How Productive Self-Talk Can Improve Tennis Performance

Have you ever examined your self-talk?

Have you wondered if your self-talk works for you or against you during tennis matches?

What you say to yourself matters.

When you tell yourself that you are nervous, you will become increasingly agitated. If you tell yourself that you will probably lose, you increase your chances of losing.

A tennis player who responded to our Mental Game of Tennis Needs Survey asked the following question:

“How can I remain calm, confident, and responsive in matches rather than rushing around like a headless chicken? I have speed and technique, but I lack the inner calm.”

An athlete’s physiology and confidence are affected by their self-messaging.

Think of self-talk as your mental diet. The messages you feed yourself affect athletic performance. When you feed yourself junk, you will underperform.

For example, you are entered in a tournament and, in the first match, you feel highly confident. You’ve been thinking, “I feel great. I’ve been playing well lately and crushing it in practice.”

Towards the end of the first set, you hit several unforced errors and lost serve in the 4th game. You start freaking out, telling yourself, “I suck. I always fall apart against top competition.” 

Soon enough, your confidence dipped, and your play became erratic. Ultimately, that’s the impact and power of self-talk.

To maximize performance, you should feed yourself positive or productive messages.

Positive self-talk is not wishful thinking. For example, telling yourself, “I am the greatest tennis player ever,” during a match is not productive because it is not believable.

Instead, effective self-talk contains several elements.

  • Self-talk must be realistic and believable.
  • Effective self-talk involves using optimistic, constructive, or instructive language.
  • Self-talk should be stated in positive terms. For example, instead of telling yourself, “Don’t hit any unforced errors,” tell yourself, “Hit the ball sound and strong.”
  • Self-talk should be encouraging, “Let’s go. You got this.”
  • Effective self-talk should focus on your strengths, abilities, and positive qualities.
  • Productive self-talk focuses on the present and is solution-oriented, for example, “My serve is powerful and accurate. Hit this serve powerfully down the center line.”

Heading into the 2024 Australian Open, Coco Gauff was on a quest to win back-to-back Grand Slam singles titles. In her opening match, Gauff beat Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, 6-3, 6-0.

Despite a strong performance, Gauff admitted she was nervous early in the match. Gauff relied on positive, constructive self-talk to settle her nerves and play confidently.

GAUFF: “I was a little nervous the first set. I think I did well returning, then I found my serve toward the end [of the set]. When I was nervous at 3-3, I told myself: ‘I feel good, I look good, so just have fun.’ That was able to relax me a little bit.”

Changing your self-talk can turn your game around. The key is to talk to yourself in the manner you want to play. Athletes who consciously shape their self-talk tend to have greater command of their play and perform at their peak more consistently.

Rehearse using positive self-talk in practice. When practicing your self-talk, use a confident, emphatic tone to embed the message in your mind. 

Tell yourself what you WANT to do in your matches, not what you want to avoid. 

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