The benefits of mental preparation in tennis: 6 mental preparation techniques
In order to progress in tennis you have to work on your technique, you train physically, you improve your tactic and you prepare mentally. Because even with a good technique and solid physical condition, if your mind is not in shape, everything else falls apart. Mental preparation has been neglected for a long time, but it is taking an increasingly important role and allows you to make a difference even at the highest level.
Goal setting is the setting of the objectives that you want to achieve. There are different kinds of goals. First of all, performance goals are the ones that come to mind most quickly, those objectives are results related goals. This can be the reaching of a rank, a number of victories, or one or more performances at a certain ranking. Secondly, there are mastery goals they come less naturally but are just as important. These are the goals related to improving your skills, it is everything that affects your progress. For example, mastering a slice serve, the effectiveness of your forehand, improving your endurance, or even your ability to keep calm.
First of all, it is important to write your goals down. You can use paper, a computer or even your phone. There are several ways to write them down, in the form of a list, a table, a timeline, or any other way that you can come up with. In order to be effective, your objectives have to respond to three criteria. The first criterion is their temporality, each objective must be set in a timeline, in the short, medium or long term. The second criterion is its degree of difficulty, your objectives must be challenging, which means not too easy nor too hard, in order to not taint your motivation. The third criterion is their measurability, obviously, each objective must be measurable in order to be able to verify its achievement. It is essential to set up two types of objectives: mastery and performance, because achieving your competence objectives will help you achieve your performance objectives.
Finally, your goals must be adaptable. In fact, in order to keep their purpose and their benefits, you should make them evolve according to your progress. If for one reason or another you haven’t been able to train as much as you planned to, you will need to move your goals back in time to remain reasonable. On the contrary, if your training is going well and your results too, you will need to set your goals higher so that they continue to represent a challenge. Setting goals, will allow you to organize your season and your training and have a clear direction to follow. It will give you a significant dose of motivation that will push you to give your maximum to reach your goals. Finally, achieving your goal will boost your confidence and will give you a strong sense of satisfaction.
Performance routines are small rituals that are done at a specific moment. It is a sequence of repeated actions that will help you get into the desired state of mind. What we sometimes see professional players doing and think of as tics, are actually performance rituals that are done with a specific purpose. A performance routine has to be constructed. Depending on the goal, you can put different elements in it. You have to set a time frame for the goal, for example between the end of one point and the beginning of the next. Each step must have a specific objective: taking a break after the point that has just finished, to relax, to focus, to boost your energy… For that, you will use movements (turning, looking at you racket, putting the cords back in place, jumping etc) breathing techniques (calming, energizing etc) visualization (simulating a movements that you want to reproduce, the game zone, resource images etc) and verbalization (encouragements, keywords, resource phrases) once the routine has been constructed, you just have to put it on paper, you can for example put it on a timeline and personalize it as much as you want, the goal is to master it. The next step will be for you to test this routine in the training in order to get used to it and improve it if necessary. The more you repeat it, the more efficient it will become. Finally you will be ready to use it in the matches.
The benefits are multiple, because you can set up several routines and each one of them will have a different objective that will help you to be in the best conditions at a given moment. For example, a routine between points can help you get rid of the frustration related to everything that happened before, to relax or tone as needed and to refocus before the beginning of the next point. Following a routine when changing sides can help you recover better, perform a good analysis of the situation, refocus on your game plan and attack the next game with the right state of mind.
Relaxation methods are techniques used by athletes in a recovery phase, during the moments of pressure or to prepare for other techniques. They are based on techniques to manage your breathing, heart rate, and muscular tension. The two most popular and most used are progressive relaxation (Jacobson’s) and the autogenic training (Schultz’s). From these methods we derive several other small practical techniques. Jacobson’s progressive relaxation is a technique easy to learn and easy to implement. It is based on the principle of tightening, contracting a specific group of muscles and then relaxing them, being aware of the sensation we feel when we relax the muscles. The idea is to create tension and then feel the effect it has on us when we relax. Schultz’s autogenic training is a set of six exercises to be done one after the other, each one has a different purpose. They focused in order on : heaviness, feeling warm, cardiac activity, breathing, solar plexus and finally coldness in the cranial region.
