Staying Positive/Focused Throughout A Match

Q. “My friend’s daughter is a 12-year-old up-and-coming junior tennis player. The parents are trying to deal with their daughter’s tendency to throw anger fits on the court after making a mistake, even when she’s winning a match. Can you offer advice on dealing with this issue?”

From Renee H., Summerville, SC

Without a doubt, the fastest and easiest way to deal with children throwing on-court anger fits is to immediately remove them from the match. It’s important that there be no discussion, no second chances, no explanations, no excuses and above all else, NO EXCEPTIONS. If junior players truly believes that they will be removed from a match every single time they exhibit unacceptable court behavior – trust me – they will control their behavior. This won’t work if you allow second chances, waste time discussing the behavior, accept excuses or only do it occasionally. This mother of five has found that it’s only necessary to do this once or twice before the problem is permanently solved. Best of luck.

From Cindy G., Encino, CA, mom of 3 kids, 17,14 & 10

There are different ways to deal with a child who throws anger fits on the court. A positive approach would be to point out superstars like Roger Federer who, as a junior, did the same thing and eventually found ways to cope because he did not value this in himself. McEnroe is an example of a superstar who continued this behavior into adulthood.

Tennis is a sport of etiquette. The most respected players are the ones who show the best sportsmanship and grace on the court. The parents can point out to their daughter while watching professional matches on television, not only the great strokes, positioning, etc., but also how the player has dealt with the frustration of missing a point, game, set or match.

It might also be helpful for the parents to videotape their child during a match and play it back for her. She may not be aware of how she is behaving in the moment and may want to work on it when she watches it. A last resort, if none of the above suggestions help, could be that the parents may need to have her sit out and perhaps take a little “time out” from tennis until she is ready to work on this other very important aspect of the game.

From Michael G., Kansas City, MO

Tennis mirrors life in providing instant redemption for mistakes. Why? There is always the next point. Suggest that the junior focus on her future and not making a mistake on the next point, rather than be angry about the mistake that is past and thus cannot be changed. Treat the mistake as a mini-lesson. Have her ask herself, “Why did I make that mistake?” Once the mini-lesson is learned, move on. Remind her that her mistake on the last point must not ruin her opportunity to win the next point. Think ahead, and think positive.

From John H., NJ

A 12-year-old being immature? Gee, what a surprise. If she is competing at this age, it will be hard on her in any case. It seems she has developed a case of perfectionism. Maybe this is internally driven, maybe instilled by her parents (knowingly or unknowingly). In any event, being gentle and understanding while reinforcing positive behavior will probably produce better results. Also, you might ask the child what she wants as far as competing in tennis. Of course, getting a truthful answer will depend on the parents giving her the emotional space to be honest. If their reaction is, “Of course she wants to play competitively” before the kid is asked, then you will probably not get the kids true reaction.

From Unknown, Rockford, IL

I was 35 years old and still breaking racquets, then something happened that changed my attitude. I was injured and on crutches for six months. During that time, I went to a women’s challenger and saw a lot of mistakes on shots that I would expect myself to make. I observed the extent of emotion – a scream, a slap on the thigh – and they moved on. I saw other players at my club level throw tantrums. How embarrassing it looked and how it psyched up their opponent. All of that changed me when I got back on the court. Now I appreciated the opportunity to be able to play and enjoy the emotional combat. I also couldn’t afford a new racquet after each tournament. Hope I was able to help.

From Carolyn C.

Hold the layer accountable, even a 12 year old. If she can’t control her anger on the court, pull her off, default her from the match, and let her know that you, as a parent, will continue to do the same until she can control the emotion. Maturity is part of competition. Hold the line now, and it will benefit her in the long run.

From Dolores B., NSWTA (National Senior Women’s Tennis Association)

It is so sad to see young players show anger, and it does nothing but make them play worse. The youngster must be told that even the top pros make mistakes. It is human to err. My suggestion is to tell the player to be able to laugh at the mistake, be humorous and tell herself that the last stroke was really beautiful and get on with focusing on the next ball. For example, if I forget to bend my knees for the low ball, and I hit the shot into the net, I will walk a little stiff-legged, like I can’t bend my knees as I go to pick up the ball. The release of humor makes me feel better.

From Unknown

If the child is putting that much energy into displays of anger, she is wasting her energy and concentration by beating up on herself. She really needs to work on not reacting to events on the court and concentrate on playing the game. This will come with maturity and also with advice from coaches and parents. Read “The Inner Game of Tennis” by Timothy Gallwey.

