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Mental Equipment
April 1999 Article

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Sport Psychology for Kids in Tennis and Life

Dr. John Murray Photo
Dr. John Murray

Many millions of kids participate formally in sports each year. A minority of these children receive the benefits of sport psychology training along with their regular physical training. Teaching kids psychological skills in tennis is smart, since tennis is so mentally demanding. But many overlook the valuable lessons learned for life outside the tennis court! Let's look at how regular mental skills training benefits kids both on and off the courts. We'll examine Confidence, Attention Control and Imagery.


When I'm teaching confidence to young athletes, it often takes two or three sessions to establish a solid foundation! Many kids either lack confidence outright, or find that it varies widely depending on their last shot, or is based loosely on the evaluations of parents, coaches, and other kids. There is no question that consistent self-belief and expectations for success are essential ingredients in any sport. With confidence in place, thoughts are clearer, play is smoother, and feelings are more controlled. Without confidence, harmful distractions such as negative thinking and anxiety intrude. Techniques to help kids learn and practice confidence are available (See The Art Of Confidence).

Having confidence in tennis can help enhance a child's self image, since physical skills are so highly valued, especially among male children. Self-worth is often tied directly to their perceptions of sports competence. That's why it's so important to emphasize the values of performance and achievement, rather than just winning at all costs. There will always be a player who doesn't win the match, but that doesn't have to mean "a loser" who loses self-esteem too. Ideally, kids should internalize the view that losing a tennis match means that they were tested to their capacity and placed in a challenging situation where real learning was possible! With this perspective, competition is the springboard to improved performance. Although they should strive to win, the outcome is not a "make or break" proposition.

By reinforcing the values of self-belief, self-control, positive thinking, and confident body language, children learn to be poised in many other performance situations. There is no question that self-belief in sport transfers to other areas of life. Understanding that confidence can be controlled is often a major step that leads kids to higher academic achievements and greater social poise too.

Attention Control

At the highest levels of competitive tennis, consistency is still king. Listen to the words used to describe the next match you watch on television and you're bound to hear "focus" and "concentration" many times over. Even with 135 mph serves, racket technology designed in space, and physical fitness once reserved for tri-athletes, tennis is still a game of consistency! This is especially true in junior tennis since kids lack the attentional abilities of adults. The ability to concentrate well may be the most important mental attribute for learning tennis and performing well. Many tips to enhance focus on the court are available (See Attention Control in Tennis).

How important is concentration for kids in other areas of life? I know I'm preaching to the choir. It's obvious that learning takes place to the extent that information is effectively acquired and processed. The tools gained by improving focus in tennis definitely spill over and help children eliminate useless distractions in the classroom, at home, and on the playground. Learning to be serious about a task, yet relaxed and comfortable, helps encourage self-discipline and autonomy in thinking and acting. So if you want your kids to stay focused longer on their math, lessons about attention control on the tennis court provide an excellent introduction.


Kids have great imaginations. Teaching them to make movies in their minds in preparation for tennis is a wonderful way to make use of this innate capacity. Training in imagery leads to creativity as well, a skill that pays off particularly well on the court. Imagery can be used to enhance other mental skills too. For example, kids can be taught to imagine themselves performing their sport in a completely fun and relaxed manner, with total attention to what is happening on the court. They can also be encouraged to improve their memories through imagery. We all know that having a good working memory of what the opponent is doing is an effective weapon in shot selection. To review imagery, please see The Essence of Imagery in Tennis.

By engaging a child's creative imagination on the court, they develop a more organized mental plan that can be adapted to non-sport situations. For example, if they have a series of tasks to complete at school, it helps when they can visualize themselves completing each task successfully. In social situations, it helps to silently rehearse to themselves what they will say before blurting it out. Many academic endeavors are simplified by imagining the beginning, middle and end. Imagery trains kids to tackle a variety of complex problems and anticipate consequences more effectively.

It's obvious that enhanced mental equipment leads to improved athletic performance among kids. I hope you've also seen that these tools transfer far beyond the white lines. Find a good sport psychologist in your area to help your children grow both on and off the courts!

The Most Creative Tennis Players in History

Hats off to the Mac... no not Mark McGwire... John McEnroe! You selected the tennis mac in a landslide as the most creative ever (30% of the vote). Here is the rest of the pack in order:

(2) Jimmy Connors, (3) Ilie Nastase, (4) Bobby Riggs, (5) Martina Navratilova, (6) Arthur Ashe, (7) Rod Laver, (8) Martina Hingis, (9) Michael Chang, (10) Andre Agassi, (11) Monsour Bahrami, (12) Brad Gilbert, (13) Gabriella Sabatini, (14) The Jensen Brothers, (15) Stefan Edberg, (16) Johan Kriek, (17) Bill Tildon, (18) Henri Leconte, (19) Boris Becker, (20) Yannick Noah.

Thanks for your great participation in this contest!

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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