Mental Strength Tips – How to Keep Your Head in the Game

Contributor: Mark Chung

When I was growing up playing as a junior, I’d say my mental game was by far the weakest part of my game. I was unable to concentrate and keep my mind from either kicking myself in the butt for past mistakes or worrying about the outcome of the match. Mental strength was not something that was widely taught, though everyone knew it was important but couldn’t really explain how to overcome this inability to focus and remain mentally tough. In this blog I’ll talk about why it’s important and share some tips I’ve come across that can help anyone stay  present-minded – the key to remaining focused.

Why is Mental Strength Important?

I’ve once read the pros say that tennis is 80% mental and 20% physical.  If that’s true then wouldn’t you agree mental strength is a pretty large part of the game? Even if you aren’t a pro, yet an avid tennis player, this will still apply to you. I’m not saying you can be completely out of shape and be a very good player at the same time, of course you need to be good enough to chase down and hit back each ball your opponent hits at you. Regardless of skill level, you need two abilities: the (1) Ability to remain focused on the match and (2) The ability not to destroy yourself mentally. If you can remain focused on the match, meaning to not let your mind dwell on mistakes, ponder the outcome or wander elsewhere, the easier it will be to not destroy yourself mentally which typically results in not just a loss, but also a very painful one.

The Focus Framework

The key is to remember to “be in the moment”. A wise man once said to never dwell too much on the past nor too much on the future. The past is the past and the future is never guaranteed. Since all we have is the present, it’s best to live fully in it. Each tennis point is a microcosm of this idea. For example, you could easily be up 40-15 and on the verge of breaking serve but if your mind drifts off to the next game or possibly even the next set, your ability to focus on the present point is diminished significantly and remember, you haven’t even won the game yet. It’s so important to never get ahead of yourself and not to dwell on mistakes made. The only thing that matters is winning the current point and that is where your mind needs to be at all times. In order to consistently remain in the present, here is a framework I use:

(1) Kill Negative Thoughts

We all do it. We are all tough on ourselves and sometimes dwell too much on mistakes we’ve made or tell ourselves we suck after missing a shot. You are what you think and if you believe you are a horrible player, well guess what, you will continue to play horribly and repeat mistakes. Step 1 is to kill any negative thoughts you have during a match. These don’t help in any way and your goal is to eliminate them the second they pop up. Once this is done, you can focus on staying focused.

(2) Tips for Staying Focused

Remaining focused is often much more difficult than it seems. Given the amount of distractions we have around us today, it’s become much more difficult to keep our attention. The same applies when on the court. Tennis is not just a competition between you and your opponent, it’s between you and your mind. As mentioned above, once you are able to eliminate negative thoughts, your next goal is to keep your mind on the game and, more specifically, on each individual point. Here are some ways I’ve found to help me keep my focus while on court. Since there are always different strokes for different folks, my suggestion is to learn and practice each of them and figure out what works best for you and perhaps adapt them with other strategies you use to focus:

  • 2a: Exhale –  The point of focusing on your breath is to give yourself an object to focus on so your mind doesn’t wonder. Exhaling loudly enough for you to hear (and maybe even loud enough for your opponent) is helpful. Exhale on every stroke. Forehand, backhand, volley, whatever.  You can either exhale or some people like to grunt. I like exhaling for two reasons. Not only does it give me a place to focus my mind, but when striking the ball, exhaling helps release a little more energy into each stroke.
  • 2b: Bounce-Hit – Timothy Galloway pointed this out in his book “The Ugly Game of Tennis”. When playing against an opponent, the objective is to say to yourself “bounce” every time the ball hits the court and “hit” every time you or the other player hits the ball. This is particularly effective for beginners (given the slower pace of the game versus more advanced players) as it forces them to mentally stay in the point and can also help build rhythm.
  • 2c: Watch the Ball Seams – If neither of the first two are your thing, there is a yet another alternative and that is to try and read the logo and seams on the ball. In reality it is impossible to actually read the logo or see the seams during a point but if you imagine you can that is good enough. Not only does it allow for laser-like focus but it also allows you to better set yourself up for your next shot. How so? If you’re more focused on the ball, you don’t overthink what your next movements should be. Your subconscious kicks in and starts to direct your movement, getting into position faster therefore allowing you more time to make your next shot selection. If you put in enough hours of intentional practice (as outlined in one of our previous blogs, Practice with Purpose), you’ll notice that you “think less” and your mind/body naturally know how to move and what to do next. This “watch the ball seams” method is a extremely effective for advanced players whose ball pace may be faster with less time between shots.

(3) Enjoy the Moment

Lastly, enjoy the game. Every match is a struggle, not between you and your opponent, but between you and your mind’s ability to stay in the point. If you think about it this way, the match will seem more like a personal self-development journey than a battle against a foe and you’ll naturally remain focused on what you can do better to win the point rather than focusing on external factors you can’t control, such as your opponent. Whether you win or lose, you will learn something from each match. It’s important not to take winning/losing personally but to look at it as an opportunity to practice what you’ve learned and to challenge yourself to improve your game.

Another Method to “Stay Present”

The best way to enjoy the game is to remain present. Again, this simply means to keep your mind in the here-and-now and to not let it drift.  In addition to practicing some of the focus methods above, I also try to identify what I’m sensing at the moment. This is something Buddhism teaches and it is extremely effective. While in the middle of the point or on a changeover or waiting to return serve, it’s easy for the mind to wander. As a result, I tend to place my attention on the environment. For example I draw to my attention the background noise of what’s happening around me, the feel of the wind in my face, the sun on my skin, the feel of the grip in your hands or the feeling of the ground as I’m walking about. By identifying what’s around you in the present moment, you will prevent your mind from thinking about whatever it is that is in the back of your mind: homework, your to-do list, or whatever daily tasks make up your day-to-day life.  If this doesn’t work for you, visualizing your shots is also super effective. I like to visualize myself hitting the perfect forehand, backhand or series of shots I’d hit to win the next point. No matter how you choose to stay present, just remember to keep your mind in the here-and-now and to enjoy the game. After all, you will not get this time back so you may as well make the best of it.

With all of these new tools now at your disposal, you are now well-prepared to keep your head in the game. Remember, stay present and enjoy the game.

If any of these work out well we’d love to hear from you. Just leave a comment below.

How Open Court Club Can Help

At Open Court Club, you have access to numerous resources in your community who can help you improve your game. Whether you need a coach, hitting partner, someone to string your racket, a physical or mental strength coach, you can find them all right in your own community and at a fraction of the price you’d pay anywhere else. Check out opencourtclub.com to learn more!

2 comments

  1. Fantastic! Let us know how it goes today, Edward. By the way, these things do take time so if you don’t see immediate results, be patient and keep practicing. I know I didn’t get this stuff right away but after consistent, intentional practice, it certainly did make a difference.

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