The ultimate guide to winning tennis matches and reaching your potential!

The ultimate guide to winning tennis matches and reaching your potential!

The psychological strength of an individual competitor can greatly influence the result of matches. When players of similar abilities compete, the winner tends to be the player that was in control of their emotions and is psychologically stronger. The ability to have technically great tennis strokes will not win tennis matches alone and being able to stay focused, tactically aware and provide consistent effort and commitment to the match will give yourself the best opportunity to win a match. Former US tennis player and world number 4 Brad Gilbert is a perfect example of this. Brad admitted that he possessed limited talent when compared to many other players on the tour, but what he lacked in talent he compensated by working on his mental toughness (Brad’s book ‘Winning Ugly’ is a great read which I highly recommend). 

To be successful in any sport you need to be in great physical condition, technically sound, have a high work ethic and an inner drive to be the best. 

Through a consistently hard work ethic will help athletes to develop:

  • A durable technique that will withstand stressful and high pressure situations and environments;
  • Strong psychological skills including trust and belief in your own abilities and capabilities as well as a “never say die” attitude and 
  • A high level of physical fitness, strength and movement that is built from work on and off the court (gym, prehab/rehab, warm-up/cool-down etc).

A high work ethic and commitment underpins all the sub-components mentioned above that enables you to reach your potential. If you want to create good habits you must be consistent in your endeavours! Relentlessly working hard, therefore, can not be a daily decision based on whether you feel like it or not. If you want to be successful you must work hard consistently day in, day out. Coaches can only guide and help to develop your skill set in each area, but you are the one that will decide which direction and ultimately, your final destination. If you are not creating habits that are bringing you closer to your goals, you will be forming habits that obstruct your ability to reach your goals and further separate you from the competition. 

The question is, how much time do you spend working on psychological development in training compared to your technical or even physical development? You can have the best technique and be the better physically conditioned player and you will still LOSE if you do not have control of your emotions and are not psychologically strong. We often see at all levels, from amateur to professional, tennis players that negative psychological issues can have a severe impact on a player’s performance.

So what can you do to improve your performance?

Manage your emotions

Analysing how points are won by professional tennis players within a match is extremely helpful to be able to put things into perspective for players. So, let’s look at statistics from the best in the world (courtesy of Craig O’Shannessy):

  • The number 1 male tennis players in the last decade won on average 89% of tennis matches played, BUT only won 55% of total points played in those matches
  • You can lose more points then you win in a match and still win the match!
  • 70% of points end in an error and 30% end in winners

The takeaway from these statistics is that we need to accept that errors will be made and losing points is okay and will of course happen. If the best in the world only win 55% of their points, why do you expect to win every point? It is important to keep things in perspective. Whatever has happened, accept it and own it. There is nothing you can do to change it BUT you can change how you react to an error and what happens next. The best thing you can do is go back to your routines, strategy, game plan and reset for a new point with a clear vision in your head of how you want to play the point (e.g. your serve location and hitting your first shot). There is not a “one size fits all” perfect response. Some players like to focus on the tactical aspect, others on the technical and some just want to move on and play the next point. You need to figure out what works best for you to manage your emotions.

Managing emotions is not just focusing on the negative emotion control, but also the positive emotions. It is important to not get carried away when you hit a good shot as you still need to be able to keep your emotions in check for the next point. Once again, everyone is going to have a different emotional temperament on the court, and you need to learn what the optimal balance is for you to play your best tennis. When you were “playing in the zone” what were you thinking, what were you feeling and what was your level of excitability? Whatever it was, you need to try to replicate that and keep your emotions to a similar level of acceptability for you.

Please do not make the mistake of thinking that by getting frustrated and reacting to your missed shots, your competitor will think that the mistake was unusual. They will think that you cannot control your emotions and you start to become an easy opponent to beat. A common tactic against someone who is easily frustrated is to do something that you know will annoy them and watch them self-implode and beat themselves!

Stay in the present moment

You are not a fortune teller; you cannot predict what is going to happen in the future. Likewise, you cannot change what has happened in the past. One of the worst things you can do in between points is talk to your past or future self. For example, “If I lose this game, I’m going to go down a break and I will lose the match”. You are putting unnecessary fear and pressure on yourself that will most likely result in you becoming nervous and not being able to hit through your shots and play the way you would like to. These comments and thought processes may well become a self-fulfilling prophecy and will likely come true. No matter the score, you are always a chance to come back and win, it is not over until it is over. There is no time limit in tennis, your opponent still must finish the match off which is not easy to do if you are not laying down your sword and hitting a lot of unforced errors. No matter the score, reflect on what parts of your game plan and strategies are working and not working and change accordingly. Accept that you may make some errors, bring yourself back to your routines and game plan and give yourself the best chance of winning. 

Stick to your game plan and areas of focus in training

If you have been focusing on serve volleys for the past month with your coach, then play serve volleys in your match. Do not stray away from what you have been working on with your coach/squad when it comes to playing matches. It is particularly important to not let the fear of losing take over your ability to play the way you have practiced. If you have been working on a tactical game plan, pattern of play or certain shot then that is what you must try play in your match. You will not solidify your development on the practice court until you are able to execute that under pressure in a match. Quickly refocus and commit to playing the way you know you should, not the way you feel. Confidence will come from preparation and the ability to feel like you are in control (be proactive, not reactive).

Have set routines between points, games, and sets

A routine will not become a routine until you proactively practice it consistently and it becomes a habit. The routine will give you the ability to reset and refocus your attention in the present moment and give you the feeling that you are in control of the situation. You will not get sucked into destructive thoughts and behaviours if you are able to stick with your set routines. Routines will help you to stay focused and be confident giving you the best chance of winning tennis matches.

Focus on what you can control

Focusing on external factors that you cannot control will distract you from focusing on the things that you can control. Some external factors include your opponent (such as their ranking, cheating, bad line calls etc), surface, court location, weather (wind, rain), spectators, net cords. There are many excuses for losing a point, and while they may be true not one of them will help you to win tennis matches! Focusing on the things that you cannot control takes you further away from being in the present moment and engaged in what you should be doing on court. Train yourself to ignore these distractions and return to your routines and the present moment. This starts in practice.

Keep your thoughts in check

You choose what you think about. The internal factors are the thought processes you choose to have between points. Although we may feel like we cannot control our thoughts and emotions, we can. You just need to work on that side of your game on and off the court. Next time you feel yourself getting frustrated or upset, that is a perfect opportunity for you to rewrite how the story goes. Do not give in to those thoughts, acknowledge that you had those thoughts but don’t answer that internal call to react. We cannot change what we do not acknowledge, so accept that the thought happened and then rewire your brain to be resist making changes to follow that thought. Take a few deep breaths and change the way you respond to these thoughts. The worst thing we can do when getting upset or frustrated is to make unforced errors, so make sure you give yourself a lot of margin for error and play high percentage tennis. 

Final thoughts

Ultimately, players need to focus on what they can control such as your own attitude, work rate, commitment to shot execution/patterns of play, and your responses to challenging situations. Players need to work on their emotional control and resilience as much as they need to work on their forehand cross court if they want to be successful and equipped to face any situation and strong opponents.

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