My Point column: Mental part of game - good training for life

Tennis, in many ways, is won or lost in the way you think about what is to take place. 

“I can do this!”

“I’m not too sure I can do this.” 

“There’s no way I can really do this.”

Certainly you have to have put the time and effort in your skills to achieve the amount of confidence you deserve, but it also depends on who you’re playing and their skill level.  If you are playing someone within your level, that’s where the mental fortitude normally makes the difference.

What’s your plan?  No matter your level of skill, you can have a plan that gives a better chance of success. 

At the  beginner stage, it may be as simple as to get your first serve in at an easy clip, and then aim for the middle of the court with good lift over the net - doing your best to get the ball back at least three times. That alone will probably put you in the winner’s circle.

As an intermediate player you will have to do a little more. 

Hit the serve to their weaker side and then pick on their backhand (unless that’s their strength) until they make a mistake or give you a shot to exploit.

When you reach a more advanced stage, it may mean scouting your opponent to see what shots they’re good at, the type of game they play well and trying to execute a series of shots they don’t like to deal with - such as serve them out wide, pulling them off the court with a follow-up shot to the far side, either deep or short.

Thinking and visualizing what will take place before a point begins gives you a better chance to realize the potential of what you can do.  Those who just hit the ball into play and hope they can outlast their opponent may succeed, which is a plan, but not as thought out maybe as it could be. 

The mental part of tennis is like a chess move, I do this and then they do that. 

Maybe you can just out-power your opponent, if you’re on... but what happens if you’re not, what’s plan number two?

Almost every tennis player at all levels has had that nasty thought go through their head, “I hope I don’t double-fault here,” and then it happens. 

Looking and trying to stay in a positive state of mind isn’t so hard when we’re winning, it’s when things aren’t going so well.

Can you maintain in tough situations - and, if not, how can you correct or work on it?

It’s a trained response, just like hitting a good forehand volley or groundstroke practicing it hundreds to thousands of times.  Every time you’re not doing well or in a stress situation, like holding your serve at 4-5 in the third set, your mind has to be set on a couple things before each point of that game is played.

Keep it as simple as getting the first serve in to the right spot and know what you’re going to do after they return it.  Most shots at our levels go back and forth only a few times, so keep trying to progress yourself in each shot without getting into too much of a risk situation.  If they happen to hit a great shot, or you make an error - hit the reset button, not the one that says, “PANIC.”  If you don’t find a way to relax and start the next point with a plan you’re probably toast.

The best players have good games, but are not always that much better than the other top players at each level; however, what they’ve learned to do is deal with the important points and stress situations better than their peers.  They keep their heads about them better and play smart, “The right shot for the right situation - and with a bit of thought before each point begins.”

When you go for broke, that might be fun, but more often than not, you end up broke. 

Chris Evert, known as the “Ice Maiden,” probably had some of the best concentration of any professional player I ever watched.  No matter if she was winning or losing, her demeanor stayed the same, and she won a lot.  Why was she that way? Her father taught her not to show emotion, which would tip off her opponent as to how she was feeling during the match. 

Billie Jean King would work on her concentration on change-overs by starring at a fixed object and think about her game plan for the next two games.  It’s very easy to let your mind wander and get distracted.

Controlling what goes into the mind, what might hamper our best play, doesn’t happen by chance. It’s definitely a trained feat. Do you think Arthur Ashe didn’t want to respond to things he had to contend with over his tennis career, being the first black man to win a major or as Davis Cup coach, and what it took as a junior breaking so many color barriers?  Definitely trained and reinforced traits.

So what happens when someone tries to get in your head (and it’s easy to do all on your own)? How do you keep from taking the bait> That’s a whole other type of mental control issue.

In social tennis, just let it go - it doesn’t really matter because not much is at stake when someone is pulling your chain.  You can always choose to not play with that person in the future.  But in competition that’s why they have umpires and captains.  Call them over and calmly explain the situation.  That way you can hopefully go back to playing tennis without letting emotions possibly ruin your game. 

No one said the game of tennis would always be stress-free, or that you might not get clobbered now and again - but learning to keep your wits and grace about you while winning or losing, working on mental and physical control, staying pleasant even under duress, shows the type of person each of us should work toward striving to become.

Chris Howard is a local USPTA Tennis Professional with over 40 years in the racquet and fitness industry.  He can be reached at 928-642-6775 or choward4541@gmail.com.