I’m Going Mental

This is not about my former days as a very vocal, mentally unstable professional tennis player. Although it could be if I had a time machine.

No it’s not me who is/was mental – it’s the game itself.

World number 1 Novak Djokovic said so himself: “Tennis is a mental game. Everyone is fit, everyone hits great forehands and great backhands.”

The mental game, like getting fit, hitting great forehands and backhands, is a skill that is developed and trained. But according to almost all of the game’s elite it is often the defining characteristic between the good and the great. Of course sports psychologists are employed by many of the world’s best to undertake this training, but they are simply out of reach financially for most players and parents in the junior ranks of British tennis. So without access to professionals the job of mental skills training falls to the coach, whether (s)he likes it or not. Most certainly do not.

Here are just some of the daily psychological concerns I have in my sessions:

creating an ideal learning climate, specific to the age, gender, and specific needs of the pupil(s)
instilling discipline and motivation into players
setting boundaries and aiding players to achieve emotional control
assisting in the development of self-confidence and positivity
teaching and practicing concentration and focus
educating parents to ensure they are playing their part in all of the above

You would think, with all of that responsibility for the development of the grey matter of some of Britain’s brightest prospects, that I would have undergone years of preparation and training to meet the challenge. In short – no.

As a level 5 Master Performance Coach I have, of course, touched upon mental skills education through my formal qualifications. But actually, surprisingly little considering the scope of my duties. There’s a limit to how much can be crammed into two short weekends when you’re effectively starting from scratch, which I was. As a conscientious, self-improving coach I have read all the so-called ‘talent’ books, like Mindset (Dweck), Bounce (Syed), Outliers (Gladwell) etc, many of which touch upon elements of psychology in relation to teaching/learning and optimising performance. I  am often seen with my head in a journal or textbook, between lessons, looking for more and better ways to coach.

However, I’m afraid the sum total of my psychological education is still leaving me far short of confident in my own abilities to help my pupils be the best they can be. I know what to do, I just often doubt myself with how to do it. Much of what I have read and learned has actually served to demonstrate what I don’t know, rather than empower me with what I do. And any good psychologist will tell you that this kind of mindset is not performance enhancing. At worst I’m swamped by too much to read and not enough time to get to grips with everything, leaving me feeling like I’m missing the corner pieces of a jigsaw. At best I feel a small sense of empowerment when something I try works, albeit in a scratching the surface kind of way.

So, I’ve decided to take positive action to go back to university in search of the golden thread to weave through all my tennis knowledge and experience in the form of a PhD. Through sports psychology and mental skills training I want to create an empirical framework from which to work, and I want to make sports psychology accessible and empowering to coaches across the country. The partnership WimX have forged with the University of East London has proven to be multi-faceted and working as a guest lecturer there has definitely enhanced my desire to take this next step.

Is this a daunting prospect for which I wonder if i am well-enough equipped? For sure. But I am working through the processes that I do on a daily basis with my players to ensure that my own learning climate, motivation, concentration etc help me achieve peak performance.

Yes, I’m about to go mental, but for the first time I’m in control of it and very much looking forward to it.


Jo Ward is a Master Performance Tennis Coach, Writer, & Director. British National Champion & World 150. Visiting lecturer at UEL and coach education tutor.

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