Using Visualization As A Strategy To Improve Your Tennis Game

Visualization is a well known but less understood mental skill in the performance world. Many opinions exist on how important it is, if it's effective, and why. Coach Johnny and Dr. L tackle the subject of visualization and why it is important to the performer. They detail how they use it with junior players as well as how to train it.


Hi I'm Irina Falconi, WTA tour player and you're listening to compete like a champion.
J: Welcome to compete like a champion. You're here with Dr. Larry Lauer, mental skills specialist, and coach Johnny parks with USTA player development. Today, visualization: Voodoo or effective strategy?
L: Well, I think you know where I land on this but first, Johnny, I'm just glad you have your voice, man. I know you've been yelling at too many kids, so you lost your voice.
J: it's been a little rough the past few days. We've had a lot going on.
L: You sound better.
J: The clay courts just dry it out though. It's like, I don't drink enough.
L: Well, you were also sucking up all that clay, you know, and getting dry and becoming one with the clay
J: Becoming one with the clay. It just means I need to get outdoors more, I think.
L: You do have an orange [inaudible] about you right now.You're kind of glowing.
J: Glowing orange from the red clay
L: Yeah, but no, I'm just glad your voice is back so we can hear all your funny comments.
J: Awesome, well we got Mick back in the studio. Mick, thanks for joining us.
M: Great to be here.
J: Literally a three month vacation and playing paddle and, you know, whatever else you've been up to, but we appreciate you back in the studio.
M: I'm listening though. Great episodes, guys.
L: I figured out what Mick is okay. He is the guy who just goes to conferences year round. That's what Mick does. He's a professional conference goer.
M: Yeah. You don't want to be that guy.
L: Well, you are that guy.
M: Oh, yes. Right, I am.
L: Well, I hope you've gotten smarter, man.
M: Much. Yes. So much.
L: You look it. Your head's bigger.
J: You come back looking like a new man. Justa wealth of knowledge.
L: Yeah, I can't wait for him to pontificate on this podcast about all he's learned.
M: I'll talk about it at the conference next week.
L: Yeah, right.
J: All right. So visualization, let's get into it this. Because I've been going around the country. I've been in SoCal, in southern, we've been doing a bunch of camps here. And this year, we're doing something a little bit different in our camps in that we're really prioritizing the start of the practice with mental skills, daily mental practice, we'll get into a little bit of that, the journaling which we always do, we talked about that before on the podcast here. Journaling is an effective skill to prepare for your practice, and then also when you finish to reflect back on practice, but we've also added a little piece of visualization before and after practice as well. And I'm gonna have you walk us through that first. But like I said in the title here, Larry, I mean, I think there's still many people out there, when you talk about visualization, they say, okay, close your eyes and just picture something and I don't think they could connect with whether they think it's Voodoo, or whether they think it's an actual effective strategy. And I have my thoughts on it, and obviously experienced it the past three weeks with all the many different camps. So I've got my thoughts on it. But let's first dive into visualization from I guess like the mental side, the, I mean, is there a biological or physiological effect to it? Go for it.
