A new study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology adds to a body of research suggesting that mental strategies can improve tennis performance among professional athletes. Among a group of young tennis players, a combination of goal-directed self-talk and motor imagery was most beneficial in improving their serving performance.
Motor imagery (MI) is a common mental technique used in sports training, whereby an athlete mentally rehearses an action before executing it. For example, a tennis player might visualize themselves serving successfully, imagining the trajectory of the ball and where it lands on the court. Goal-directed self-talk is another mental strategy used by athletes, where an athlete addresses himself with motivational talk in an effort to improve his performance, for example, “I can do it.”
Several studies have found evidence that these strategies can significantly improve tennis performance. Study author Nicolas Robin and his team sought to explore how a combination of these two mental strategies could benefit tennis performance, specifically focusing on young athletes’ first-serve performance during matches.
“Coaches and athletes widely recognize the potential effects of using mental strategies to improve performance, especially in racket sports,” explained Robin, associate professor at the University of the French Antilles. “We were interested in the mental strategies empirically employed by coaches and/or athletes to elicit better performances such as motor imagery (i.e., the ability to recreate motor experiences in the absence of actual performance) and self-talk (i.e., verbalizations). that the tennis player directs himself) the most used techniques in tennis. And we wanted to test, with a scientific protocol, the efficacy of these techniques in an ecological situation (that is, on the tennis courts of our tennis academy).”
The researchers recruited a sample of 33 young tennis players (27 men and 6 women) with an average age of 15 years. The participants had played tennis for at least 8 years and had participated in regional or national competitions. Players were randomly assigned to one of three groups: the IM group, the IM and self-talk group, or the control group.
The study was carried out in three phases. The first and last phase consisted of test sessions where players performed 25 first serves in a competitive setting, while two tennis coaches evaluated the speed, efficiency and success of each serve. Between the two test sessions, the players participated in three months of training, which included two practice sessions a week.
During training, participants in the MI group were instructed to practice mental imagery before each serve, visualizing themselves successfully executing the move. Participants in the MI and self-talk group were asked to practice motivational self-talk in addition to mental imagery before each service. The control group did the same physical training but was not instructed to engage in any mental strategy.
At the end of the study, the researchers compared the performance of the three groups. Participants who practiced IM or IM with self-talk were found to improve their performance after training, both in terms of success rate and efficiency of first serves. The control group, however, remained stable in their performance.
During the posttest, both the IM and IM groups with self-talk outperformed the control group in terms of percentage of successful first serves, while the IM group with self-talk outperformed both the IM and control groups. in terms of efficiency. .
Robin and colleagues said their findings support the idea that motor imagery can successfully improve first serve performance among competitive adolescent and young adult tennis players.
“Using motor imagery, before serving, improves performance,” he told PsyPost. “Furthermore, the use of motor imagery combined with motivational self-talk (such as ‘I/you can do it’, ‘come on’, ‘I feel good’ and ‘I’ll play well at the next point’), induces higher service performances. It is important to note that we showed similar beneficial effects in novice tennis players in a similar recent study.”
The results are also in line with research suggesting that a combination of mental strategies is better, as the group that combined motor imagery with self-talk had the highest first serve efficiency scores. The researchers speculate that this group may have enjoyed an additional boost of increased self-confidence with motivating self-talk.
“With regard to motor imagery, it will be important to imagine yourself succeeding in action; And regarding the internal dialogue, it is important to use positive words or phrases. These techniques can increase concentration and can proactively and reactively regulate motivation and emotion and sustain effort, which can give tennis players an advantage during matches,” said Robin.
“The beneficial effects of these mental techniques do not only concern racket sports, but can also be transferred to a large number of sports, whether individual or collective. Anyone can do it, so go ahead.”
In particular, mental strategies did not appear to improve the speed of the participants’ serves. The researchers say a longer training phase might have been necessary to see any improvement in serve speed. The authors further note that their study did not include a self-talk-only condition, which prevented them from examining the effects of motivational self-talk alone.
The study, “Beneficial Effects of Motor Imagery and Self-talk on Service Performance in Expert Tennis Players,” was authored by Nicolas Robin, Laurent Dominique, Emma Guillet-Descas, and Olivier Hue.