Game, set, and match - developing resilient self-confidence in tennis


Professor Andy Lane looks at the mental qualities needed to be an elite tennis player, and offers practical suggestions on how tennis players can improve their mental game.












Imagine the scene. It’s the Wimbledon final and the first game of the match. The game begins and scoring goes as follows; 15-love, 30-love, 45-love and game. After each point the umpire calls the score over the public address system for both players and spectators to hear.


A closer analysis of this sequence of events indicates that one player has been told they are winning five times, before winning the game, where as the other player has received the same information about losing the game.


We know that success develops self-confidence, both in terms of our own performance (winning each point), and being told that we are being successful by significant others (the umpire, calling out the score, providing information of our success).


Tennis players are constantly bombarded during the course of the game on how well they are performing. Possibly, in no other sport is the score so clearly and constantly expressed to the players and spectators.


Despite constant reinforcement of the score, it is possible for a player to win more points, but lose the game. For example, if a player loses a match 6-4/6-4, but all the winning games are won to love and the losing games lost only after reaching deuce, he or she would have actually won 40 points in each set, and lost only 24, despite losing the match overall!


In the hypothetical example described above, the difference between who won and who lost would be decided on just 8 points. In this article, we look at how the mental toughness of tennis players can be developed so that they can cope in an environment where confidence can be easily dented and where resilience and determination needs to remain high.


Ready for action

Tennis players need to develop a resilient degree of self-confidence. They are bombarded with information that can affect self-confidence and therefore need to focus on positive information, where sometimes positive information is hard to find.


During a tennis match, players have only themselves for comfort as they are not allowed to speak with their coach during the game. Tennis players need to introspect, and call on inner reserves to maintain self-confidence during a game. Studies have shown that winning tennis players report high levels of self-confidence, and low anxiety[1], are able to control emotions before competition[2] and can use adaptive coping skills[3].


Research also show that tennis players’ psychological states can be enhanced with appropriate psychological skills training[4], and it is with this in mind, the present article will attempt to offer practical strategies to enhance tennis players’ mental game, based on scientific evidence.



The first thing I do with tennis players is to explore their general self-confidence towards playing tennis. Self-confidence in tennis is different to a more general concept known as self-esteem, which relates to how they value themselves as a person (more later). The aim is to try to ensure that the inner dialogue that runs through a player’s mind focuses on the recalling previous successes.


The brain and memory are very complex. Sometimes we find it difficult to remove negative thoughts in situations that require us to be positive. When I work with athletes, I try to encourage them to record as many positive features from their training and competition as possible. For example, where tennis players have had a very good session practicing serves, it is important that they recall as much information from that practice session as soon as possible.


They should recall how they felt prior to serving excellently, what their thoughts were in the preparation phase before to serve, what they were concentrating on while executing the serve, and how they felt about seeing the serve going where they wanted it to go.


Equally, it is important to record situations where performance didn’t go as planned, and unpack how the athlete felt before during and after those performances. By developing a performance diary it is possible to see individual trends in psychological states, particularly the inner dialogue and thought processes, and how they relate to performance.


Strategy 1: developing positive self-affirmations

Once the performance diary has been developed, I can then develop with the athlete specific self-talk affirmations. Firstly, we develop general statements, followed by specific affirmations, and also achievement reminders. Some examples are described in box 1 below:


Box 1: Developing positive self-affirmations


Task 1: Resilient self-confidence

·         Affirmations (General)

»        “I am confident in my ability”

»        “I can stay focused under pressure”

·         Affirmations (Specific)

»        “Attack the ball”

»        “If he gets ahead, just stay calm and focused”

·         Achievement reminders

»        “My fitness tests show that I’m much stronger”

»        “I came back strong after that terrible start in my last game”


This work is followed by strategies to replace negative or unpleasant thoughts and feelings with positive ones. This of course is very difficult to do, and we know that when athletes are experiencing intense emotions during a match, it’s difficult to think strategically. However, most athletes have a strong desire to avoid unpleasant cycles of negative thinking, and through the use of imagery and by going through performances when unpleasant thinking has occurred, you can develop a positive script that can be used in such situations. The key point here is that tennis players need to plan carefully how they manage their mind between each point.


Strategy 2: thought replacement

The following quotes were taken from an athlete’s performance diary. These are typical quotes and the positive thoughts proposed to replace them are also fairly standard. However, the athlete must practice this technique for it to be effective. If we think of the number of times that an athlete experiences negative thinking and try to balance these thoughts against the number of times that they have effectively managed negative thinking, then the likely outcome is that the negative experiences outweigh the positive strategies.


