How to Develop a Mental Game Plan

Consider Roger Federer in the men's Wimbledon final in 2007. A break point down to Rafael Nadal in the 5th set, down 15-40, Roger comes up with three aces. I think that's a pretty good sign that he was able to shut out the nervous anticipation we felt as spectators and focus on his targets all the more clearly.

This doesn't just happen. We're not born with this ability, despite how it might seem. This is learned. This is why we call concentration, confidence, composure and motivation, for example, mental skills.

Mental Conditioning: Working Out Your Brain

Players at the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy undergo one of the most comprehensive training programs in the world. In addition to the technical and strategic training for tennis, there is a major emphasis on both the physical and mental training involved.

If you're doing physical conditioning at least three times a week, think about how much mental conditioning you're doing?

Studying for school doesn't count! Since when does getting an A for a math quiz help you stay positive when you've been broken early in a third set?

We need to be specific with our mental training and also understand that there are no shortcuts. While it might be easy for some of you to cruise through school and get good grades, your mental conditioning will only be as good as what you put into it.

Start thinking about what your mental game is and where you are right now. By identifying mental strengths and weaknesses, you and your coach can communicate more effectively and begin to work on skills for match play and practice.


By learning better self-awareness, you can recognize symptoms of your mental game on the court. In tournament play, you are your own coach so you need to know how to coach yourself.

In recognizing mental lapses or breakdowns on the court, it's critical to be able to catch it early rather than squandering a series of games or a set before realizing what is happening.

If you can recognize the symptoms of the breakdown as increased muscle tension (physical), negative thinking (mental) or rushing second serves (match play), you are far more likely to change your approach in time to play closer to your potential.

Too often a player will not notice these types of symptoms until its too late and they are playing catch up, or it's close enough to tip the balance to the opponents favor.

So how can you improve self-awareness? Video is a great way to start identifying symptoms of match play.

Notice that the previous examples included symptoms that were physical, mental and also from match play. Of course, recognizing the symptoms does not identify the source or cause for this behavior. But in the heat of competition, getting a player to realize the things that will "ring an alarm bell" or provide a powerful wake-up call is a key catalyst to change.

Feedback from your coach can provide an important role both in the analysis of videotape, but also on the court where these symptoms will probably come up again. The combination of coach feedback on the court after analyzing video tape or reflection after a match or tournament can be powerful.

Consider the following examples of typical symptoms that players often report and exhibit in match (or competitive) situations.

Physical Symptoms

  • Muscular tension, or tightness – specifically in the grip, forearm, shoulders, legs, feet, even jaw!
  • Eye control – eyes wander onto other courts or elsewhere
  • Rapid, shallow breathing, or even holding of breath
  • Symptoms of adrenalin and the survival response - butterflies in the stomach, racing heart rate, sweaty palms
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