Tennis is often called a "mental" sport. What does this mean?
In my opinion, it accents the types of demands placed upon the player.
For example, high priorities include having a well thought out pre-match strategy, making rapid and accurate decisions under fire,
adjusting as necessary, and staying calm and focused. It's much like
playing chess, but a whole lot more fun and better for the body!
Mental factors are also essential in developing physical tools for
the game (e.g., efficient strokes, proper footwork, fitness), for
without quality instruction and knowledge, progress can be very
difficult. Unlike in some other sports, sheer athletic ability and
brute strength play a less prominent role. What is really needed in
tennis is more advanced software. Enter imagery.
Imagery, also called visualization, was recently described by
Vealey and Walter (1993) as a mental technique that programs the
human mind to respond as programmed, by using all the senses to
recreate or create an experience. Mahoney (1977) described imagery
as one of four categories of cognitive skills important in athletic
performance, and Suinn (1984) developed a popular version of imagery
called visual motor behavior rehearsal (VMBR). Whenever we imagine
ourselves performing an action in the absence of physical practice,
we are said to be using imagery. Although research into the merits
of imagery lags far behind the practice of the technique, many tennis
players find imagery helpful. It is used for rehearsing new skills,
practicing and refining existing skills, preparing for particular
points, and readying for an entire match. Studies have shown imagery
to be helpful in a variety of ways such as reducing warm-up decrement,
lowering anxiety, and increasing self-confidence.
How is this technique implemented? First, it should be
recognized that, like any skill, practice is necessary. Most tennis
players spend enormous time and energy improving their strokes and
other physical skills, while neglecting mental practice. Ask
yourself what percentage of your practice time is spent hitting balls
versus developing essential mental skills through techniques such as
imagery. You may discover that you are ignoring this crucial part of
your game. Jimmy Connors once said that tennis is 70% mental skills.
Are you even spending 7% of your practice time using mental
One note of caution, imagery may hurt your game if your
understanding of strategy and/or strokes is deficient. In fact,
you'll just reinforce bad habits. Before getting started, make sure
your knowledge and basic skills are intact. If you are a
professional or advanced tennis player, this should pose few
difficulties. Beginners and intermediates should schedule regular
lessons with their local professional to monitor their progress.
Imagery can be practiced by lying down in a quiet room, fully
relaxed, with eyes closed. This longer version lasts anywhere from
15 minutes to an hour. It is often used prior to a match and helps
prepare the player mentally. Here, the player rehearses a perfect
performance, often visualizing a complete match point by point. A
shorter version of imagery, lasting only a few seconds, can be used
during match play. For example, prior to serving, the player
visualizes a perfect serve to a strategical location. Imagery is
also useful to familiarize the player with high percentage shot
sequences, developing anticipation skills for a quicker and more
effective response during the actual point.
Some individuals have a more natural ability to form visual
images than others. Here are some tips for those with difficulty
(1) Try thinking in pictures rather than words
(2) Look at pictures or videos prior to using imagery
(3) Stay in a quiet, relaxed and calm environment to avoid
Here are some general principles to enhance imagery:
(1) Make the imagery seem as realistic as possible by
including all senses, in full color and detail,
within a similar emotional context
(2) Practice imagery regularly as it may take months before
(3) Believe that imagery works, as your attitudes and
expectations enhance the effect
(4) Keep a focused yet relaxed attention while using
(5) Internal imagery is most effective. Picture yourself
actually accomplishing the feat (from your
minds eye), rather than viewing yourself from the
outside looking in.
(6) Only imagine perfection. This will boost your self-
confidence and reinforce good habits.
In closing, imagery is a potent mental technique that will raise
the level of your game if your basic skills and understanding of
tennis are solid. Just don't let your opponent know what you're
thinking! Until next month...