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By Gigi Fernandez | January 12, 2018

 
Gigi Fernandez

Hall of Famer Gigi Fernandez provides three essential mental toughness tips that helped her win 17 Grand Slam titles and can help you, too.

Photo credit: Gigi Fernandez/Doubles.TV

We all know tennis is a game of skill.

It takes hours, month and years to perfect a shot. WTA and ATP Tour pros are constantly improving their games and spending infinite hours mastering their shot repertoire.

King: Rename Margaret Court Arena

Recreational players follow the same principal when referring to mastering a skill.

However, there is a big difference in the preparation and readiness of the pros versus the recreational players when it comes to the mental part of the game.

Since I started teaching recreational players I noticed the lack of mental preparation that players have when competing. I am sure you have heard that competitive tennis is largely mental. Depending on who you ask, you will hear somewhere between 70 percent and 95 percent.

In any case, if tennis is so mental, shouldn’t we spend a proportionate amount of time working on that aspect of the game?

The answer is YES!

To achieve mastery of this very challenging element, tennis players need to work at it just like they work on their technical skills. However, the reality is that “who has time for that?” and it’s really not as fun as hitting balls. With the limited time we have, there isn’t much time left in the day to work on the mental part of tennis. In order to improve, we must.

This year, I want to help you become mentally tougher and I am sharing the top three mental cues that helped me become a 17-time Grand Slam Champion.

The Little Black Box

I am a passionate player and during my tennis career sometimes my temper (internal) and external influences got the best of me.

After being fined, while on the tour, more times that I am proud to admit, I developed a mental strategy to help me cope with any situation that was unpleasant to me. I created an imaginary little black box that was solid as steel. Bad calls, bad schedules, rain delays, underperforming partners, obnoxious opponents—all of the things I couldn't control automatically went in the little black box.

If I had thoughts about winning the match, what it meant to me, the outcome's effect on my ranking, talking to my parents after a big win, what winning an Olympic medal would mean—those things too went into the magical little black box as well.

It’s almost impossible to completely ignore these thoughts during a match, but putting them in the box tricked my mind into temporarily forgetting. It was also important that the thoughts would be dealt with at some point…not simply ignored. I challenge you to try it...I promise you will love the little black box!

Focus on the Next Point

When I recall my best matches, I know that I played my best when all I did was simply focus on: (drumroll please…) winning the next point!

Yes, one point at a time... for an entire match. I truly mean no other thought, other than tactical or strategic adjustments entered my mind. Easier said than done, right? I agree! However, if you think about it for a second you will understand what I am saying.

You can't do anything about the point you just played. Whether you won the point or lost the point, it is over with so let it go and just focus on playing the next point. If you are feeling very proud of a winner you hit or frustrated because you think you got a bad call... let it go... move forward and focus only on the next point!

You can't control the outcome of the match by thinking four points ahead. Maybe in the next game it's your turn to serve and you are not serving well, or maybe it is the opponent's serve and they have a killer serve that is hard to break. Bottom line, you won't know the outcome of the match until the last point has been completed. Therefore, why think about it and worse yet... worry about it during the match? Just simply focus on the next point!



Detach from the Outcome

The mental cue that was most helpful to me throughout my career was "Detach from the Outcome." I heard these words for the first time from my mental coach during a rain delay while playing in the 1992 Wimbledon final.

I had not yet won a Wimbledon title and had blown a lead in the 1991 final to lose 6- 4 in the third. In the '92 Wimbledon final, Natasha Zvereva and I quickly went down two breaks (1-4 15-30) to our arch-rivals Larisa Savchenko-Neiland and Jana Novotna, when it started to pour.

An added subtext to this match was that these two had been our partners in the ‘91 finals (Natasha with Larisa, me with Jana) but each had ditched us to play with each other after the final. Needless to say, everything from the setting to the backstory made this a very emotional situation.

The conversation outside the locker room went like this.

“ARGH, I am so mad…I am playing like $HiQ#^$(Q#^$(*&!!!!!!!!

“Gigi, you need to detach for the outcome.”

“WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN?”

“You have to not care whether you win or lose. Either way it’s the same.”

“Yeah right…IMPOSSIBLE. IT’S THE WIMBLEDON FINAL…I’ve been dreaming about this for 30+years … How can I not care whether I win or lose?”

But somehow, I was able to heed my coach's advice and detach myself emotionally from victory or defeat.

Fear of losing and excitement over winning are each equally unproductive. As I slowly allowed myself to detach from the potential excitement of winning my first Wimbledon title or the disappointment of losing yet again in the finals, and focused on winning the next point only, I quickly found top form.

We won 11 of the next 12 games—and won the first of three straight Wimbledon titles.



Whenever you find yourself too invested in the outcome of a match, remember it’s just a game and repeat these four words like a mantra: Detach from the outcome.

Hopefully, they'll help you as much as they helped me. And yet, even if you don't win the match, by detaching you will be able to relax and simply enjoy the process of competition.


Hall of Famer Gigi Fernandez is a 17-time Grand Slam champion and former world No. 1 doubles player who has devoted her post-playing career to coaching. For more mental tips, doubles lessons and to learn more from Gigi, please visit her website Doubles.TV. 

 

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