Mentally Tough or Just Mental...
Why Do Players Have to Let Everyone Know They Made a Mistake?
By: Todd Rubinstein, Ed.S, USPTA
It's 15 - 30, you've just been broken and you're serving at 2 - 4 in the first set. Nervous energy is beginning to take control as your unresponsive body begins to tense. You walk over to the service line, bounce the yellow orb a few times and as you do, you anxiously begin to think about why you lost that last point, especially to someone not as talented as you and on top of that, you get transfixed on what everyone is going to think if you lose a set to this guy, let alone the match! You take a deep breath as if it's one of those, I have to win this point type of breaths and then hit a rocket of a first serve down the center line. Your opponent barely gets his poly-strings on it, but somehow does and as the return slowly floats back about 30 feet into the air, landing deep into the backhand corner like a giant marshmallow, you begin to curse because not only is it coming back over the net, but on top of that, it's going in! You run around your backhand like a wild jack rabbit, and immediately go for the winner, slapping that marshmallow impatiently cross court. As you finish your unwavering follow-through, you senselessly watch that methodical marshmallow sail wide and senselessly begin yelling in disgust and swearing to the tennis heavens above that you never miss that shot and how in the world could you be losing to this guy... Then with one last outburst, you announce to the world in all of your glory that there's no way you could be playing any worse!
Maybe this is you... Maybe you know someone like this... Maybe this was you... but however you cut it, it's time to stop looking like an idiot and save your needed energy for the next point no matter how good it feels!
Now I'm sure that at one point or another, you've definitely seen and/or heard people yelling at the top their lungs... or maybe you've been guilty of acting like a prima-donna on the court yourself, but why do players do this? Out of sheer frustration and a needed place to vent? Out of complete embarrassment, so we have to let the world know we made a mistake when everyone obviously already saw it themselves anyway? Are we genetically programmed to act out immaturely at the signs of duress or is the inappropriate on-court antics learned? Does being competitive on and off the court help stimulate the parts of the brain that deal with reasoning and judgment or do social issues have a hand in it as well? All questions that I've never thought about until I grew out of junior and collegiate tennis. So being as such, maybe maturity has something to do with it... or does it?
Do I have all of the answers to the above questions? No, I don't, but when I was younger and played junior tennis, I used to break racquets and yell like crazy! Yes, it felt good, but at the end of the day, it was costly, I looked like a total moron doing it and even worse, it didn't help me win! After I would come home from playing (depending on the day) I would throw another broken
racquet into the corner of my room and laugh. My dad didn't think it was funny, but why would he... he was paying for them, well, only for some... I had a partial sponsorship, but money is money! Anyway, I would joke around with him, telling him that I needed a therapist in my bag with me during my matches. What's ironic is that I still go around saying the same thing about a therapist today, but at least I don't go around breaking my racquets anymore; which I'm sure makes my current sponsor happy to hear!
So, are tennis players mentally tough or just mental? In my opinion, everyone who competes, is driven toward particular goals and has some sort of spirited fight in them is a bit "mental". It just happens to come with the aggressive spark that lies deep within us. I feel that as we mature and get older, we can potentially learn how to harness our outbursts and negative impulses, which would in turn, help facilitate a more appropriate behavior on the court. Stemming from this, the end result could likely be a more positive attitude, increased focus and an enhanced longevity in terms of your tennis life. Granted though, I feel that this isn't the case with everyone and if there's going to be a change toward more progressive and encouraging behaviors on the court, then we need to practice, model, teach and use behavior interventions and techniques to overcome our prima-donna on-court mentality... everyone could use mental toughness, but where to begin? With the youth of tennis!
So in a nutshell, how does one become mentally tough? Well, from my experience, when the triggers arise in a match and the impulses begin to take control, a few strategies that players can use to suppress them so that they can play and function at peak levels, keeping their emotions in check are:
1. Be aware of what you're thinking. Change thoughts to a positive outlook.
2. Visualization. Set the point up in your mind beforehand.
3. Control your body intensity. Breathing techniques help with this.
4. Learn what you can control. Weather not being one!
5. Improve concentration in pressure situations.
6. Mental preparation. Pre-match player analysis/game plan/strategy.
7. Stop limiting what you can and can't do on the court.
8. Empty your mind, trust and believe in yourself.
9. Play smarter!
Considering and hypothetically, we start mental training with the youth of tennis and if so, at what age? Does this mean they're going to succeed more than a player with natural athletic ability? Are they even mature enough to have the patience and foresight to work on becoming mentally tough? Think about it... If we train the youth of tennis how to hit a short backhand angle over and over... with repetition after repetition, why can't we teach them how to stay quiet, keep emotions to a minimum and not act like a maniac on the court? Can we? If so, who should be responsible to do this? The parent, the coach, the sports psychologist? What about how the players act off court? Shouldn't they be responsible and take accountability to facilitate themselves to grow mentally on their own as well? How about mental homework! Maybe 30 minutes a day when they get home from school, the courts or even the gym. In my opinion, if they're going to start mentally getting it together, they're going to have to get interested in it, research the foundations of mental toughness, practice and apply it just as if they were hitting a serve, doing a squat or making a protein shake. Inevitably, they're going to have to want it and just as everything else in life, when they're ready, they will... just as you will too!