A winning mental strategy can seem effortless, and therefore it is important to document the experiences associated with it so that they can be used proactively when things are not going so well. When negative thinking kicks in, athletes require robust practices to overcome it and it’s important therefore that athletes constantly reinforce replacing negative thinking with positive thinking.


Box 2 shows examples of how you can try to develop alternative ways of thinking about negative thoughts that you experience during competition or training:


Box 2: thought replacement


Task 2: Thought replacement task

»        “My mistake was crucial” becomes “I’ll put it right next time”

»         “I can’t” becomes “I can ... if ...”

»        “It’s a problem” becomes “It’s a challenge”

»         “……………………becomes                          

»        “……………………becomes                           

»        “……………………becomes                          



Developing performance routines

Performance routines are most effective when the player has as much control of situational factors as possible. It is much easier to develop a performance routine for your own service than returning service. On your own service, you know when you will serve, where you will serve, and how power and spin you will try to put on the ball. Players have to estimate these factors when returning serve and therefore developing performance routines is more complicated. Pre-performance routines are effective because they are patterns of behaviour and thoughts that can be reinforced. Athletes should practise skills sufficiently so that they can perform the action(s) without thinking, which will help to develop confidence in their ability.


The following is an example pre-performance routine developed with a tennis player.

l      PREPARATION PHASE – Focus on physical preparation. Use deep breathing exercises to force yourself to concentrate on physiological processes. The rationale of this strategy is that when athletes are tired it is easier to focus on physiological cues because they are more salient. I use this as a conscious strategy to encourage athletes to think about physiological symptoms, and thereby to gain control of their concentration. I also encourage athletes to develop positive self-statements to focus on relaxing, although the some athletes it is just as important to turn off that inner voice and have no self-talk.

l      FOCUSING PHASE –take another deep breath, focus on target area, and visualise successful performance. When athletes use visualisation in this way, they should also try to feel the movements and rehearse how they can use emotions positively to enhance performance.

l      EXECUTION PHASE – The execution phase should be characterised by an inner sense of calm, and a feeling that the athlete is in control of what will happen next. Once the athlete starts performing, over-analytical thoughts should be switched off and the athlete should switch to a mode of being on autopilot, but one that is underpinned by an intense motivation to succeed.

l      ANALYSIS PHASE – The analysis phase follows the execution phase and proceeds the preparation phase. It is important that athletes do not spend too long analysing the previous performance, whether they are successful or unsuccessful. Athletes can learn to park their mistakes, accepting that an error was made, but insisting that they will not repeat the same error again during that game. Equally athletes must not become overconfident and assume that effort could be reduced in order to win the game.



Maintaining concentration under the spotlight

Playing sport can be a very public event. Players need to learn to cope with performing in front of others, and whilst this can be a celebration of success, when you’re trying to battle through adversity, it can be like living out your nightmare in public.


Playing sport, and particularly tennis (where players are constantly informed of the score!) can be a lonely experience. Players need to be able to learn to cope with their own emotions and be able to ignore distractions from the crowd that might hinder their psychological state.


We recently were involved with a project investigating the effects of the crowd on the psychological states of athletes [5]. We were particularly interested in how elite athletes coped with being heckled by the crowd. We conducted three focus group interviews seeking to explore which aspects of crowd noise, including singing was helpful for performance, and which aspects were harmful.


The results revealed that elite players are able to block out crowd noise very effectively. Players articulated very clearly, and described situations in which crowd heckling took place, where they developed strategies that help them cope with crowd noise.


However, while on one level it might be true that crowd noise has little effect on player performance, a closer inspection of the data suggests that players have to work harder to ignore heckling from the crowd than when the crowd are being supportive. If we view concentration as something similar to a percentage scale (ie it has a limit of 100% capacity) then when players are actively ignoring the crowd, a greater proportion of their concentration has to be given than when the crowd being supportive.


Further, when a greater proportion of concentration is focused on ignoring the crowd, then inevitably, a smaller proportion of concentration can be focused on winning the game. Graph 1 shows the how the concentration is divided between the game, external distractions such as the weather, internal distractions, such as planning the next shot or daydreaming, and finally strategies used to actively ignore crowd noise.


