Sports Psychology: Mental Skills for Achieving Optimum Performance

(The information in this article was taken or adapted from the High Performance Coaching Program Study Guide.)

One benefit of sport psychology training is that it enhances performance on the court. Winning is one of the main objectives in tennis, but winning requires consistent performance at a high level.  Mental proficiency helps ensure this consistency, guarding against fluctuations in performance. As the game  becomes more sophisticated, coaches who fail to properly utilize psychological tools place their players, and themselves, at a disadvantage in performance and satisfaction. A full investment in sport psychology may spell the difference between high achievement and mediocrity for players. 

For years sport psychologists have examined how psychological skills training, including mental skills training, helps athletes improve performance. Mental skills are procedures that help athletes control their minds efficiently and consistently as they execute sport-related goals. This not only involves developing skills such as concentration and stress control, but it also includes efforts to influence personal characteristics such as self-esteem and sportsmanship. 

Psychological skills techniques help athletes make adjustments to their actions, thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations that will improve their games. Players can use these techniques to

  • help build self-confidence,
  • set goals,
  • manage their stress,
  • use imagery and visualization to work on game skills,
  • focus concentration and attention.

Sport psychology also can help athletes with problems off the court that may affect performance on court.

Building Self-Confidence

Rainer Martens (1987a) defined self-confidence as an athlete’s realistic expectations about achieving success, and stated that self-confidence is not what athletes “hope” to accomplish, but rather what they realistically “expect” to accomplish. John Murray (1999) described confidence as “an umbrella term describing all the thoughts, feelings, actions, and sensations reflecting self-belief and expectations of success” (p. 102).

To foster self-confidence in players, you should act confident yourself to set a good example, help players improve their skills and competencies, use frequent rewarding statements (see the later section “Positively Reinforce Players”), and encourage positive self-talk.  You should also de-emphasize outcomes and help players to focus primarily on performance improvements and excellence. 

One key challenge in tennis is to help players stay confident and positive despite match drawbacks. Players often lose confidence and become intimidated in times of difficulty, giving rise to negative thoughts and low expectations.  Encouraging athletes to maintain high expectations and positive thoughts regardless of the score helps. Overconfidence can also be a problem, leading to reduced effort and intensity that lower performance.                

Goal Setting/Developmental Planning
     
Goals are something that we want to achieve or accomplish, and they give our energies specific direction.  By setting goals, tennis players gain a sense of control over their actions and can move beyond beliefs or fears that may prevent high performance.  Goal setting has been shown to enhance performance, reduce anxiety, increase confidence and understanding, and enhance purpose and motivation. 

For goal setting to work, the athlete must set goals properly. The following are ten principles for goal setting accumulated from years of practical experience and scientific study:    

  1. Set goals for mental as well as physical skills.
  2. Set goals that are specific and measurable.
  3. Set a target date for completion.
  4. Set goals that are difficult but realistic.
  5. Set short-term, intermediate, and long-term goals.
  6. Set goals for practice as well as for matches
  7. Set goals that are positive (like “improving first serve percentage”) as opposed to negative (like “allowing fewer aces”).
  8. Remain flexible enough to adjust goals as needed.
  9. Write the goals down on paper.
  10. Emphasize performance goals over outcome goals (such as winning).

You should meet with each player periodically to set, review, and evaluate goals. In many cases, parents should be involved in these meetings too. You all should agree upon a developmental plan that includes the following parts developed in this order (Saviano, 1999):

  • A long-term, comprehensive vision of the type of player the athlete wants to become (style of play, weapons, conduct, physical conditioning, etc.)
  • The strategies and patterns that need to be mastered and the weapons to be developed
  • The training needed to make sound basic tactical adjustments and good shot selection
  • The techniques to be developed
  • The emotional/psychological approach the player will take to competition
  • Scheduling and periodization
  • Physical development
  • Goal setting

The developmental plan should include a year-long goal schedule divided into monthly, weekly, and daily subgoals. With this roadmap in place, the player often feels more confident, and it’s easier to track her or his performance and adjust goals as needed.

Stress Management
 
Stress occurs, according to Martens (1987b), “when there is a substantial imbalance between what you perceive is being demanded of you from the environment and what you perceive your capabilities are, when you perceive the outcome to be important” (p. 111).  This means that stress has three elements: the environment, the individual’s perceptions, and the individual’s responses to these in the form of arousal (the activation of the mind and body).

