The 2022 Wimbledon Championships is back next week! Once again, we get to see the best tennis players fight to win the prestigious championship. Emma Raducanu, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal are just a few of the big names you’ll be seeing on the court.
But how do these athletes prepare for such a high-profile event? What can you learn from them to ensure you can perform when it really matters? Our sport and performance psychologists explore the main strategies you need…
Why is tennis so mentally demanding?
Researchers have described tennis as not just a battle of physical ability, but also a mental battle, particularly in competition. Because of the way the game is structured, players have a lot of thinking time. In a 2-hour match, you are probably only playing for about 30 minutes. In between all the sets is this “dead time” where a lot of thinking goes on. The stop-start nature of the game puts extra pressure on the players and their thoughts.
Some other things that make tennis so hard and mentally demanding are:
- You have no team to hide behind. When you make a mistake or become frustrated, it’s out there for everyone to see.
- It is very exact: one slight change in the angle of your racquet can cause the ball to hit the bottom of the net. This makes it frustrating and difficult to hit consistently good shots.
- The uncertainty of the game adds to the pressure. You don’t lose because time has run out, you carry on until someone wins the point. This means that even if you are losing the first two rounds you can still turn it around and win the game. You never know how the match is going to play out.
What can tennis players do to perform at their best?
Aim for a state of flow
Flow is a psychological state of total absorption in a task. It involves being fully focused on what you are doing, so focused that everything else disappears and your mind goes quiet. It is when your feelings and performance are at their best.
A few of our top tips for reaching flow include:
- Become comfortable with challenging and trusting yourself.
- Set a clear goal for the match.
- Have complete focus and a quiet mind.
- Develop an accurate appraisal of your skills. To do this, you need a growth mindset, which is the belief that you have the capacity to improve.
- Aim to have the right level of challenge.
Keep focus on the right things
Players sometimes find their minds wandering in the breaks of a game and can become distracted by things related and unrelated to the performance. For example, a player losing may start thinking “How am I losing to this person?”, or they may think about unrelated things such as “I have so much media and sponsorship stuff to do”. These thoughts cause disruption in timing and coordination, leading to poor performance.
Therefore, players must learn how to stay focused on the right things. Our top tips are:
- Be where your feet are – Target your focus on what you have to do in that moment. Your focus needs to be on what you need to do now to score the next point. This will help give you a sense of certainty and confidence.
- Control the controllables – This means focusing on what you can control and accepting situations or problems that you have no influence over.
- Be process focussed – As an athlete, you should think about the process and what you want to achieve when you are performing. Getting emotional and focusing on the outcome can throw you off and lead to a drop in performance.
Three ways stay focused on the process is to:
- Ask yourself: “What do I need to do to play at my best?”
- Focus on your strengths. Remind yourself of what you are good at, and use this to your advantage.
- Use visualisation to imagine what you can and want to achieve. Effective visualisation means using all your senses to create a mental image of what you want to achieve.
Research on junior tennis players actually found that negative self-talk was associated with losing. Interestingly, the players who reported believing in the utility of self-talk won more points than players who did not. This research highlights the influence of self-talk on performance outcomes and shows the importance of athletes believing in the impact it can have.
Engage in positive self-talk, such as “I’ve succeeded at this before, I know I can now” when you’re on the court. These types of thoughts will help regulate your emotions, as well as increase your confidence, improve your coordination and help you focus and ultimately perform better.
Bounce back after a mistake
Mistakes happen all the time in tennis. You may miss a shot, return a ball badly or mess up your serve. But mistakes are fine – this doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to lose. However, what is important is bouncing back from these mistakes and not making them again and again.
Our top tips for bouncing back from a mistake are:
- Stay calm – After making a mistake in a competition or match, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with emotions such as anger or upset. Aim to keep control of your emotions and just focus on the game and what you have to do next.
- Focus on what you actually can control – This includes your processes, your thoughts, your feelings and reactions.
- Your self-talk after making a mistake matters – It will impact on how you feel and, subsequently, how well you will perform. Say “stop” to negative thoughts and engage in helpful and positive self-talk.
- Don’t take unnecessary risks – Fresh after making a mistake is not the time to be trying new skills or taking risks.
Confidence is key
Research indicates that confidence is crucial for performance. More successful athletes are distinguished from less successful athletes in terms of their belief in themselves and their abilities.
If you have practiced well and given yourself the best chance of success, you should believe in your ability. Confident and successful players use the past, present and future to stay self-assured, reminding themselves of their previous successes and visualising their future ones.
These tips can help any level player to perform well on the tennis court. Wimbledon will not only show which tennis players have prepared well, but also which can pull it off when the pressure is on. In the end, it all comes down to who can perform the best in the moment when it counts. Keeping your focus in the right place, using helpful self-talk, moving on from your mistakes and being confident in your ability will help you perform at your best level.