“Focus”…”Concentrate”….”Stay in the present”… these are all words and terms we use when coaching players from time to time. We have difficulty understanding why they get distracted and lose focus during various stages of their matches or in practice.
We discuss the importance of the mental game within coaching circles and seem to agree that our players’ performances could be greatly enhanced if they had the ability to more effectively handle pressure, stay present and find ways to manage their emotions. Generally, we only talk about the need to develop these skills with our students after a close loss or a poor performance, then we go straight back to the practice court and work on how they are hitting the ball. We send them to the gym to get stronger physically and maybe even a nutritionist to come up with a daily food plan but how many tennis players have a daily mental routine or practice? Not just a plan before or during matches but an actual daily practice to strengthen their minds and emotions.
Over the years my players have worked with various sports psychologists at different points of time, giving great advice and solutions and absolutely wanting the best for my players. However, I have seen very little follow through from my players in how they put these suggestions into practice. This occurs because the coach and psychologist don’t often work together and both parties are missing valuable information to hold the athlete accountable for implementing these suggestions. Secondly, if the athlete does not see instant success, or the practice/match becomes too challenging they are likely to abandon it and not give it the time it needs to make an impact on their game. In conjunction with this the coach sees all these other areas in their game that they feel more comfortable coaching. These adjustments are tangible to their eye, so they go back to coaching the technical aspects of the serve believing that if they tweak their serve that this will have the most impact on helping their serve hold up under pressure.
There has to be a better way, right? Well there is, it is called meditation or “mindfulness training” ( if the word meditation conjures up images of yogis and hippies sitting in the lotus position for you!). The majority of serious tennis players don’t have the ability to focus or handle the mental solutions given to them because their whole mental game is built upon an extremely fragile foundation, if they even have any foundation to start with! It is like trying to get a beginner to learn how to hit topspin before they have even learned how to make contact with the ball. As coaches I believe we are skipping too many stages in the mental and physical development of our players. We have to take a step back and retrain older players and start helping our younger players by placing more emphasis on these areas at least as much as we place on developing their technical skill.
A daily mental practice of meditation and visualization should be part of every serious young athlete’s daily routine. The scientifically proven benefits of meditation are vast for all areas of our lives but it is particularly useful to athletes as it can help them become more self-aware of their thoughts and actions. They will learn to slow down, develop more presence and get in touch with their breathing. They become cognizant of their anxiety levels and have some real tools and practices to help them come back to the present during those pressure filled moments in their matches. These are tools they can then use for the rest of their lives and will probably be far more useful to them later in life than a wicked slice backhand!
So how do we get our players to sit down and meditate? I recommend starting with one of the meditation apps such as Head Space to get them familiar with the basics of meditation. As they become more in tune with themselves they will be able to decide if they prefer guided meditations, mantras or just sitting in silence and following their breath. The object is to get them started and comfortable with the practice. Maybe you have them end each practice with 5 minutes of meditation or send them a reminder text to take a few minutes to themselves each day. There is plenty of information out there now dispelling the myths surrounding meditation and how we can all benefit from a consistent practice. Once a daily meditation practice has been established for your athlete then they will have the foundation to help with visualization techniques and solutions for handling pressure.