Coach John “Poppy” Massetti, PTR Pro, Palm Bay, FL

Anger for the wrong reason is bad anytime, anywhere. Displaying that anger during match play does several things. First and foremost, it is time wasted as an emotional outlet to a situation instead of time invested in the moment to finding a solution. Anger when you are winning is even worse. You have to ask yourself, “Why is my player, my son or daughter so angry?” In my 30-plus years of dealing with kids, one thing I’ve noticed is angry kids at play are often angry kids, period.

On and off the court, anger management is a problem. Some cover this up as responsiveness to competitive situations, when actually they have learned that they feel better afterwards and the outbreaks get closer and closer together. It is the result in the drop in blood pressure at the moment of release. Sometimes is also a way, although a negative way, for them to get attention. I call it “The Wet Potato Chip.” A small child – if given the choice of no potato chip or taking the wet one – will take the wet one.

Coping with this matter must start early. On the court, the player needs to learn what is in their control and what is not and how to deal with those things. Easy to say, right? The past is past; staying in the moment is the best way to take control of what is within your realm.

Here are some techniques to control your thoughts that work for me and the young players I work with:

Only the ball. Focus on the piece of the ball you will contact from the moment your opponent has it in their hand, during the point of contact stay on that spot, then look up. Repeat the process.

Bounce, hit. During play, the ball spends more time in flight than bouncing or hit time. Some track the ball by saying to themselves, “Bounce,” every time the ball bounces and, “Hit,” every time it is hit. Add an “s” on your HITS and now you are exhaling through the contact point.

Turn off your negative self-talk. Replace it with thoughts that revolve around what you can do to win this point.

Know the score at the end and the beginning of each point. Should your opponent not call it out, call it out yourself. Just be sure you both know the score before you start a point. This avoids conflict, which is a major distraction.

Only when you see the ball clearly out should you question your opponent. Then stand by the call or get a line judge. Always live by your calls unless otherwise proven incorrect. Self questioning takes you out of the moment.

Have fun. It is hard to be angry when you’re having fun.

From Laurel S.

Take a videotape of her throwing a fit – that might cure her!

From Skipper H.

If my child were to pitch anger fits while playing a match, whatever the reason, the next time we went to a match I would warn her, “If you have one of your anger fits at any time during this match, I will remove you from the match, and we will go home.” And then if she had one of her fits of anger, I would do exactly that... walk out on the court, tell her to get her stuff, shake hands with her opponent, have HER go and tell those in charge of the tournament or match WHY she is leaving and then LEAVE. Don’t tell a child you are going to do something and then not follow through.

From Tuan N., San Jose, CA

I videotaped my son’s matches and showed him how his angry behavior or tantrum made him look. All the ugliness and lack of sportsmanship could be replayed for him and others to see. He has learned to suppress his anger and hasn’t shown any anger or racquet abuse for over a year since seeing the tapes, and his game has improved dramatically.

From Carol Q., Bay Village, OH

Greetings! My daughter started playing regional USTA tournaments this past summer after she turned 9-years-old in June. We are parents in our late 40s, early 50s. She is an excellent player and doing very well now, but it was a challenge at first. At her first tournament, we nipped the anger thing in the bud right away. She’s an intelligent little girl.

First of all, it just was not good manners and would not be tolerated. Second, we told her she looked stupid out there throwing a tantrum. We told her that if she wants to be a professional, she was going to have to act like a professional! We told her not to get mad but get smart. Watch her opponent and figure out her weak points and then play to them. We explained anger does nothing but short circuit the brain and keep you from accomplishing the task at hand, which is to win!

We had her make a couple of big shrugs with her shoulders and take a couple of big deep breaths to clear her attitude. We also told her to be the bigger person. If her opponent’s shot was a good one and won fair and square, tell them. It puts them off guard. We told her that you never want to let your opponent know how you are feeling, especially if you are frustrated because then they know they have you where they want you. But most importantly, we tell her to just play her best. If you do lose, at least you made them work for it. Somebody has to win and somebody has to lose. If you are the one to win, that’s great! But if you are the one to lose – lose graciously. Thank the other player for a good match, smiling, knowing that you gave it your best and acted your best! That’s all we expect.

Her coach is also very positive and makes it fun to play, while working her to death! If your coach is always yelling and screaming about improving, improving, improving, without complimenting on accomplishments, find another coach. (Rome wasn’t built in a day.) If the kids are improving and doing better, they need positive reinforcement about that, just like the rest of us. They will then have the confidence on the court to play smarter and get less frustrated, which is what leads to the tantrums. Good luck.

