Mental Coaching: How To Become A Winning Tennis Player

The two questions I am most often asked are "What is mental coaching?" and "What is mental coaching for?"

by Federico Coppini
Mental Coaching: How To Become A Winning Tennis Player

The two questions I am most often asked are "What is mental coaching?" and "What is mental coaching for?" Here is the answer I have developed over time to answer both: mental coaching is a method of mental training aimed at improving performance and achieving goals through the discovery and development of individual potential. Translated: "coaching" means creating the conditions for learning and growth to occur, and encouraging players to become aware of their own strengths and weaknesses in order to maximize their talent. As a mental coach, therefore, I consider myself a "facilitator of awareness, responsibility and trust," a role that distinguishes itself from that of normal coach. But I am also not exactly a sports psychologist, although sometimes my profession overlaps with both of these roles. A mental coach can work with a single athlete or with a team, with or without the involvement of coaches. A mental coach can even work with athletes at a distance. Even without direct interaction mental coaching can be effective. Athletes can be encouraged to work on themselves through specific exercises and self-assessment, and this will be our goal in this context.

Tennis is a discipline in which there is no direct contact with the opponent, yet the sports is as akin to hand-to-hand combat as any. Nevertheless, many players are afraid of confronting opponents who are more competitive than them, and even before a match they can be inundated by negative thoughts. These thoughts inevitably lead to self-sabotage, because they lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. Our minds are easily tricked into undermining us, and if you keep saying “I don’t think I will beat this guy,” your mind will happily oblige. Indeed, it’s the quickest way to ensuring your defeat.

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Fear of confrontation, fear of loss, fear of judgment and performance anxiety are all mental traps in which tennis players are often caught. It is critical that players realize that their mental approach has a huge effect on their on-court performance.

With adequate mental training, a tennis player can gradually mature his mind and engender a champion’s mindset. You can become someone who thinks like a champion, acts like a champion, trains like a champion and competes, always, to win. In order to compete to win, as I explain in my book “The Winning Athlete,” you need to develop confidence in your abilities and possibilities, and always take responsibility for everything you do. You must give the best of yourself in every circumstance. Each match makes history in itself, as does every shot. But shots don’t have a memory, so every stroke must be embraced with serenity and pleasure. You must enjoy each shot regardless of whether it will lead to a winner or an error. If you become too concerned with the results of each shot, you will lose your spontaneity and become predictable. This will inevitably have a negative impact on your performance.

The key concept around which a coach’s duties revolve, then, are awareness, responsibility, trust, self-esteem and motivation. However, the list could be extended by adding other important factors such as anger, aggression, excitement, anxiety, tension and fear of losing. The path to winning always starts with an internal dialogue, which is the foundation on which we build a mentally strong tennis player.

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If, during a match, a player starts to think thoughts like "Today, I suck, I'm a mess", "Today is not my day, I can’t hit backhand", "I won’t make this first serve", their brain receives only negative information. Then, the "self-fulfilling prophecy" I already mentioned will start to kick in, and everything will go exactly as the player had feared.

How does one explain this self-sabotage? And how can you fight it? We'll talk about it in the next article, dedicated to the internal dialogue, which Timothy Gallwey, the "father" of mental coaching, called "The inner game in tennis."