L: Yeah, well, well, first, you know, if you look at the literature, and people can get confused on this, we talk about, in lay kind of terms, visualization, because that's what people know. But it's really imagery, because you're creating these images in your mind that aren't existing reality. So it's something you're creating, right, and they can be past memories. It can be something you're actually creating like rehearsing before a match, my game plan, how I'm going to play, how I'm going to feel out there. So it's any any exercise where you're creating something in your mind through using your senses, that actually is not going on right now, so you're creating this almost like this movie in your mind, right? But in this movie, you can feel it, you can smell it, you can taste it, you can hear it. And the more you engage your senses, the more engaging it is for you, it creates more emotion, which creates more learning. Now from the perspective of if it works. How does it work? There's a number of studies. I didn't look at all the studies before we got on this podcast that have shown that imagery or visualization is helpful for performance. But why? Well, one belief is that what happens in the psychoneuromuscular imagery theory is that when you're imagining certain things, let's say you're imagining your forehand, that the brain is sending impulses to your muscles. And so you're creating this connection, right? you're practicing in this situation, okay? Now there's other theories and hypotheses. One is that you're creating coding in the brain or a map on how to do something, which creates this response set and then there's also belief and I truly believe this as well is that when you imagine certain things more of this kind of psychological skills hypothesis, you're creating confidence or creating readiness to perform, you're centering your mind on actions you'll take versus going in with indecision, or just being unsure on what to do. So there's a number of different theories and hypotheses of why imagery or visualization works, but the big thing if you ask performers, what works and there was a study done and I have to go back and look it up but I asked them what mental skill do you use most often, what's most effective? And mental rehearsal, so rehearsing in your mind what's going to happen before you step into the competition was the number one skill or strategy that high performing athletes thought was effective. So clearly, many, many athletes believe in it. Many of the athletes I've worked with in the past have been doing it already before I started working with them and we do it naturally because we, well, we think in what? Language, and we think in images and, so we're doing this we're using our imagery, may not be using it well but we're doing it anyway so are we actually taking advantage of it to help us perform?
J:  You could almost look at imagery as obviously every time we see something, we see an image that sends something, a message to the brain and then if we need an action, then that neuromuscular connection, that's what you're talking about, which then fires those messages to the muscles and get you to do something. He then talked about imagery in terms of then like copying people, right like mirroring people. So if I've gotta copy you, we do this a lot, lead or follow with the kids. If we're side shuffling, and I got to follow whether you're going to cross over, side shuffle it out, I got to perform the exact same movement. I watch you, then I do it. Then it becomes an automatic response. I'm seeing you do it, the brain's processing that and sending it to my body, to my legs to perform the same movement. So then close your eyes and then so the imagery then of closing the eyes and performing a skill, you know, if then if we're not actually performing the skill, that's what you're talking about here that we're actually building the patterns in the brain that we can see it, that we can, even though we're not actually doing it, by seeing it or able to almost build a pattern that is, I guess, build some comfortability and what you want to do?
L: Well, in many ways, it makes sense, right? If if you're showing me a footwork pattern, and then I pause for a moment, and I replayed in my mind, and I see that pattern. If I'm a novice, beginner, I'm not very experienced with this, this is going to help me perform it better. If I'm highly experienced with that footwork and I've mastered it, then it's actually going to make my performance worse. So what we want to do with people who are learning, who haven't mastered or created automaticity with that skill is to help them in their minds imagine what it looks like, what it feels like, and in some cases in sports, mostly looks and feels, but what it sounds like, you know, smell and taste a little more difficult, but so that they have that in their mind bow and that's creating readiness to perform that skill. Now I have an accurate representation of what you're asking me to do, right? Before, I may have no clue or know where to put my feet or how to do these things. So just from that standpoint of preparing for action, imagery or visualization is going to be helpful. So I'm sure, you know, coaches and players who are listening to this are thinking, okay, well, how do you apply this? Well, one of the biggest times that I see that we don't take advantage of is when we're serving out of the hopper at the end of practice, and we're kind of doing it just rotely and we're not really thinking, do we take the time there to visualize either performing the serve, or you can visualize a spot you want to hit to increase the performance. You think about what you do in a match, most high performing players know what spot they're going to hit with their serve. When they think of the spot, they might see an image in their mind of the ball hitting that spot. Maybe if they're well trained, they imagine the trajectory and how the ball is going to come off the court, right, if they're really using their imagery or visualization, but we're using a skill but how effectively are we using it? Well, for sure, serving practice we can improve it by imagining where our targets are. And one of the things that we've done and it has worked is to put cones out, serve to the cone, serve to your targets, practice that for a while, take it away, continue to play the game, you got to make seven out of 10, or six out of 10, whatever it is, and typically players who then visualize that spot perform better.