In graph 1, we can see that the player needs to make little effort to control their attention to ignore crowd noise. By contrast, where the player is playing in front of a hostile crowd (graph 2), it shows quite clearly that a greater proportion of concentration needs to be given to ignoring the ground. Therefore, even though experienced players are able to play in front of a hostile crowd, sustaining excellent performance does require more mental effort.


Graph 1: Allocation of concentration in front of a supportive crowd








Graph 2: Allocation of concentration in front of a hostile crowd






In tennis, crowd support tends to occur between points. Whilst this clearly will not interfere with psychological states during performance, it can affect how an athlete responds to the previous point, and how an athlete prepares to the next point. It is arguable that crowd noise in tennis can be very helpful in developing psychological momentum. Players who respond positively to the previous shot and prepare effectively to the next shot are likely to perform better than players whose focus is still fixed on the previous shot and therefore unprepared the next point.


Dealing with external distractions

By looking through the list of possible external distractions indicated below and simply placing a tick beside some of the distractions listed, you can identify what distracts you. Once you’ve identified these distractions, you can start developing strategies to cope with these distractions.


·         Noise in the crowd

·         Clicking of a camera

·         Movement seen in peripheral vision

·         Verbal attempts to intimidate by opponents

·         Seeing coach get up and leave


»        ..................................................................

»        ..................................................................

»        ..................................................................


Dealing with internal distractions

Even when the crowd is silent, your mind can be a forest of distraction and an inability to identify the relevant cues can lead to anxiety. We know that becoming anxious leads to an increase in physiological arousal, which in turn makes it more difficult for us to control and concentration[6]. Listed below are some of the internal distractions that athletes typically report.


·         Worrying about the importance of the next round;

·         Thinking about a previous error;

·         Anger at a referee’s poor decision;

·         Concern about whether an injured knee will influence performance;

·         Getting too analytical about the fight.


»        ..................................................................

»        ..................................................................

»        ..................................................................



It’s not just about tennis

In a study, conducted by professional tennis coach Liz Jones and myself, we looked at the coping strategies, and how these interacted with self-esteem among tennis players following defeat. Anecdotal evidence is provided by the multitude of examples of how psychological momentum can be gained following winning or losing critical games.


A tie-break to decide a set is a good example of how psychological momentum can sway to the opponent. The study, using national level junior tennis players, examined changes in self-confidence following the loss of a tie-break (4). Players were matched according to ability and played a single tie-break. We were particularly interested in the scores of losing players.


Results showed clearly that a loss of self-confidence produced the following defeat - a result that was entirely expected. However, we also demonstrated that the self-confidence of players who were high in self-esteem was much higher than players who were low in self-esteem.


Self-esteem is a complex variable. Some individuals invest their self-esteem in a range of different situations; for example, being a good tennis player, being good academically, being kind, having many friends and so on. Among aspiring elite athletes, there is a tendency to invest self-esteem almost entirely in playing sport, and tennis players who are typically nurtured during adolescence provide a very good example of this.


Those players who were low in self-esteem coped with defeat by using strategies such as self-blame disengagement; that is, they withdrew any serious intention is to win the next game. I suggest that players are encouraged to invest their self-esteem in a number of different activities. Coaches should therefore not over-emphasise the importance of winning and losing to young athletes, as this can lead to self-esteem being couched solely in tennis performance, which can be detrimental in the long-term to not only the health of the player, but also to performance.


Figure1: Changes in self-confidence (self-efficacy) between players high in self-esteem and players low in self-esteem (from Lane, Jones, & Stevens, 2002 (4)).



Psychological momentum in tennis is affected on a point-by-point basis and players need to develop strategies to cope with slumps during the game. Maintaining resilient self-confidence can be achieved by developing effective strategies such as using affirmation statements, thought replacement, pre-performance routines, and using concentration strategies. However, caution is urged when self-esteem is directly affected by changes in self-confidence following poor performance. Players should be encouraged to invest their self-esteem in a range of activities - not only tennis.


Andy Lane is professor of Sport and Learning at the University of Wolverhampton and editor of the ‘Sport and Exercise Scientist’, published by the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES).


[1] Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1996, 83, 595-603.


[2] Journal of Sports Sciences, 2000, 18, 559-560.


[3] Journal of Sport Behavior, 2002, 25, 331-345.


[4] Journal of Sports Sciences, 2005, 23, 1247.


[5] Journal of Sports Sciences, in press.


[6] Competition Anxiety Needn’t Get You Down. Peak Performance April 2007, issue 228; p5-7 Electric Word Publishing PLC