From Mario R., Landurm, SC

It sounds like this girl is either putting a lot of pressure on herself, or someone else is putting too much emphasis on perfection. Try video taping one of her tantrums, and let her see herself. She might decide that she needs to figure out some other way to deal with the mistake. Does she play better or worse after her fits? My guess is that she plays worse. Once she realizes that anger fits are not helping her win, she might then approach the mistake for what it is, an error. Forget it and play the next point. Don’t forget you are on the court because you love tennis and want to have fun. Keep practicing and focus on your strengths.

From Irv S.

It is one thing to be upset over losing a point. However, if it hits a certain level (whatever it is determined to be), make her default. That will teach her that anger fits will not be tolerated.

From Unknown

Temper tantrums by anyone on the court are detrimental to the game. The parents should tell their daughter to either play with a level head and controlled temper or she cannot play at all. In other words, if she cannot control herself, she cannot play and should be yanked off the court at the first outburst. Period.

From Linda C.

The next time your daughter acts inappropriately during a match, remove her from the match and forfeit due to bad sportsmanship. That should get her attention. She shouldn’t be allowed to play.

From Ali K., Billings, MT

My advice or suggestion to the 12-year-old is just be cool, let it out. If you don’t win, so what? It’s not the end of the world. As long as you know that you played at your best level and were having fun, it doesn’t matter what other people think. I also have been reading “Winning Ugly” by Brad Gilbert and Steve Jamison. Brad Gilbert used to be Andre Agassi’s coach and he gives excellent pointers in the book. Also, remember the sayings, “Patience is a virtue” and “Good things come to those who wait.”

From Susan C.

An instant cure for the fit-throwing, 12-year-old junior would be to immediately default her, toss her racquets in the trunk of the car and head home. Her outbursts should stop right away. If Mom and Dad don’t have the nerve to take this action then they really are enjoying her fits and probably describing her as so competitive to all of their friends and family. Another curb to fit-throwing is to make the temper tantrum thrower buy all of her own racquets. Even rich people should make their children do chores. Earning her own money and then using that money to buy new racquets (because she busted the one she was using) can curb the enthusiasm of smashing a perfectly good racquet on the court. Parents have to take responsibility for the behavior of their fit throwers. Been there, done that.

From JLB

I don’t know if I handled it correctly or incorrectly, but when my son started doing the same thing, I really came down very hard on him. He is cured of it now, but it took two to three times of REALLY letting him have it verbally after a match or during practice. I’ve never hit him, but he probably wished that I would have instead of those two or three conversations. I tried to make it clear to him that I did not care whether he won or lost, but he was not going to act like a baby on the court and that he would actually win more matches if he learned to control his emotions after each point. I constantly see kids miss serves when they’re mad. You can almost predict it with some kids. You can’t properly hit a tennis ball when you’re angry, since the timing gets messed up and the ball ends up in the net or over the baseline.

I wish that the referees would make a much bigger deal of this at tournaments and call a match when they see a kid getting out of hand. Yes, that’s a tough judgment call, but if you can hear their exclamations from two courts over, that is uncalled for. If they hit their racquet on the fence or ground, there should be penalties. I get the impression that some kids have never been told not to do that kind of thing.

I don’t watch a lot of pro matches, but I’ve seen a couple of instances where racquets get tossed or banged. At the pro level this should TOTALLY not be allowed. I’d make the penalties stiff enough so that it would almost always result in a lost match... say loss of the next set or something close to that. It just should not be tolerated.

From Gloria, Atlanta, GA

There is nothing worse than seeing a youngster display poor sportsmanship. She may be angry at herself, but she’s revealing this bad behavior to all watching, including her opponent. She needs coaching on the “mental” part of the game – which is about 95 percent of the game. If she doesn’t fix that, she will not go as far as she and her parents may like. I would also suggest that she be taken out of competition until she demonstrates that she can control her temper. You may also want to talk with her about the stress/pressure she feels during a match to see if this is her manifestation of that stress. Does she react this way in other situations, like at school? Or just on the court? There may be a way to channel the anger into a positive energy by refocusing her when she feels this anger and frustration coming on.

From Jenny, IN

I also have a junior player who’s played all over the U.S. A lot of that behavior is due to age and they usually grow out of it, but parents that are so weak (yeah, I said it!) that they can’t control their OWN children make the game intolerable for the other players and parents. It’s not fair that good kids have to suffer and sometimes lose to kids like that. Personally, I’m pretty sick of seeing it go on, and I even think sometimes it’s strategized by the parents to throw the opponent off their game.

I suggest taking her directly off the court (in the middle of the match if need be) somewhere private, get down to her eye level and STERNLY let it be known that that is NOT appropriate behavior, that you are the one making this possible and also the one that can put an end to it. Then take her home, make her stay in her room to think about it. And go to your room and grow a back-bone. Isn’t this basic parenting 101? If you can’t control your kid, give us all a break and stay home please. Next match reinforce the fact that you will come out on the court and remove her again if she can’t control herself.