J: Is there anything to imagery and creating these connections on just picking a target versus being able to picture shapes? And I asked this because, and again, I know everyone's different, just from I remember when I was a junior, I never really put down, I had a coach that didn't really use cone targets, he used shapes. So if I was on the deuce court and I stand two or three feet away, right, on the baseline I'm about to serve, if I took the center line, the net strap and the service line, it forms a triangle. And obviously the wider you stand, the bigger the triangle, the closer to the T you stand, the triangle kind of almost disappears. So you create getting to the right position for single serving side and you create this triangle, and you always try to have us hit into that triangle. It could bounce anywhere in that triangle, but generally, if you could get it into that shape, into that triangle, then it was going to be an effective serve. And he would do the same on the outside, he would create shapes as opposed to an actual, like, hit the cone target, which I know is probably most coaches listening to this use a lot of cones. I mean, I use the cones too. But is there anything to creating shapes versus an actual target or does it not really matter?
L: I think it depends on the performer. And I think it gives, it sounds like it gives a performer, and I've heard other coaches do something similar or talk about this, it gives them a larger area for one thing, right? And it's almost like a zone versus if you put out a cone, you're asking them to hit that spot, right? So I think about young performers actually giving them more of a zone might be helpful, more helpful. Instead of like this one spot. You could do that with cones to and create the triangle or whatever, but I think, again, the idea is your direction of the intention, right? I'm intending to hit this area versus going up there and hoping to get it in. Now you're serving with a purpose. Now you're serving with a readiness to do something with the serve and that's going to enhance the performance. So in this case, imagery is helping you to be more intentional about where you're serving the ball, which should increase your accuracy to get it there.
J: Yeah, no, that's a great point. And I just remember that, it's funny, you know, we go through the visualization exercises at a camp recently and I asked the kids, what's the one thing that you tell yourself the most when you're going to miss a first serve in the net and you go and walk and pick up that ball? What do you think the first thing they said was?
J: Well, they're walking back to the to the baseline for their second serve, they're going...
L: That was bad.
L: Oh, that was bad.
J: That's bad. Don't miss the second serve. Don't miss the second serve and then they miss it. So then I was like, okay, that a common one. I think all junior players have gone through that. They miss a first serve in the bottom of the net. They go and pick the ball up and they go, okay, don't miss this. Don't miss this serve.
L: Or any adult with the yips.
J: Or any adults with the yips. But then that's a great opportunity to then teach about, okay, well then let's close our eyes, visualize yourself as you're walking back to the baseline, visualize that target on where you're trying to hit, or that zone that you're trying to hit. So then you're taking out, I guess, a self fulfilling prophecy of please don't miss and then I'll go and miss, and instead replacing it with a proactive target that almost says, Well, you know, I'm gonna make this because I'm going to hit it in that target.
L: That's tremendous, Johnny, because what you're doing what I believe is you're creating a different focus, right? In some ways, when you're competing, or you're practicing, you're in this kind of struggle to get the correct focus or appropriate focus that you want to have. Right? And so when you miss and you're thinking about missing with the serve, you're focusing on something you want to avoid, which does not enhance performance.
Usually, you get what you're trying to avoid, you know, it's the pink elephant, your brain doesn't compute 'don't miss'. What it sees is the 'miss' when you think these things. So what you have to do is replace it with a new focus that's captivating, which captures your mind. Well, if I say in words like, yeah, I hit the spot, that might not be that captivating versus I'm creating this visual imagery in my mind of here's this triangle. And I've done this a ton of times in practice, and I can see it landing and jumping out of there. And now suddenly, the more detail and the more specificity that you have, it starts to capture the attention, right, and that's one of the keys to effectively visualizing or using imagery is having these images that engages you and captivates you, so that your new focus you hold that. Because it's really easy to focus on missing and making mistakes and losing those things come to mind easy, and they're captivating because they're scary. You don't want them to happen. So you have to create a new focus and visualization or imagery is powerful because you can use all of your senses to create this focus versus thinking about what you want to avoid or what what could go wrong?
