Performing your best in tennis, or any competitive situation, requires smarts. The battle is often won long before play begins in the knowledge you acquire about your opponent. Knowing your adversary's level of fitness, favorite strokes, and patterns of play is important, but it's also smart to consider their mental strengths and weaknesses. This knowledge is often overlooked, but can definitely provide you a decisive edge.
Prior to any competition, you should scout your opponent's play if possible. Keep a detailed notebook on all your potential opponents. Leave one column on your notepad for mental skills. Refer to the article Identifying and Exploiting Mental Weaknesses and use it along with this article in preparing a smart plan.
Let's review three mental skills and some examples of what to look for while scouting the opponent:
How well does this player remain focused throughout the match? Take a look at the player's head and eyes. Does he/she maintain good "eye control" in between points? Is the player easily distracted by poor results, noises or weather conditions? Is there a particular style of play that rattles this player's concentration? Whenever you spot a weakness, jot it down in your mental notes section. After a while you'll get an idea of whether this player is focus tough or fragile.
Begin to think of a strategy from the information you have gathered. Your goal is to make life as difficult as possible for the opponent. For example, if the player's focus cracks under the pressure of a net assault, by all means get to the net as often as possible! If she/he remains intensely focused under a variety of different conditions, get ready for a long and difficult fight. Take a look at your notes and look for the pattern. Knowing your opponent's style of focus will pay off. Remain completely focused yourself, but find specific ways to exploit your opponent's lapses in attention.
Does your upcoming opponent usually remain confident and hopeful, or does he/she tend to become easily dejected and demoralized? What match situations go along with these two attitudes? Slumped shoulders, verbal self-abuse, and sluggish movements are common signs of low confidence. When you see this, write down what caused it. If confidence varies with the outcome of each point (win or lose), realize that your opponent is unstable and highly exploitable.
Players low in confidence should never be given a chance to believe. Plan to start strong and get an early lead because this player might throw in the towel in the first few games. Players who brag or show excessive joy after every point might appear overconfident, but usually have very low confidence. Don't lose the advantage by becoming emotionally reactive to their antics. Stay quietly confident and never give up. You'll find that your stability will unnerve this type of opponent in many different situations.
Study your upcoming opponent's intensity level before and after points. Over excitement and apathy are common energy problems, and you should write down whenever this occurs. These notes will help you develop a mental strategy to make sure your opponent remains out of kilter.
Players' natural energy levels differ greatly. Some like a quick match pace whereas others prefer to take their time. When you determine what level of energy your opponent prefers, prepare to bring out the exact opposite response in competition! By slightly increasing or decreasing the pace of the match (by finishing points sooner, or taking more or less time in between games) you will be able to use energy levels to your advantage.
Organizing Your Notes
Taking notes and scouting is no good unless you are able to make sense of it all. Invest in a three ring binder and keep adding to your arsenal of information as you gather new data. Before every match, write out a brief strategy from the information you have amassed. Keep it simple, and make sure that one of your goals is derived from having scouted your opponent's mental skills.
Whether you are on the pro tour, in college or play for your local 4.0 league, the information you gain on your opponent is more valuable than you may at first realize. Knowing your opponent's mental strengths and weaknesses in advance is like having a spy on your side!
Keep your e-mails coming and I'll see you next month...