardless of the outcome. In practice, laughing or chatting with my partner during breaks reminds me that I’ve made great friends through tennis and it doesn’t have to be about winning or improving all the time.
These are a few of the techniques I’ve been using to combat my racing mind and nerves during tennis. This is of course a work in progress so I’d love to hear what you do to stay calm and focused.