Using Visualization To Improve Your Tennis Game
“A picture is worth a thousand words.” This adage is one of the goals of visualization. Visualization is still a buzzword when discussing peak mental performance. Many have heard of the term, many more use it without consciously knowing it, and I believe just as many have little understanding of what it really is or how to apply it their tennis performance.
Visualization, often referred to as visual rehearsal, is the technique is guided imagery or the process of creating successful performance images and correct movements in your mind. As it relates to tennis, this means simply seeing yourself successfully hitting the shot you want to hit before the point begins.
The thought is that if you can see yourself performing successfully through your mind’s eye, you then increase the probability of performing successfully on the court…especially on big points.
Tennis legend Pancho Gonzales is quoted as saying “I begin by visualizing the warm-up. I try to visualize hitting the ball and moving up to the net and making some volleys, and how I’m going to execute my volleys. Also, I visualize how I’m going to warm-up my serve. …”
Another tennis great, Arthur Ashe, used visualization to pull one the biggest upsets in tennis history when he defeated Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final. Ashe said after his stunning victory that he saw himself winning match in very vivid detail: each successful placement of the serve; each delicately lifted lob; each deftly placed volley; and each strategically planned ground stroke.
Because he was able to see himself perform successfully, first in his mind, Ashe was able to flawlessly execute a game plan by which many succeeding players would use against Connors in future matches.
Another way that visualization can improve your game is by helping you eliminate fear during matches. Fear is inhibiting during a match and can completely throw you off your game—no manner how well you prepared strategically.
Fear causes your muscles to tense up, which throws off your rhythm, and then your confidence is loss and indecision creeps in. Does the word “choking” come to mind? False Expectations Appearing Real is the most famed acronym for F.E.A.R. And I am not talking about merely getting nervous during a match. Everybody gets nervous during a match, but I believe nervous energy can be correctly channeled and used positively to help you get through a tough match.
Fear, on the other hand, causes irrational beliefs and worry about what others think about you and your performance; pushes you toward unattainable perfectionism; and points your focus (on outcomes: winning or losing) in the wrong direction. Hence, fear can contribute to you dumping that easy forehand return into the net on break-point or missing an eye-high floater at the net.
With all of the rain we have been experiencing lately, now would be a great time to start practicing the art of visualization, especially if you have been working with your tennis pro on developing a new shot or rediscovering an old one.
Your goal when practicing visualization is to work toward achieving a certain level of spontaneous performance on the court—performing on auto-pilot, guided by your instincts, and trusting your judgment.
Here are a few quick tips I have learned that may help you maximize your game and add more enjoyment to your playing time:
BREATH. First and foremost, find a quiet place, close your eyes, and begin by focusing on your breathing, maybe even counting backwards, slowly, from 10 to 0. Once you feel calm, free of tension, and thinking about nothing else but tennis, start going down your list of strokes. I am a big proponent of my students being able to feel the movements involved with the stroke, so you may even want to emulate your strokes with your racquet as you see yourself performing them. (Note: you may want to have your teaching pro take a look at your strokes to ensure that your mechanics are correct).
Your visualization is maximized when you have done something or seen something before. It is much more difficult to see yourself hitting that topspin serve successfully if you’ve never worked on it.
THINK ABOUT IT. Moreover, visualization can also help you take your tactical game to the next level by mentally rehearsing shot combinations. Again, if you have worked with your pro, for instance, on how to expose your opponent’s weakness by using certain shots (e.g., deep cross court to the forehand, then short angled to the backhand) it is a great idea to find some time to go over those shot patterns in your mind before you play your match, or even before you go out to practice.
GET IT OUT OF YOUR SYSTEM. It is great to visualize scenarios where everything goes great and according to plan. You picture yourself victorious, thus propelling yourself into a state of confidence to approach the match. But what should you do when old man doubt decides to pay you a visit just before match time? Go ahead an get it out of your system!
When I see a student being tentative on a shot—unsure that their shot will go in or stay in the court—I tell them to go ahead and the hit the ball out, do it and get over the fear that something bad is going to happen if you hit the ball out. Once over the fear, they settle down and become more comfortable with the drill and the situation.
Same goes for visualizing the worst case scenario, where nothing seems to go your way: your racquet strings don’t feel good; you don’t have any rhythm or confidence; the wind is blustery; and your shots just miss or are hitting the top of the net and falling back on your side of the net while your opponent’s shots are clipping the lines and his net cord shots are falling in his favor .
What do you do? You fight: you fight till the very end, even if you eventually lose the match 6-0, 6-0. See it, accept it, and get it out of your system. Now you’re ready to move on and play tennis without fear. You’ve already seen the worst and accepted defeat; now it can only get better.