Get better at tennis by playing chess
  | By Lonnie Mitchel

We all know that tennis is a game that requires an incredible amount of mental toughness, a test of wills and intelligence. Before continuing on with this article, I am going to make some very general assumptions and I realize that making these generalities opens up some opportunities for debate.

I am not a doctor or psychologist, just a tennis coach and professional with 30-plus years of experience. When two players are pitted against one other of similar skill at the collegiate level, one may have a better work ethic in the classroom. So if it's 4-4 in the third set, who do you place a bet on to win the match? I will leave the question open-ended and leave it for your interpretation and not reveal where my bet lies. However, I am confident you have an idea.

Having been around the game for all these years, I see the trends. Good habits physically give you an edge. That's almost obvious, but the brain needs a workout and when you give it a workout, I know it gives you an edge back on the tennis court. Your coaches relay that message to you, and your parents share that, but I am here to tell you when you observe college students on a daily basis, there is a very direct correlation.

Tennis is a sport where a match can be decided not just by the muscle memory required to hit a ball, but the level of fitness, one’s stamina and lung capacity, enter into the mix. What's between the ears is crucial because a tennis player needs to make complicated decisions in a flash while in a match. There are critical moments that occur which offer a player the chance to take command. Players will exchange moves and shot selection is always important on a tactical level. Sometimes, a player has to make a defensive choice because of their opponent's previous offensive move, while other times, a player can choose to play more aggressively or more conservatively.

This past May, Emory University won the National Championship in D3 men's tennis, and schools such as Washington, Wesleyan, Williams and Amherst were in the top 10 in both the men's and women's tennis rankings. These colleges and others are all considered top academic institutions. Student/athletes who attend these schools are considered by their admissions departments to be a safe bet to succeed at that college and those same students are considered to be not just some of the best minds, but some of the best collegiate tennis players in the nation. As a sidebar, D1 tennis is phenomenal, but these players who attend such D3 institutions can also compete at the D1 level, but choose to play D3 to balance their academics and tennis leaning. How can you come to any conclusion that intelligence or exercising the brain with critical thinking activities can't add another dimension to your game?

When I coach players at my home college at SUNY Oneonta, I spend a great deal of time monitoring a student’s academic progress. Their academic success is most important, so when I see students making great strides at the academic level, I feel a lot better that they are also giving themselves a better chance to succeed on the tennis court. The desire to succeed is a great tool, and leaving any sense of entitlement on the sideline is a great variable to have in your corner. A student who studies for hours does not take it for granted that they will do well on an exam. Preparation is key to ensuring academic success. They are also preparing whether they realize it or not to be better tennis players as they give their brains a workout. That sort of mental exercise will pay dividends on the court ... it's almost a certainty!

What I have read on the subject and my observations has done little to change that opinion, but has helped me to actually dig my heels in and take a look at the way I'm coaching. We are losing some matches because of mental errors against some of the best regionally and nationally ranked teams. Our team’s strokes are as good, but many times, the mental edge is the difference between a win or a loss.

I am going to introduce the game of chess to my players’ training regimen. Why? Through chess, mental toughness, self-talk and concentration tap into a part of the brain that can be used on the tennis court. I can hear it now, my players will complain and the pushback I will get will be a certainty. However, as a coach, I believe that looking at a player’s match performance gives me the opportunity to critically examine where we both can improve.

Does this sound familiar to tennis players? A tennis match tends to develop a rhythm between opponents that has a natural ebb and flow between attacking and defending. The same holds true in chess. Players can have different playing styles and exchange shot selection on a tactical level. In both tennis and chess, you can play aggressively or conservatively. Mental endurance over the course of the match is truly important in both games. Strong play in the beginning can be taken over when one outlasts the other mentally. Game mechanics, the pivotal role of psychology and mental training, are strong aspects in both games.

We teach our players to develop good habits on both the tennis court and in the classroom. Much like a player who has to hit thousands of forehands to improve that stroke, the brain needs its exercise and repetition as well. Give the brain the repetition it needs to become a better tennis player … it's that simple.

Whether you are a coach, parent or player, your game will become better if you encourage your students and yourself to give the brain the workout it needs. My last name is not Einstein or Freud, but my players are in for a surprise next fall when several times a week, we spend some of our practice time with some chess boards and pieces and work on our tennis game. I cannot wait to share my results with you. I know one thing, there is nothing to be lost by this activity that teaches players to think three or four moves ahead, yet staying in the moment with each move. That sounds a lot like tennis to me and could serve to be a vital tool to help players mature.

Lonnie Mitchel

Lonnie Mitchel is head men’s and women’s tennis coach at SUNY Oneonta. Lonnie was named an assistant coach to Team USA for the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel for the Grand Master Tennis Division. Lonnie may be reached by phone at (516) 414-7202 or e-mail