The Tennis Mind – Can You Think Too Much on the Court?

I want to share an oldie AND a goodie!  My mentor, Dr. Jim Loehr single handedly brought metal game training to tennis.  He worked with some of the biggest names in the business – Jim Courier, Monica Seles, and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario to name a few.  Back in the day, Dr. Loehr wrote a regular column, the Mental Notebook for the original Tennis magazine.  I’m pretty sure I still have all the original, paper copies of the articles.  Below is one of my favorites. Enjoy!

What do the top players think about when they are performing at their best?  Do they think about anything at all? The answer lies somewhere in the middle.  

I spent several years in the late 70’s investigating what was going on in players’ heads during periods of peak performance.  Invariably, I encountered the same response: The athletes reported that they were not thinking about anything; they were so involved in what they were doing they weren’t thinking about their actions.  Through my research I learned two things about our ideal performance state: 1) Thinking too much will get you into trouble. 2) Not thinking at all also will get you into trouble!

Most tennis players think too much, preventing the merging of action and awareness.  You want to become so involved in a match that hitting the ball becomes automatic. Motor skills are accomplished best when they are spontaneous.

When you think too much you start contemplating the past of the future.  Focusing on the past invariably arouses anger and frustration, while thinking about the future brings fear.  When your thoughts coincide with what you’re doing, the mechanics flow freely.

We know that the more angry or nervous you become during a match, the more you think.  You want to get outside your head when a point starts. Focus on the ball or your target to make actions more spontaneous.

I also examined what successful tennis players thought about between points.  I found out that of the 25 seconds between points, a very small percentage was spent thinking in logical, rational terms.  In doubles – where strategy is so important – the thinking stage is twice what it is in singles. The increase in thought doesn’t interfere with performance.

Good performers spent an average of 3 to 5 seconds thinking between points, while poor performers either spent the entire time thinking or did not think at all.  For poor performers, both cases were catastrophic. If you’re thinking a lot, it’s hard to let go and allow your actions to occur spontaneously. On the other hand, those players don’t give any logical thought to a match play stupid tennis – neither their shots nor their tactics have any meaning.  They don’t know why they are performing well or badly.

The best way to avoid thinking too much between points is to visualize.  Rather than telling yourself to make a certain shot, such as serve an ace, you need to see yourself doing it.  Create the picture and then copy the image. The more you visualize the more you quiet the rational processing of information.  In practice you can think about strokes and strategy. During competition you want to suspend most rational thought and work off spontaneity.

Learn to trust you body.  You are striving for balance of your rational and instinctive capabilities.

4 thoughts about thinking

  1. Learn to catch yourself when you’re thinking too much.  Focus on your breathing and visualize yourself executing a shot.
  2. If you don’t think at all and play on instinct, take a few seconds to reflect on the score, to ask yourself what a coach would say to you if she could.
  3. During competition avoid thinking about mechanics.  Reserve the analysis for practices.
  4. Allow 30 days before expecting real changes in how you think on the court to occur.  Changes will not happen overnight.

NOTE:  Full article appeared in Tennis Magazine in January 1994

By Dr. Jim Loehr, Ed.D