- Jordana Klein
Mental Conditioning Memos: Understanding Individual Sports and How to Overcome Pressure
If you have ever played well on the practice courts and then felt like a different player in the heat of the competition, you have experienced the impact the mental game can have on your performance. A very common question our mental conditioning coaches inside the Athletic and Personal Development (APD) department hear is, "How is it that I play so well in practice, but, when I compete in matches, I feel tense, my mind wanders and is all over the place, and I can't hit even the simplest of shots?"
For many, the mental side of tennis is left to chance - or an easily-overlooked area that can actually raise your game. When asked, many tennis players acknowledge the importance of the mental side of their sport but don’t work at improving it, unlike their forehands, serves or volleys. If you fall inside that group of athletes or are someone looking to refine your mental game, below are three ways you can “condition” your mind to perform under pressure:
One reason that competition can seem more stressful than practice is because of lack of preparation. Simulate scenarios in practice, and you will start to feel like “you’ve been there and done that” when the occasion presents itself.
Example: An easy serving drill is to simply place cones in different positions in the service box, and give yourself a specific number of serves to knock down the cones. This should allow you to feel motivated yet pressured to make every serve count.
Note to self - the changes you experience under pressure are NORMAL. The best of the best normalize the effects of pressure and see them for what they are – the human stress response, or, more simply, the body’s way of preparing to perform at a higher level (increased heart rate to get oxygen to your brain and muscles, increased sweat rate to keep you cool, etc). Understanding these feelings are part of the process for your development and may help you manage these responses better each time you are on the court. Ultimately, stress gives us energy, so, as a tennis player, try using this energy in a productive manner - through footwork, work-rate, and racket-head speed.)
It’s not that the best tennis players don’t get ahead of themselves - they do. It’s just that they have the presence of mind to recognize they are thinking about the future (thinking ahead about winning the match,) and they have strategies to bring themselves back to the present moment. A few slow, deep diaphragmatic breaths and a focus word (“here” or “now”) should help keep your head and feet in the same place. Don't forget tennis has ample opportunities for you to practice your breathing and anchor yourself at the moment ( 20-25 seconds between points.) Consider this time as a gift you can use.
*Content provided through APD mental conditioning coaches, including David Da Silva, Christian Smith, and Duncan Simpson.