IF YOU MISSED PART 1 AND TWO, YOU CAN FIND HERE:
- Part one: How your mindset can have a very real impact on the quality of your play
- Part two: Talent is not something we are going to be overly concerned with
All of us engage in some form of self-talk. Some loudly berate themselves on the court after missing a shot, while others do so quietly in their minds, but it’s a rare player that doesn’t talk to himself dozens of times in each and every match.
Unfortunately, the majority of players use self-talk in a destructive and negative manner. They harshly criticize themselves for mistakes and frequently question their own self-worth because of those mistakes. This is an extremely bad habit, as self-talk is a powerful tool that is used by professional athletes all over the world. The only difference is that they use it for constructive, rather than destructive, purposes.
Luckily, you don’t have to be a professional to benefit from the power of self-talk.
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There are two different kinds of self-talk: positive and instructional. Positive self-talk is simply a way of motivating yourself with re-affirming words and phrases. Instructional self-talk is when you give yourself directions on how to accomplish the task at hand.
It might sound silly, but it can be incredibly effective. None other than Roger Federer has revealed his use of this technique.
The mind is a powerful thing, and you can really hurt your self-confidence with negative words and thoughts. But instead of saying “how could you miss that forehand, you idiot?”, you should rather tell yourself “that’s fine, you’ll get it next time. You have a good forehand, just trust it.”
If you constantly use this sort of language you will be amazed at the difference it makes to your mindset and your game.
Similarly, reminding yourself, for example, to “keep your head still and wrist loose on the forehand” can make a huge difference when you actually have to hit those shots.
So, which of the two types of self-talk are is the most important? Frankly, they are both equally important. You must never rely just on one, but constantly use both positive and instructional self-talk.
Since you likely already engage in some sort of self-talk on a regular basis, it’s simply a question of changing what you say in order to get positive results. It’s a technique that requires very little of you and can lead to great improvements in your game.
Zones Of Optimal Performance
Without much thought, each of us will probably be able to recall many occasions when they saw their favorite player absolutely dominating a match or competition. Whether it’s Roger Federer’s dominance at Wimbledon or Rafael Nadal’s unbeatable streaks on clay, there are many instances of players performing more or less as if they are gods.
Very often, when one listens to the interviews after such matches or tournaments, the players will all say the same thing: “I was in the zone.”
“The zone” is not just a throw-away phrase they use to describe a good performance, but is an actual phenomenon commonly referred to as “The zone of optimal performance.” It is a state of mind where everything you do seems natural and easy, and more specifically is a state where your anxiety is at its optimum level, allowing you to perform at your very best.
But what do we mean by optimal anxiety levels? There are many factors that go into a good performance, such as your ability to perform under pressure and play without fear of failure, among many others. But most of these factors boil down to your ability to cope with anxiety.
This is more complicated that it may sound, as the goal is not to reach a state of zero anxiety. Indeed, athletes tend to not perform at their best when they are free of any anxiety. The right level of anxiety can make you excited and motivated, leading to you playing well. Think of how often you have seen a relative nobody give a top player a good run for his money on Center Court at a Grand Slam. Then, after such a wonderful performance, you never hear that person’s name again. There are two factors at play here. Firstly, the top player most likely had a low level of anxiety, thinking he will most likely win the match. The lesser player, on the other hand, was just anxious enough to bring his best tennis to the fore.
The key, then, is to identify what level of anxiety brings out the best in you. For some, it might be a 2 out of 10, meaning you feel very relaxed on the court. For others, it might be a 6, as they need to feel the adrenaline that the anxiety brings on in order to perform at their very best.
Once you have figured out what your optimum level is, you need to develop techniques to keep yourself at that level. If you perform best at a 2 out of 10, make use of relaxation techniques to calm your nerves.
If you can find out what “the zone” is for you, you can work towards reaching that zone more often, unleashing your best tennis on a regular basis!
Zones Of Optimal Performance
Tennis is a complicated sport. There is always a lot going on during a match on the court, as well as off of it. Weather conditions, external noise, peripheral movement…all of these things can serve to distract you when you are trying to focus on your next shot. The sport’s complicated scoring system also means that, if you get off to a slow start, you can find yourself down 3-0 and out of a set in the blink of an eye, which will further distract you and add to your anxiety levels.
All of this basically adds up to the fact that your attention is likely to be divided on a tennis court. This leads to something known as “inattentional blindness,” which means that you might miss something that is extremely obvious due to the fact that your attention is divided. This can be disastrous for a tennis player for various reasons. For example, if your opponent is gearing up for a shot, you might be able to tell where the ball is going depending on how he is positioning his body. However, if your attention is divided, you might miss such signals, giving your opponent a major advantage.
This might sound like a familiar and obvious problem, but the question is how do we address it? The answer lies in a concept known as “selective attention,” which involves being able to filter out unnecessary distractions during the match and focusing on what is most important.
