Recently, I invited some of our top junior tennis players to perform their best impersonation of several well-known professionals on tour. It was remarkable how good the kids were at this and everyone could easily recognize who they were portraying. What the kids were imitating were these player’s rituals, everyone has seen these routines so many times they become as recognizable as a face or a voice. Often when you bring up the topic of rituals in sports, the discussion transforms to a dialog of athletic superstitions such as wearing the same pair of socks you wore for your first state championship! I point out the way the Broncos season ended last year as a case in point. Most certainly that loss had something to do with the way I put on my Manning jersey or what I had to eat that day, but I’ll be sure to correct these mistakes by next season!
Why do tennis professionals practice pre- and post-match rituals? The brain craves routine. Surprise and spontaneity cause excitement and sometimes stress. A consistent routine makes us feel comfortable and allows our brain to prepare for the task at hand and to focus. During the match, between point rituals basically serve as a reset. The goal is to process everything that happened on the previous point and make a clear plan for the next point. During game change overs, you should review on a broader scale what worked and what didn’t during the previous two games and form a plan for the next two games. Dr. Jim Loehr, a well-known sports psychologist, states that “rituals serve to deepen concentration and raise intensity levels prior to the start of a point.” I hear players talking about “mental toughness,” or the lack thereof, almost on a daily basis. Dr. Loehr says that “mental toughness is really tied to your ability to control a very precise way of feeling. It is a process of emotional fine tuning.” Rituals serve us in managing our feelings and prepare us for what lies ahead. The good news is that mental toughness really is a skill that you can train for; you can learn to be mentally tough! A great place to start is by developing specific pre-serve and return rituals. By becoming more organized and developing a specific plan for what you are about to face, you will naturally begin to develop better tools and become more mentally tough.
It’s common and understandable to focus your attention on things such as groundstrokes, doubles strategy and a serve. Try bringing rituals into the picture. Your practices will become more effective and learning will accelerate.
By Ron Steege, USPTA