J: Yeah, that's a great point and talk us through now, at the camps, your team has done a phenomenal job putting together a script or a visualization script. Now we've been using visualization as a way to help build confidence. So everything that they're visualizing in their mind is, I would say, is all proactive in terms of a confidence that I know I'm going to make these balls and I'm putting together plays in my mind. It's creating a comfort level, no matter the situation, but it's almost a lot of the younger players that we started, let's say like that 11-12 year olds, some of them have a focus attention issue of being able to do over longer periods of time, so we kind of chunk it a little bit, but talk us through, so the beginning of a camp or a training or let's say, you know, we are coaches out there beginning of a practice, any practice, talk us through a little exercise that you would have the players doing as a way to help them prep for their practice or their match.
L: Yeah, this is something that we do that the coaches enjoy because they feel like the players are more engaged with their purpose and more prepared to practice with intention, so what we asked them to do is some form of breathing for, depending on the age and their experience, a minute or two. If they're more experienced, they'll go longer or if they're older, I'll go longer. But this could be different forms of breathing like triangle or box breathing. It could be just a normal diaphragmatic breathing or rhythmic pattern of breathing. We have them do that for a minute or two to create a focus. So quieting the mind because visualizations can be more effective when you're able to quiet the mind and focus on it. Once we've done that, then we actually have them visualize the scenario or the scene that they're going to be in. So if we're going to be on the red clay courts, imagine being on those courts, imagine the weather, imagine the breeze, the temperature, how it feels to step on the court, the red clay kind of breaking up underneath your feet and moving and just trying to create a feel, you know, the racket bag on your shoulder, the weight of it, putting it down, hearing you open that and the zipper opening to feeling a racket in your hand and so So you're trying to create this very immersive, captivating experience so that they're engaged with it. And then you can bring in, alright, imagine yourself moving and hitting. And then we'll take them through a script where we have them imagine hitting certain shots, or they may, you know, the better that they get, we'll have them imagine something that they're working on. Maybe it's the themes of the camp, and then take them through, okay, well, if the theme, one of the themes of the camp is, let's say, serve plus one, we'll have them imagine some serve plus ones and actually play them out. If it's a transition, and we'll have them imagine hitting, you know, hitting a couple good shots, hitting a good approach and coming to the net, you know, whatever it is that we're working on. And then like I said, the more experienced I get, like with older boys and girls that we've spent time with, we can say, okay, what's your purpose for the day in this practice? Now imagine yourself being successful. All we're doing is creating readiness to perform that, right. And when you feel ready, you feel committed, you feel more confident to go out and do those things, and then you practice with that intention and now that intention's with a clear image in your mind of how you want to do it, you can give yourself more accurate feedback. One thing, another thing I'll say about that Johnny, the more that coaches get involved with that, the more effective it gets, because the coaches know, technically or tactically or in the movements, what they're looking to see. And so you can help kind of put in some details with the coach that are going to help the player have a more accurate representation of what it is you're trying to achieve on that day.
J: Yeah, you know, I've found the coaches really do love it. You know, I've really enjoyed it a couple weeks ago when I was running through the script for the first time. I really enjoyed doing it. You know, I kind of felt like I didn't want to mess it up, you know, because you don't know the words you're saying or how they're processing in their minds. But it was a very descriptive script. So it was bringing in everything from touch, to smell, to sight, to what they hear. It brought in everything, brought in all the senses, which was pretty cool. And afterwards, I mean, as an example here for the listeners, it's, okay, close your eyes, put yourself in the middle of your favorite tennis court. It might be a court that you've competed on anywhere around the US, around the world, it might be your favorite practice court that you like playing on. Put yourself in the middle of the court, look around, notice what's around you. Are there benches? Is there a water cooler? Are there trees? You know, are the birds chirping? You know, is the net higher at the ends than it is in the middle? Really trying to get you to identify very particular things. And then from there, they hone in on, okay, what are you hearing? Is it noisey in your surroundings? You know, are you hearing birds chirping I mentioned. And they said okay, now you have a can of tennis balls in your left hand. Peel open the plastic lid, crack the silver tab and hear the balls pop, right? Take the ball, move it around in your hand, feel the fuzz, feel the leather, feel the texture of the ball.
L: You can even smell the new can.
J: You can even smell it.
L: A very distinct smell.
