By: Mukundan Nandakumar, JKST Tennis Professional
Breathing is the simplest way to relax, avoid rushing into points and control the fast heart rate your nervousness has caused. Take deep breaths before a serve or return, and breathe out as you strike the ball. Practice breathing vigorously in your clinics and practice matches. After all, habits aren’t formed in a day!
Rituals for any competitor are habits that lead the person to a place of comfort and work in avoiding hasty decisions. They are like sensors that make an athlete go back and forth between a state of relaxation and focus. It is hard to focus 100%, all the time. In order to sustain long periods of time competing, tennis players have to constantly learn to switch on their level of focus at the beginning of points while relaxing once the point has been played.
Rituals tell you – “It is time to focus, it is game time.”
Examples of rituals include bouncing the ball before serving, jog on the spot before the point begins, using a towel, taking a specific number of deep breaths, or adjusting your sleeves.
It is safe to say that tennis players can often see an unforced error coming. Next time you hit a double fault, odds are you were doubtful before you even hit the second serve. While mind control is a subject well beyond this article, it is possible for players to train themselves not to let the thought of the potential error enter your mind.
Visualization or planning and filling your mind with positive ideas will reduce the amount of thought of potential errors. For example: before you serve, think of serve placement and your next potential shot.
A typical reply by a player is something like, “I am happy to just get the serve in!” Well, if your thoughts get consumed in JUST getting the serve in, the odds of NOT getting the serve occupy at least 50% of your thought process. However, having a target or a plan prior to every shot or decision significantly reduces the amount of thought given to “What if I miss?” Instead, it focuses on the positive, for example, “serve to her backhand and look for a short ball.”
4. Practice with goals and targets - Repetition is the Mother of Skill
Mental Toughness – The ability to hit the ball where you want to, when you want to.
Any skill in sports can be acquired. Granted some individuals have a head start in certain situations; but good practice with good advice and perseverance can be the difference maker.
When it comes to practice, in order to be a complete tennis player, one must practice every facet of the game. Tactics are fed by technique. If you own a shot, odds are it will not fail you under pressure.
You are allowed 20 seconds between every point as per USTA rules and most leagues follow this. Players MUST practice their rituals, breathing and visualization – not just their tactics and technique! This will help you control the TEMPO of the match.
Most commonly ignored drills that players should include in their practice sessions - 2nd Serve Practice, Shot Threshold – ones rally count – how many balls can you keep in play before unforced error happens, or target practice.
5. Be Performance oriented, not result oriented
“Show me a good loser and I will show you a loser” – Vince Lombardi
Everybody likes to win and it is important to lose with class, however, losing must also motivate you to perform better. If tennis players demand performance – play and fight hard to the best of their ability – odds are you might end up on the winning side more often even on a subpar day. And if not, your hunger to treat the loss as a stepping stone towards getting better increases. This is a win/win situation!
6. Enjoy Pressure
“Pressure is a Privilege” – Billie Jean King
Remember – managing pressure is an acquired skill! Enjoying pressure comes from seeing the fruits of preparation. Constantly remind yourself why you play tennis. In many cases, repeating a line or two such as - I like pressure – eventually starts to have a positive effect on what the mind believes over time.