Visualization is arguably the most important factor in the mental approach to tennis. The current situation we are facing with the COVID-19 pandemic gives us an opportunity to turn within and hone our craft through improving mental acuity with certain visualization techniques. Strong visualization skills allow players to run scenarios in their heads, getting an edge on the court through meditation, imagery, and interval training off the court.
Meditation is a technique used by many athletes who want to train their mind. An athlete meditates in order to find a state of consciousness to focus only on what is necessary for that period of time with undivided attention. Current world number one and 17-time Grand Slam Champion Novak Djokovic is known throughout the tennis world for his rigorous routines and preparation, which involves meditation, diet and yoga. Meditation improves an athlete’s ability to focus, sharpen concentration and awareness, while releasing negative energy that could poorly impact performance.
In a 2019 article from Psychology Today, called “How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation”, Djokovic is quoted as saying, “One of the ways is to kind of meditate but not meditate with the intention of going away from those problems, but visualize.”
Doing so, he is able to reflect upon his self and obtain the mental clarity needed to overcome any hurdles he may be facing. Meditation requires significant brain power and many young athletes have not yet developed a sufficient degree of control and willpower to fully incorporate mediation into their program. That said, the sooner meditation is started as part of a young player’s routine, the better, as it may not have an immediate impact, but will certainly pay huge dividends on a competitive level down the line.
During COVID-19, I have spent much of my time researching and watching webinars, with one in particular being “Building Character and the USTA Teaching & Coaching Philosophy.” One topic in particular discussed was how players can gain so much knowledge and confidence by using a visualization skill such as imagery, which will help players absorb information through the demonstration of others. Just by watching another compete can offer you so much information, allowing the otherwise new skill to feel more familiar, translating into a more confident attitude. Juniors can use imagery in their homes as a way to visualize and connect with the idea of competing. Watching others compete can give these players a better sense of what a particular skill, tactic, technique or mindset looks like which will ultimately make it easier to emulate and thus improve the quality of their own game. Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’s coach, understands the importance of watching. He believes that is one of the best ways for a player to learn.
Many pros watch each other to develop tactics and help them mentally in stressful situations such as break point down at four-all in the third set. For example, Victoria Azarenka studies Rafael Nadal for his mental strength because he is known to make a stressful situation look calm.
Lastly, another visualization skill for juniors to use during COVID-19 is the ability to use interval training to connect with competing in matches. So what exactly is interval training and how can this help players visualize themselves in a competitive match?
Interval training alternates between short and high intensity bursts of activity with a recovery in between allowing the body to train the two energy systems: aerobic and anaerobic. Briefly, aerobic exercise is any type of cardiovascular training, such as cardio, and the anaerobic system involves short intense burst of energy performed at maximum effort.
As any competitive player knows, tennis matches consist of short bursts high intensity points, usually lasting no more than 10 seconds, with pauses up to 20 seconds in between points, and 90 seconds at the change of ends. To simulate this sort of activity you don’t need fancy equipment, just your driveway, a nearby hill, high school track or a treadmill if you have one. You can recreate a match experience mentally by sprinting 10-15 seconds to represent point play, taking 20 second rests to signify the time between points to regroup, gather thoughts, and take deep breaths. Not only can this help you on a physical standpoint but also mentally. By the middle of the exercise, you may be exhausted but have four sprints remaining. This is when it is time to draw back to the visualization you did and imagine yourself being one game away from winning a tournament after playing an excruciating three-hour match earlier in the day. That visualization will push you to finish the intervals time and time again.
During this challenging time where so many of us are unable to continue our normal day-to-day activities, these visualization techniques provide an easily attainable way for you to improve your game and can provide a bit of peace in an otherwise stressful time. Always remember, hard work opens the doors of success, accomplishments and your dreams.
Adam Lee is the Director of Junior Development at Glen Head Racquet and Fitness. He was a three-year captain at Wake Forest where he still holds the program record for singles victories, and achieved an ATP ranking. He has worked with Top 500 ATP Tour players as well as top nationally-ranked juniors, and has USPTA, ITPA, Certified Tennis Performance Specialist and GPTCA coaching certifications.