Think about the following scenario: you hit a shot that is clearly in, but your opponent calls it out. You are very angry, as not only are you now down a point, but your opponent or the umpire are obviously idiots or, depending on how angry you are, actively conspiring against you! It takes a lot of mental discipline not to be consumed by such an incident. For the next few games you may find yourself constantly thinking back to that moment, when you should actually be focusing on the current point and your next shot.
This is where you need to apply selective attention. Filter out the nonsense! Even if it is agitating and infuriating, ignore everything that does not have to do with the next point. It can be extremely difficult, but by employing tactics that we have already discussed, such as self-talk, you can focus your mind on the task at hand instead of focusing on the previous point or the annoying person talking on their phone right next to the court.
Of course, this is easier said than done. But with practice, you will find it easier and easier to ignore distractions and focus only on the tennis, and more importantly only on the tennis right in front of you.
In many ways, self-confidence is the most important thing a tennis player can have. Imagine almost any scenario in a tennis match: being down break point, serving for the match, trying to break an opponent as they serve for the match…these are all stressful situations that are made infinitely worse if you lack self-confidence. If you have self-confidence, chances are you will at least be able to compete to the best of your abilities in such instances. You might still not win, but you at least have a pretty good chance. If your nerves and lack of self-confidence set in during such moments, you are almost certainly doomed. The mind and body are intrinsically linked in countless ways, and this is certainly the case when it comes to self-confidence. The better your mind feels, the better your body will play.
But self-confidence, of course, is sometimes a fragile thing. A stinging comment by a coach or fellow player might cause a surge of self-doubt, significantly impacting your performance.
The question, of course, is how do we improve our self-confidence? It is a difficult and complex topic, but there are some tips that you can employ to build up your self confidence in a relatively reliable manner.
One useful piece of advice is to start slowly when training or warming up for a match. You will see that even professional players do this. They don’t get on the court and hit the first training or warmup ball as hard as they possibly can. They start slowly, gently hitting the ball with a lot of control and the gradually building up to more intense shots. Doing this will not only warm you up to the point where you can play your best tennis, but it also builds you confidence that you actually are capable of playing your best tennis on any given day.
Another tip is to learn from the best. Always watch players who are better than you and try to decipher what makes them such good players. How do they position themselves for different shots? Where is their non-dominant arm when they hit a forehand? How high is their ball toss? Learning in this manner can do wonders for your self-confidence. If you feel you are replicating something that a professional does, then surely the sky is the limit. Surely, then, you can play good tennis whenever you want?
Finally, it is important to be mentally resilient. Tennis is a tough sport, and it’s easy to get discouraged at times. Silly mistakes or bad luck will happen a lot, and you need to always remember that these do not make you a bad player. All of the techniques we have discussed so far can, in some way, be used to re-enforce your self-confidence, especially self-talk and visualization.
Remember, nobody controls your thoughts other than yourself. If you can master your mind, you can do anything!
Coming Back From Injury
Injury is a natural part of any sport, especially tennis. If we consider what movements we perform on a tennis court, often on a harsh, unyielding surface, it’s actually incredible that we don’t sustain injuries more often. Regardless of your age or skill, you are likely to have experienced some sort of tennis-related injury, whether it be a twisted ankle or torn ligament.
But while we often hear about the physical side of injuries, we rarely hear about the phycological impact these injuries can have. Physical recovery varies widely, but there is usually a pretty clear path back to health in most cases. But the lingering psychological effects of an injury can last for a very long time indeed. Simply consider Juan Martin Del Potro, who has suffered various wrist injuries in his career. Often when coming back from injury, he preferred to hit a slice backhand instead of hitting through the shot for a topspin backhand. This is not due to any physical deficiency – he had healed completely – but a mental block. He did not want to put so much pressure on that wrist because he did not trust it yet, and was afraid of re-injuring it.
Psychological recovery after an injury can be a long and uncertain process. Attitude is a very important component. Many players will view a major injury as an unfixable problem, that they will never be the same physically. This, of course, can have significant psychological impact, as thinking these thoughts can very often lead to the kind of poor performance that makes a player think they aren’t the same person. It’s a vicious cycle that must be guarded against at all times.
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The best approach with any injury is to not view it only in a negative light, but as an opportunity to grow as a person and a player. It’s important to reach out to those around you for help, as family, friends and peers can help you gain perspective on your injury and help you to return to the court stronger than ever. Seek out others who have had similar injuries and learn from their experiences. Don’t try and return to competition prematurely, as doing so could make your injury drastically worse. Get healthy before you get back on the court!
Also, remember to use all of the techniques we have discussed to help you with your mental recovery. Visualize yourself getting better and set small goals that will mark the different stages of your recovery. Use self-talk to encourage yourself to stay positive.
As inevitable as injury is for most tennis players, you must remember that you can prevent many injuries by using the correct equipment and techniques. Ankle braces, for example, are used by just about every professional on the Tour, and proper stretching is absolutely crucial in avoiding injury.
Injuries must be seen as nothing but a bump in the road, and if handled correctly you will be on your way to success again in no time!