Practicing Cognitive Techniques Can Help Athletes Reach Optimal Performance

Richard W. Cohen, MD, and Julia A. Cohen, MS


October 09, 2020

Successful athletes exhibit positive mental health. This mental health is directly related to athletic success and high levels of performance. Mental skills are as important as natural physical ability and mechanical skills in the sport of tennis.

Research has shown that tennis is 85% mental and that players spend 80% of their time on the court handling emotions. Some players look good in practice when they are not under pressure but cannot win matches (they have the physical skill level to win) because they cannot handle their own emotions during the duress of a match. They are affected by anger, fear, stress, poor concentration, and other internal elements that interfere with their ability to perform at an optimal level. Competitors may also be affected by external factors such as the sun, wind, an opponent, and so on, and may use these situations as an excuse not to win.

Players normally practice physical skills but rarely practice cognitive techniques. Regardless of level of play – pro, collegiate, junior, or club – practicing mental skills will greatly improve the players' arsenal of weapons, giving them an edge in matches and making them the best players they can be. Mental health professionals also can use these strategies to help motivate athletes who compete in other sports – and in other competitive endeavors.

Visualization is the formation of a mental image of something of your choice. Visualization imagery techniques can be used by players to calm themselves before playing a match so their emotions are not wasted on trying to quiet the minds and quell stress. Implementing the following visualization techniques will reduce a player's anxiety during the match, allowing the player to direct energy toward optimal mental and physical performance on the court.

In advance of a match, encourage the player to learn and analyze the opponent's strengths and weaknesses by watching the opponent play and/or from asking others. The night before the scheduled match, get the player to imagine how they will play points against their competitor. Play into the opponents' vulnerabilities or first play to their strengths to expose shortcomings and – then attack their weakness. For example, if an opponent has a weak backhand, first play to the opponent's forehand and, when the opponent is vulnerable, go into his backhand to get a short or weak ball – and attack. The following are specific strategies that mental health professionals who work with athletes can use to help them perform optimally.

Using Visualization, Shadowing

Visualize the correct way to hit a tennis stroke and repeat it over and over in your mind. On a tennis court or where ever you have adequate space, shadow a stroke by using a racket and repetitively performing the actual stroke without hitting a ball. At home, practice relaxation and deep breathing techniques at night before going to sleep. Put yourself in a relaxed state and visualize repetitively striking the ball correctly. The next time you actually hit the stroke, you will produce a better shot.

Focusing on, Staying in the Here and Now

The "here" means to focus on what is happening on your own court, not what is happening on the court next to you. Players may be affected by external factors, such as the sun, wind, and their opponent and may use these conditions or situations as an excuse if they do not win. Ignore background chatter and distractions, and be a horse with blinders. Be responsible for yourself and your own actions; manage what you can and realize that you cannot control the weather or actions of your opponent.

The "now" refers to staying present and focusing only on the current point. Do not think of past mistakes. If you are winning a match, do not think about celebrating while the match is still in play. If you are losing, do not start to write a script of excuses why you lost the match. Instead, just concentrate on the present, point by point. Focusing will allow you to understand what is true and important in the here and now. Focusing will help alleviate stress and better equip you to make quick decisions and be clear about your intended actions.

Set Realistic and Achievable Goals

It is always good to have goals and dreams; however, you as a player must understand the realities of your current level of play. Know your level; don't be grandiose and think you are able to beat Rafael Nadal. Having an unrealistic attitude will result in frustration and poor performance during a match. Instead, set achievable, and realistic short- and long-term goals for yourself, which will aid in your overall tennis development. After the match is over, reflect upon and evaluate the points – and your overall performance.

Don't devalue yourself if you lose a match. Do not feel too low from a loss or too high from a win. When you have a match loss, use it as an opportunity to learn from your mistakes and to improve by working on your weaknesses in future practice until you feel confident enough to use your new skills in a tournament.

Stay Positive

Do not tie up your self-esteem as a person with your match outcome; in otherwords, separate feelings of self-worth from your match results. Cultivate an optimistic attitude and talk positively to yourself, strive to improve, and maintain positive self-esteem in practice and in matches. During practice, allocate 110% effort, and focus on the process, not the outcome. Arrange your practice matches so that one-third of them are against players of your same level, one-third against players worse than you, and one-third against players better than yourself.

Deal With Adversity

It is important to be able to deal with external pressures going on in your life such as conflicts related to family, peers, school, work, and relationships. Deal with and manage this discord before your match so you can maintain control of your emotions and can give 100% effort on the court.

Learn Mental Techniques

Many athletes may have difficulty teaching themselves cognitive skills and would benefit from a few sessions with a sports psychologist/psychiatrist to understand and learn the techniques. Once the tactics are understood and learned, players can apply them to training and ultimately to their tournament arsenal, allowing them to play to their ultimate potential.

Cohen had a private practice in psychiatry for more than 35 years. He is a former professor of psychiatry, family medicine, and otolaryngology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Cohen has been a nationally ranked tennis player from age 12 to the present and served as captain of the tennis team at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Cohen, who was ranked No. 1 in tennis in the middle states section and in the country in various categories and times, was inducted into the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2012. Cohen has no conflicts of interest.

Cohen, Cohen's daughter, was No. 1 ranked in the United States in junior tennis and No. 4 in the world. In addition, Cohen was ranked among the top 100 players in the world by the professional World Tennis Association. She also was the No. 2 college player in United States, and an All-American at the University of Miami. She holds a master's in sports psychology, and presently works as a sports psychologist and tennis professional in Philadelphia. Cohen has no conflicts of interest.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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