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Dave Rineberg's Coaching Corner: Five techniques to play mentally tougher

Dave Rineberg in News 17 Dec 2018
  • Dave Rineberg is back with another expert dispatch from the Coaching Corner
  • Rineberg is the former hitting coach of the Williams sisters and has coached 26 top-100 players
  • Read on for Dave's five techniques to improve your mental toughness
Rafael Nadal is known as one of the most mentally tough players in the sport (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

The mental part of tennis is as tough to master as forehands and backhands - but not to worry, legendary coach Dave Rineberg is here to help with another installment of his Coaching Corner.


Tennis players of all levels have experienced some sort of mental breakdown during a match, whether you're playing in a US Open final, or an 11-year-old girl who double-faults every time she serves because she’s too afraid to swing away. 

The mind is the most powerful weapon a tennis player can have, and most players will all agree that the mental side of the game is the hardest part to master in a winning game. Mastering the mental game takes as much time and practice as does your forehands and backhands and so it’s no coincidence that there are hundreds of sports psychologists (shrinks) standing by to help.

Here are five mental toughness techniques you can try right away that will keep you out of the shrink’s office.

1. Use trigger phrases


Novak Djokovic shows his frustration during the final of the Nitto ATP Finals  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
One of the simplest tools to fix a mental breakdown during a match is the use of trigger phases in your self-talk. My favorite is saying the phrase, “Just play the ball.” This phrase can help stop you from worrying about what your opponent is doing and bring your focus back to your side of the net - and back to the most basic thing in the game of tennis; that is, the ball. You can only control what is happening on your side of the net. When you obsessively focus on the opponent, then you will make errors - which is what leads to the emotional breakdowns. 

“Just play the ball” is a great trigger phrase to keep your mind inside the lines. Try it.

2. Don't dwell, move on


One thing that can inhibit your natural flow on the court during a match and affect you mentally is being too upset or analytical about a missed stroke or shot. 
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Yes when you miss a shot, you need to think about why you missed it, but you don’t want to dwell on it for more than a few seconds, especially the mechanics of it. 

If you miss a shot it’s OK to take a moment to think out what you did wrong, and maybe practice the motion once or twice in the air, but then you have to let it go. If you are still thinking about the mistake when the next point starts, it will show up again, I guarantee it. If you are having trouble letting go, try some positive self-talk, like "You’re hitting well", "Next point, let’s go!". Tennis players need to have what I call the Teflon coating. Nothing sticks to Teflon and neither should mistakes stick to you.  

3. Stay in the now


The next mental toughness tip is for when you are receiving serve. Focus can abandon you since you do not have control over when the point starts. 

This momentary lack of control can have you wondering what is for dinner later or reflecting over a movie you may have recently watched. Instead of letting your mind wonder, try using that small amount of time to focus on something in the now, like straightening your strings. This simple technique of straightening your strings will help center and simplify your focus, keeping you concentrating on the now. 

Serena Williams shows her frustration during the US Open final (Photo by Eduardo MUNOZ ALVAREZ / AFP) 
Once you have your focus and look up from your strings, try focusing on the air space just above your opponents head. This is where you are first going to make eye contact with the ball as your opponent tosses the ball to serve. As the ball toss enters this air space, try to look at the ball as if it is in slow motion by saying a long drawn out ‘baaaall’ that lasts until your opponent contacts the ball on his or her racket. This technique works well for zoning in on the ball and the higher the toss the better it works.

4. Game plan versatility


All players have a plan ‘A’ when they enter a match, but most have no plan ‘B’ or ‘C’ if things go wrong. Lack of versatility creates mental strain and despair in your game because there are no safety valves to go to when plan ‘A’ is in failure. 

A key factor in psychological health is feeling empowered to choose a different course of action if the action you are using isn’t working. You will need to learn to use all areas of the court, and be able to hit all kinds of different shots with all the different degrees of spin to have that versatility. A simple plan ‘B’ if plan ‘A’ is not working is to hit every ball cross court. It’s simple and it works.

5. Keep a positive attitude


This is another area that affects your mental toughness, and one area where junior players really struggle. 

If you watch a match closely, you can often tell the player in the match who is winning and the player who is losing just by the body language alone. The player with the bounce in his step and his shoulders thrown back is the one who is winning, and the one with the dejected look who is walking slumped around the court is the one losing. 

Negative body language is not only noticed by the spectators, but it sends out a message to the opponent that you are struggling with your game and if the match continues to be a struggle, you will most likely quit trying. Believe me, opponents love to see that. 

The tip


The first question I always ask a player who shows negative body language or gives up in a tough match is, “How did you know that your opponent wasn’t the one who was about to quit mentally?” 

Since you don’t know what your opponent is thinking or how they are feeling, you should never let them know how you feel. It will only encourage them to try harder. The way you act will rub off into your own play so if you act negatively, then you will play poorly; if you act confident, you will play confident; and if you act happy, you will enjoy the battle.


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Dave Rineberg's Coaching Corner: Five techniques to play mentally tougher

The mental part of tennis is as tough to master as forehands and backhands - but not to worry, legendary coach Dave Rineberg is here to help with another installment of his Coaching Corner

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