"I forgot she was a lefty."
This was Sarah's response during the 10-minute break after splitting sets at a USTA National match. I had asked her what she was seeing out there and about her game plan and the adjustments she made. Sarah said she was trying to keep the ball high to her opponent's one-handed backhand and use her own forehand to attack. The problem: She kept hitting everything to the ad side, which was the opponent's forehand (and a very good forehand at that). She did a great job of executing the correct strategy in the first set, but something changed at the beginning of the second.
Sarah made a few errors early on in the second set, began rushing and getting negative, and then started playing into her opponent's strengths. Why did she suddenly change? How could she not realize her opponent was a lefty? This example represents a common performance issue tennis players face during competition. Sarah became overly focused on herself, and as a result, she developed a "mental blind spot," In this case, her negative mindset during the second set made her blind to the obvious. Here are a few strategies on how players can eliminate their blind spots and create problem-solving skills.
Dig for information during the warm-up
Use the warm-up to escape the early blind spots. Hit a variety of balls to your opponent's "windows" and see how they react to the various height, spin and depth. I have found that this helps players work through the nerves and begin focusing on something within their control. They learn to distract themselves from the distractions. Look to steal some information from your opponent. Do they struggle when you hit a low slice? How do they handle topspin and pace? Do they skip taking volleys and overheads?
Tactical, not technical
Successful players focus more on tactical adjustments and shot-selection during matches, rather than on how well they hit the ball that particular day. Save the technical critique for practice. Mats Wilander once told me that during his training, he focused mostly on himself (i.e., making technical adjustments), but when it was time to compete, it was more about what was happening on the other side of the net (i.e., making tactical adjustments). To eliminate your mental blind spots, start asking and answering the questions that matter: What does the opponent do well/not do well? Which hitting zone do they like/not like? What adjustments can be made to make the opponent play worse?
Do the mental work in-between points
Players create mental blind spots when their internal dialogue is negative. The criticizing voice takes over and this leads to the player becoming internally focused (which can cause you to forget that your opponent is a lefty). Do the mental work in-between points, which includes performing rituals that force you to take more time, such as placing a towel at the fence and picking it up after each point. In doing so, you allow yourself the opportunity to change the internal dialogue to a motivational or instructional tone, and you begin to take control of how you respond to adversity.
A quick tip for parents
You play an essential role in helping your child develop critical thinking skills in competition. While there is a time and place to discuss technical adjustments, keep post-match analysis focused primarily on the player's tactical adjustments and shot-selection at different times in the match. By keeping the conversation focused more on tactics and decision-making you create opportunities for players to figure out how to assess their matches in a more constructive manner. Lastly, understand that it is always easier to see things when standing on the sideline. The pressure players feel during competition often clouds the obvious.
A quick tip for coaches
During competitive practice situations, ask your players open-ended questions about their tactics and shot-selection. Get players to engage more in the process by engaging them in the outcomes. What were you trying to accomplish with that shot? What was your plan going into the point? What adjustments did you make in the set? The answers you receive can help clarify which information is getting through and create more ownership in the process.