Monday, June 5, 2017

How to prevent a mental breakdown on the tennis court

Kristianne Bontempo | Towpath Tennis Contributor

I read about mental breakdowns on the court, I've written about how to avoid them, so when I’m in the middle of a match and am flustered with the inability to hit a ball, I’m flabbergasted thinking, “How could I be having a mental breakdown??”

With certainty, no matter who I’m playing I’m probably the most mentally dominant person on the court…is what I would’ve told you 5+ years ago. With kids and more responsibilities on my plate, things have certainly changed. Yes, it’s hard to fit the same amount of play time in, however my strokes are still there, my footwork—ehh, could use some work but is still better than the average player, but what has been the hardest pill to swallow is accepting the fact that my once mentally confident game is deteriorating. So instead of beating myself up and vowing to quit (which I’ve done numerous times), I decided to drill down what was causing me to break and ask myself, “How do I diagnose a breakdown before it happens, and what do I do to combat it?”

Diagnosis of breakdown:
Social/Environmental  – It might not have been obvious at first, but the unfamiliarity of a new partner, a new tournament format, a new venue or even playing an opponent I have history with was a disruption of my game. You’re no longer playing just a match, you have other factors involved that are out of your comfort zone.
Physical – I've been fortunate to be free of injuries, but with little ones a good night sleep is always a gamble. At times, I play more relaxed when tired, however once I get to that 2nd set mark I slowly feel the fatigue creeping in. With USTA season in full swing, most matches are in the evenings, so after a long day not only is your footwork shot, but also is your inability to make any smart strategical decisions (at least for me that's the case).
Mental – Pressure can come in all types of form whether you had a bad day at work, have any outside social tension, or for me, just feeling the pressure to win for the team’s sake. If you continue to let the pressure eat away at you, it's like being a deer in headlights where you are unable to move—the worst kind of breakdown.

Most of the time, I'm usually dealing with just one of the culprits above (the most common being fatigue), but I wanted to figure out how to pull myself out of a complete funk when I'm feeling like every aspect of my game is going down the drain. So after more reading and experimenting, here is a list of solutions that have worked for me and hopefully for you as well!

Treatment/Prevention of breakdown:
“Only the ball” – Are you looking at the ball? The first thing I notice when I'm in a downward spiral is my eyes are on everything BUT the ball (when you’re hitting a whole ton of rimmers, then that should be your first clue). Reciting the words, “bounce, hit”, as you are swinging away will help you focus on that fuzzy yellow ball. Another useful tip during 'down times' or when waiting to return a serve, is to look at your strings to stay focused or say "ballllllll" in your head as the server is tossing. Swear this works!
Continue playing your game – “I’m just not playing my game.” This has literally come out of my mouth numerous times over the past season. Something doesn’t work, so instead of trying the stroke or poaching again I’ll play it safe and just push it back—I despise that game! Not only do I feel like I've lost my edge, but my footwork is atrocious. Sports psychologists suggest continuing to try your shots with the correct motion (maybe even over-exaggerate it), since it will eventually come along. I know it won't help when you're in the middle of a match like I was, but really the best suggestion is to get out beforehand and hit some balls on a backboard or ball machine, or jump into a drill a day or so before.  
Be versatile – If you try and try but plan A isn’t working, then have a plan B…and C…and maybe a D. Changing your game up will actually work in your favor since your opponent will have to stay on their toes to keep up. Just be sure to start with plan A each time, since the less you use it the harder it’ll be to get it back.
It's all about body lingo – My sister back in the day had taught me the importance of looking the part of a positive, energetic and optimistic player even on the verge of defeat. That has definitely played a huge part in my playing style since forcing myself to laugh off my stupid shots has kept my mind from sinking into a dark hole. Stand up tall, smile, jump around, jog in place, shadow stroke, positive self-talk—these subtle cues will make a dramatic impression on your opponent. For me, fatigue has played a major role in affecting that positive/energetic role, so my solution—bring energy-infusing foods to your matches, like a banana or a granola bar. Makes all the difference!
Lastly Breatheeee Inhale. Exhale. Do this with purpose in between points to force yourself to take your time, and more importantly to relax your mind and body. 

Obviously, the way to prevent a mental breakdown is to recognize the possibility of one beforehand. If you pick up at the start of your match that you are uneasy about something (anything really), then mentally prepare yourself on a strategy that will help you focus throughout the match. Good luck and stay strong!


  1. Most of the sports person are facing these kinds of the situation once in their sports career. Doesn't matter from which sports background they belong to, in the middle of the game every sportsperson facing this situation. It ultimately develops the mental imbalance and breakdown condition, therefore to deal with these situations, we need to follow some expert advice and improve our self-confidence.
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