Coaches, have you felt those feelings of regret that come along with making a mistake? It’s common to feel a sense of frustration and anger after making a mistake particularly in a sport like tennis where you are responsible for every shot and there is no one else to blame. For example, if your first serve doesn’t go in, you’ve made a mistake, it’s your fault and you will usually respond in a negative way. It’s similar for the players you coach.
Whether you tennis players are amateur or a pro, on their best day, they could make dozens of mistakes during the match: double faults, passing shots that wind up in the net, and lobs that land out. Given this, it’s essential that they learn to deal with mistakes positively. Otherwise, they will always end up with those feelings of regret, called should have’s, which potentially lead to anxiety, loss of confidence, nervousness and many more missed shots. In a match it’s easy to see a player who reaches his or her tolerance level for mistakes and begin to mentally break down: they throw their rackets, challenge calls, take longer timeouts and it shows in their body language.
How do should have’s play out on the court? A mistake happens and players immediately start to think about what they should have done; rather than what they did. From there, several scenarios could follow:
1. In the first scenario, players will start having negative thoughts similar to: why did I do that, how could I have been so stupid on that shot, how could I make such a bad shot and why do I even bother playing; I am terrible.
For an athlete who can’t let go of having made a mistake anxiety follows and generally this athlete will continue to spiral out of control until they lose. In this scenario, accompanying the negative thoughts are increased muscle tension and rapid heart rate. All of these things make it hard for the athlete to think, move or hit the ball.
2. In the second scenario, players will hold onto their mistakes for a while (longer than necessary) but not an extended period of time but will be able to find their way back into the match. They may have already done some damage lingering on what’s already happened but have the ability to play out the rest of the match in a competitive manner.
3. In the third scenario, players will recognize that they’ve made a mistake but have mental tools to be able to refocus their energy immediately back to the tennis match.
Although the second scenario is fine, why even linger on the possibility of what you should have done when you can’t go back to that moment and change it. The third scenario is the optimal mental state for a tennis player to be in after making a mistake. This is where a player has control.
How do you help your tennis players get to the third scenario? There are several ways to recognize a mistake set it aside and move on but that takes evaluation and development of an individualized plan. For example, some athletes may recognize the mistake, take a deep breath and use a cue word to refocus their energy into the match. If serving, a pre-serve routine is often helpful to bring focus back to the current moment and the task at hand. Here are some real life examples:
As soon as a point is over my 4.0 player looks down and fiddles with her strings while saying his mantra.
My professional tennis player uses her mantra over and over until she gets to her towel.
Anytime her minds wanders she gently brings it back to her mantra. She towels off in a certain order and goes back to her mantra.
Maria Sharapova turns her back to her opponent, gazing deeply into her stick’s strings, as if hoping to find the very meaning of life in the grid pattern. Mistakes are positive. They provide feedback to an athlete’s brain, specifically the part of their brain that controls motor coordination; how they hit their shots. When they’re learning a new shot or fine-
tuning an old shot, the brain needs a wealth of information to figure out what constitutes a successful stroke: for example, the proper angle at which to hold their racquet face during a cross court volley. When a player hits a shot and miss, their brain tries to understand what went wrong and then attempts to make immediate corrections. With so many variables to consider, their brain may not be able to make sense of it all after the first, second, or even tenth attempt. Fortunately, every time your athletes make a mistake, their brain factors in new information, processes it and sends it to their muscles. Their brain needs them to make mistakes so that they can learn and improve. Mistakes give athletes important information and knowledge. Knowledge is power.
Your players need a mental plan for dealing with mistakes. Then they need time in practice, to practice using that plan so that in a match their response becomes automated. Ultimately, you want their mental refocusing plan to replace any negative thoughts and anger that they might currently have. Studies suggest that people who get angry over mistakes take longer to learn than people who are patient with themselves. The reason: while the first person’s wasting time and energy with anger and negativity, the second person is learning from mistakes and moving on. The next time you make a mistake try not to be angry with yourself. Instead, try taking a deep breath to refocus your energy on the task at hand. If you
feel yourself getting angry again, take another deep breath.
A good predictor of success is a player’s persistence and drive. Persistent players are motivated by mistakes. For example, the more mistakes they make in executing a difficult shot, the more driven they are to master it so they keep trying until they get it right. You should try having a similar attitude particularly knowing how important mistakes are for gaining information, knowledge and improvement.