From Mason

Think of the people around you and what they think about every time you get mad on the court. So hold it in, and take it out on the ball.

From Sue S.

Displays of anger occur on the court for the same reasons they occur in life. Whenever one encounters a problem for which they have no solution, stress hormones create anxiety. Fortunately, on the tennis court one can learn how to solve all problems with the knowledge of how your brain actually functions within the dimensions of neuroscience. Then one has to understand a little physics, a little geometry and a little kinesiology. Next, one has to understand the Laws of Body Motion and Newton”s Laws of Motion. Only then can the competitor achieve the highest level of match play performance. If my six year old can learn this through visual imagery, you can too.

Q. I always start a match off great, particularly in important matches. However, after a few games, usually the first set, I lose my concentration and focus. As a result, my game drops like a boulder. Does anyone have recommendations on how I can maintain my concentration and a high level of play throughout the entire match?

Editor’s note: From the number of responses we received to this question, it’s clear that most tennis players struggle to maintain their concentration throughout a match. . .even the great Roger Federer. He was recently asked by the The Miami Herald how often is he on the court thinking about things outside of tennis. He replied: “Quite a bit. I’m always telling myself, ‘Can’t you wait and think about that another time?’ It is impossible to focus for an entire match. You are wandering around, sitting, looking into the crowd and seeing someone that reminds you of something. It isn’t a bad thing. You get tired of your mind always being in one place all the time. I try to block something out, but it always comes back.”

From J. M., FL

People tend to start matches at a pace which they feel comfortable to suit their own particular style of play. Even still, some players don’t even feel warmed up until halfway through the second set. You should be grateful in your ability to take advantage of a quick start, but you must also understand the consequences of sprinting out the gate. There are two disadvantages worth mentioning. First, your opponent will finally get into the match, and her ability will get better as the match progresses, whereas you might be exhausting all your tactics and weapons to jump out ahead. If you have already shown all you cards at the start, then all you have left is to defend against your opponent’s tactics and weapons for the rest of the match.

Secondly, I think you need to learn how to pace yourself and understand it’s not a sprint. You should take time with a tennis pro to create a game plan for all types of playing styles that you normally encounter. You should also develop more dimensions in your game so your opponent doesn’t get too comfortable hitting your groundstrokes. Developing and playing a game plan takes a lot of time, patience and discipline to perfect, so this will help you focus on your new goal and concentrate throughout your match.

From Terry C.

I have been a hacker for 30 years, and I figured out years ago you have to forget the last point and play the next one. I found that using visualization helped me maintain my concentration. Right before I serve, I create a visual picture in my mind of the toss, bending my knees and swinging through the ball. When receiving serve, I visualize getting my racquet back fast, bending my knees and following through. By doing this before every point, I stay focused and maintain my concentration. Thinking about your mechanics and fundamentals will make your game more consistent. Remember, the most important aspect is to get a good workout and have fun!

From Jim, Bensalem, PA

Maintaining focus and concentration is about staying focused on the goal of winning the match. A tennis match is like running a marathon. You can’t put too much emphasis on any one point, win or lose, because it will take energy away from the ultimate goal of winning the match. Another thing I find helpful is to “restart” several times during the match. This involves mentally going back to the beginning of the match and recapturing the energy and excitement that you felt at that time. Finally, it’s about commitment to the sport itself. If you have a passion for the game, your commitment to excel and to re-invent yourself time and again will energize that focus. You’re playing a great sport that challenges us to bring out the best in ourselves. Win one for the troops!

From Grant

When this happens to me, I tend to go for bigger or different shots, instead of just sticking to what was winning the match. Just take it one point at a time and play like it’s a close match.

From Dora K.

I think you already won half of the battle by pinpointing your problem. Now go a little further and try to figure out where your thoughts are going after the first set. I usually tell myself that I have to stay as focused because the opponent is going to shift gears and try to get in the winning mode again and possibly be more aggressive (or more conservative in a case where he/she made too many unforced errors).

It could also be a nutritional thing. Your blood sugar might be dropping. There are many sport drinks available that could help. It could also be that you’re not in the best of shape to go for the long haul. Do some cross training.