J: Now bounce it and catch it. So you go through that exercise and then, you know, there's a little bit more to it than that, but then you ask the kids to open their eyes and you ask them, okay, what were the things that stood out to you and the kids will come back and go, oh, you know, the smell of the tennis ball. Like I could really smell it and then one is going, yeah, I could really hear the bounce of the ball against the hardcore. Very particular things, which is great because that's what you want.
L: Well, that means we're getting them engaged in the imagery and think about it this way, what is the movie going experience turning into? What they want is an immersive experience right? They don't want you distracted when you're at the movies. So they're they're starting to do more virtual things or bringing in more of your senses. You know, places like Disney and some of these places where they'll have you in these seats but now the seats move and they'll bring in smells or like puffs of air or whatever to try and make it more real, right? Engaging all the different senses. And so I think, you know, what we try to teach the kids to do is to learn how to bring those senses in so that then when they get more experience, they can do the 32nd visualization in the changeover. But it's so immersive, so engaging in their own way, the way they've come up with it, that they're not thinking about that it's 4-5, and I'm serving, they're into what they're doing. They hit the natural reset, they have the focus that they want, and they go out and play that first point with an intention of whatever they've decided in that visualization. But again, you know, I think a lot of people want to do it sort of the, you know, the kind of generic way like just close your eyes, imagine hitting the ball, like you said at the beginning, you get a little bit of an effect. If you go deep into it, you get a powerful effect, because you're creating a different memory in the mind. And the more you use your senses, the more you gauge your emotions, the more you remember. And that memory of that is priming your brain to be that way when you go out to perform.
J: Yeah, absolutely. And then, you know, I was just gonna say what you were touching on there is that natural like visualizing.
L: Visualizing.
J: Visualizing.
L: Visualizing. Say it three times.
J: The tactical components. But I feel, especially when teaching the younger kids, there's a couple stages to this, and I skipped over that the first part. The first part is actually getting them to bring them to a calm state. So sometimes, you know, they're all excited to get on the court, you ask them to close their eyes and go through this exercise. Well, they're all a bit twitchy, a bit nervous. They're all like peeking their eyes open. You know, who else is opening their eyes? Are they looking at me? You say going like that right?
L: Mick's like that right now.
J: That self conscious, you know that consciousness, right? That self awareness, they're like oh, I don't want people to look at me and like, you know. But what we found was getting them to deep, you know, deep breathe, breathe in for four, out for four, and centering on their breathing first. See you're just getting your players to sit there on the court or in a nice comfortable position. Breath in for for, out for four. Have them centering on the breathing for a couple minutes. Once they've gone through that, now you can start the exercise.
L: Absolutely.
J: Cause now they feel comfortable with their eyes closed, in a comfortable position, they're no longer looking, you know, trying to pick their eyes open seeing who's, you know, I guess their sense of who's judging me or not. They're all in the same boat. They're all there, eyes closed, centering in on breathing. Okay, now we can start the exercise. From the exercise, they start sensing touch, feel, what they hear, what they smell. Great. Now we have them on the hook there and they're engaged in that, now you can get into actually visualizing out those tactical plays. And then the next step is not just visualizing you performing the skill, but now putting yourself in a situational point play. So now you can get into pressure points 30-40 breakpoint down, you going with this serve plus one pattern. Let's visualize how you're doing that. Great. Now we're able to perform the skill, perform the skill under pressure in my mind, but then what do I do right after that? Now you can start then layering it. The next layer from that? Routines. What do you do after you finish the point? Great. You go through your routine. You come back up to the line, now ait's deuce. Okay, now you select your play, go through your play, go through an ideal point, how you're moving, how you want to play it. Do you finish off with transition? Great, okay, you lost the point or won the point, go through the same routine and come back up to the line. So you can start playing them through a game or certain situations, and you're getting them to visualize in one sense, doing the same things, which is like the routines in that environment. But then you're getting them to also maybe manipulate their tactical plays based off certain point situations. What do they do when they feel most comfortable? And then what do they do when they feel I guess most pressure? And depending on the person you ask, they want to go to where they can perform a skill with the most comfort under the pressure. But then you have some people that are maybe a little bit more risk takers, that actually visualize themselves coming up with something pretty creative and making really sharp decisions and digging themselves out of a hole. So it's, again, I think that becomes a bit more personality based, but.
