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IMGCA Article - The Mental Game of Tennis


Overcome These Three Harmful Tennis Optical Illusions To Improve Your Game

Bill Cole, MS, MA

In my coaching, I unfortunately see people endlessly repeating three major and predictable errors on the tennis court. There are, of course, many types of errors, but I am referring here to three special optical illusions.

These situations fool your eyes and your mind into doing very predictable things, but these errors are easy to avoid once you know what they are and why they are made.

These illusions are so strong they deceive your senses and make you hit the ball in a particular error pattern the same way again and again. Even after I inform a student about each of these three dilemmas, they will continue to make these same errors until they thoroughly practice their new responses. To defeat these mental tricks, you need to understand what they are and how to create a conditioned, yet counter-intuitive response that handles each situation. If not, your natural, human instinct will continue to get you in trouble because your sense data is so overwhelming in favor of doing what appears so reasonable and common-sensible to do.

Here are the three optical/mental illusions:

1. A High Forehand Or Backhand Groundstroke (Above Your Shoulders) From The Baseline Or Non-Man's Land

The Illusion-- You think you should aim down, since the ball appears to be so high and the net seems so low. You also think you should kill the ball since it is high and slow.

Why It Fools You-- You believe that if you don't aim down, the ball will go out, and that hitting out is worse than hitting into the net. You unfortunately attack it, because since it is high, it seems easy to kill.

The Common Error--At least 90% of the time the ball goes into the net.

The Problem--This is a sucker shot that amateurs try to kill. Pros rarely attempt to attack this ball from so far back because they know the opponent will get it anyhow. Inexperienced players attack this ball and pay the price by hitting it into the net. For every error that goes long, there are probably ten that go into the net.

The Reality-- High groundstrokes from so far back need to be treated as safety shots, and merely returned deep to get out of trouble. This need not be a tough shot if you treat it with respect.

Mental Tip-- Don't get greedy with this shot and try to put it away. Even the pros don't try this from the baseline.

2. A High Backhand Or Forehand Volley (Above your shoulders) From The Baseline Or Non-Man's Land

The Illusion--You think you should aim down, since the ball appears to be so high and the net seems so low. You also think you should kill the ball since it is high and slow.

Why It Fools You--You believe that if you don't aim down, the ball will go out, and that hitting out is worse than hitting into the net. You unfortunately attack it, because since it is high, it seems easy to kill.

The Common Error--At least 90% of the time, the ball goes into the net.

The Problem-- The ball is not as high as it appears, the net is not as low as it appears and the common error here is to hit into the net. That's a bad error, because you never give the opponent a chance to hit it and possibly miss, and of the ones you get over, those will land short.

The Reality-- Excellent high volleys from this far back should be aimed deep, not angled or done with soft touch. They should be treated as approach shots, not kill shots.

Mental Tip--Treat this shot as an approach shot or safety shot and just get it back in play. If you do make a mistake, make it a quality error by going long.

3. The Drop Shot

The Illusion-- You think you should barely skim the ball a few inches over the net.

Why It Fools You-- You believe that if you do not skim the ball low, the opponent will "get" your drop shot.

The Common Error--At least 80% of the time the ball goes into the net, or, if it makes it over the net, is a lousy, deep drop shot, virtually worthless to you, and actually puts you in trouble.

The Problem-- Because aiming so low is extremely risky, you will often hit the net, and when you do get the drop shot over, the second bounce will be so far back from the first bounce (due to the low net trajectory), the opponent will easily run up to get the ball.

The Reality-- Excellent drop shots go over the net from one to three feet in height. The ensuing steep drop then makes the second bounce be quite short, near the net. If you apply backspin, that makes the second bounce shorter still.

Mental Tip-- If you are afraid the opponent will get to your drop shot, consider these two thoughts. One, maybe you shouldn't drop shot, because out of a fear the opponent will get it, you'll try to make it too perfect and miss. Two, you should not be upset if the opponent "gets" your drop shot. If they hit it from a disadvantaged position, you will then either pass them, lob them or volley through them. The fact that your opponent "gets" your drop really means almost nothing. It's what you do with the next shot that counts.

Understand how these optical illusions operate and how they fool your senses. Don't fall victim to them. Realize them for the tricksters they are. If you recognize them, work on a better response, and then stay aware as they come up on the court, you'll stay in charge of them.

Don't let your common sense approach to these optical illusions deceive you. Over-ride your natural, yet incorrect intuition in these situations and you'll turn surprising mental traps into easily-handled, routine shots and plays.

Copyright © Bill Cole, MS, MA 2003, 2007 All rights reserved.

This article covers only one small part of the mental game. A complete mental training program includes motivation and goal-setting, pre-event mental preparation, post-event review and analysis, mental strengthening, self-regulation training, breath control training, motor skill training, mental rehearsal, concentration training, pressure-proofing, communication training, confidence-building, breaking through mental barriers, slump prevention, mental toughness training, flow training, relaxation training, momentum training, psych-out proofing and media training.

For a comprehensive overview of your mental abilities you need an assessment instrument that identifies your complete mental strengths and weaknesses. For a free, easy-to-take 65-item sport psychology assessment tool you can score right on the spot, visit This assessment gives you a quick snapshot of your strengths and weaknesses in your mental game. You can use this as a guide in creating your own mental training program, or as the basis for a program you undertake with Bill Cole, MS, MA to improve your mental game. This assessment would be an excellent first step to help you get the big picture about your mental game.

Bill Cole, MS, MA, a leading authority on peak performance, mental toughness and coaching, is founder and President of the International Mental Game Coaching Association, Bill is also founder and CEO of William B. Cole Consultants, a consulting firm that helps organizations and professionals achieve more success in business, life and sports. He is a multiple Hall of Fame honoree, an award-winning scholar-athlete, published book author and articles author, and has coached at the highest levels of major-league pro sports, big-time college athletics and corporate America. For a free, extensive article archive, or for questions and comments visit him at

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