How coaches can improve the mental game of tennis for beginners

February 02, 2022

This is the first in a three-part series for coaches to help improve the mental game of their tennis players based on their skill level: beginner, intermediate and advanced. To curate this story, Jason Allen of the USTA's research department interviewed Dr. Larry Lauer, CMPC, Mental Skills Specialist, USTA Player and Coach Development, and Lauer shared the following tips for beginner tennis players to improve their games. 


As sports across the spectrum have become much more professionalized, the term ‘process’ has been consistently referenced as a key ingredient in becoming a better tennis player. 


The general notion of process as it applies to all sports means committing to a routine and plan that leads to achieving long-term goals. In tennis, the 'process' is one of the paramount intangibles that separates good players from great players, and processes can be applied practically to players of all skill levels to assist them in the pursuit of their goals. Coaches can help beginner players become process-oriented by applying a few simple mental tips.


To be successful in any endeavor, one must be disciplined to stay process-oriented to achieve a desired end result. When applied to the beginner tennis player, great coaches should be engaged in establishing a strong rapport that ultimately leads to proper lesson planning. After getting to know the new student, coaches must ask themselves if the player is passionate and dedicated enough to engage in a process.


If the answer is yes, a coach can then begin to elaborate more and plant the seeds of starting a process that includes a mental component.

It is irrefutable that tennis improvement is largely predicated on one’s ability to increase mental acuity. A gradual process, over time, pays large dividends. Understanding that, besides the general understanding of ‘process’ as it relates to improvement, there is also a ‘mental process’ is crucial in a player's development.


Creating mental processes that become habitual can eventually lead to them to becoming weapons. For the beginner, simple processes may include setting goals that push them, staying focused on giving effort, learning through mistakes and scheduling enough time with a quality coach to achieve their goals.


These three practical tips can help coaches support an entry-level player who displays a desire to improve:


  1. Coaches should focus on one thing. It is essential to not overload students. Besides this being important to teaching mental toughness, it is also inherent in simple best teaching practices. Students can acquire mastery of learning by being allowed to improve exponentially one step at a time with one concept. Too many things at once creates confusion.
  2. In conjunction with the player, coaches should develop long-term goals that actually focus on enjoyment and progress. These goals should be measurable and regularly assessed, and should also be relatable to the process put in place (as mentioned above). For example, a coach and player decide to set a long-term goal to increase her NTRP rating to gain a spot on a 3.5 team. In this situation, coaches can commonly identify a gap in being able to control the ball consistently. To do this, mentally, it is important to emphasize encouragement while making mistakes. In her instruction, the coach should focus on what is being created versus what is not going well. As one’s own learning can be difficult to immediately perceive, journaling is a great idea to track progress. In turn, confidence can be built and visualized incrementally. 
  3. Coaches should emphasize imagery and visualization. Players should play the movie in their mind of the skill they are being taught and visualize it off the court. A common way is to mimic the skill in front of a mirror. Thus, it is essential that the coach gives an accurate demonstration of the skill, and even better if they can give the beginner “sticky” cues that help them to internalize it (e.g., brushing the ball to hit top spin).


Emphasizing process-oriented training, along with the three practical skills mentioned above, is a great way to start getting novice players to appreciate the mental side of tennis. 


Looking for more mental strategies to improve your tennis? Visit the USTA Player and Coach Development website.

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