The psychological demands of tennis make or break players. The mental toughness component of tennis ultimately determines who wins or loses. It separates average players from elite. No matter what skills or athleticism a player has, their ceiling will be determined by their mindset.
I started out in tennis as a skills coach. My first two specialties were serve mechanics and doubles strategies. As years progressed, and with more experience, I quickly came to the conclusion that in order to be a successful coach, especially to elite players, I needed to focus much more of my time as a mental coach.
Very few people outside the sport realize how demanding the sport of tennis is from a psychological perspective. Few realize the intricate layers of how this sport differs from others, particularly team sports.
So why is tennis so different from a psychological perspective? Here are just a few of the many reasons:
It’s An Individual Sport
All eyes are on the player. They alone determine the outcome of each match with every split-second decision they make. Each point of every game in every match is controlled by them. A player can’t bench themselves, or let a teammate lead the team to victory during an off-day.
“It’s one-on-one out there, man. There ain’t no hiding. I can’t pass the ball.”Pete Sampras
Limited Coaching Allowed
In most major tournaments, there is no coaching allowed. Even at the high school levels, there are only a few minutes during changeovers where players can get help from a coach. Players must be trained to be independent and reliant on themselves.
In most every sport, there’s a time to collect yourself as a player. Coaches can call time-outs for a huddle, to stop the other team’s momentum. Hitters in baseball can step out of the batter’s box. Pitching coaches can take the slow walk out to the mound. In volleyball, soccer and other team sports, players can take a breather, temporarily sit on the bench. However, tennis players must face the ebbs and flows of setbacks and failure in real-time. They must cope because the next point generally begins twenty seconds later.
Length of Matches
Players must also battle the duration of the match. And matches can last several hours. Mental toughness is a must. So is physical fitness in order to take part in every shot of every game of every set a player must attend. The dramatics of a tight, hard-fought match can be a draining experience even for the most seasoned veteran.
Tennis is boxing at 78 feet. I get a laugh from some players and parents when I make this statement. They don’t consider the true psychological demands of the sport. How can the more brutal sport of boxing compare to hitting a yellow fuzzy ball back and forth? Although tennis is known as a gentle-man’s or -woman’s sport, at its core it’s an intense personal one-on-one fight. A player must defeat or be defeated by another individual, not a team. In other words, it’s personal. The court is the ring. Every groundstroke is a punch. A transition shot becomes a jab. An overhead becomes the uppercut for the knockdown.
Such personal confrontations between players can form intense rivalries. During matches, players can resort to gamesmanship tactics to cause mental distraction and intimidation. Who maintains the higher level of mental toughness oftens wins these battles.
“I have always considered tennis as a combat in an arena between two gladiators who have their racquets and their courage as their weapons.”Yannick Noah
What other sport puts pressure on players to make important calls that determine the outcome of games and matches? Junior players in high school and in USTA tournaments must be the line judge, calling their opponent’s shots. This provides plenty of stress, conflict and controversy. Not all calls are easy to make and tempers can often flare when there is a disputed call.
Wind, sun, temperature and court surfaces can be constantly changing. Players must adapt to all of this without coaching. Wind can force shots long or wide. Sun and wind can force players to alter their tosses during the serve. The bounce of the ball is less in cold temps than in warm. Part of having a high level of mental toughness is being able to cope with these changing conditions.
When a team earns a 15-1 lead in a baseball game, substitutes are called in and the leading team can ease up. Basketball players can run out the clock. But there are no such perks in tennis. A player can wipe out their opponent at love in the first set, then lose focus. Then the entire next set is up for grabs. Many matches that appear lopsided (6-1) are actually much closer than they appear, particularly when each game in the set goes to deuce and beyond. A single point can swing momentum. There is never a safe lead in tennis. No clock will ever expire. A player can never truly ease up till the final point is played and won. For more perspective on this, please read this article.
And then there’s a true champion’s perspective on this same challenge…
“The great part about tennis is you can’t run out the clock…. As long as we were still playing, I had a chance.”Andre Agassi
This quote is a phenomenal example of embracing hardships. Agassi reverse-engineered this particular challenge to his mental advantage.
Age & Size
The reality is that young players can beat older players. Little kids can beat older kids. A six-foot player can lose to a 5′ 5″ player. It’s often a very humbling experience to the older/bigger of the two players. There is oftentimes a lot of pressure in these types of situations.
Expense of Training
Tennis is an expensive sport to train in. When parents spend money to train their child-athlete, this can put a tremendous stress financially on parents and on the child to show results. Parents oftentimes look for an immediate return on their investment. Children can sometimes feel guilty for not winning. Place these factors into the backdrop of a sport which is notoriously considered a slow growth sport, and this can create intense environments.
How This Factors Into Coaching / Parenting
With tennis players having this additional psychological load due to their chosen sport, my coaching has changed over the years. I’m more patient and understanding of the trials and tribulations each player must face throughout their journey in the sport. I want results, but results pressured by a coach or parents can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
As coaches and parents, we have to empathize with players, considering the vast psychological demands tennis inflicts. We must be patient and nurture the formation of mental toughness.
Great coaches realize that mental training is just as important as technical training. We need to provide the proper training and tools for players to compete. And tennis parents should support their children and allow them the space to cope with the multitude of psychological challenges that come with the sport.
How Can Players Begin To Take Part In Mindset Development?
- Check out our meditation portal for a quick guided audio walkthrough
- Check out our endorsed Focus and Relaxation Exercises in our conditioning section
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