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Master the Mental Game of Tennis

Aug 25 2021
5 min read
Close-up of an older man holding tennis racket on clay court.

You probably already have a good idea what a big difference it can make “being on” mentally when it comes to...

...interviewing for a job, or delivering an important work presentation, but getting your mental game in tip-top shape can also help you find success on the tennis court. Strategy is non-stop during a tennis match as you decide where to be on the court and how to anticipate your opponent’s next move.

And mental focus can make or break your response—you’ll lose the point if you aren’t ready when when that little yellow ball whizzes across the net onto your side of the court. Studies have shown that targeted mental strategies can influence everything from your reaction time to your enjoyment of the game. Here’s how to maximize your mental skills to play at the top of your game every time you take the court.

Brush Up Your Skills

Practice may make perfect, but not if you’re practicing wrong. Whether you’re brand new to tennis or you’ve been playing for years, taking a lesson can help your backhand—and build your confidence. Confidence keeps you motivated, focused, positive and in control of your emotions, all of which make you more successful on the court. A good instructor will pinpoint weaknesses in your technique and help you to develop strategies for improvement.

Talk Nicely (to Yourself)

Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Coco Gauff, and Serena and Venus Williams all swear by the power of positive self-talk on the court. Rather than letting yourself spiral into negativity when a match isn’t going your way—you’re behind and will never get back in control of the match, you’re tired and can’t keep up, your serve just isn’t cooperating today—make a rule of not saying anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say out loud to your doubles partner. To block out critical self-talk, create a script of encouraging words you can say to yourself (“I am strong, I am quick, I am in control”). If that feels forced, try to refocus with performance-specific cues, reminding yourself to keep your knees soft and relax your arm, for example.

Pass Yourself a Note

If your own inner voice isn’t convincing enough, try this trick from Serena Williams: Write down encouraging messages to peek at during changeovers between grueling games. What should you write down? Something specific, for example: Remind yourself of the great conditioning work you’ve been doing that will help you do well in the later games, or how much stronger your serve has gotten recently.

Picture Success

In the days and hours leading up to your match, imagine yourself winning it. Research shows that visualization can be a valuable tool in everything from running a marathon to closing a sale. After a game, spend some time mentally replaying the highlights reel. Watch your best winning shots, and focus on conjuring up as vivid of an image as you can. Picture exactly where you were, what it felt like when the ball hit your racquet, where it went and how your opponent reacted.

Repeating these kinds of images to yourself (lying in bed can be a great time since you’re quiet and focused) reinforces positive thinking and helps to cement techniques that worked well into your conscious and subconscious.

Develop a Routine

Your serve is the one time during the game when you are completely in control. Establishing a routine for your serve—for example, taking a deep breath, bouncing the ball exactly three times, and picturing a perfect serve—can help to improve your focus and calm your nerves.

Psych Yourself Up

There’s a reason that you often see (and hear) the tennis greats on TV grunt or yell when giving the ball a good wallop. These outbursts may actually give them an extra burst of power. When weight lifters took a few seconds to psych themselves up before doing a bench press exercise they produced 13 percent more power than those who were distracted before lifting the weight, according to a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

Dress for Success

The most important thing about your tennis attire is that it’s comfortable and allows you to move freely. But color psychologists believe that decking yourself out in different colors can influence your mental state—and as a result, your tennis game. If you need a dose of confidence, consider wearing BLUE, which is known for productivity and strength. In fact, many weight rooms are painted blue for that very reason: Research suggests that people can lift more weight when surrounded by blue.

For an energy boost, reach for yellow attire. The hue is said to speed up metabolism, trigger the release of feel-good serotonin in the brain and boost creativity. Similarly, orange is said to be an indicator of ambition and energy. And if nerves are making you jittery, on match day you may want to reach for a green hat or shirt: It’s considered a calming color.