A new study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology adds to a body of research suggesting that mental strategies can improve tennis performance in professional athletes. Among a group of young tennis players, a combination of self-talk and goal-directed motor imagery was most beneficial in improving their serve performance.
Motor Imagery (MI) is a common mental technique used in athletic training, whereby an athlete mentally rehearses an action before performing it. For example, a tennis player might visualize performing a successful serve, imagining the path of the ball and where it lands on the court. Goal-oriented self-talk is another mental strategy used by athletes, where an athlete addresses themselves with motivational talk in an attempt to improve their performance – for example, “I can do it” .
A number of studies have found evidence that these strategies can significantly improve tennis performance. Study author Nicolas Robin and his team aimed to explore how a combination of these two mental strategies could benefit tennis performance, focusing specifically on young athletes’ first serve performance during matches. .
“Coaches and athletes widely recognize the potential effects of using mental strategies to improve performance, particularly in racquet sports,” explained Robin, associate professor at the University of the French West Indies. “We were interested in mental strategies employed empirically by coaches and/or athletes to achieve better performance such as motor imagery (i.e. the ability to recreate motor experiences in the absence of real execution) and inner speech (i.e. the verbalizations that the tennis player addresses) the most used techniques in tennis. And we wanted to test, with a scientific protocol, the effectiveness of these techniques in an ecological situation, (ie 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 been playing tennis for at least 8 years and had participated in regional or national competitions. The players were randomly assigned to one of three groups: the MI group, the MI and interior monologue group, or the control group.
The study took place in three phases. The first and last phases consisted of test sessions where players performed 25 first serves in a competitive scenario, while two tennis coaches assessed the speed, efficiency and success of each serve. Between the two test sessions, the players participated in three months of training, which included two training sessions per week.
During the training, MI group participants were asked to practice mental imagery before each serve, imagining themselves performing the game successfully. 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 were not instructed to engage in mental strategies.
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 as a result of the training, both in terms of success percentage and first serve effectiveness. The control group, however, remained stable in performance.
During the post-test, the MI and MI with self-talk groups performed better than the control group in terms of percentage of successful first serves, while the MI with self-speech group outperformed the MI and control groups in terms of of efficiency. .
Robin and his colleagues said their findings support the idea that motor imagery can successfully improve first-serve performance in 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 on the next point’) , induces better serve performance.Importantly, we showed similar beneficial effects in novice tennis players in a recent similar study.
The results are also consistent with research suggesting that a combination of mental strategies is best since the group that combined motor imagery with self-talk had the highest scores for first serve effectiveness. The researchers believe that this group may have benefited from a boost in self-confidence through motivational self-talk.
“As far as motor imagery is concerned, it will be important to imagine yourself performing the action; and when it comes to self-talk, it’s important to use positive words or phrases. These techniques can increase concentration and can proactively and reactively regulate motivation and emotions and sustain effort, which can give tennis players an advantage during matches,” Robin said.
“The beneficial effects of these mental techniques do not only concern racquet sports but can also be transferred to a large number of sports, whether individual or collective. Anyone can do it, so go for it.
Notably, mental strategies did not appear to improve participants’ serve speed. The researchers say that a longer training phase might have been necessary to observe any improvement in serve speed. The authors further note that their study did not include a self-talk-only condition, which precluded them from examining the effects of motivational self-talk alone.
The study, “Beneficial effects of motor imagery and self-talk on serve performance in skilled tennis players,” was authored by Nicolas Robin, Laurent Dominique, Emma Guillet-Descas, and Olivier Hue.