Improving Your Self-Talk During Tennis Practice or Matches

Quite often, as coaches, we hear new students talk negatively about their strokes. One common student answer to “Is there anything that you know you need to work on?” is “Well, my backhand SUCKS” or “My serve is TERRIBLE.” This is unhelpful self-talk and programs the student for hesitancy in repeating more of what they know they need to work on.

If you know you need to become more consistent on your backhand, the best way is to hit the backhand more often in practice. Of course, in match play, we try to use tactics to emphasize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. But in practice, unless you’re specifically working on emphasizing a strength, you should hit your weaker shots more often to strengthen them. Anything that threatens this must be addressed promptly, and negative self-talk or poor emotional regulation are the most likely culprits.

The right mindset is to show love to your backhand. Or show love to your serve. Show love to any shot you know is a weakness in your game. What do we do when we love something? We show more attention to it, actively care for it, and don’t talk down to it. That means, for example, reminding yourself to run around your forehands to hit an extra backhand or two in practice. Psyche yourself into enjoying hitting your weaker shots in practice, and watch how you talk about your weaker strokes to others as well.

Instead of saying “My backhand sucks,” try saying “I’m looking forward to improving my backhand in the near future,” or “I have the opportunity to make my serve more consistent, and that will help me win more matches.” You can also be more specific about what you’d like to address about a stroke in order to focus your mind during practice.

For example, if you are struggling to generate depth on your volley to push your opponent back in the court more often, say to yourself: “I’m enjoying making my volley a more powerful weapon by being able to hit it deeper.”

Another way to regulate your emotions and performance during practice is to use “goal-directed self-talk.” Examples of goal-directed self-talk are things like: “maintain a low-to-high racquet path,” “focus on the impact point,” “keep the ball deep”, “extended your strings to the target”, “accelerate the racquet head”, and so on. Phrase them as commands to yourself. This is most useful in the moment when you are hitting shots on court, as a focused and repetitive reminder.

One comprehensive 2020 Applied Sports Psychology study titled “Self-talk and emotions in tennis players during competitive matches.” makes the conclusion (under the heading “Conclusions for Practice”) that:

“Players can use goal-directed self-talk to proactively and reactively regulate emotions.” (Julian et al, 2020)

Proactive here means that you actively remind yourself about a set goal; reactive means that you catch your unregulated emotional self-talk and redirect it to be goal-oriented.

Tennis is a (mostly) a solitary sport, with, at best, only your doubles partner to help you with your self-talk or mindset. This fact means that the cognitive aspects of tennis are extremely important to how much you get out of practice and to how you ultimately perform. How you talk about your shots during practice or competition both to yourself and to others is under your conscious control, and you should take full advangate of that the next time you’re on court!

So get out there and pratice positive and goal-directed self-talk, and you’ll improve faster than you thought possible.

If you’re in Vancouver, Canada, consider working with our Precision Tennis team of professional tennis coaches! Link:

Fritsch, J., Jekauc, D., Elsborg, P., Latinjak, A. T., Reichert, M., & Hatzigeorgiadis, A. (2020). Self-talk and emotions in tennis players during competitive matches. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology.