Competitive players often find that they cannot maintain consistent play, focus and a strong positive attitude during matches. Let’s consider a “Competitive Player” as one who, at any level, plays matches that are important to them. We would expect a higher-level player to be more evolved and a less-experienced player to be less-evolved, but that is not often true.
Intensity is the key to sustaining mental and emotional focus, and strong physical play. The classic definition of being intense is “Of extreme force, degree or strength.” This can be used in a mental, emotional or physical sense. In terms of tennis, the result of playing with intensity is playing high percentage tennis consistently, and at a maintainable level for the duration of a match. It doesn’t get any more important than that.
Every successful athlete maintains a constant level of intensity when competing. In tennis, a decline in intensity leads to unforced errors and erratic play, which makes it more difficult to regain that level of intensity. This results in lopsided scores, unnecessary losses and play with lots of peaks and valleys. Intensity, in itself, can be tricky and requires a balance of emotional/mental and physical components.
A solid emotional state is directly tied to mental control, decision-making, good footwork and racket technique, as well as the ability to improve ourselves and our games. Overall, one’s emotional and mental outlook will rule the physical part of the game.
How a player thinks about, prepares for and practices the game of tennis is essential. The factors below have a direct impact on our emotional state on the court.
►Always be positive and say NO to fear: How do you think about and treat yourself? Do you say negative things about yourself, for example, “you are so stupid!” or “you missed that shot again!?” If you do, then you are a bigger obstacle to yourself than your opponent is to you. You are just confirming what you really feel, reaffirming it with every negative comment.
There is no time for headshaking and negative self-talk. When in doubt, just be quiet. If you are not nice to yourself on the court, then who will be? Certainly not the opponent, who wants you to feel as bad as possible about yourself. Don’t do their job for them.
No one wants to fail. Go out knowing that you are capable and ready. Think good thoughts before a match. If you find fear creeping in, distract yourself, take a jog, talk to a friend, listen to music … just don’t obsess over the opponent or the match. You are either ready or are not ready. Choose “ready.”
►Be fully prepared: Get appropriate amounts of practice before any match, but don’t wear yourself out by over practicing. Whether for practice or for a match, have your bag packed with anything that you could possibly need. Eat well and try to be rested. Leave plenty of time to get to your destination so you don’t feel rushed getting to the courts. Give yourself a mental boost by remembering and thinking about some of your best moments on the court. Basically have everything taken care of so that there are no worries or distractions from the match itself.
►Practice smart: Give your heart and soul to practicing with precision and intensity because as they say, “You will play like you practice.” If you practice sloppy and just go through the motions, then you won’t know how to lift the level of your game in a match. If you hit excessively hard in practice, but know that you cannot maintain that level in a match, then you’ll end up being disappointed and frustrated because you are now pushing to keep the ball in.
Practice with intensity and purpose, push yourself even if you are tired and always give 100 percent even if it means spending less time on the practice court. This will prepare you better for matches than marathon practice sessions with low intensity.
The real way to develop confidence in your game is to know that you are technically sound. Most of us have to prove to ourselves that we can keep a rally going, come through under pressure or hit a winner when presented the opportunity. Normally, self-doubt comes from not being technically sound since big flaws in footwork, position to the ball and stroke work cause errors.
So, always trying to improve overall technique plays a big role in maintaining a successful emotional state and intensity level.
Have you ever watched a professional match and one of the players who is known for a huge forehand keeps missing long or wide by inches or feet? Darned if they don’t just keep on doing the same thing until the balls start to go in and they do not exhibit frustration or negative behavior. This is possible because a player at that level knows the shot is there and just needs to keep fine-tuning it. They never back off and start pushing.
Most other levels of play get fearful when they are missing their shots and start swinging slower and changing their technique to get the ball in. This is because they lack confidence in their technique. Feeling mentally good and confident goes hand-in-hand with maintaining successful footwork, technique, and therefore, intensity.
Intensity in two match scenarios
Anyone can play well for a while in a match. Most players have experienced cruising through a set to 5-0 and losing the set 5-7. This simply equates to the leading player waiting for the opponent to lose. They have let down their intensity of play and quit doing what got them to 5-0. Let’s figure the other guy or gal isn’t ready to roll over yet. They instinctively raise their intensity level in direct response to the leader losing intensity, and before they know it, the set has turned around.
How about winning a tight first set 6-4 only to lose the second 0-6, followed by a third set tie-breaker? The winner of the first set used up most of their emotional capacity by toughing out the first set. Now the score has re-set to 0-0 and the opponent is taking a fresh approach, settling in and starting over while the first set winner is still simply relieved to win the first set and not ready to start fresh. It’s a bloodbath in the second set.
The tie-breaker can go any direction. If both are ready to go and fight to the finish, it will be close. If one or the other has the better outlook and can maintain solid play, they will win.
Play consistently regardless of the score
Every point has equal value. Think about that. Do you believe it? Do you treat every shot, rally, return or serve with equal intensity? If not, then you are giving some points more value than others and you are likely to feel pressure when there really is none.
One (1) point won gets you one (1) point. Just because it’s an important point doesn’t give it more value. So, if we play every point with the same intensity and focus, mentally and physically, it really takes the pressure off bigger, more important seeming points.
Once again, we have all seen pro players reel off winners at the most pressured of times. That’s because they can handle the pressure by treating a “big” point like every other point. They are simply accustomed to playing that way and they are able to lift their level of play instead of crumbling under pressure.
Treating every point equally also reduces unforced errors and eliminates “throw away” points. A great example of a throw away point is a service return unforced error or a rally ball unforced error. There is no good reason for the miss, other than you probably had no plan and didn’t decide exactly where you wanted your ball to land. Hence, no intensity for the point.
Let’s say your opponent is serving. If you routinely miss returns, you may as well say to your opponent at the start of their service game, “You’re up 30-love. You don’t need to serve, I’m going to miss at least two returns anyway.” That’s an incredibly hard way to win matches.
How do we reproduce the days when we feel great and just cannot miss?
We’ve all had these great days. Some call it being “In the zone.” But why is there a long and painful lapse between these great days? Somehow, whether by design or luck, we temporarily found the perfect combination of successful components to play the tennis we dream of. Now, all we have to do is try to reproduce the conditions.
It could be the lead up: You got a great night’s sleep and went into the match relaxed. It could be that you have been working hard on a better serve and are winning lots of easy points. It could the hard work you put in lately so you’re a little fitter and more responsive. Or that you were fearless and just loved playing tennis that day. Or it could be a combination of many factors all coming together that particular day.
Know this … if you can play one excellent match, then you can do it again. It’s there inside of you just waiting to re-emerge.
Hopefully you now have a better understanding of how to maintain focus in competitive play and how to remain positive, regardless of the score. Emotional stability and mental control go hand-in-hand with producing great footwork and technique. As these things continue to develop, intensity levels can remain constant.
Treat every opponent with equal respect and play your best tennis every day. Play every point with equal intensity to avoid feeling pressure on “big” points, or when you are way up or way down in a match. Practice the way you want to play. Keep striving to improve technique and footwork. Fuel your intensity with the right stuff and you’ll be winning matches before you know it.
Lisa Dodson is the developer and owner of Servemaster, a USPTA Elite Professional and a former WTA world-ranked player. She is currently the director of tennis at Shenorock Shore Club in Rye, N.Y. She may be reached by e-mail at Lisa@TheTotalServe.com or visit TheTotalServe.com.