From JR, Portland, OR

I usually get more dialed in as the match progresses. There are a lot of factors you might consider if you’re losing focus. First, do you have enough nutrition beforehand (i.e. peanut butter, banana, energy bar) and are you drinking enough fluids before and on changeovers? Secondly, are you socializing on changeovers? I recommend waiting until after the match to chat because this is my biggest distraction, especially if my opponent is chatty because it takes my mind off the task at hand. Thirdly, I would suggest writing down a couple specific things you want to do. For example, start racquet swing low, keep ball toss just so, split step before every volley, etc. You can look at the paper while the other person is retrieving a ball, or on a changeover. My favorite mantra is “feet, focus, finish.” I think the key to maintaining focus is to stay in the moment. Think about something very small (tennis related!). Watch your opponent’s racquet and figure out his/her tendencies; focus on the “important” points; keeping the ball cross-court on the return; whatever works for you, but keep it small and do-able.

Another idea, if your game does start to “sink like a boulder” – don’t get negative on yourself, saying “there it goes again.” It’s most important after a bad shot or unforced error to shrug it off. It’s behind you! There is nothing you can do except play the next ball, the next point. If it’s a string of bad shots you’re hitting, then just focus on getting it over the net and let your opponent mess up. That is the biggest deal at all levels of tennis. Make them hit one more ball, and maybe they’ll lose their focus.

From Traci S., Lindenhurst, NY

I don’t like to get involved with between-games chit chat, especially if I’m having trouble with my focus. Instead, I concentrate on my game and my errors and how to correct them. I look for weaknesses in my opponent’s game and try to go for those shots. I go back to basics by making sure that I’m hitting consistent, solid shots, not going for outright winners until I feel my focus is back. I also bring snacks and plenty to drink to keep my energy up.

From LaRue C., Alexandria, VA

Try treating each game as a single event. Don’t think about what you’ve done in the past (i.e., your great early start) or what might happen in the future (“I’m going to fall like a boulder”). Instead, treat the “next game” as if you’re just starting out in game one. Perhaps this will keep you fresh, focused and determined to start each game as hot as all of the others before it.

From Scot T.

My suggestion is to think of the court as an IPOD. When you put the earphones on, nothing matters outside of those little ear pieces. So when you walk onto the court, nothing matters outside of you and your opponent. Any thoughts that try to come up, push them outside the court for later.

From Don, San Diego, CA

Most of my junior players suffer from the same problem. My advice: Play lots and lots of points in practice (sets, baseline games, serving games, tie breakers, etc). Put something of insignificant value on the line, like a Gatorade to the winner, in order to simulate the pressure situation of a match. Remember, you have to approach mental conditioning in the same way as physical conditioning. As a temporary remedy, try taking your time between points in order to evaluate the flow of the match and your opponent’s strategy, which may change as the match goes on.

From Justin T., Rancho Santa Margarita, CA

Maybe you are sabotaging yourself. It might not be a focus issue, you may want to go deeper and ask yourself why you’re afraid to win, or why you won’t play through and see if you can win. Ever read “The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream”? You may want to read it because it deals with a person’s big goals in life. It talks about the different reasons we sabotage ourselves and don’t succeed because of it. Try writing out a list of what would be the benefit and the bad things about winning. On a lighter note, you might try to divert your attention from the outcome (i.e., “the win”) and focus on performance. Work on particular shot selections and patterns and try listening to music when you practice to be more creative and relaxed. When you play your match, imagine the music and focus on the above.

From Vince C., St. Charles, MO

You should probably keep a couple of index cards in your bag with notes on it that may say: a) Breathe, b) Relax, c) Make opponent play my pace, d) Keep them on the defense. In addition, if you find yourself rushing points, regain your earlier composure and mix up the rally shots so your opponent can’t get a read or rhythm on your game. Always remember that you are the better player.

From Susan, Stamford, CT

Sometimes it’s not you! It may be that your opponents are changing up their game in response to your great start. Some ideas: On the changeover, instead of thinking, “What am I doing wrong?” think, “What are they doing that’s different?” If you’re using the same strategy repeatedly with each point (such as serve and volley), mix it up. For example, if you’re returning serves consistently hitting cross-court to their forehand, try going to their backhand, down the line or launching a lob. Try staying back if you’ve been coming in, or serving and volleying aggressively if you’ve been staying back. Keep up or increase the chatter with your partner – what the other side is doing to change, and what you might try on your next point – keeping it positive! If you’re playing singles, have this same running conversation with yourself. Final tips: When my game falters during a match (which happens to everyone), I think “happy feet” to remind myself to keep moving, and I have a little chant that I use with myself, “Be one with the ball,” to remember to keep my eye on the ball.

From Marlene M.

What I do, and it seems to work, is that I do not look around at the other courts. I keep my eyes on my racquet, the floor and lines under my feet as I move around when the ball is not in play. I keep all thoughts on the game I’m playing now.

