The Mental Game of Tennis: Think Less

Tennis players I know spend a lot of time working with instructors and taking lessons to improve their mechanics or technique. You must work on your strokes to improve your game – this is a given. However, many players become too obsessed with perfect stroke mechanics, which interferes with their ability to “be a performer.”

How many “swing thoughts” or mechanical thoughts should you have when playing in tournaments? Most skilled tennis players use only one swing thought to help them make a solid shot such as “finish high” on the forehand. You want to be careful to not “train” your strokes when you are playing in tournaments. I call this a practice mindset, which is best for practice.

A good mental game of tennis means you should be in a performance mindset when playing. You are in a performance mindset when you trust in your skill that you developed from practice. Although it may sound correct to you, thinking a lot about how to make a good stroke can hurt you more than help you in tournaments.

I’m sure you have heard of the term “paralysis by over analysis”? When you focus too much on your mechanics during play, you can’t play intuitively. You are more worried about making perfect strokes than hitting your target or thinking about strategy.

Early in the process of learning a motor skill, most athletes are cognitive, analytical, and have to think about how to perform the right stroke. A beginning tennis player is forced to think about many technical aspects of the swing to hit a shot.

But with practice, your tennis skills become well-learned and thus you become less cognitive and more reflexive or reactive. With a lot of practice, your strokes begin to feel automatic. You begin to “see” the target and your stroke (off without conscious thought) does the rest for you automatically due to your practice.

I tell my students that to have a good mental game in tennis you must think that your training is complete (for the moment) when you play. You should enter the tournament thinking about your strategy. Let go of stroke mechanics and react on the court. Brad Gilbert calls this “winning ugly.” I call this playing functional tennis.

So how does a player with a superior mental game of tennis let go of the training mindset and trust her skills? Sometimes a simple reminder can help you let go of the mechanics and play functionally. I remind my daughter – age 10 – before she plays to let go of how to stroke the ball and just focus on her targets. See seems to understand.

Another way is to reduce the amount of technical details you focus on during a match. Instead of trying to think about six things you work on daily with your instructor, you might only focus on one thing. Also, if you can’t just think about target, you might feel what you want to happen instead of coaching yourself via verbal instructions as Tim Gallway, the author of The Inner Game of Tennis, would agree.