Q&A: How to stay mentally tough

April 26, 2021

Shawn Foltz-Emmons, Ph.D., is a former WTA touring professional and current licensed psychologist who has been recently appointed to the USTA's Sport Science Committee. A nationally and internationally-ranked junior player who went on to an All-American career at the University of Indiana, Foltz-Emmons competed as an amateur at all four Grand Slams in 1984 and 1985.


She was the second-youngest player to earn a WTA ranking in 1984, and was also the singles and doubles champion at the 1986 Orange Bowl.


In the present, Foltz-Emmons owns her own business, Advantage Performance Consultants, and consults, advises and provides her services for various companies across the country. She is also brand ambassador and psychologist for SonderMind, a Denver-based company which offers technology-driven solutions for therapists and patients seeking online and in-person appointments, and is the tennis advisor and psychological consultant for the First Serve Tennis Foundation, whose mission is to improve the lives of Arizona youth through transformative and engaging tennis programs.


In the below Q&A with, Foltz-Emmons gives her insights on the importance of mental strength and conditioning for tennis players. 

1.  As a former touring pro and a licensed psychologist, how do you see the importance of mental strength in match play?

Mental strength is vital for match play. From my perspective, mental strength allows the player to be calm in tight situations, resilient in pushing through poor play and overcome off-court distractions, which could impact on-court performance.


2.  What can a player do mentally to be prepared for a match?

Practice, of course, but practice with purpose. Each time a player steps on the practice court, they should have a goal in mind of what is to be accomplished for that practice period. Practicing with purpose can increase confidence that appropriate shot selection will be automatic during match play, which can solidify the mental piece. In addition, pay attention to the self-talk and internal dialogue off court. Off-court preparation in that regard makes on-court self-talk automatically more positive and productive.  Make sure the self-talk is positive and realistic. Also, mentally preparing for match play includes consistent self-care off court. If life is out of balance, it can show in the match play.


3.  What can a player do off the court mentally to improve their performance in competition?

Some ideas for off-court mental preparation to improve performance on-court include utilizing imagery rehearsal and visualization, getting proper sleep, eating healthy food, maintaining social connection and commiting to practice with a purpose. Make sure to keep mental health in check, as that can impact on-court performance. Meeting with a psychologist who is well-versed in sports performance can provide guidance on what can be done to increase effectiveness on court.  In addition, video taping yourself is another way to assess what is working and what is not working to improve the mental aspect of the match play.


4.  What are some practical tips that would help someone that has too much negative self-talk and body language?

Some practical tips include creating notes to look at during the match — notes that include reminders of productive and positive self-talk and body language. Ask yourself things like, “What am I saying to myself?”; “Is my head up and looking forward, or is it down?”; “Are my shoulders clenched or relaxed?”. Make sure the self-talk is positive and realistic.


Another tip is to use the principals of mindfulness while on court — slowing the breathing down, checking in with the five senses (what do I see, what do I hear, what do I smell, etc.), progressive relaxation and visualizing a calm and peaceful place. Being mindful on court can help to redirect the mind back into the flow, or back into the zone state.


5.  What is the best way for a player to utilize the downtime between points and on changeovers to stay positive and perform their best?

Keeping notes in the racquet bag or somewhere that is easily accessible to look at during changeovers may be helpful to remind a player what works for them. Stay positive and focused during the match. Remind yourself that the preparation before the match prepares one for the performance on court: you have done what you can to prepare and leave it all out there. Also, mistakes will happen and not all points will be won, the last point won is the point that matters.


Mentally moving on quickly from mistakes will impact the course of play. Let go of the mistakes, shake them off — literally — and move forward.  Going over the mistakes and focusing on them is not helpful for maximum performance. Once the match is over, review what could have been done differently and work on that. In addition, reinforce what worked and keep that in mind for the next match. The best players, in general, are motivated by performing their best and the result takes care of itself, so focus on performing your best and not necessarily the result.


6.  Do you have any final recommendations for players?

Learning what works for you is important. Everyone is different — yet, positive reinforcement is going to improve performance particularly in the moment during match play. Visualize yourself hitting your shots in the way you want to hit them — do not visualize the mistakes. Visualize responding productively to mistakes — doing this off-court will assist in doing that automatically on the court. Make sure off-court life is in balance and consistent self-care is in place. Focus on the process of the performance and not necessarily the result. When you leave the court, win or lose, make sure you gave it your all. Then, you have done your best. Learn from the match and move forward. Getting bogged down in the wickets of mistakes does nothing to improve performance.

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