From Emory H., Atlanta, GA

I had the same problem with getting bored and not focusing, especially when the opposing players are not playing my type of game. My pro told me to concentrate on the little yellow ball and not on the opposing players. I make it a point to do that now. Also, I constantly tell myself to focus, sometimes even out loud. Here’s another thing that’s working for me, and perhaps it can help you. Whether you win or lose the first set, remember this is fun and not work. Begin to laugh and then make it a mental game. Talk to yourself, watch the ball, keep your eyes on the hitter and follow through on every swing. Then give yourself a handshake if you make a good shot.

From David G., Charlotte, NC

I try to identify a weakness or two in my opponent when I’m warming up in order to come up with one or two key things I want to do to win the match (for example, hit to his backhand or hit topspin balls high and deep). Then I focus on making that shot each and every time a point begins. This gets me focused on every point and does not allow my mind to wander and lose focus. At this point I am relying on all of the practice time I have put in to make the shot. It’s instinctual after I know what I want to do.

From David G., Lancaster, CA

Interestingly, Sarah H., this happens to me, as well (as I am sure it does for many others). I was in a final in November 2005 and was up in the first set 4-1 and 3-0 in the second. Low and behold, I managed to lose, 7-6, 6-4, 6-3. Do not get comfortable in matches. There is no cushion when playing any match, as your opponent has the opportunity at any time to take control. Relax and settle into each point without looking at the finish line, no matter what stage of the match you are in.

Take David Nalbandian for example. He plays every point from the first to last as if it’s a match point. He’s a terrific fighter, even when he is winning the match. Also, after you have played a few games, we tend to play to our opponent’s game instead of playing our own. Nalbandian always plays his own game, no matter who he is playing. Based on your opponent’s game, there should be no adjustments in your own. Playing into their game almost forces you to lose focus and change your own strategy, therefore allowing them to win the match.

From Betty M.

I have found over many years that if I repeat and call the score to myself after every point, it keeps me more in the match. I sometimes force myself to call the score, in my mind, even if I am receiving, and will request the server to call the score if I didn’t hear it.

From Penelope R.

Great advice was given to me from an outstanding coach about staying focused in a match. As you read the court and execute your shot, stay focused on the ball by repeating to yourself, “Dance with the ball.” You will be surprised how it will help you effectively concentrate on the ball one point at a time. I have problems with footwork, and this will help you concentrate and move with the ball.

From John B., Batesville, AR, tennis coach

I don’t think you are unique. Here is something I have done that seems to help keep me focused. I refuse to think about the number of sets I need to win the match. Instead, I think about the number of games I must win to achieve my goal of winning the match. It is natural to let down or lose a little focus when you win a set, but what you really want is to win 12 or 18 games. Winning one set will not win a match for you.

From Michael R.

I always envision that I’m playing in front of a huge crowd, and it helps keep me focused.

From Dennis Huss, Mesa, AZ, coach for Tennis Canada & USTA certified chair and line umpire

A few ideas for you: 1) Focus on each point. Try to think about the point you are about to play, not the last one, and forget the score. It will take care of itself.

2) Self talk. That is, tell yourself things like, I’m doing well today, follow through on my forehand, get ready, hit deep to her backhand, and so forth. 3) On the changeovers, contemplate if you’re being aggressive enough or if you need to change your game plan. In other words, focus on the fact that you are on the tennis court at this moment and nothing else. 4) Finally, have fun and try some new ideas (i.e., forehand down the line, better angles).

From Ron R., Carrboro, NC

Glad to hear that you start your matches off well and that you’re aware of losing concentration. That’s a plus. You actually don’t lose your concentration and focus. You are shifting the focus to something else that may be taking you away from your best game. See if you can notice where your concentration is going. Maybe there’s a message there. You’ll notice that some of the top pros will close their eyes while sitting at the changeover. This is the best time to think about or meditate on your struggles and successes. Ask yourself, “Is there anything I need to know about this concentration conflict?”

Maybe you’re tiring, which can affect your level of play. Try relaxing and telling yourself, “I shifted my focus away. I can enjoy coming fully back to the game. In fact, this is part of the game. I have the ability to play my best anytime, and now is the time to start.” You may notice that most players have a run of errors during a match. Roger Federer gets out of synch during some of his matches. He doesn’t panic. He knows this is part of the game and that if he rides out the wave, he’ll return to the solid ground of his usually incredible game.

One more suggestion I have is the use of a handy technique to regain the focus you want. You can test this technique (or choose another) during practice sessions. Say to yourself (or out loud in practice), “Hit!” when you, your partner and opponents make contact with the ball. Say, “Bounce!” whenever the ball hits the court. You’ll notice quickly where you focus is when you try this. With practice it may help you have the focus you truly want.

