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Strategy Tip: Mental Toughness

Mental Routine in Tennis: What You Do Before Points Matters!
Hopefully you found last month’s tip to be helpful to your game and served you well on the court. This month we have a guest writer on the Game Set Match staff who will be conducting workshops on mental toughness. Read on to hear him touch on last month’s work plus much more!

Our last strategy tip explained the vital importance of mental toughness in tennis. We noted the essential elements of mental toughness including resiliency and flexibility, and a four-step process to deal with performance errors.  Our tip this month will provide a road map for developing mental toughness by creating an effective pre-point routine.  Like physical training, mental training is extremely beneficial for the performance and well-being of tennis players, regardless of skill-level or competitive aspirations.   

What is a Pre-Point Routine?  Why Do I Need It?
Performers in all different venues have certain patterns and ways that they do things.  Maximum gains are seen when these routines work for the performer rather than the other way around.  A performer needs to develop and practice using a mental routine in order for it to be effective.  A good mental routine will be developed based on need, and flexibly adapted to be used under changing performance circumstances.  A mental routine will add to the self-belief of performers by allowing them to trust in their training and perform smoothly when they need it most.
In tennis, an essential period of time (that is often overlooked) is the time before points begin.  Indeed, if we think about how much time is spent actually playing a point vs. preparing to play the next point, we should make the best use of this pre-point time by having an effective pre-point routine. 
Pre-point routines involve the use of performance cues (visual, verbal, kinesthetic, etc.) to optimize the time before points begin.  Watch the pros and you will see a variety of pre-point routines, each of them carefully and thoughtfully crafted for the individual’s style.  Finally, because one of the main reasons a routine helps a player is because it is always under their control, it is essential to use it consistently (that means before every point) in order for it to be effective when things go wrong.      
“Do those things necessary to bring forth your personal best and don't lose sleep worrying about the competition”
-  John Wooden
Benefits of Effective Routine
How routines help?
1)    Energy management:  Get your energy level where it needs to be and direct it toward the next point
2)    Specific Task-Focus:  Focus on the task at hand and avoid distractions
3)    Confidence:  Build your confidence  
Components of Pre-Point Routine
The important components of an effective pre-point routine are “release”, “re-group”, and “re-focus”.  Implementing specific cues into each of these areas (maybe just one at a time, and be patient) will allow you to take control over your mind and body, and in turn your tennis game.
Too many players – including Andy Murray in the past, whose success should be at least partially attributed to his strengthened mental game – are unable to let go of the previous point.  Staying rooted in the last lost point results in negative emotions/thoughts, a lack of focus on what needs to be done, and increased muscle tension leading to ineffective strokes and movements on court.  Truly letting go of the previous point does NOT mean that you don’t care.  In fact, the “release” means that you care enough to move on and prepare for your next opportunity.
Some helpful examples on HOW to release are:
-       Verbal (or self-talk) cues – “Next Point,” “Let that go,” etc.
-       Kinesthetic (or physical) - Go to the back fence or grab a towel
-       Physiological (body management)– Take a deep breath to release the tension
After letting go of the previous point, the next step is to re-group for the next point.  During this phase the goal is to manage energy/emotions, and plan for the next point.  Since different players perform best at different levels of energy, some players will want to raise their energy level while other will want to relax.  Regardless, after this stage you want your body and mind to be fully prepared for the upcoming point.
-       Tactical/Strategic plan for the next point – e.g., “I will get into a groove with the cross-court backhand, and look for an opportunity to run around and attack with my forehand up the line”
-       While using the towel, plan for next point or use self-talk to get your energy right – e.g., “You’ve got this one and you are ready to move quickly to every shot”
-       Shuffle feet or deep breaths – physically and emotionally, this will help you remain calm and ready                                
The last step is to “zone-in” on the upcoming point.  This stage is sometimes called the “trigger” stage, because afterward you want to be ready to focus 100% on the task at hand and trust yourself.  By this stage you have done all preparatory work for the next point.  The goal is to shift from the thinking/planning mindset into the trusting mindset.  Although players differ in what cues help them re-focus most effectively, the use of simple cues that direct attention to the most important thing in the present moment are usually most effective.
-       (Serve) – Focus on your target in the service box, and quickly visualize yourself hitting that target
-       (Return) – Shuffle feet or spin racquet
-       Simple verbal cues – e.g., “explode” or “forward”
-       Everyone’s pre-point focus routine is unique.  Find what works best for YOU!
Scholarly Evidence for Pre-Point Routine
One reason why utilizing a pre-point routine helps performance is because it directs attention away from the outcome of a match and toward what will ultimately determine the outcome-what needs to be done in the current moment.  Latinjak, Torregrosa, & Renom (2010) found evidence to support this relationship by studying the self-talk of adult male tennis players.  They found that the players with more execution related self-talk (e.g., using the cue word “ball” to remind themselves not to lose sight of the ball) experienced less outcome related thoughts.  In sum, they were focused on task-relevant information that would give them a better chance of having a successful outcome, rather than wasting time and energy worrying about the result of the match.    
First, become aware of your current pre-point routine.
Second, adapt it so that it helps you prepare effectively for performance.
Third, use your routine consistently before every point.
Build your mental game and enhance performance!  Hit the courts and become a complete player by training all aspects of the game (physical, mental, fitness, etc.)!   
Latinjak, A. T., Torregrosa, M., & Renom, J. (2010). Studying the effects of self-talk of thought
content with male adult tennis players. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 111(1), 249-260. 
Drew Moller, M.A.
Sport & Performance Enhancement Specialist
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