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Adversity Edition, Sports Coaching the Mind of an Athlete


By: David Berens •  4 years ago •  




have been practicing my own coaching art for over 16 years and have boiled down my technique to practicing five basic strategies – that’s it, just five. However, during those years, I came to realise that I was missing a gigantic portion of what my students needed. The mental and psychological pieces of the game of tennis became a monumental presence, overshadowing everything else I was teaching. The great baseball coaching legend, Yogi Berra, is credited as saying, “Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.” I began to make notes and address the overlying arc of the mind and how it affected my students. Nine themes began to reoccur in such strong ways, that I knew these themes were universal. During my lessons, I would not only address how and when certain strategies and techniques should be used but how each strategy and technique would affect my players and their opponents.

These themes are simple. When I point them out to you, you will recognise them. However, you might think them so universal that you don’t give them much attention when coaching your players. I would argue that these are just as important as the X’s and O’s, the patterns of play, and the techniques of your athletes. Teaching them is essential.


It is very easy for an athlete or team to perceive their situation during a game in a negative or positive light. But is that perception accurate? Are recent or past events clouding their notion of whether they have the advantage or if they are at a disadvantage?

In tennis, I like to point to the score of Deuce and ask, “How do you feel about that score?” Most tennis players will report that it is a fairly neutral situation – an even score. Then I ask them, what if you were up 40-love and your opponent had come back to tie the game at deuce. Or what if you were down love-40 and you came back to tie it up. Both give very different perceptions of the same score. It is still Deuce and it is important that athletes are able to deal with that situation in a way that allows them to forget the negative aspects, accentuate the positive, and use the patterns and strategies that they’ve been coached to use in that situation.


Once you recognise your situation for what it truly is, you need a road map. Playing a game without one is essentially playing a game of chance. You’re hoping to get lucky. This is commonly expressed during a game in phrases like, “We have to win this point.” Or one of my favourites, “Come on, Dave, you’ve got this.” These things are un-actionable. I cannot take either of those and do anything with them, thus I will be even more anxious and very likely blow it! The alternative is to actually come up with a strategy, and not get complicated. To make it complex, makes it harder to pull off under pressure.


When I learned tennis, my first coach was an actual backboard. I quickly taught myself the control it would take to keep the shots rebounding off the wall at the right pace so that I could return them. Again and again and again.

Many of the players I work with have never hit against a wall – and it’s readily apparent when they aren’t able to rally more than three balls in a row. So, what does consistency on the tennis court mean? Simply, you are better than the average player if you can make three shots with the same speed, trajectory and target. Three shots, that’s all it takes. This is true of any sport. The things it takes to win are often boring and DO NOT win every point. Often, athletes will execute a strategy or technique until it fails once and then they abandon it. It is important to help them understand that consistency works over time, is never flashy and wins a higher percentage of the points played.


Putting a player on an island is a bad idea. The athlete needs to understand you are there for them. Champions often have a long list of people who have helped them and you always hear about it when they win. If you’ve ever seen a professional tennis player win a Grand Slam tournament, the first thing they do after they shake their opponent’s hand is head up into the crowd to their box. All of their support system is represented there from parents to coaches to friends. And that athlete knows how important they were to their journey. Letting a player know that you are a part of their system will make them indebted to you when they are playing their game.



As a coach, and probably a current or former player, you know that there are things that happen in a game that are completely unexpected. If the player has practiced these situations, they will easily deal with it and then move on. If, on the other hand, they have not, you will hear excuses. I can’t hit a shot from there. That guy is faster than me. She has a killer slice backhand. Ok, I know that, you know that, we all know that. Buckle up and deal with it. See #2 – make a plan and Just Deal With It. Players need to know that you have put them into every possible situation so that they will be able to respond when the bizarre, unexplainable and difficult arises in their matches.


On the tennis court, I like to tell my students that it does you absolutely no good to say, “That shot stunk,” or “I should’ve done this,” or worse, “I can’t even make a forehand today.” This is all negative, past-looking visualisation that reinforces the poor result. Our minds are very interesting in that they see those actual errors and the visualised errors as the same. Thus, you are repeating mistakes over and over again, even though on court, they only happened once. We see evidence of this in which a player loses a big point with a poor shot or poor strategy and then loses the next three points still re-living the point they lost in their mind.

I encourage players who’ve made an error to turn their negative emotion from replaying the poor shot in their minds to picturing and even saying out loud, “Next time, I will do this.” It forces us to see the shot we want to make and hear ourselves confirm it. Instead of several negative replays of the error in our mind, we get a few positive pictures of how we do want the play the point.


Athletes see setbacks in every single match they play. In tennis, we may get up in the set a few games and suddenly the other team manages to fight back. We win the first set, only to lose the second set. Coaching an athlete to deal with these is again an examination of perception.

Most journeys that are worth taking have ups and downs. The best rollercoasters have lots of hills, twists and turns. We love summer, but without winter, would the warmer season be as nice? Athletes must understand that a setback is part of a larger picture, part of the journey, not the end. If you’re not ok with the unexpected, you probably won’t like sports in general. Often, the unexpected is what makes our sport so enjoyable. Take a step back from this bump in the road, examine where you are going, and find a way around it. Circle back to your plan and move on.


There’s a very interesting phenomenon at work in every winner’s life called momentum. It has been referred to as different things from ‘being in the zone’ to ‘the Midas touch’. Everything this winner touches turns to gold. I once watched Michael Jordan make free throws with his eyes closed! But how do we achieve this? Can we make this happen on purpose? The answer is yes, but the actions to take are quite boring.

The lessons we all learn in our bicycle-riding years are that you push the pedals to move and, on a hill, if you stop, it’s really hard to get moving again! It’s pretty easy to ride up a hill if you just keep pushing the pedals, one at a time and don’t ever stop. But that’s difficult if you look up at the top of that hill and see how far up it is. Many long and arduous tasks are often failed before they begin because the end seems too far away.

Though we must focus on where we are going, achieving success often comes from breaking down our plan into small, actionable pieces that we move us closer to our goals. In tennis, it might look something like this: I want to win the Australian Open. A daunting task indeed! Simplified, it might look more like this: I must win 7 matches, to do that, I must win my first match, to do that, I must win the first set, to do that, I must win the first game, to do that, I must win the first point, to do that, I must hit a better first shot. We’ve boiled down winning a Grand Slam to hitting a better first shot – over and over and over again.


A champion must be willing to learn. Andre Agassi learned that image wasn’t everything. Federer learned that outdated technology wasn’t helping him win. Tiger Woods changed his swing at the height of his career to better himself.

Learning is the process you need to keep your momentum going, to bounce back from rock bottom, to experience a fuller, more rewarding life and have success for ourselves and our athletes. The mind is a powerful tool that requires sharpening. I hope you gain and share something from these lessons.

David F. Berens has been a certified USPTA Elite Tennis Professional since 2001. His experience in tennis has taken him from city parks to exclusive resorts and island getaways. Today he calls Knoxville, Tennessee home.

He has also been a writer most of his life and has been published in the USPTA magazine, as well as being the author of “Break Point: 9 Life Lessons from the Tennis Court” examining the mental aspect of tennis. You can follow him at

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