It is important that your tennis players learn how to shift mental and physical gears because there are numerous gears to shift and things to think about during a tennis match. Some of those gears include shifting from: offense to defense, from serve to receive, between points, baseline to net, etc. When it comes to shifting mental gears what I am referring to is a change in mindset. In this article I am going to talk specifically about shifting focus from practice to competition. I am going to explain what focus is, how focus problems arise, how to shift focus and help you identify some plans and cues that will help your athletes to practice shifting gears when the need arises.
Differences in practice and competition
It’s often necessary for a tennis player to shift attentional focus, in this case, from practice to competition. In practice, a tennis player’s physical focus is on building or rebuilding the basic abilities (endurance, power, technique).
As training progresses from general to specific throughout the season, the focus changes to thinking about advanced abilities and improving match specific weaknesses or those things that limit your players. When your players are training for a match you must first decide on the important skills necessary for success. The next steps include improving weaknesses of any of those skills while maintaining their strengths. In order to move effectively from practice to the competition a tennis player needs your help to develop not only a physical plan but particularly a mental plan. This is along the same lines of how to deal with the ever changing shifts in focus from external to internal and how to deal with distracters. Consider this question. How do your players move physically if their mind is not involved in telling them how to move or to help them decide the best move? Having a mental training plan will help players put the mental and the physical together so that everything works in unison. Everything in life takes thought. Micro awareness and thought is particularly important in tennis because we are talking about executing at a fast pace, using fine motor skills and in competitive situations.
What is focus
Whether your players are practicing or in the competitive season focus is similar to a players change in their tactics. As they learn the game of tennis they wouldn’t continue to use the same tactics would they? When a player starts they may just serve and volley but to be a great tennis player they need to develop their skills hitting crosscourt and playing the net. The second thing your players must do is to have the ability to maintain their focus (longevity) throughout their match. This is not to say that a players focus does not change in and out to various relevant things throughout their match (because it does) but it does mean that part of your job as a coach is to help your players learn what those relevant things are and learn to zoom in on them throughout the entire time of their match; which as you know may be 30 minutes or it may be hours. Third, your players need to have situational awareness. Situational awareness is an awareness of everything that is going on around them that concerns their practice or match. And fourth, they must learn to shift attentional focus during competition but also from practice to the competitive season depending on what arises. Focus means learning what needs your player’s attention, being in the moment with whatever needs their attention and being able to shift their focus to the next important cue that needs attention.
Four types of focus
There are four types of focus:
1) A broad attentional focus allows a player to focus on several things all at once, e.g., the ball, the opponent, where your players need to move, etc.
2) A narrow focus allows you to focus on one, maybe two things, e.g. placing a serve.
3) An external attentional focus directs attention outward toward an object, e.g., where the ball lands.
4) Internal attentional focus is directed inward to thoughts and feelings, e.g., I am going to get this first serve in.
These types of focus are used in a variety of combinations depending on the situations that arise: broad internal, broad external, narrow internal and narrow external.
Developing focus for the competitive season
It’s important during practice to understand what shifts in focus are important, when they are important and to help your players practice shifting focus to enhance those skills for competition. For example, during tennis match in a stretch where you are way ahead you might start to lose focus because you are bored. Suddenly your opponent breaks serve and before you know it you are down a game – your players need to have the ability to shift focus from narrow internal to a narrow or broad external depending on the situation. Not only would your player need to be aware that this lapse in focus occurs but they also need to gain full awareness before it happens in competition so they can shift focus back to the game. These subtleties are something that takes practice during the pre-season in order to perfect for competition.
There are internal distracters and external distracters of focus. Internal distracters come from within. They are the thoughts and worries that distract players focus from the task at hand. Some internal distracters that affect tennis players include the following: should haves (an inability to let go of the past), what ifs (worrying about what might happen), overanalyzing body mechanics, and choking. External distracters refer to environment stimuli that divert attention from the important cues relevant to performance. Some external distracters include: visual distracters (spectators, cameramen), auditory distracters (commentators, cell phones, spectators, coaches) and gamesmanship (strategic moves by competitors). Distracters increase from practice to competition because during competition the level of demand increases and the pressures are more intense.
Tips for decreasing attentional problems in practice for the competitive season
1) During the pre-season it’s important to work with your players on simulation training. Simulation training can help them prepare to deal with distractions that might occur during competition.
• During practice, place players in situations that produce anxiety or situations that push their confidence levels and work with them to help figure out how to deal with those situations.
• Place players in competitive situations where they are training with people who are better so they can learn to deal with competitive situations.
• Try to use and improve on situations your players are most afraid of. For example, if a player is someone who hates coming to the net but they’ve never been put in the situation of having to come to the net then they won’t have the tools to effectively be able to deal with that situation when it arises. The more you can have your players practice under adverse conditions the better they will be able to cope with these conditions during competition.
Tips for recalling practice simulation training in competition might include taking a deep breath, changing any negative thoughts to something more positive and using positive cue words to refocus, relax and motivate players for the task at hand. Find one thing that will trigger a player to automatically move from being unfocused to focusing on how they effectively handled these situations in the practice simulation.
2) Performance routines can be a helpful part of mental preparation by focusing concentration which is helpful in competition. Routines increase the likelihood that tennis players will not be distracted internally or externally prior to and during competition. Routines for tennis players need to help structure the ‘free’ time they have before and during competition so that they can mentally focus and not be distracted during competition. For example, just prior to serving a player might take a few deep breaths, bounce the ball a predetermined number of times, look at their opponent and then toss the ball to serve. Next time you watch Rafael Nadal play tennis see if you can identify his pre-service routine. He does the same thing every time and it’s pretty easy to spot.
3) Pre-performance routines have similar benefits to performance routines and they have the benefit of (generally) being longer with the ability to ensure your players have the right amount of energy to start your match. These can include:
• Imagery which is a form of stimulation that is similar to real sensory experiences except the experiences happen in the mind. Through imagery you can help your players recreate previous positive experiences. Recreating past positive experiences involves recalling from memory pieces of information stored from their experiences and using them to shape further meaningful experiences. The mind remembers these events and recreates pictures and feelings of them for your players to use for future events.
• Learning to change negative self talk into positive self talk. Positive thoughts lead to positive actions.
• Using the breath to relax their mind and body or to ‘change’ mental directions.
• Music that will either pump a player up or calm them down depending on the energy they need.
• Physical warm-up.
• Use positive, motivating cue words or phrases that motivate a player into action. For example, Nikes ‘just do it’.
Although your players may have practiced their routines over and over again, due to the pressure of competition they might have trouble utilizing them. To recall a pre-performance routine before competition a player might take a deep breath and refocus or decide upon a positive cue word that reminds them where they need to be for the task at hand.
Because competition increase the demands on tennis players mentally it’s important to help them understand focus, to understand how focus affects their performance, to know how to help them practice increasing their focus and how to recall the plan for focus during competition. It is not always easy to keep the mind from wandering. This makes focus a mental challenge for tennis players at all levels. Tennis is a fast pace game and in singles there is no one else to rely on.
By preparing mental plans for focus in advanced during practice, a tennis player becomes free to carry out the plan during competition. The more mental plans are rehearsed ahead of time in simulation training and during routines, the more automatic it will become in competition. As a result, a tennis player will require less analysis and planning during competition and will become mindful on the competitive task.
It is easy to lose focus if you haven’t thought about it ahead of time, but focus can be found with discipline to practice and follow the plan when the pressure is on during competition.