Successful athletes exhibit positive mental health. Mental skills are as important as natural physical ability and mechanical skills in most sports, especially tennis.
Research has shown that tennis is 85% mental and that players spend 80% of their time on the court handling emotions. Some players look good in practice when they are not under pressure but cannot win matches (even though they have the physical skill) because they cannot handle their emotions — such as anger, fear or stress — during a match.
Players normally practice physical skills but rarely practice cognitive techniques. Regardless of one’s level of play, practicing mental skills will greatly improve the player’s arsenal of weapons. The following are specific strategies that mental health professionals who work with athletes can use to help them perform optimally.
Using visualization and shadowing
Visualize the correct way to hit a tennis stroke and repeat it over and over in your mind. Then take a racquet and shadow a stroke repetitively without hitting the ball. At home, practice relaxation and deep breathing techniques while visualizing your stroke at night before going to sleep. The next time you actually hit the ball, you will produce a better shot.
Staying in the ‘here and now’
The “here” means to focus on what is happening on your own court, not what is happening on the court next to you. Players may be affected by external factors, such as the sun, wind, an opponent, etc., and may use these conditions or situations as an excuse if they do not win. Ignore background chatter and distractions, and be a horse with blinders. Be responsible for yourself and your own actions; manage what you can and realize that you cannot control the weather or actions of your opponent.
The “now” refers to staying present and focusing only on the current point. Do not think of past mistakes. If you are winning a match, do not think about celebrating while the match is still in play. If you are losing, do not think t of excuses why you lost the match. Instead, just concentrate on the present, point by point. Focusing will help alleviate stress, and better equip you to make quick decisions and be clear about your intended actions.
Set realistic and achievable goals
It is always good to have goals and dreams; however, you must understand the realities of your current level of play. Know your level, don’t be grandiose and think you are able to beat Rafael Nadal. Having an unrealistic attitude will result in frustration and poor performance during a match. Instead, set achievable, and realistic short- and long-term goals. After the match is over, reflect upon and evaluate your performance. If you lose a match, use it as an opportunity to learn from your mistakes and to improve by working on your weaknesses in future practice.
Do not tie your self-esteem to your match outcome. Cultivate an optimistic attitude and talk positively to yourself, strive to improve, and maintain positive self-esteem in practice and in matches. During practice, focus upon the process, not the outcome. Arrange your practice matches so that one-third of them are against players of your same level, one-third against players worse than you, and one-third against players better than yourself.
Deal with adversity
It is important to be able to deal with external pressures going on in your life such as family, peer, school, work, and relationship conflicts. Deal with this discord before your match so you can maintain control of your emotions and can give 100% effort on the court.
Many athletes may have difficulty teaching themselves cognitive skills and would benefit from a few sessions with a sports psychologist/psychiatrist to understand and learn the techniques. In particular, the continued daily practice of visualization can help increase relaxation and to decrease stress and anxiety.
Practicing these cognitive techniques can not only improve your performance in sports but can also enhance your life skills and boost your performance in school, work and relationships.
Richard Cohen is a psychiatrist in private practice for more than 35 years. He is a former professor of psychiatry, family medicine, and otolaryngology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. He has been a nationally ranked tennis player from age 12 to the present. He was inducted into the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2012. His daughter Julia Cohen was No. 1 ranked in the United States in junior tennis and No. 4 in the world’s top 100 in the World Tennis Association. She holds a master’s in sports psychology, and presently works as a sports psychologist and tennis professional in Philadelphia.