This technique comes from hypnosis and it helps improve some of the most important aspects of your metabolism, but it requires a bit of training. Once you have mastered these methods, you can use them even during a match by using only part of the technique. The practice of relaxation will allow you to recover better after a match, to manage better your level of stress and your nervousness, to relax at a stressful moment during a match, and even to accelerate the healing of an injury. If well mastered, they will make it possible for you to manage your level of tension and energy in any situation.
Mental imagery is the repetition (in your head) of a movement without moving your body. You can imagine yourself in a situation and watch the action like if a movie was taking place in your head. Mental imagery exercises can take place on and off the field, it has shown to be most effective when coupled with physical exercises. There are two kinds of imagery: internal visualization where you can see an action through your eyes, and external visualization, where you are the spectator (or are above) the action. Depending on your objectives and on your preferences you will choose one or the other. It is then a matter of representing the situation as accurately as possible. Moreover, the imagery is not only visual, it is also auditory and kinesthetic, and even olfactory for the most advanced, in order to bring together all the parameters of the real situation. Mental imagery will help you acquire a new technique, reinforce or correct a technique that you already master. With precision and less fatigue. It also allows you to continue training in case of an injury or when you do not have access to a court. However, it requires a minimum level of skill to be performed correctly and cannot completely replace training on the court.
Neuro Linguistic Programming
Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) is a relatively recent method that relies on the mutual influence of body and mind. It includes a set of techniques that aim to change your behavior, or solve a situation that is not working well. It also allows you to store resources so that you can use them when you need to. The principle of NLP is that you have everything you need to face any given situation within you and its purpose is to help you access these resources. A NLP practitioner will work with you to set a tool that you can use later when you need it. Among the different techniques that this method includes, we can distinguish a few that are particularly useful to the tennis player. First of all, anchoring, which is one of NLP’s most important tools, it consists in identifying a state that you frequently need during a competition and then identifying an external trigger that causes this state, a movement, a sign, or a word so that later on, you can ignite this response or state when you need it. For example, you can anchor a calm/relaxed state and use it at a time in the match when you are too tense.
There is also the circle of excellence, which is about remembering the moment when you felt best, strongest, in your optimal state of performance. You will then plunge back into this memory thanks to NLP, and then project it into a colored circle that you will imagine on the floor and as you enter this circle you will feel all the sensations that you felt during this experience again, this is another way of anchoring. Afterwards, when you want to trigger these feelings, you just have to imagine this circle on the floor again and enter it. Once you have practiced the NPL tools enough and that you have learned how to perform them correctly, it will allow you to be in an optimal condition to face all the situations that you may encounter during a match. It also includes techniques that will help you overcome certain blocks.
Breathing is something natural, but there are several ways to inhale and exhale, and you can also hold your breath. By playing with all these parameters, many breathing techniques have been created with effects and objectives that can vary greatly from one to the other. There are three different types of breathing: diaphragmatic breathing (it is the abdomen, under the diaphragm, that expands) it helps you calm your emotions, thoracic breathing (it is the chest that expands, the ribs rise) it will boost your confidence and clavicular breathing (it consists of shorts breaths where the air rises the clavicle, just under the throat) it increases attention.
There are 3 main ways to exhale: Simple exhalation which we use naturally, strong and short exhalation which will tone your muscles and the smooth and slow exhalation which will help you relax. By combining them, you can get, for example, an invigorating breathing (Thoracic breathing + short and strong exhalation) or a calm breathing (diaphragmatic breathing + smooth and slow exhalation). It is also possible to control the cycle of breathing, you can use, among others things, square breathing. It consists of inhaling through your nose until you count to 4, then holding at the top of your breath (full lungs) for 4 seconds, then gently exhaling for 4 seconds and finally at the bottom of the breath pause and hold (empty lungs) for 4 seconds. Ten to twenty repetitions of this square breathing exercise will help you calm yourself. Used at the right time, these breathing techniques will help you to manage your state of activation and tension. They will calm you or boost your energy according to your needs. They can also contribute to your well being, improve your concentration and boost your metabolism.
In conclusion, we can say that mental training can provide you with many techniques and tools that can be very useful in your tennis practice. However, just as with the technique and physical preparation, they need to be practiced and repeated, alone or with a mental coach, to become efficient. Everyone is different, that’s why you have to adapt these techniques to your particular needs. There is no doubt that if you take the time to choose the right techniques that correspond to your needs, work on them and learn how to use them properly you will be able to make a difference in your matches at the most important moments.