Keeping your head in the game

To succeed in any sport, an athletes mental strength must be equivalent to, if not greater than, the physical talent he or she possess. Researchers within the field ofsports psychology know know the top athletes succeed so often because their minds and bodies work in unison. In a one-on-one sport like tennis, the mental aspect is even more important.

Both recreational and competitive matches become highly stressful because there’s no one else to depend on but yourself. Emotions are volatile, and we all know a player’s mental fortitude goes hand in hand with his or her confidence levels.

Let’s examine tennis superstar Roger Federer. While he’s applauded for his on-court composure today, that wasn’t always the case. As a teenager, his mind was his achilles heel. “I always used to cry after I lost every single match when I was sort of from 8 to basically 15,” Federer once said. “I always knew I had it in my hand,” he added. “The question is, do I have it in my mind and my legs?”

Athletes must be able to overcome mental and emotional factors like loss of focus/distraction, stress, and fears of failing, while keeping their physical game on point.

When you first start playing the sport, the physical part makes up the majority of your game. Learning the strokes and the movements should take up nearly 100 percent of your time. As the basics become second nature, the mental part of the game enters the picture.

To successfully play at the next level, whether that be at the local high-school circuit or competing in county, state, or national tournaments, an athlete has to worry about a lot more than just getting the ball over the net.

Mental preparation is similar to physical training and as a result, demands knowledge and application of a proven method. When trained properly, an athlete has the mental capacity to better deal with high-pressure situations by using a range of techniques to stay positive and focused. Essentially, when playing a match, the athlete needs become his or her own coach.

Some skeptics suggest that turning to the sports psychology field is admitting a weakness and potentially bringing more attention to said weakness. Remember, the goal isn’t to focus and get bogged down on the flaws, but persevere and turn it into a strength [see Federer’s story].

Confidence and belief originates completely from your own results. Those results are built from two things;one a little more obvious than the other: practice and goal-setting. We’ve all heard the phrase “practice makes perfect”, but the more underrated part of any athlete’s journey is what kinds of goals are set. Goal-setting directly benefits both the athlete’s performance and the emotional satisfaction gained from playing the sport. Effective goals are broken down into separate pieces, allowing the athlete to get constant feedback each step of the way.

Keep in mind, your sports journey is meant to be a fulfilling, self-learning process. Beyond the boundaries of the tennis court, being able to set a certain goal and strive towards that goal will teach you about your aspirations and possible limitations. Most importantly, goals should never become expectations that weigh you down; they are dynamic and will change depending on a variety of factors.

If the initial focus is on process and performance, the desired outcome will come to fruition sooner rather than later.

You’ve just got to get over that mental hurdle and those battles in your own head during matches when things aren’t going so well. It takes time. It’s probably all things I already knew, but for someone to talk about it maybe in a different way makes you realize things.” – Samantha Stosur, Australian professional tennis player