One of the keys to ensuring our mind is working for us on the tennis court is controlling our self-talk. “You engage in self-talk any time you carry on an internal dialogue with yourself, such as giving yourself instructions and reinforcement or interpreting what you are feeling or perceiving (Hackfort & Schwenkmezger, 1993). Self-talk can work for you in practice and in competition or it can be a liability if it interferes with confidence level or your automatic performance. It is important to be aware that negative self-talk can cause athletes to perform in ways that confirm the way they are communicating with themselves. If you are telling yourself you are a “choke” or that you “never make a backhand” then you might find that your body will simply perform what you told it to do. However, building yourself up and keeping your inner commentary positive will work in the same way. Be a rational thinker on the court and remember to build yourself up instead of cutting yourself down when you make a mistake. Tennis is not a perfect sport.
Here are a few techniques to try:
Thought Stoppage- The technique of thought stoppage provides one very effective method for eliminating negative or counterproductive thoughts (Meyers & Schleser, 1980). Thought stoppage requires one to become aware of the negative thought (simply recognize they are having a negative thought) and then use a trigger to interrupt the undesirable thought. The trigger can be a word such as “stop” or even a quick physical action (hit your leg with racquet, snap fingers). You should choose a trigger that comes naturally for you and that you are comfortable with. This will not work unless you are able to identify when thoughts are negative and then have the MOTIVATION to stop them.
Awareness is key to this technique and it may be that you are unaware of how many negative thoughts you are actually having during a match. One way to monitor this could be to put 50 or so paper clips (or any small accessible item) in your pocket. Each time you have a negative thought take a paper clip out of the one pocket and move it to the other. Upon completion of the match you will get a better read of what was running through your mind in the process.
Countering- Countering is an internal dialogue that uses facts and reasons to refute the underlying beliefs and assumptions that led to negative thinking. Rather than blindly accepting the negative voices in the back of the head, the athlete argues against it (Zinsser et. al. 2010).
KEEP IN MIND that the idea is not to become preoccupied with the negative thought that it forces you to actually think “Darn, I just had the negative thought” so “I cant miss.” Rather, your countering thought should be self-enhancing (NOT self-defeating).
Example: “I don’t want to fail” (WRONG)….. “Nothing was ever gained by being afraid to take risks. As long as I give my best, Ill never be a failure” (RIGHT) (Zinsser, Bunker, & Williams 2010).
Reframing- the process of creating alternative frames of reference or different ways of looking at the world. Because the world is literally what we make it, reframing allows us to transform what appears at first to be a weakness or difficulty into a strength or possibility, simply by looking at it from a different point of view (Zinsser et. al. 2010).
YOU have to decide you are going to master your thoughts. This may mean coming up with cue words (or actions) that allow you to refocus on something positive. Phrases like “smooth” “go for it” “no fear” “reset” are some possibilities. You can even think of something that makes you happy or a specific part of the swing that you want to execute (toss up, more spin). Remember that whatever works for you is what is best!
“Using these tools [positive self talk and communication] will require an investment of time and faith on the part of the athlete, and there is no guarantee that immediate improvements will result. As with any other training method that truly enhances performance, the results of training the mind to think effectively will emerge gradually, in precise correlation to the athlete’s persistence and commitment” (Brewer & Shillinglaw, 1992).
Keep it simple and keep it positive.