As a coach, you can use sport psychology to help players work on each of these three elements.  You and your players can find ways to alter the environment to make situations less uncertain or to reduce the importance of outcomes. For example, you can talk to parents to make sure they don’t pressure players too hard to win.

A number of psychological techniques have been developed to assist players in controlling their perceptions of events. These are called cognitive techniques, and these techniques focus on creating awareness of negative thoughts and changing such thought patterns by stopping them and replacing them with more productive ways of thinking.

Psychological techniques also have been developed that players can learn to help reduce their arousal levels. These techniques, known as somatic techniques, are generally related to relaxation. Some of these are imagery relaxation, self-directed relaxation, progressive relaxation training, and biofeedback relaxation.

Imagery and Visualization 

Imagery is the process of simulating sensory experiences in the mind in the absence of external stimuli. Whenever a tennis player daydreams of or imagines hitting an ace, the player is using imagery.  While visualization typically describes simulation of visual stimuli, imagery may involve the simulation of many factors: sound, touch, body awareness, psychological states such as confidence, and numerous other mental and physical experiences. However, many coaches and sport psychologists use imagery and visualization as synonymous terms.  

Imagery is popular in tennis, and much research evidence suggests that it positively improves performance. Factors believed to improve an individual’s ability to benefit from imagery include the ability to form vivid images, control the images, and relax before producing images.      

Imagery is used to help tennis players anticipate and solve problems, prepare for tournaments, rehearse particular strokes and sequences, cope with adversity, and reinforce positive performance.  Imagery may be performed individually or in a group, and it may be guided by a sport psychologist or a coach.  Like all mental skills, imagery and visualization must be practiced by athletes consistently and correctly to produce positive effects.

Concentration and Attention Control

Concentration and attention control are perhaps the most important mental skills to master in tennis.  As there are so many potential distractions during play (sights, sounds, feelings, thoughts), remaining optimally focused pays dividends. Selective attention is the ability to choose the most appropriate stimuli to focus on, while concentration is the ability to sustain attention over time. 

Players need to be able to shift attention rapidly and accurately.  For example, a player first broadly scans internal thoughts to find a winning strategy. He or she then shifts attention quickly to external elements such as the ball height, spin, or the position of the opponent, and finally narrows attention to the ball for the winning volley.  This constant mental shifting from external to internal, broad to narrow, and back is the essence of attention control. Proper attention control allows a player to choose what is important, stay focused upon it as long as necessary, and shift focus as needed.

Concentration and attention are often enhanced with strategies such as reciting key phrases to oneself, remaining centered in the present, sustaining attention during distractions, and using imagery and self-talk to refocus when distracted.  Although novices often think proper focus requires strain and exertion, the most complete attention (sometimes called “flow” or “the zone”) is usually experienced as a joyful absorption in the moment rather than conscious struggle.         

Motivation

Sage defined motivation in 1977 as “the intensity and direction of effort” (Weinberg & Gould, 1999, p. 48). Some tennis players are primarily motivated by task goals such as the desire to learn and improve regardless of outcome. Others are motivated more by ego-centered goals such as displaying competence over others, which makes winning and losing extremely important.

According to findings described in Weinberg and Gould (1999), males appear to score higher on competitive and win orientation, whereas females score higher on goal orientation (oriented more toward improving performance). Elite athletes appear to be higher on both win and goal orientations than less skilled athletes.

Another area of motivation is intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivational factors are states within the athlete, such as pride or satisfaction, while external motivational factors are rewards from outside the athlete, such as money or attention. You can increase intrinsic motivation by allowing athletes to make important decisions and feel competent (see the later section “Promote Intrinsic Motivation”). As tennis is played for so many different reasons (such as joy, money, ego, learning, or recognition), you must treat each athlete as a unique individual and seek an approach that is optimally motivating for that person. Pitfalls occur when athletes are primarily motivated to please others rather than themselves, or when outcomes are so important that players becomes threatened by fear of failure or base their self-worth solely on how well they play tennis. 

Off-court Issues

The use of sport psychology may extend far beyond mental skills training. For example, problems such as academic stress, strained relationships, time management, family conflict, and financial concerns affect everyone at one time or another. Although these issues rarely represent severe distress, they may easily compromise a player’s tennis performance. When such problems arise, discuss them with your players and seek professional assistance when needed, as there is much at stake for both of you. When you recommend the services of a sport psychologist -- whether for mental skills development, resolution of off-court issues, or treatment of more serious distress -- introduce it to the player as a positive opportunity to improve performance and well being by learning new mental skills and reducing distractions.

 
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