Successful players across all sports use rituals and scripts to gain a competitive edge over their opponents and control themselves during the heat of battle. There are two main types of rituals, Pre-Game rituals and In-Game rituals. In game rituals are more easily identified at the pro level as behaviors that you can typically see happen in front of you. Having a consistent number of ball bounces, bouncing on your toes before each return or fixing your strings between points are all examples of rituals that professional players use to get themselves ready to perform at their best. Sometimes to re-enforce the good execution of a game plan or shot, and sometimes to reset and come up with something different or to erase a mistake.
Pros use in game rituals like these for one reason. So that they can perform their shots the same way consistently, over and over again. Rituals help them concentrate on the task at hand during the match. It allows the player to focus more on execution of their game and gain confidence on the court. In a great competitors mind, they have control over what is about to happen in the next point and it starts with their ritual.
Pre-game rituals are sometimes famously quirky, like Michael Jordan wearing his UNC college shorts underneath his bulls uniform or Serena Williams wearing the same pair of socks through an entire tournament, but they serve a purpose. They help the athletes to feel like they have control over an aspect of competition. Most great superstars in sports are control freaks so they like to think they have an influence on how the match or game will go even before it starts. Its always interesting to hear about what some players do routinely to get themselves comfortable for competition.
(It was well known that Michael Jordan always wore a pair of UNC shorts in games throughout his career)
I suggest that my players develop a good ritual for the serve, the return and to reset or re-enforce between points. On the serve, taking your time and use the ball bounce to prepare yourself. It gives value to each serve and makes the player think about what they want to achieve with that shot.
(Djokovic’s ball bounce ritual)
The return ritual really helps the player to visualize how they are going to start the point and prepares them for the incoming ball much better than just playing the ball on its merits once its in your court. Using the forward split step (Andy Murray) is a great example.
Finally, the between point ritual to reset or re-enforce what happened in the previous point is always a good mental strategy to make sure you are identifying what is happening in the match and adjust accordingly. Fixing your string bed or going to the towel between points is most commonly used by pros.
Why do schools have fire escape drills? They have fire drills so that the children in the schools know what to do and don’t panic in the event of an emergency. This is why you need to use scripts during a match.
Using scripts in your tennis game prepares you for any event or emergency that might arise. If you are having an on court meltdown, a script is what you follow to get the back on track. Scripts in the pro game are generally invisible but ever present at the top echelon of tennis. Lleyton Hewitt is the perfect example of someone who has developed a great script mentally for what he needs to do when he is behind in a match. World renowned ex-players and commentators alway comment on Hewitt’s fight and guts during a match but there is usually no mention of how he achieves that level of play under such pressure. Hewitt uses scripts to prepare, he is ready in his mind to battle if the match goes 5 sets. He’s ready if it comes down to the deciding tie break. He’s ready to deal with his opponents huge serve, or injury timeout or anything that comes up. This is a huge component of mental toughness in the modern game and part that is hugely neglected in players of every level. Club players can really benefit from using scripts. If you are prone to having an off day on your serve, prepare for that before your match. How are you going to bring your serve back if it fails you in a match? What steps will you take to calm yourself so that you are able to execute better and not meltdown under pressure.
Scripts can be used for almost any situation in tennis, from choking to closing out the easiest match of your life. You need to prepare for these moments and have a plan for them going into the performance rather than reacting to what happens in the match. Scripts can be very personal and every one deals with situations differently, but incorporating them into your game will prepare you for that match or critical moment. Some players need to amp themselves up before big points, some players need to calm themselves down to play well. Develop scripts that work and you will realize that certain situations, like choking or closing out tight matches are really not that intimidating if you have prepared for them prior to the match and have a system developed to deal with them. Experiment with your own scripts and rituals and watch your game improve under match pressure!
See you on the courts!
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