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Pink Elephants and the Art of Mental Training

Your task: don’t think of pink elephants. Think of anything but definitely not pink elephants. Pink elephants are the only thing you cannot be thinking about. Do this for 30 seconds. Begin.

How did it go? If you’re like the majority of us, it did not go so well. This is a quick demonstration about how our minds work and the importance of knowing what to focus on to play your best tennis. Here’s an example from a couple of days ago while coaching my high school team during a scrimmage against a good team in the area. One particular doubles team was having a great match with their opponents. They split sets and the match had to be settled in a third set tiebreaker (We were running out of time so we had to play the 3rd set as a 10 point tiebreaker). One of the doubles players serving at 7-8. Meaning, they were on serve and things were looking promising to come out on top. Then disaster occurred. Two…straight….double faults.

I asked him after the match what was he thinking of before serving when he started the match out. He said “loose grip, reach high.” Now the thought isn’t that important as I believe everyone has to find the mindset that gives the player the best chance at hitting a good ball. However, there is one stipulation. The thoughts have to be consistent and controllable. So they can’t be things like “get the ball in” or “don’t miss.” So when he said “loose grip, reach high,” I felt that he was doing a good job of having a good thought process before the serve.

Then I asked what he was thinking before serving at 7-8 and then 7-9.

He said, “don’t miss.”

I feel the brain is just like a muscle. If it is not used to focusing for a long time, it will fail to focus as the match drags on or during critical times. This is why we have to condition ourselves to work on staying consistent with our thoughts no matter what the score. There is a reason why Roger Federer hit a running backhand winner down the line against Nadal when it was a match point against him in the epic 2008 Wimbledon. That point mattered just as much as the first and Federer’s mindset hasn’t changed throughout the match.

So back to the pink elephant. If your mindset is always “don’t do that” or “don’t do this,” chances are what you are trying not to do will happen. Instead focus on being positive and work on staying focused on the things you can do. This will help you become a lot more mentally tough and win more matches.

But remember, it starts with the first point!

And whatever you do, don't think about pink elephants :)

Here's a teacher's insight on using analogies to help your forehand

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