Guest Post by Paul Micelli
The role of psychology in tennis is often made more complicated than it really needs to be by a string of tactically-absorbed coaches and lazy sports commentators who prefer to talk about their idealistic visions of the game instead of focusing on the realistic aspects of what is actually being presented to them. The last four decades have seen a string of players reach the highest levels of tennis having enjoyed the benefits of inter-player psychology. It should be regarded as anything but a coincidence that these popular champions possessed the uncanny ability to have an opposing player mentally beaten long before the formalities of actually playing a game had even started.
Tennis psychology, as with any other sport, focuses on developing an understanding of the mental mechanics of an opponent. By establishing the rules and motives that make another player function it is possible to enforce your own beliefs into their psyche to gain the slightest of edges in the mental assaults that have become an integral part of top-level tennis competitions. It should be noted that even athletes of exceptional physical ability are unlikely to be successful in the field of psychological supremacy if they are unable to comprehend the mental workings of their own mind.
To be in control of the mental battles that take place on the modern tennis court is to hold a definite advantage in terms of winning the physical battle as well. Much of this psychological superiority lies in the realization that there are a number of mental attributes that can have a significant effect on the physical side of the game. While some players thrive on the euphoria of hard-won points, service breaks and comprehensive set wins, another player will excel when faced with mounting pressure, irritation or anger. These emotions can have a massive influence on the psychological side of a player’s game and their best tennis can often be played when they indulge in the comfort of these familiar thoughts and emotions. This serves to explain why some players produce their best tennis when the game appears to be going against them from an outside perspective.
In much the same way as some tennis players will be able to study the mental side of their game and focus on the characteristics that promote a feeling of positivity, they will also need to recognize if directly contrasting emotions leave them feeling frustrated, confused or unable to perform to the best of their ability.
Once thorough understandings of their own psychological traits have been realized, a player can begin to look at the mental habits of their opponents. Temperaments tend to be classic examples of opposite behavior and an opponent with similar mental characteristics is much more likely to respond in a similar fashion to identical situations. On the flip side, a player of almost opposite temperament will need to be assessed using previous examples of game play in a number of different conditions. Once the psychological aspects of an opposing player have been determined, it becomes easier to force them into mental corners during the different stages of an unfolding game. By studying the psychological manners of his own game, a player becomes better equipped to face the challenges of understanding the mind of his opponent.
Of course, it has to be remembered that the thought processes of professional players can actually be studied in a number of ways. Responses and habits provide a firm indication of how a player will react to key passages of play but their basic physical approach can be just as revealing as any form of mind games. A conservative tennis player that holds his position on the baseline is rarely regarded on as being an absorbed thinker. Using the psychology of the game, a player with a strong mental edge will know that producing variations in his own style of play can be the key factor in emerging victorious. Simply expressing the ability to think through the game as a physical expression can be enough to win the mental battle even in the early stages of a match.
The static baseline player doesn’t want to deal with the mental responsibility of making crucial decisions. He shows a preference to remain in his own comfort zone and the thought of removing himself from the mental shell he has created will reduce his movement around the court. This offers an explanation as to how players of greater talent and variation hold psychological supremacy over those with a single style of play.
However, it would be dangerous to judge all baseline players as being a single mental breed. Even when playing styles appear to be similar at first glance, the psychology of tennis indicates a different trend. While the unthinking baseline player can be easily beaten, there will be other individuals who will hold their position at the back of the court as a means of unleashing a series of mental tests upon their opponent. This suddenly makes the player incredibly dangerous and the psychological prodding of an opponent will be displayed in a series of contrasting baseline shots that mix length, direction, weight and spin. All the time, this type of player is continually bombarding his opponent with a series of questions in both the physical and mental sense. Answering these questions positively by producing effective returns will eventually stem the flow of inquisitive play and once again, the player with the stronger mental capacity will ultimately emerge victorious.