How Female Players Can Beat their Tennis Demons
The 3-Step System to Win More Matches without Working Harder
By Dr. Michelle Cleere
What are the tennis demons?
The tennis demons are those little voices… well really big voices that take over your head that create worries, doubts, fears, and negativity. For example, “There’s no way I am going to beat her.” “My legs are so tired.” Or, “I don’t think I’ll play well today because it’s too windy.. These voices step in and sabotage your ability to play your best tennis.
Women often ask
Q: What is the most helpful thing I can do to stay out of my head, play focused, and be ready to play a match?
A: You should create and do three things: a pre-match routine, a pre-serve routine, and a way to re-focus between each point.
Why? These are the critical moments during a match when there is a second or two for your ego to creep in and you get so focused on the ego that it sabotages you from being able to play. What helps get rid of the ego, voices, and this disruption? Routines, or rituals, as some tennis players call them. They give women players new habits and the control they need to focus on the task at hand. Women need to get out of their head so they can be focused and present before a match, before they serve the ball, and in between points.
For many, the self-sabotage cycle starts a week before a match. It generally starts small – “I am not sure I’ve practiced enough” and it builds, “there’s no way I’ve practiced enough to beat her.”
It continues every day and haunts you at the start of the match and well into the match. For example, a week before a match, one of my professional tennis players would start worrying about whether or not she’d had enough practice before her match. She would question her abilities. That started the self-sabotage cycle and translated into worries, doubts, and fears about her ability to even play in the tournament. As she went through the week before a match, the thoughts would grow and my client would end up a ball of uncontrollable nerves and anxiety on match day.
A pre-match routine includes a period of time up to and just prior to a match. It consists of how you talk to yourself and others about your ability to play tennis, how you carry yourself and the nerves you feel. It’s important to figure out how to contain all of that the week of, the night before, and the morning of – in this phase, until you step onto the court.
In order for a pre-match routine to be most effective you have to be aware of what is currently happening and understand what you need to happen; how much physical and emotional energy you need prior to a match to play at your best. It’s important to be aware of your cycle so you can stop it in its tracks and do something about it.
The day of your match, you might feel ‘jittery’ which means you probably need to relax. You might feel ‘tired’ so you probably need more energy. Most tennis players don’t think too much about their optimal energy zone. They just go out and play. That may work until you find yourself in an ‘uncomfortable’ position and then everything changes. For example, you’ve never had butterflies before a match but this time you do. What happens when you feel butterflies? OMG I am SO nervous! There is no way I am going to play well today. I don’t even know why I am bothering to go out there and play. What happens next? This thinking produces more jitters. The jitters make your muscles tight and because your muscles are tight you struggle to get your first serve over the net and on and on. The tension in your body causes error over error. This story is not made up, it’s real life. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it.A pre-match routine can help to organize those moments; get you focused and feel confident.
Garbiñe Muguruza would watch Williams’s matches on television and analyze videos. When she practiced, she would think about how Williams would serve, how she would play a backhand.
“So when you watch someone play, you know exactly what you need to do to defeat her,” said Muguruza (Meyersmay, N.J. (2014) New York Times). Muguruza, 20, handed Williams her worst
singles loss at a Grand Slam tournament, 6-2, 6-2, in the second round of the French Open.
There is a lot to think about when you are getting ready to serve: the toss, where your racquet is, your body positioning, and what if the first ball doesn’t go over the net. It is too much thinking before a serve. This kind of thinking will destroy you and your serve. Thinking about all of this during a match is a recipe for disaster. If you’ve practiced your serve over and over, you know how to do it. Thinking about it only gets you stuck in the minutiae and you are now
unable to move beyond it. In this place you are pulled out of where your focus should be, you have no control, and aren’t able to be present enough to serve the ball. Many of my female tennis players have reported feeling scattered in their thinking and lost in the midst of their serve.
What does Marie Sharapova do before she serves? Lautaro Grinspan (2014, The Changeover): “irrevocably, I see Maria Sharapova, my favorite female tennis player, in the midst of her by- now-surely-iconic-pre-serve routine. I see her turning 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. I see her
looking up to a ball boy–always the one to her left, mind you–and signaling for two balls.”
Between point routine
Refocusing between points is the most difficult of the three. Why? An action, probably a mistake, has just happened and your critical voice wants to immediately talk to you about it. You have control over the critical voice but because you’ve not been conditioned to respond, it takes a little more practice to change.
Marion Bartoli frequently hops and jumps around the court when a point is not being played and she takes “dry swings,” which are simply ground strokes and service motions being swung at the air without the use of a ball.
If it’s too intimidating to think about doing what the professionals do here are some examples of what other elite tennis players use:
As soon as a point is over my 4.0 player looks down and fiddles with her strings while saying his mantra.
One of my college tennis players uses her mantra over and over until she gets to her towel. When her mind wanders she gently brings it back to her mantra. She towels off, walks to the baseline, takes two deep breaths, says her mantra, and waits for return of
Practice makes perfect
These are the basics that every tennis players needs to have in place. What’s the alternative? The alternative is that you let your brain think whatever it wants and allow it to be in control of your tennis match. How has that worked out for you?
These routines should be developed specific to your individual needs and must be used in practice and tournaments. Why? If you don’t have consistent practice using routines, they won’t work particularly under challenging competitive situations. Similar to hitting a crosscourt backhand drop shot or a slice approach down the line, you have to practice your performance routines so they become the automated mental response to playing your game.
Your peak performance
Practice is where explicit learning takes place. It’s where you clearly develop your technique and muscle memory for your forehand, backhand and serve. Matches are where implicit playing happens. This is where you take what you’ve learned in practice (mentally & physically) and allow it to just happen to its fullest potential. Your game may not be ‘perfected’ on match day but you have the ability you have and that’s all you have on match day. On the day of a match you are not going to be much better than you were the day before but for some reason we unconsciously think we could be. Because we think we could be a lot better on match day than we were the day before we put pressure on ourselves to actually be better. When I work with tennis players, this thinking along with the development of personalized routines are what can perfect any women’s tennis game and be the peak performance she desires.
DR. MICHELLE CLEERE
Elite Performance Expert www.drmichellecleere.com
Dr. Michelle helps tennis players overcome their performance challenges. It’s her passion, mission, and promise.
Ultimately, she works with top athletes to help them unlock the power of the mind and create the mental toughness necessary to be the best. Dr. Michelle’s extensive academic background, which includes a PhD in Clinical Psychology and a Masters in Sports Psychology, allows her to help clients deal with performance anxiety, gain more confidence, and build resilience. As many clients attest, their experience with Dr. Michelle is exactly what they needed and more than they expected – it was life changing.
Dr. Michelle’s bestseller, Beating the Tennis Demons, helps clients develop practical skills to gain more control over competitive environments and mitigate the interruption in play to overcome intense odds and defeat adversity. She has been involved in many different sports and understands the stress and demands to perform at the top. As a 15-year USAT Coach, she developed simple and effective tools to mentally train her athletes, and they are used by PTR and USPTA coaches around the world.