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Mental Equipment
June 1998 Article

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Mental Equipment By Dr. John Murray


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Pre-Performance Routines

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Dr. John Murray

Achieving optimal performance is never easy. As you can probably tell from the previous 35 Mental Equipment articles, it involves a delicate balance of mental and physical skills, practice, and continual adjustment. Just when you think you’ve mastered it, someone with a brighter plan comes along and throws you for a loop! This is all part of the challenge and fun of sport. Learning is never an end, but a process that keeps evolving to higher levels. Let’s focus on pre-performance routines this month as a way of ensuring that you’re ideally prepared before the match begins.

Starting Early

Many tennis players think that a match starts with the first serve. Technically this is correct, but realistically it’s a serious blunder. Although the chair umpire rarely asks you what you had for breakfast or how well you warmed up, these factors powerfully influence performance. In fact, everything you do from the time you wake up until showtime influences performance.

Research and experience with elite performers across many situations illustrates the value of pre-performance routines. Studies show that elite performers adopt more consistent pre-performance routines than their less skilled counterparts. In my opinion, this applies to all sports, business, and performing arts. My wife, a professional ballerina selected by Mikhail Baryshnikov to attend the American Ballet Theatre’s School of Classical Ballet, uses pre-performance routines regularly. In a slightly less delicate situation, one 310 pound offensive lineman I know engages in consistent imagery routines while putting on his shoulder pads before kickoff. Many corporate executives prepare for important presentations by silently rehearsing key points of the speech. Whether in ballet, business, or sports, the story is the same -- pre-performance routines are powerful and necessary.

How Routines Help

Energy management

Because sport is so darn exciting and unpredictable, any level of personal control added to performance is usually a benefit. Although complete control is impossible, routines in tennis help optimize arousal levels (See Optimizing Arousal in Tennis). Too much excitement before a match is dangerous, and a consistent pre-match routine preserves focus and saves energy for the third set tiebreaker. If your problem is starting slow, routines involving vigorous pre-match exercise and stretching will you get you up to speed in a hurry.

Specific Task Focus

Routines also function like a pilot’s pre-flight checklist, ensuring that all aspects of performance are reviewed before takeoff. This is often facilitated by positive imagery (See The Essence of Imagery in Tennis) specific to that day’s challenges. If your opponent is a talented serve and volleyer, it might help to image your finely guided return of serve from the moment you awaken. If your opponent cannot hit the broad side of an Idaho barn under pressure, imaging persistent approach shots and volleys is the ticket.


Familiarity breeds confidence (See The Art of Confidence). Having a consistent routine that is your own lends confidence to your outlook no matter where you are, who you are playing, or how you are feeling.

Developing Routines

Personal Plan

As you might guess, there are no fast and ready rules for developing routines in tennis. The important thing to remember is that your routine is a personal element of success. Take a moment to consider your most ideal performances of the past. This is a good starting point in developing routines. What did you do the moment you woke up that day? What did you have for breakfast? How early did you get to the tennis courts? What kinds of activities did you engage in? Including many Mental Equipment skills in your routines, write down a specific plan from the moment you wake up until the first serve. Remain flexible enough to adjust your plan as needed for greater success. The whole process is really about becoming more intentional in your behavior and thoughts to achieve greater control in your performance.

Tracking Your Routines

Keep track of your routines by writing them down on a large index card. In the beginning, refer to your card through all the pre-performance stages. After some time, the cards will no longer be necessary, but refer to them often to try to find ways to refine your routines based on what works best.

Keep Me Informed

I would like to hear from you about the different routines you use to enhance performance. I appreciate your e-mail, but please always include your name, location and level of play when you write. I’ll include selected routines in a future article.

In closing, elite performers across many situations use pre-performance routines consistently to enhance performance. Get a plan, get a pre-performance routine and push your mental equipment to an even higher level. I’ll see you next month …

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Mental Equipment Archive

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This column is copyrighted by Dr. John Murray, all rights reserved.

Dr. John F. Murray is currently a licensed clinical psychologist and sport psychologist in Florida. In addition, he is a tennis professional (having taught tennis internationally in North America, Hawaii, Europe, Middle East), formerly certified with both USPTA and USPTR. He has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and masters degrees both in Clinical Psychology and Exercise & Sport Sciences from the University of Florida. He maintains a personal web site at http://www.johnfmurray.com/.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to John by using this form.


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