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IMGCA Article - The Mental Game of Tennis


Secret to a Better Mental Tennis Game

Kathy Toon

How do they do it? How do the best tennis players at any level, perform their best under pressure? Can anyone learn to do this?

These are questions that have driven me for years because I was one of those players with a beautiful game yet choked under pressure. It drove me nuts.

I've been fortunate to work with one of the "founding fathers" of applied sport psychology in tennis, Dr. James Loehr. Loehr wanted to know what separated the top 50 pros in the world from the next crop. He studied it intensively and could not find anything during the action. The big break through came when he studied what the best players did in the 25 seconds between points.

He discovered that the best players in the world are very disciplined and consistent with their time between points while the lesser players were not.

We took Loehr's work and applied it to our singles players at Cal and then developed the model for doubles as well. This work was a key ingredient to our success.

After applying Loehr's model with our own teams, Coach Brogan and I applied to other sports as well and found that it worked beautifully. Eventually I turned our work into my first book, Get Your Game Face On!

Today I want to share with you the cornerstone piece of the Game Face model. I believe this one step I'm going to share with you is the key to the mental game on and off the court.

The first of the four steps in the Game Face routine is "Reaction". This means what do you do the monument the point is over? What do you look like? What do you sound like? How well do you manage your reaction on the court no matter what just happened in the point?

Most players I work with say, "Well, it depends. Did I win or lose the point?"

The best players at any level never say, "It depends." They have trained themselves to manage their reaction no matter what happens. They maintain a tall, confident posture on the court regardless of how the point ended.

They keep their Game Face On at all times. This includes after they've made a mistake - or their partner made a mistake!

The reaction step is the first 3 seconds after the point ends. To keep your Game Face on and have the best shot at playing well under pressure, it's essential you learn to mange this short yet curtail window of time.

The classic, high level reaction step in tennis looks like this - turn away from the net or a mistake, take the racquet out of your non-dominant hand, maintain a tall confident posture and walk to pick up the ball. And mentally, you say something simple like, "yeah", or right back or next one" - if you or your partner just blew it.

Finally, if you want this high level, Game Face reaction to show up on demand regardless of what just happened, you need to practice it - a lot. You have many opportunities every time you are on a tennis court to practice this step - at clinics, practice sessions, matches etc.

This is the first and cornerstone piece of a strong mental game. You know what to do, now practice it.

Kathy Toon is author of the book Get Your Game Face On! and former Division-1Tennis Coach at UC Berkeley. Discover how to play your best tennis when the game is on the line by grabbing your free copy of The X Factor Report: Secrets to Winning Doubles at

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