More and more, coaches seem to be buying into the idea that success in any sport involves far more than physical fitness and technical mastery. This is not to say that both of these aspects of preparation are not important. On the contrary, it is only by being superbly fit that you can have a chance of hanging with the top players. And physical fitness is certainly one component of any regimen of injury prevention. It is also important to become technically proficient. What’s the point of brimming with self-confidence if you don’t have a clue how and when to use a dropshot effectively?
So my purpose in writing this three-part series was not to diminish the physical and technical aspects of a tennis player’s preparation. My goal simply was to highlight the importance of including a program mental fitness in the training regimen.
PST involves creating the ideal mental conditions for physical skills and abilities to be accessed and expressed. There are four components to the effective application of PST: Goal-setting, arousal control, mental rehearsal, and mental control. I cannot do justice to any of these topics within the space of this final entry. Suffice it to say that I will give each of these a quick once over, and will revisit these topics as tournaments continue to throw up opportunities for me to discuss them in more depth. Fair enough?
Briefly then, goal-setting sets the stage for what the player will work on and pay attention to. Goal-setting is best done in increments. One of the biggest mistakes that a performer can make is becoming overly focused on outcome goals (e.g., winning a Slam), and not enough on the quality steps and mini-changes involved in getting there. Others make the mistake of establishing unrealistic goals. And some players seem to underestimate the amount of time and commitment needed to achieve their goals, become frustrated, and give up.
Arousal control refers to the management of energy expenditure. Research has reliably shown that there is a curvilinear or U-shaped relationship between the level of stress or stimulation, and ultimate performance. Too little or too much arousal and performance suffers. Optimal performance happens somewhere in the middle. But my middle may not be your middle. It is important for players to know the conditions under which they are more likely to excel.
It is also critical to develop energy management strategies to help you amp up or scale back when you need to. If Serena had practiced diaphragmatic breathing throughout that intense match against Clijsters, her eruption may never have occurred. Melanie Oudin focuses on her strings between points as an arousal management strategy. This helps her to pace herself beautifully (but sometimes she stays focused too long on her strings and is not ready to receive serve).
In mental rehearsal, the player uses visualization to practice what is being cultivated. There is no risk because it is all done in imagination. Visualization is however not the same as day-dreaming. I once knew a coach who would have his young players visualize themselves holding a trophy aloft on the lawns of Wimbledon. That is not only a misuse of the visualization technique but it is also downright foolish. In my opinion, the purpose of healthy visualization is to develop a vivid mental blueprint of what it is you are trying to do, whether it is brushing up on the back of the ball to create more topspin or tossing the ball in front of you for a slice serve. By visualizing your movements and practicing them imaginally, you can then start to create the psychoneuromuscular links that form the basis of muscle memory.
Finally, it is important to develop mental or attention control. This is when you become aware of and change the nature of your self-talk. Research has shown that we engage in self-talk at a rate of 100 to 300 words per minute. That’s a whole lot of internal chatter. If 90 percent of that internal dialogue can be changed to positive and uplifting content, the individual will feel lighter and more self-confident. When Vera Zvonareva started beating her knees on the court in New York, you could tell that there was nothing positive about that internal dialogue.
(Part 3 of 3)