In this article, I’m hoping to help players who are struggling with their mental game. This was something that I struggled with as an early junior player where I would regularly lose to players I thought I should have beaten, or where my playing level would be far below the level that I practised at. It was very frustrating and I often wondered If there was something wrong with me or if I would ever be able to compete at the level that I was capable of. It wasn’t until I did some research into the mentality of tennis and the discovered a helpful mindset that allowed me to focus on the present, not worry about winning or losing the match and compete at much closer to my potential. I discovered there were two types of Goals. Performance Goals & Outcome Goals.
As a young junior, I only focused on outcome goals. I would go into the match wanting desperately to win. I would be playing the match wanting to win every point, every game and every set. This had a distinctly negative effect on my results. Focusing on outcome goals I was taking my focus off the present, from what I should have been focusing on like strategy, score and paying attention to what is working, and what isn’t. This left me panicking during the match, and unable to make adjustments or execute as fear of failure took over. I’m sure this is a feeling that every tennis player has felt at some time in their playing career. These outcome goals can cause many players to never really fulfil their potential under match pressure. The good news is you can train yourself to change your focus and improve your level of play in competition.
Performance goals are what gave me the ability to play better tennis and give myself the best chance to win matches. Once I changed my mindset to that of focusing on playing good tennis and playing well, things changed for me. The first thing that players have to understand is the outcome of the match is not always in your control. You may play poorly, your opponent might play too well or any combination of the two. What you can control is what you focus on like your strategy, the location of your serve or return or where your backhand is directed. If your gameplan isn’t working you can change and focus on executing the new plan. You obviously need to pay attention to the score to understand how much risk to take in any given point but you shouldn’t be obsessed with winning or not losing the match. You need all of your mental focus on how and where you are hitting the ball and what’s happening in the match. Visualization is a massively underrated tool that top players start to use well before the match is underway. If you know your opponent, visualization is much easier to use as you can see in your mind how your opponent will act or react to your tennis. If you don’t know your opponent then you should focus on your side of the net and imagine executing the type of tennis that you need to play in order to give yourself the best opportunity to win the match.
There is a great response from Kevin Anderson when asked what his mindset was after losing the first two sets against Roger Federer in the 2018 Wimbledon Quarter Final, a match he wound up winning 13-11 in the fifth set.
“It was important for me to get through those tight moments, but I feel my commitment to the kind of tennis I wanted to play throughout the match, it definitely got better from that point on.” – Kevin Anderson
The key insight in this quote is Kevin mentioning that he was focused on the quality of tennis and not the outcome. By having this mindset Anderson was able to produce his best tennis and have a sublime upset over Roger Federer on Wimbledon centre court.
If you can train yourself to focus on performance goals instead of outcome goals you will improve your mental game, minimize pressure on yourself and pay closer to your potential. Good Luck!
See you on the courts!
Tennis Parent Note: If you are a tennis parent reading this with a struggling junior, make sure you are rewarding the right attitude. Reinforce and reward your children for playing well, not winning or losing. Ask them how they played, NOT what was the score. If they want to tell you the score they will, if they don’t they won’t. IF they lose and they played well, tried their best and had a good attitude, reward it. IF they won and played poorly make sure you re-focus them on their goal… Their performance.
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