Building Emotional Muscle

May 25, 2005 09:39 AM

by Dr. Robert Heller

Tennis players spend a great deal of time training their strokes and muscle memory so they can hit the shots they practice when it counts during match play. They train their stamina through running and other aerobic exercises and they train for strength and power through physical exercise like weight lifting. Yet there are still only a paucity of players who regularly train their mind and emotions to play effectively during competition.

In my “Mental Fitness for Tennis” clinics, I often ask participants to rate the importance of mental skills during a tennis match on a scale from 0-100 with 100 meaning, “extremely important”. Most rate the importance between 70%-98%. I then ask what percentage of the time they devote to tennis is allocated to practicing mental skills. The response is usually between 0-5%.

Why is there such a big discrepancy between players view of the importance of mental skills and the lack of time devoted to training them? There are many possible explanations. Some people may wrongly believe that mental skills are not trainable. You either have them or you don’t. Some may falsely believe that they will naturally develop as a result of playing more, getting better and having more experience. Others may not know who or where to go for such help and some may not be able to afford the expense sometimes associated with this type of specialized training.

One type of mental skills training is based on principles of mental conditioning or building “emotional muscle”. This type of training is relatively straight forward and well suited for many players who are motivated to train themselves.

Mental Conditioning
Mental conditioning is the process of repeating desirable thoughts, and images to yourself so that you can automatically think and react effectively at critical times during the match.

By getting yourself in a relaxed and focused state through slow, deep breathing and narrowing your attention, you can more easily concentrate and absorb those suggestions, ideas and habits that you want to activate during match play.

Similar to physical training, by regularly and systematically exercising your mind, you are building, “emotional muscle” while developing confidence in your ability to play smart and mentally tough under pressure.

In mental conditioning, you focus on what you want to happen rather than what you want to avoid. For example, a thought you might want to condition would be, “I will get my second serve in by hitting up on the back of the ball with spin” rather than, “Don’t double fault”. To strengthen the learning connection, immediately picture yourself serving your second serve just as you have described it.

Proper mental conditioning can follow physical conditioning principles of practicing each desired 3-5 times 3-4 days per week. While individual results may vary, on average, at the end of 3 weeks, you should notice yourself performing this way almost automatically.

Dr. Robert Heller is a psychologist, sports psychology consultant and certified tennis instructor based in Boca Raton, Florida. He is the author of the 2-volume mental conditioning CD-Rom program, “TENNISMIND.” For information on sports enhancement training, workshops and other services, contact him at (561) 451-2731, or visit