The Mental Game of Tennis (and Life)

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Two of my Spring tennis leagues start this week and as I practice, I’ve been reminding myself of what I’ve learned from my favorite sports book, Tennis: Winning the Mental Match, by Allen Fox.

I first read Fox’s book about two years ago, looking for techniques to get my mental game under control and give myself a competitive edge. What I found was that, yet so much more.

Not only is it helping me learn how to manage my behavior and thinking during tennis (yup, it’s an ongoing process), but I’ve also found the techniques incredibly useful and effective at home, at work and in life in general.

Here are my favorite concepts from the book:

The Golden Rule of Tennis. The GRT is simple: never do anything on the court that doesn’t help you win. Now, don’t misunderstand: this isn’t about winning at any cost (that would be another concept called cheating). It’s about adopting a mindset in which you resist common yet counterproductive behaviors and thinking that will sabotage your game. If this sounds obvious and easy, it’s not. It takes developing a game plan — via introspection into your habits and mental model — for how you’ll handle setbacks and disappointments, in a way that sets you up for success. For example, how do I tend to react when I double fault, and does that reaction help set me up to nail the next serve? Or, at work: what’s my typical pattern when I have a huge project to start, and is that really the best approach to set myself up for success?

Learn how to cope with stress effectively. This is about training yourself to face stressful situations without resorting to counterproductive coping behaviors like anger, tanking and excuse-making. Case in point: the teammate who, whenever something isn’t going well, has an excuse. My equipment isn’t working. It’s windy. I didn’t get enough sleep. It’s Tuesday. Or, the colleague who, as soon as a project starts to get really hairy, tanks the project because, “we’re going to lose the funding now, anyhow.” It’s natural and tempting to try to flee stress or absolve yourself of poor performance with these behaviors (I’ve used them all at some point), but they won’t help you win. When you remove them as an option for how to cope, something magical happens. Without the overly reactive emotions, excuses and escape plans, you’re forced to face the situation and logically figure out how to attack it.

Respect how difficult it is to “finish.” When I read about this one, I all but jumped out of my chair yelling, “Yes! I hate when this happens! Why does this happen?!” Ever have the annoying nightmare in which you’re running fast toward a target, and as you get closer, it feels like you’re running in mud and the target appears to keep moving away? Well, this dream can become reality when you get close to winning. Why? Because psychologically, it’s really difficult to “finish.” Something happens to our brains when we get close to success. We tend to subconsciously change our game — we’ll get over or under-confident, panic or lose focus when our goal is dangling so tantalizingly close. This is why it’s so easy to be at match point at 5-1, and then all of a sudden find yourself at 5-4, wondering what the hell happened. Same for the final push of a big project — this is when all sorts of obstacles tend to crop up. It’s difficult to finish — so you need to accept and plan for that fact to more reliably push over the goal line.

Know how to break down your opponent. I know, I know — this one sounds terrible and all world domination-y. But c’mon, let’s get real. In sports (and life, particularly in business), things are competitive! And the winner is likely to not only dominate in skill but also in psychological mastery. In a nutshell, knowing how to break down your opponent is about establishing dominance, via techniques such as: demonstrating strong and unshakeable body language, not showing weakness, controlling the pace, not letting your opponent obtain momentum, and leveraging transitional situations. Of course, it’s also about how you do it — there’s a big difference between unsportsmanlike mind games (a total waste of time) and being a tough, effective competitor.

Be an optimist. When I got to this section of the book, I won’t lie — there may have been some eye rolling. But the value of optimism is undeniable. In any competitive environment, you have a choice to focus on the negative or the positive. And that choice has a trickle down effect to both your mental and physical game. A tennis friend of mine once told me that when she plays matches, she works hard to never use negative language when she talks to herself (in singles) or with her partner (in doubles).  For example, if she makes a error, she’ll say to herself, “good effort” instead of “stupid move.” Instead of “one more point and you lose,” she’ll say, “it’s not over yet!” I’ve since tried this and it’s amazing what a big difference such a simple shift can make. And it’s a super easy one to apply at work or at home as well.

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Chrissy Trampedach
Chrissy Trampedach is a PR & communications pro by day and fitness buff, skiing fanatic, dedicated yogi and wannabe tennis champ by night (and weekend). As a former competitive figure skater, she’s lived a life of training and sports from a young age. Today, she fuels her competitive spirit and drive to challenge her body and mind with USTA tennis, skiing adventures around the world, the SF yoga community and tracking the latest fitness trends. She lives in San Francisco with her husband Tim and their “75-lb lap dog” Enzo.

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