10 Competitive Skills Observations from USTA NE Sectionals

posted on: July 1, 2016
author: Brian Lomax

Woman Returning Tennis VolleyI recently attended the New England Summer Sectionals tennis event at Yale University to support players from various academies as well as students of PerformanceXtra. Over the course of two days, I watched 20+ hours of tennis and I observed several things from a mental and competitive skills perspective. Each of the 10 items below are points that I made to our PerformanceXtra students throughout the event, and are lessons that you can apply to your own performances regardless of sport.

1. Don’t lose the match before you start

What you’re thinking, what you’re feeling and what you’re doing before a match begins has a tremendous impact on how you will play. While waiting for some matches to be called early on Saturday morning, I was watching various players around the tournament desk. The opponent of one of my students caught my eye and I could tell she wasn’t ready. Her body language was low energy and how she was speaking with her parents did not reflect any excitement to compete. I knew this match was over before it began which was unfortunate for her because it was a winnable match. To compete at your best, use powerful body language to promote confidence and calmness so that you will be in a positive frame of mind when you arrive on court.

2. All styles of tennis are “real tennis”

I’m sure you have heard people refer to certain styles of play as not being “real tennis.” Usually, this refers to a style that a player (or a parent) does not like facing such as pushing or moon-balls. These styles are not pretty or entertaining to watch as they require a great deal of patience and are used to frustrate opponents. However, I believe that these strategies are legitimate ways of competing.

The objective for players is not to entertain others or to look good on the court; it is to break the opponent mentally in pursuit of winning the match. That’s what your strategy and style should be focused on rather than simply playing in a manner that you think is correct. Thinking that your opponent’s style of play is not “real tennis” will only distract you from what you need to do.

3. Don’t leave your strengths on the sidelines

Sometimes when we play, we make bad choices about particular shots or strategies and these choices can lead to us not using our competitive strengths. When we don’t use our strengths, we are not bringing our best performance that day. I saw a couple of examples of this over the weekend: one player who has a heavy forehand that can draw errors opted for a flatter ball that ended up in the opponent’s strike zone, while another player was being super aggressive and making mistakes early in points even though one of his strengths is extending points and using his speed to get in the opponent’s head. Both players made choices to go away from their strengths and in the end, they didn’t play their best in those matches.

4. Impose your game on the opponent

Building off of number 3, you want to use your strengths to impose your game style on the opponent. You have to make the other player fight your fight. When you do that, you’ll feel more confident and in control of the match. The key component of this is knowing what your game is and how to play it at all times.

5. Keep it simple – 3 to 5 breaths between points

Overthinking can be a real problem for many tennis competitors while in a match because it tends to make the process more complex than it needs to be. One way to start to think less is to simply count your breaths between points. It takes your focus off of whatever is happening in the match and brings it to something you can consciously control – your breathing. 3 to 5 rhythmic breaths between points can truly simplify your approach and your focus. Your body knows how to play tennis and if you can focus more on your breath, you’ll get your mind out of the body’s way.

6. Use the actions of energy/intensity to change a match

This is a theme I’ve been discussing with many students in the last several weeks. Lots of players are on an even-keel for most of a match, but there are moments in which you need to increase your focus and intensity. It might be at the end of a set or the match. It might be a break point. Whatever that moment is, you need to step it up.

The question is how? It all starts with your energy. Get your feet moving. Bounce up and down. Use your self-talk to say “let’s go”, “c’mon” or some other motivating phrase. Keep it up for several points in a row and you’ll notice a real difference. The result of this behavior will be increased intensity and focus. I saw some good results from players when they consciously did this in their matches.

7. Indoor tennis vs. outdoor tennis

A coaching friend of mine from Texas was in town during Sectionals and I asked him to compare what he was seeing from the New England players to their counterparts in Texas. His first observation was the “shape” of the ball. Shape is a relatively common term in coaching circles and it refers to the trajectory of the ball off of a player’s racquet to the other side of the court. He observed that the players in New England played with much less margin over the net and that in Texas, a higher and heavier ball is the standard thus leading to longer, tougher points in general.

It’s likely that this is a key difference between indoor tennis and outdoor tennis. With no wind and fast courts, a high risk game can be rewarded when playing indoors. However, the move to outdoors can be a huge change for some, as those shots that were winners indoors are now coming back into play. If you have more outdoor events this summer, be mindful of the patience and shape required to be successful.

8. Using simple reminders on-court

Prior to the first round, I gave each of my students an index card with 2 to 3 reminders for them to focus on for the tournament. My goal was to help simplify the thought process on court to a few things. If they did those 2 to 3 things well, they would be happy with their performances. In general, this worked well and the feedback from players was positive. I urge you to have some reminders that you can use on the court during the change of sides so that you keep the thought process simple and on the right behaviors.

9. Your behavior between points matters

What you do between points not only indicates your level of mental toughness, but can also reflect your character as a person. For those players looking to play college tennis, be aware that any coach worth playing for will be paying attention to your behavior in between points. Sure, there will be some coaches who are blind to what happens between points and will be fixated on your play, but you don’t want to be on those teams (if you have a question as to why, email me).

What a good coach is looking for is someone who never stops fighting in a match, is respectful, and is composed in the big moments. Bring those behaviors to the court between points and you’ll find that good college coaches will be interested in you joining their program.

10. “Hope for the best; plan for the worst”

Just a bit of good life advice here and in a tennis context, this is about being fully prepared for something that has the potential to distract you and stir up negative emotions. Excessive celebrations by the opponent, bad line calls, wind, etc. are all examples of distractions that could and often do occur in tennis matches. You have to go into a match expecting these things to happen and have a plan for what you are going to do when they occur.

In the software world, this is what is called “If This, Then That” (IFTT). If this happens, then do that. “That” should consist of you taking some sort of action that displays taking control of the situation so that you remain focused on your objective. If someone makes consistently bad line calls, you need to have a plan for what you are going to do in that situation. Letting it distract you and getting emotional about it will only help the opponent.

Overall, I saw a lot of high quality play in the first two days of competition at Yale and I’m excited for the future of tennis in New England.  Apply the lessons of these 10 observations and I guarantee you will compete better.  Cheers to a great summer of competition!

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About the Author

Brian Lomax founded PerformanceXtra™ in 2009 with a mission of helping athletes achieve their goals and their top performances more consistently through a progression of mental skills that enables them to focus on what is truly important.

Learn more about the author: https://performancextra.com/brian-lomax/

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