From Lorna E.

When your opponent sees you are bothered by your unforced errors, they will play on it. Breathe in and out before you serve and keep smiling to yourself.

From Jim, Shreveport, LA

Everyone has those lapses that you describe in big matches. I have improved over the years by practicing a lot on the areas that fail under pressure during a big match. When I practice, I use mental keys that I can call on during a hot match to refocus. For example, when you see the ball hit the net when you are serving, you weren’t watching the racquet hit the ball. The bottom line is to practice a lot on those things that let you down in a big match.

From Andy M, Falls Church, VA

Several years ago I started eating Power Bars during each match. I just take a bite or two on changeovers and often skip so as not fill up. I usually go through one bar in three sets. This helped me a lot, and I notice that my energy and focus drops when I don’t do it.

From Hannah

Physical weariness can mask all the things you mention. You need to do some hard workouts consistently and regularly. You will never advance to greatness without going through the tough training.

From John H., Auburn, MI

Once you’ve accomplished something difficult, like winning a set in tennis, it is the body’s subconscious inclination to reward itself with some time off. I have the same problem and end up playing a lot of three-set matches because of it. One strategy I would recommend after winning a set is to intentionally incorporate a new, aggressive strategy for the first game of the second set (that’s when I’m most prone to having my serve broken). For instance, try serving up the T and attacking behind your serve or out wide and play the volley to the open court. Give yourself a goal that’s more ambitious than just playing a point out, and it will help you keep your focus sharp.

From Amy S., Austin, TX

I have that problem, too, and often get distracted. I know it may sound somewhat silly, but I have a song I’ll listen to before I play – a “fight song” of sorts. I keep it in my mind as I’m playing, and it keeps me going. Then later, if I realize I am not as focused, I will force myself to think of the song again. It’s been working well for me this year. Just an idea from a novice.

From Becki W., San Antonio, TX

I tell myself to watch the ball hit my strings. Hit to the deep part of the court or the person who is at the baseline crosscourt. Move my feet. Take a few deep breaths in and out slowly before serving or returning. Go back to the basics of tennis. Once all this comes into play, my game returns, as I have made myself focus on the ball and game.

From Daniel C., Corpus Christi, TX

Concentration and focus are matters of the mind. Years ago when I coached the men’s tennis team of the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota, I would tell the men to think of every point as match point, and play it as aggressively as you can, knowing that if you lost the point, the match is over.

From Dave, CO

My secret to staying focused is telling myself that I am down a break before each point. This helps me stay focused and treat every point as a key point. I’ve had a problem in the past of losing a lead, and this strategy helped me reverse the problem.

From Laurel S., Hawaii

Start playing each point, point by point. Focus on the ball and the point only. Forget the score. Have fun!

From Sherry L.

What helps me stay focused is to think of a song that I like that has a catchy beat to it. I sing it in my head while I’m picking up the balls and right before I serve. It works for me every time.

Q. As a solid 3.5 player who wants to move up, I am entering some tournaments. I already play on a club ladder and USTA Leagues and love all of it! What I need help with is the case of nerves I get when I play in a tournament. Sometimes the match is at my home court and even against a player I know, but somehow just the fact that the match is a tournament causes me to get so nervous that I can't seem to calm down and focus on my tennis. It doesn't make any sense to me. It's not like a lot of money is on the line or anything! Help! Thanks.

From Michael K. of Huron, SD

It could help you to realize that nerves affect just about everyone, even your opponent. Three things have helped me over the years with the same problem: First, when I was starting out, I imagined I was my idol, who was Bjorn Borg. Try imagining yourself as Maria Sharapova or someone who will make you feel very confident. Second, I focus on the ball at all times and don’t look at who I am playing. Play the ball and not the opponent. Third, if I am playing singles versus someone who isn’t a serve and volleyer, I just work on getting the ball in play to build confidence, instead of being really aggressive. As I get into my groove, I begin picking it up, and many times I am playing my best at the end of the match.

From Martha of Kinston, NC

In my first tournament, my nerves were so bad I couldn't breathe! After that, I entered every tournament that was within driving distance. My nerves became less and less of a factor each time. However, you don't want to become too relaxed. Some nervousness helps keep you sharp and focused. Good luck!

From LaRue C. of Alexandria, VA

The key is to not let your mind make the situation bigger than it is. There's no money or life on the line, just a winner and loser. And since there’s no tennis player alive, including the top pros, who has never lost a match, it's no big deal what the outcome of a single match is. In each tournament, eventually everyone loses a match except the champion. So, with this mindset, I don't let any one match take on too much significance, and I allow myself to be comfortable with the possibility that I could lose a match.

