3 Keys to Mental Toughness in Tennis
Think backto your last really close match. What were some of the things you experienced mentally and physically? If you’re like any other human being facing adversity in a highly evaluative situation, you probably experienced some of the following sensations, physically and mentally.
- Rising blood pressure
- Shallow breathing
- Heart racing
- Poor, high risk shot selection
- Loss of focus
- A sense of being rushed or wanting to rush
These are some of the typical signs humans experience when they are stressed and can be summarized as the fight, flight or freeze response. This response is hard-wired into our brains and at some point in human history this response helped us stay alive. When a predator jumped out from behind a rock, we needed our brain to kick into autopilot and make a decision about which action would help us survive. If we had engaged in a lengthy deliberation, deciding whether we could fight off the predator, run away or simply freeze, well, we would have end up as lunch most likely. What helped us in an evolutionary sense billions of years ago is no longer helpful. Unfortunately, our brains have not gotten the memo yet that a tennis match is not a life-treating event.
The 3 Keys to Mental Toughness in Tennis
I experienced it many times in tight matches that I felt my heart was about to leap out my chest and that my throat was so constricted that I felt I couldn’t get enough air.
Deliberate deep breathing will get as much oxygen as possible into your lungs and into the area of the brain responsible for rational decision making. It also gives you something to focus on by counting the number of inhales and exhales. Breathe in to a count of 4 and release the breath to a count of 5. Practice this first at home and then on court. You'd be amaze how much it helps.
2) Perspective Change
When I competed, I often had more difficulty dealing with my own negativity than anything that my opponent threw at me. Our self talk can be so abusive and unfair that we would never dare speak to anyone else in that way. But for some reason, we think it’s ok and “helpful” if we do it to ourselves.
Breathing creates the necessary space which we can use the skill of perspective change. You simply check your own thoughts with the question “Is this really true?” when evaluated how bad your serve, forehand, backhand, volley, etc is. The next step is to reframe the negative thought into a more positive and actionable one. Go from “my forehand is terrible” to “on the next forehand I will extend through the ball.” Again, you have to practice this every single day. Side note, this is a great practice off the court too 🙂.
Lastly, the biggest help I could have given myself would have been to be kinder to myself. I mean, a LOT kinder. Instead of weighing every single shot as the make it or break it of my career, I would have done much better to recognize that I’m human - that I will experience fear, anger and frustration and I’m doing the best I can with the tools I have at this moment. This is not to make excuses. It’s simply recognizing that tennis is an incredibly tough sport to play and that I need to be my own best friend.
The question I ask my players often is if they can give themselves as much credit for every single point won as they tear themselves down for every point lost. It’s so easy to lament every single shot we miss but it seems so hard to praise yourself for the many points we win. We take them for granted and we often don’t think that forcing errors is equal to hitting winners. “I should be making these shots” is what comes up a lot but in my (now kinder mind) I’m recognizing that no one shot is exactly the same as any other shot before. If I stop comparing the ball I just missed with one I made in practice 2 days ago, I can forgive myself for mistakes so much easier.
I know that I would have had a more successful career had I learned these skills early and worked on them deliberately and continually. I pieced together many of these things over the duration of my career and, obviously, I must have done a lot right to make it to the top 30. However, I did feel helpless and frustrated many times when I was out there by myself. Now that we know that all top athletes regard mental skills training just as essential as their athletic, technical and tactical development, there is no reason why recreational players shouldn’t work on mental skills as well. I guarantee that if you put in the work, it will pay big dividends.
🎾 Written by Meike Babel, contributor and ADV collaborator
Meike is a former world-class tennis player, reaching a career high of #27 in singles and #45 in doubles in 1995 on the WTA Tour and was nominated for the WTA “Rookie of the Year” Award. She has played in 19 Grand Slams and for the German Fed Cup team. After retiring from the WTA Tour, Meike became an assistant coach at Tulane and Vanderbilt University where she later graduated from Vanderbilt with a degree in Human and Organizational Development. Realizing a passion for the mental side of tennis she worked with Duke University Integrative Medicine to assist clients in behavior modification. She is also Mental Toughness Specialist certified by Dr. Jim Loehr’s Human Performance Institute.
Currently she is a high-performance coach in Denver, CO and works as mental skills coach with the Vanderbilt tennis team as well as individual athletes from different sports. She is also serving as USTA Regional Training Center Mental Skills Coach. Meike currently offers mental training courses and coaching. Feel free to reach out to her at meikebabel.com.