Tennis is a mental game for any competitive player. You must use your mind--called the mental game--to handle adversity during play.
The top players in the game--Federer, Roddick, Sharapova, and Safina--win matches with a strong mental game. On the days when they don't have their "A" game, they're able to grind out the match by outthinking their opponents.
No one can be perfect with their on-court concentration or mental game. However, you can learn to minimize mental errors during matches. Have you ever lost focus or tensed up and missed an easy shot during a match? Does anger from missing an easy shot carry over to the next point and cause you to lose the next point?
One quick way to lift your on-court performance and consistency is to use your mind better between points. A consistent mind game leads to consistent performance. Here's one lesson your tennis instructor does not stress: You must learn to remain confident, focused, and in control of your emotions between points to get the most out of your physical ability.
How do mentally tough players control their minds and thoughts between points and during changeovers? Your mental game between points must include these two objectives: (1) You have to process previous points to allow you to have the utmost confidence, composure, and focus, and (2) you have to prepare mentally for the next point.
I'll discuss the top six mental game strategies you should use between points to give yourself the mental advantage during tournament play:
Focus on just the one point
Playing one point at a time means focusing only on the current point, not the previous point. You don't want to carry thoughts about missed shots or unforced errors into the next point. If you do, you're dwelling on the past. You have to play each point as if it's the first point in the game. You can see tour pros, such as Sharapova, apply this strategy when she turns her back to the net between points. She is mentally "turning" away from the last point to put it behind her symbolically before she "faces" the next point.
Park negative emotions
Frustration is your biggest enemy between points. When you're frustrated, you're still focused on the last point or mistake. You can't play your best when your mental energy is split between the last point and the next point. I teach my students to manage their expectations going into the match. High expectations are the root of your frustration, especially when you're not playing up to your personal "standards." For example, if you expect to have zero unforced errors or hit perfect shots, you trap yourself into feeling frustrated when you make errors.
Relax your mind between points
A three-set match can last for hours. You simply can't focus for two to three hours straight without some downtime. You want to use that downtime on changeovers and between points to relax your focus for a brief moment so you can focus at peak levels on the next point. I'm not telling you to grab your phone and order a pizza on the changeover. You want to pace your concentration level. The goal should be to save your concentration for points when you need it the most during the match.
Strategize, don't analyze
I never want my students to over analyze what they are doing wrong on the last point. However, one method to help you put the last point behind you is to process the prior point (or evaluate your strategy) before you start the next point. How can you improve your tactics? What are your opponent's weaknesses you can exploit? For example, when does your opponent come to the net? You should have a strategy starting the match to play your best, but often you have to adjust your match strategy based on how your opponent is reacting to you.
Stay confident, avoid self-doubt
Do you engage in self-doubt or lose confidence when behind or when a match is not going as expected? Confidence is your number one friend in tennis. Without a healthy dose of confidence between points, you simply will not perform your best. However, for many tennis players, confidence is fleeting or fragile. If your confidence changes from point to point – that's not real confidence. Real confidence is stable and based on months or years of practice and play. Remind yourself, no matter what the score is, you've earned the right to believe in your strokes and tennis abilities.
Mentally prepare for the next serve or return of serve
Top tennis players use a pre-serve routine to help them strategize and hone their concentration for each serve or return of serve. First, you want to make sure you're focused on the next point, not the last point, as discussed. Turn your back to the net until you are ready to face the next point. Second, have a clear plan for the upcoming serve or return of serve. Third, see or feel what you want to do to "program" yourself with positive images. Lastly, you must trust in your skills to execute with freedom and confidence.
Your mental toughness between points is critical to performing your best on the court. Top players in the world use routines to help them process the last point and mentally prepare for the next. You can also develop a routine to help you let go of the last point, adjust your energy level, instill a confident mindset, and prepare for the next point.
If you can accomplish these mental game tips between every point, you'll reduce mental errors and improve your consistency during points!
Dr. Patrick Cohn is a world-renowned sports psychology expert who works with nationally ranked tennis juniors. For more information, visit SportsPsychologyTennis.com.