I play hard and try not to worry about the outcome so much as the process. We all tend to think that we must be perfect in a tournament match. We focus so hard on each shot that we lose the ability to let our bodies flow free and just hit the ball. Have you ever noticed how well everyone hits in practice? Go into your next tournament knowing that no matter how you do, there's always going to be another tournament, so have fun with it and "cut-loose!"

From Kyle W.

I have found that purely enjoying the match you are about to play helps tremendously with nerves. Don't think so much about the entire tournament, but focus on how great it feels to swing that racket. If this doesn't work, I also like to remember that my opponent is just as, or possibly more, nervous than I am! Take some deep breaths and consider it a challenge to be better with your nerves than the person on the other side of the net

From Phil M. of Houston, TX

I am a beginning 3.0 player, and I have gotten nervous before every match that I've played so far, except for the first one (I didn't know any better). I spend hours researching my opponents and the draws and seeds. While at the match I try to scout out my competition to see if I'll be blown away by them or if they'll be easy to beat. Being well prepared mentally helps give me peace of mind. You will still get nervous, but with experience and by doing your homework, the nerves will work in your favor by providing you with extra energy and adrenaline the day of the match. Good luck, and remember, you entered the tournament for fun!

From Leslie S. of Savannah, GA

The best way to control nerves is to focus on things that are controllable. You cannot always control the outcome of the match or the strength of your opponent. However, if you focus on things 100 percent in your control – your footwork, attitude, height of the toss on your serve, body language, etc. – then you will allow your body and mind to work together toward an achievable goal. In doing so, you will minimize the "helplessness" feeling that produces the shallow breathing and "deer in the headlights" physical responses that are characteristic of nervousness.

From Dick B. of Morrisville, VT

Concentration! When warming up for the match, concentrate on your opponent’s game and try to figure out your game play before the match begins. If you serve first, think about where to serve and how you will play out the point. If receiving, think of your strengths of return of serve if hit to your forehand or backhand. This should help you think about how you are going to play instead of just reacting to your opponent’s play.

Q. "How can I improve upon focusing on the ball instead of watching my opponent?"

From Eric R., Santa Rosa, CA:

Trying too hard to focus is counter-productive. Imagine a patient with hypertension being yelled at by his doctor, "Just RELAX, dammit!!" Trying too hard just creates more tension, not better results.

What works is becoming more positive in your attention to the ball itself. It has to be an almost worshipful (lol) attention to the individual spin and speed of the ball. You have to become absorbed in reacting to the hit of the ball, like a tennis detective, then quickly moving left or right with your racquet and feet before the ball has crossed the net. The sound of the ball, the force of the spin, the observation of spin by racquet angle and finish are the details.

Your opponent will have habits; we all do. Keep your mind on the game by thinking about his/her game in between points. What is their serving pattern? Does it change according to side? What stroke of theirs produces more errors? How short is their second serve? What shot of yours should you follow to net? Change a losing strategy by applying these details.

Tim Galwey wrote the bestseller, "The Inner Game." Read it. His mantra is to park the distracted part of your mind on the ball by saying, "ball, ball, ball," until breathing out exactly at the point of contact. The ball becomes your chosen object of desire.

It may take a month or so of practicing this approach before your "monkey mind" stops messing around with your game. Try it. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

From Andrew H., Houston, TX:

Based on my experience and conviction, watching your opponent as she/he is setting up to return your shot is invaluable because it frequently (not always with "clever" players) will give you an indication of what to expect. This, then, provides you with anticipation as to more or less where your opponent's return is coming. Then, when your opponent's ball leaves her/his racquet, you can focus on the ball but also use your peripheral vision or your opponent's position on the court so you can return the shot either for an outright winner or make your opponent run. This strategy can be very useful, since anticipation gives you a "heads up," or if you are not quick on the court, anticipation will provide more time for you to get to the ball.

From Carole A., Sarasota, FL:

I start counting (to myself) the minute my opponent strikes the ball, and I don't stop counting until I strike the ball (usually up to five counts). This keeps me focused on the ball until after I have hit it, and then I can look up. Try it! It really works! Good luck!

From Sidney J.:

As strange as it may sound, try to read the writing on the ball during the warm up. You will be surprised at how much focus you will have. Then work on carrying that over during the match. It really works.

From Kai H., Lake Balboa, CA:

You can control what the ball does. You can't control what your opponent does. That being said, focus only on what is in your control. You can regulate how you hit the ball, whether you add topspin or slice. You can regulate how you move your feet and your speed. My point is that you have to realize in the game of tennis what you have power over and what you can't do much about. You are playing the ball, not your opponent. Hope that helps a bit!

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