How to best manage a mistake, a difficult moment during a match?

by Federico Coppini

How to best manage a mistake, a difficult moment during a match?

In a match it often happens that you have to face some complex situations from a mental and emotional point of view.

At that time, correctly managing those situations can help you face the match in the best possible way and also bring the match home.

So do what do you when you make a mistake, when you’re experiencing a difficult time, or you are having a bad day?

Here are some useful tips to experiment and put into practice:

1. Avoid thinking and judging

When we make a mistake, or when we are going through a difficult moment (where perhaps anxiety, stress, and frustration prevail) it often happens that attention is dispersed on irrelevant contents, such as negative thoughts, self-evaluations and self-criticisms, which can affect motor skills and even cause performance drops.

Learning to train to have a non-judgmental, non-reactive attitude is essential.

When we unlearn to judge ourselves, we can play intuitively and can be focused. Because it is precisely the act of judging that leads us to think. The constant mental activity that produces thoughts persistently interferes during a performance.

We make a mistake and we are immediately prompted to evaluate what was wrong by giving ourselves directions on how to correct it. These judgments, repeated continuously over time, become self-fulfilling prophecies, are transformed into expectations, and sometimes even into beliefs about oneself: as when, for example, we say "I'm not capable" – aimed more at identifying than at the momentary behaviour or at the gesture of the moment – or "I always get it all wrong", "I can't", "I can't" (which are unrealistic generalizations). The fact of telling ourselves, repeating it and pointing out the mistake in this way, makes things "real".

The consequence of the constant stimulation of the mind – which is never quiet – is a tense body, which strains and stiffens. In fact, it has been demonstrated how the mind affects the body and vice versa through a complex neurophysiological feedback system.

A negative thought, fear, anxiety, and the intensity of effort, affect the mind, creating a sort of block that limits the maximum expression of potential.

When we're in the flow of the game, it's important not to think about how, when or where to hit a ball. We don't have to strain and think after the hit whether we hit well or badly. But it is useful to be aware of the vision, sound and feeling of the ball, perhaps even the tactile aspect, and limit ourself to knowing without thinking about what to do.

So, it is important to have confidence in our own means, to access the automatisms (which will be created) and to let go of the need for conscious control over what we do.

2. Do not think in the game. Visualize!

After an error or when the mind begins to wander, before starting the next point we can recall with a visualization from memory, an image of a shot, of a pattern, and connect it to the desired mental state (which works, as yet).

It is important that the image is linked to an emotion (perhaps the best game we have played, or the best shot we have ever made) so that it can be fixed in our memory.

It would be even better if we could do it in a way that involves all our senses. It is a process that must be trained, like a stroke, until it becomes an automatism. This is why it is important to experience it during training with commitment and consistency.

3. Focus on breathing

If we are in the throes of anxiety, or we feel we are unfocused or drained without energy, developing awareness of breathing produces positive effects on both physical and mental levels.

If we feel too agitated, concentrating on the breath so that it becomes slow, deep and rhythmic, perceiving it especially in the lower part of the stomach (diaphragm), will distract the mind from other activities and allow us to return to an optimal state of activation, calming us and decreasing the heart rate.

A lower resting heart rate can lead to an improvement in physical performance thanks to more efficient heart activity and greater endurance, as well as less perceived fatigue.

Or, on the contrary, if we need to increase the level of activation, because we feel drained or too relaxed, we can use a faster and shorter, "activating" breathing (at the thoracic level) which aims at the intentional acceleration of breathing.

4. Manage the state of mind through the body

Starting from the assumption that brain and body are one and must be trained jointly, one way to avoid being victims of thoughts and judgments is to change body language and use it to positively affect the mental state.

Walking with a straight back, head held high, shoulders wide open, with a medium pace and a decisive and authoritative step, holding the head of the racquet high will allow the brain to unconsciously reactivate the memory of the underlying cognitive states. It will also give a message to the opponent indicating self-confidence and having a mental presence on the court.

A useful exercise can be watching an ATP or WTA match without seeing the score, trying to guess from body language who is winning and who is losing.

Even the smile can be used to relieve tension, because it stretches and relaxes the muscles of the face with a cascading effect on the rest of the body.

To conclude, mental skills can be learned but must be trained in order to be able to access optimal performance in the match. The advice is to try, practice and see what works best. Happy tennis everyone!