The Psychology of Tennis

Tennis balls on grass

There is perhaps no event in the summer sporting calendar more iconic than Wimbledon. While some might join the droves of people descending on South London merely in search of sun and strawberries, the main event is, of course, tennis. There’s something special about the form of tennis, about two (or four) individuals facing off, trying to outwit the other as they bat a ball at high-speed back and forth, their echoic grunts and growls the only sounds in an otherwise silent arena. To perform at the highest level, in such high-pressure situations, tennis players need to have a particular psychological makeup. But what does this look like?

Commentators are forever making speculations about a particular player’s mindset or emotional state, predicting how it will affect their performance, and although the notion that mindset affects performance is a truism, it is nevertheless true. Advances in neuroscience in recent years have shown that our emotions tend to override our brain’s operating systems, constantly influencing how we think, feel, and behave—sometimes without us knowing. If during a game a player makes an unforced error, this is likely to arouse feelings of frustration and irritation. Such feelings are, of course, natural and understandable. Crucial to success, however, is the way in which a player reacts in such circumstances.

Rationally and calmly analysing the cause of an error and attempting to correct it in the future (solution-focused thinking) is constructive and thus beneficial. But harshly criticising oneself, associating the failure with a sense of self-worth, and perceiving the error as exemplary of overall ability can be catastrophic for performance. If such negative thinking goes unchecked, it will initiate a ruminative cycle that only intensifies feelings of anger and helplessness, inhibiting attentional focus, reasoning, and one’s ability to perform optimally.

To counter unproductive thoughts, it is necessary for players to be able to silence ‘negative self-talk’ and amplify ‘positive self-talk’. Players might do this by pumping themselves up after winning a big point, fueling the mind throughout a game with positive thoughts, or visualising themselves hitting successful shots. All of these techniques will aid them in maintaining an enthusiastic mentality during a match.

The ability to regulate emotional responses in this way is difficult. The key is to be emotionally literate—that is, to understand not only that our emotions and perceptions have a huge impact on the way we think, feel, and behave, but also that we can take control of the way we think about a situation. By pausing, interrupting, and overriding negative thought patterns, we can assert authority over our cognition and enhance our ability to respond rationally and productively. This capability, which also enables professional athletes to enhance their attentional focus and drown out the distracting din of a large crowd of spectators, is at the root of resilience and is the hallmark of all top performers.

Positive self-talk can help players develop a strong mentality. Research around neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections throughout life—has demonstrated that different types of self-talk actually alter the wiring in our brains. This is why it is so important to think positively, not negatively: the lasting structural changes made by certain patterns of thinking make those patterns automatic. Over time, positive self-talk strengthens beneficial neural pathways that enhance resilience.

It is also important for players to identify factors of the game that they can control, in turn retracting their focus from those that they can’t. Some examples of factors beyond the ambit of a player’s control include the abilities of an opponent, the weather, the court conditions, and the supporters. However, a player can control how much attention they give to these factors. If a player concentrates on these factors instead of focusing on the game at hand, they risk becoming unnecessarily de-motivated, wastefully expending energy that they should use towards their own game’s strategy. Combating this requires both emotion literacy and the ability to rationalise under pressure.

Another common attribute of professional athletes and high-performers more generally, is an unshakeable faith in their abilities. Maintaining a realistic yet positive view of one’s aptitude is essential for success in any endeavour. The opposite of faith is a limiting belief, which would likely sabotage a player’s performance on the court. Moreover, in the absence of faith in their self-efficacy and intrinsic ability, a player is likely to place greater weight on external factors if they win, such as auspicious conditions or an underperforming opponent. To curtail such detrimental psychological tendencies, it is again crucial to understand the influence our oftentimes faulty perceptions have on our behaviour and alter them by introducing positive self-talk and rational reasoning.

If we consider professional athletes to be paragons of psychological resilience and emotional regulation, (McEnroe being an anomaly in this respect, perhaps!), it seems that we can learn a lot from them. Achieving such standards of emotional literacy and applying techniques to dampen unhelpful emotional responses in our work and home lives on a daily basis can do nothing but improve our performance and wellbeing. There are, it seems, more reasons than a love of tennis to watch Wimbledon this summer then!

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