Habits for Tennis Success: Package Mental Skills into Routines

April 17, 2017 01:48 PM

By Dr. Larry Lauer

The best tennis players separate themselves from the rest not solely because of talent, but because they have excellent habits that lead to their success. It seems that world-class tennis players have a number of habits that they do in their own individual ways, but that are similar to the 10 Habits for Tennis Success.

The seventh habit is that great players find ways to bring the mental training they are doing to bear in matches. They do this by developing between point and changeover routines.

Habit 7: Package Mental Skills into Routines

A strong mindset off the court is important, but just as important is using mental skills effectively in matches. Top players integrate deep breathing, visualization, performance cues, etc., into their routines. For example, you see Novak Djokovic deep breathing before he gets in to his return stance. When he does the breathing, his focus is locked in.

Routines are a series of behaviors and thoughts a player goes through to get to the next serve or return. The purpose of routines is to be fully ready to play the next point with focus in the moment, on how you want to play, with belief and positive energy.

Routines work because a consistent set of behaviors and thoughts orchestrated the same way each time condition the mind to produce a task. Routines allow the player an easier way to transfer skills to matches and maintain a resilient, confident and competitive mindset.

Think of a basketball player at the free-throw line. Good free-throw shooters have a series of behaviors that lead to a consistent approach to the shot. The routine creates focus, comfort and a performance mindset as the player prepares to shoot: Take the ball from the referee, spin it in my hands, dribble it twice, bring it up and see just above the rim and shoot.

Tennis players should have a foundation of three routines in matches:

  1. Green Light Between Points: What you do every time to prepare for the next point.
  2. Yellow Light Between Points: What you do when your Green Light isn’t getting you ready to play (extra mental work).
  3. Changeover: What you do when you have more time and want to come out of the changeover with focus and commitment.

There are few important principles to consider when developing these routines:

  1. Routines are only as good as they prepare you to play the next point. Therefore, each step in the routine should have meaning (e.g., going to a towel to wipe off means to wipe away the last point).
  2. Routines are only as good as they are used consistently. Remember, you are training the brain so you must follow it consistently to get a consistent mindset.
  3. Routines are only as good as they are individual to the player. Each player will do slightly different things between points, from the pace they play at to where they walk, but the player must decide on what those things are going to be. Coaches should allow players to develop their own routines based on the skills and the structure that lead to success.

Green Light Routine

GREEN LIGHT = GO, this is what you do between all points. It creates consistency. Consistent habits = consistent focus = consistent performance.

The purpose of Green Routine: Let go of the last point and focus on the current point. Ready with full focus, energy, readiness and belief.

Four Steps:

  1. Respond: Immediate response to the point, positive, neutral or negative. Our goal is to stay positive or neutral. Turn your back, go to your strings, show positive body language and walk briskly back behind the baseline.
  2. Relax: Take deep breaths and let go of the last point. You want to slow down your breathing and heart rate and quiet your mind.
  3. Refocus: Use a towel, touch the fence, pick up the balls, walk about and focus on the current point. You should have full commitment to the current point knowing your play. Serve and return 1. Visualize and commit to it. Turn and walk to the line when you know what the plan is and committed to it.
  4. Ready: Bounce the ball however many times you feel comfortable according to your routine; sway back and forth, take a deep breath and lock in on the ball. You are now no longer thinking. Quiet the mind and trust what you are doing. Ready to explode.

Remember: Play the point when you are fully ready, not before.

Yellow Light Routine

Yellow Light = Caution, something is happening that I don’t want, but I’m not panicking.

Yellow light means to step back, take more time and do more mental work to be fully prepared to play the next point. You do this at the towel or fence.

Yellow light can be when you are emotional, anxious, tight, down 0-30 on your serve, up break point after missing the last four break points … any time you feel you need to overcome something to be fully ready to play the next point.

The purpose of Yellow Light: 1) Get to a determined response, bouncing on your toes and ready to play. 2) An easy way to remember it is: breathe and believe.

Yellow Light Options: Choose or create a routine that will help you refocus and be energized and determined. Your routine should probably include some form of relaxation to clear the mind.

Yellow Light Routine (pick which ones you will do):

  1. Deep breaths and see, erase, replace the mistake.
  2. Deep breaths and think of one simple thing to do (like move your feet).
  3. Walk away from the mistake and take deep breaths letting go.
  4. Go to the towel, wipe away the last point and refocus on your game plan.
  5. Think “let it go.” Deep breaths and decide on your game plan.
  6. Touch the fence, deep breaths and reset mentally by focusing on your game plan.

Remember: A bad plan is better than no plan at all. A good plan can get you through the worst of situations. When things get tough, breathe and believe.

Coach Action

Set up routines with your players with several guidelines. First, routines should be simple. Second, they have to be controllable. Third, they should bring in the most important mental skills, vision of game and best performance cues.