L: Yeah, well now now you're talking about a progression that if we have time, we'll take the players through, including, you know, taking the progression to where there's adversity and how are you going to respond to that using your routines and how you want to play after that. One thing that the listeners need to realize is that visualization that is inaccurate is actually taking away from performance. And it's going to hurt the confidence when you do that. So what we got to do is to make sure that whatever you're visualizing is accurate to what you're going to do. So if you're visualizing a game style that's not yours, or great, I visualized hitting three aces and a bomb forehand winner but your play along points, it has really no immediate impact on what you're about to do because it's not based on reality. So the visualization needs to be based on reality, on your game style, the way that you play, and then you imagine being competitive and working through points and being successful. Yes, but after you've earned it in your mind, right, you don't just, ace bomb, ace bomb, and think that that's going to give you anything. So I think that's a very important note, because players will think that Okay, so if I just imagine winner, winner, winner, winner, then I'm going to be ready to do that, well, not necessarily. You want to imagine constructing a point and putting yourself in position to be successful in using your routines and then again as you get better at it, actually imagining one of your issues, maybe that you double fault. Okay, imagine a double fault, how you're going to respond between points and then how you gonna respond on the next point.
J: Yeah, that's a great point. This was a little short episode here today, but as we as we wrap this up, I'm a player or a coach that wants to implement visualization and I want to keep doing it, where do I start and what other steps do I take to really stick with it so I can see the benefits for the long haul?
L: Well, I think number one, first realize why you're doing it and why it's important to you. What are you trying to get from it, right? If it's to prepare for matches, and you're going to imagine point situations. Secondly, though, you want to start at the beginning as we talked about the progression and do the breathing and start with a simple imagining of the scene and the environment, making it more real and then slowly moving to movement, because movement is one of the hardest things to imagine and doing it in real time real speed. Then I think you you need to practice, practice, practice. It's not something that you think, Okay, do visualization and on match day, we're just going to do visualization. No, they should do it in training every day to prepare for practice, because not only are you preparing them to train with purpose and intention, you're practicing the skill that they're going to need on match day. Beyond that, I think there's another podcast here, we can actually take the listeners through effective visualization, how to visualize. I think more today is, it does work. It can have a powerful impact on your readiness to perform, your confidence, your commitment, and which are key things that all players want to feel going into performance. So it's something that coaches, players, and even parents who are talking to their children probably should be looking into, and certainly we have a lot of resources for that.
J: Absolutely. And we're going to do a part two to that for the next week.
L: All right, [inaudible].
J: Well, I think, it's important with this though, because I think we really want to emphasize the importance of, and it's actually a really cool thing to add to your programs. Add a skill to your players' arsenal of how they prepare, but also how they retain information at the end of practices. I can't speak more about that.
L: Yeah, one hundred percent.
J: How we prepare and how we reflect. Two of the biggest things, and this is a really big key in that. And also, as you mentioned, Larry here, I mean, with the programs you put together, visualization is a huge skill to build confidence, a huge skill. And you know, it can be done in 30 seconds, or you can do it in 20 minutes. There's ways that you can do it and I'm really excited and in next week's episode, we'll really dive into kind of how we practically apply it so.
L: Outstanding. I can't wait. I'm sure Mick is fired up.
J: Awesome. Awesome.
M: Can't wait.
J: Yeah, we'll get Mick to do the exercise.
L: Mick needs the exercise.
M: What are you saying, Larry?
L: You were sleeping over there.
M: I was visualizing.
L: Yeah, that's just like the kids.
J: Awesome. Awesome. Well, that's a great episode. We teed up visualization. Next week, tune back in and we'll take you through in more detail. As always, for more information, you can visit our website We've got great resources on there on Larry's section there and we will, we'll put some resources in the show notes. Until next week, Larry and I checking out.