Maintaining the “Big Mo” in a Tennis Match

Watching tight matches in the US Open makes my head spin. One minute it’s Vondroušová in charge and then a few minutes later, it’s Tsurenko (or Bertens) takes the lead. What’s going on?

Broadcasters talk about the “Big Mo” in sports. Momentum. Tennis players can feel it on both sides of a big point, teams feel it when they come back late in a match and fans feel it when their team catches fire or goes cold as ice. I know I’ve felt it on the court both as a player and a coach.

There are a lot of opinions in the sports science literature about the existence of momentum. It’s a difficult phenomenon to nail down cause it’s difficult to measure. As a coach, I’m much more interested in what to do about it than I am in its measurement.

I like the Multidimensional Model of Momentum proposed by Jim Taylor and Andrew Demick. They define psychological momentum as “a positive or negative change in cognition, affect, physiology, and behavior caused by an event or series of events that will result in a commensurate shift in performance and competitive outcome”. They call it the “momentum chain”:

  1. Precipitating Event. Examples include an interception or a fumble. The impact of these events on athletes varies depending on how they perceive it and their level of self-confidence.
  2. The precipitating event leads to “changes in cognition, physiology and affect.”
  3. A “change in behavior” stems from these internal perceptions of the athletes.
  4. Next comes a “change in performance”.
  5. Momentum is a two-way street and needs a “contiguous and opposing change for the opponent.” In other words, if after a fumble, the recovering team celebrates and increases their psychological momentum, but the opposing team does not experience an equal negative psychological momentum shift then the immediate flow of the game should remain unchanged.
  6. Finally, if momentum gets this far, there will be “an immediate outcome change”.

Ok, so enough psycho-babble. My question is how do we break the “momentum chain” on the court?

Well stuff happens in league tennis matches so there’s no stopping “precipitating events”. It appears to me that the key to breaking the chain lies in step 2. It’s the old stimulus – response phenomenon. The brief moment between a stimulus and our response to it is the key to maintaining one’s Game Face under pressure. Top players learn to control their reaction in the moment no matter what’s just happened.

Part of our training as tennis players needs to be stroke production, AND it’s also important to practice how to adapt, shift, and respond to match situations. The window of training time between stimulus and response is short but there are a multitude of training opportunities throughout the day – on and off the court.

We must be vigilant and train ourselves to respond to all potential negative situation (mistakes, comments, teammates, children, spouses, traffic, weather etc.) as challenges not problems. The more we can respond to “life’s stuff” with our Game Face, the easier it will be to handle the ups and downs of a tennis match.