At the highest levels of competitive tennis, it can be very hard to know who is winning or losing at first glance. One of the key concepts of understanding the inner game of tennis is that of momentum development. The key questions are:
1. How do you start building momentum … what do you do to get the best possible start in each set?
2. How can I stop my opponent from creating momentum and running away?
3. What is the best way of steering your own momentum the right way when the flow is with you?
4. How do you find the “Flow State” and remaining within this … the optimal mental and emotional state?
Competitive tennis matches all vary in how they take shape. As we know, players experience ups and downs throughout games, sets, matches and tournaments. We need to educate our players that each match is a journey or pathway, with different twists and turns each time we step on the court. When we are discussing the concept of “momentum,” we are really talking about the “fight” within the match; dealing primary with the sports psychology plus emotional control skills of the why and when in sport.
►Momentum control is critical to players knowing how to stop the flow when it is against you. This is often related to strategy usage and thinking.
►Commentators will usually refer to momentum as the “flow” or “balance” of a match—having the upper hand. The ATP and WTA now actually even chart momentum!
►Momentum is usually the result of pressure having been placed onto one player over time, causing a reaction whereby one player ends up with a positive outcome. It’s important to teach players to continue to apply pressure.
►Momentum is hard to quantify and very difficult to measure other than with a score but very obvious to visually see it in the body language of a player.
►Flow state often occurs when the momentum is with one player.
►The feeling of seeing everything early.
When momentum is against you, how do you feel? Some comments I’ve heard from players are that they are unsettled and nothing is working … they have no rhythm or timing, are feeling unlucky, spinning out of control, feel very frustrated, etc.
We know that within a match, momentum changes often, but why? Some of the reasons include a change in tactic, a missed chance, coaching, or even a toilet break or medical timeout.
It’s important that we understand how to control momentum. Being prepared to start well is a very important and trainable skill, and knowing what to do when momentum is for you or against you and how to respond, needs to be practiced and rehearsed. Generally speaking, when momentum is against a player, take the time to slow down. And when the momentum is positive and with the player, they should be encouraged to “keep it going” and maintain that tempo.
Players often try to speed up too fast when momentum is for them and then lose as a result. You must know how to correctly advise your player on how to use momentum as all player personalities, strengths and weakness and game styles are different. For example, when momentum is against Rafael Nadal, he seems to slow down, whereas Roger Federer speeds up.
We also need to remember that the scoring system is a very frustrating one which seems as though it was designed to test players and their mental capacity. Very few, if any, sports allow a player to go back to even after. Tennis features best of three or five set matches, and at each new set, we return back to 0-0 which cleans the slate.
What does this mean? Players have the opportunity to restart and create a new turning point to change the momentum. It’s all about attitude and perspective. Coaches need to train players to see this chance and delete the past either positive or negative. How many of your players lose the second set easily after losing the first? How many win the first and then lose in the third set? These results are all tangible ways for us to test our players’ ability to be able to use or understand momentum.
The concept of match point can be really strange as there is no defined timeline. You can be up a set and 5/3 or 40/0, play two bad games, and then be facing a mountain in front of you just minutes later. All these score variables really mean a player must be mentally stable! You can be winning for two hours, have a poor 10 minutes and be facing a loss! This is a major moment for character testing! Players must always treat each set as a chance to have a new start. Thus learn the skill of starting well. Train your players to always keep fighting on match point, whether up or down.
To play a perfect match is impossible, but to face the testing moments with a plan or strategy is entirely doable. Players that go to competition without working through these testing moments are not ready to confront the heat of battle. Much like a marathon runner who has yet to run a practice marathon prior to race day isn’t able to get over the proverbial “wall” in the race.
We MUST teach players to remain optimistic and positive, and allow them to perceive “testing moments” as new chances. Teach players that the matches rarely start as planned, and there will always be twists and turns, thus requiring adaption at various times.
Players really need to know their own personalities and train the “Potential Timing Points” or testing moments. Tennis becomes far more interesting for players when they reach a competitive maturity that allows for a balance perspective on each moment. It is normal for players to be nervous, panic, race and/or implode. When preparing your players to compete, remember to ensure they go through some pressure-type situations, and have set plans in place to counter these testing moments. All of this can be trained through off-the-court work, mental conditioning programs and through rehearsal.
Conrad Singh is the Chief Operating Officer of Tennis & Director of Coaching at Centercourt Club & Sports. He has held Head Coach and Director positions in Australia, England, Japan and China, and has been involved in professional tennis player development for well over two decades. Singh came to Centercourt from Shanghai, China, where he helped to develop a top high-performance player program, which saw more than 200 athletes train under his system.