Well-known player and coach Rachael Dillon (pictured) has provided us with an exclusive article “Brain Training for Tennis”. As well as being a Tennis Ireland coach, Rachael plays Fed Cup for Ireland, and holds WTA singles and doubles rankings. Rachael has a degree in psychology, and is currently working in the Department of Psychiatry in Trinity College, Dublin.
Brain Training for Tennis
By Rachael Dillon
“We pushed each other to the limit and I could not drop concentration throughout the whole match to win it.” – Novak Djokovicspeaking about his 2014 Wimbledon win.
Tennis is often broken down into four parts – technical, tactical, physical and mental. Players spend hours on the practice court refining technical parts of each stroke, hours of matches learning how to become a smarter tactician and – in the last 20 years – off court working on their physical conditioning. Furthermore, with tennis often being referred to as 90% mental, sports psychologists are becoming increasingly present on the professional tour. Players consult psychologists to conquer anxiety, choking and to learn how to manage the emotional rollercoaster of a tennis match. Sports psychology is a well-established field with plenty of research ongoing worldwide; however there is yet to be extensive research done on one aspect of our tennis cognition – focus and concentration. This brief article will explore what cognition is, the importance of sustaining attention, and if it is possible to train this area of our tennis brain.
What is Cognition?
Cognition is the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and thesenses (Oxford dictionary). There are a number of different aspects of cognition that are vitally important in carrying out daily activities, let alone play a sport as complex as tennis. Aspects of cognition include:
- Processing Speed
- Auditory Processing
- Visual Processing
- Long-Term Memory
- Short-Term Memory
- Logic and Reasoning
- Sustained Attention
Our use of cognitive processes is an ongoing and permanent feature of our consciousness – in fact, this very minute, you are using a variety of cognitive processes to read this article! On a tennis court, the demand on our cognitive processes is both incredibly taxing and vitally important to performance. For example – at a very basic level – our visual processing speed is challenged when calculating a tennis ball coming across the net at us. We have to visually process at what speed, with what spin, and where the ball is going to land – no mean feat! The better the player, the more accurate they are at processing the shot and the quicker they are at doing so. This particular article however is going to address a slightly different aspect of cognition – our ability to focus and concentrate for extended periods of time (sustained attention).
Attention is the act or power of carefully thinking about, listening to or watching something or somebody. ‘I lost my focus’, ‘I lost my concentration’ – I’m sure as coaches you have heard these words from players referring to points lost in a match or practice. When it comes to performance players, the higher up the level you go (all the way to the top of the WTA and ATP tour), it is often that one short forehand missed wide or that easy miss on a return that makes the difference in a match and as a result a difference in the rankings! That brief ‘loss of focus’ has cost players tournament wins and Grand Slam finals.
But what can be done about this? Can we train focus and concentration? Or is this an innate ability that cannot be taught?
To date, and to the best of my knowledge, there is little research done pertaining to the nature of sustained attention in elite athletes. We do know that perceptual cognitive processing in professional athletes (their ability to process action scenes visually at speed) is vastly superior to both amateur and novice athletes. Furthermore, there appears to be scope to train and refine this skill through perceptual training using 3D computerized tasks (Faubert et al., 2012).
When it comes to concentration and focus however, we do not know for certain what it is that sets the top ranked players (TRPs) (top 150 WTA/ATP and above) apart from the highly ranked players (HRPs) (1000 – 150 WTA/ATP). There are certainly a lot of different elements that need to align in order to create a top ranked player (technically, tactically, physically and most importantly mentally) and coaches love to debate the ultimate recipe for a tennis player (Roger Federer often being used as a reference point). One crucial skill however, that can be observed in all TRPs (albeit not scientifically just yet) is their possession of an ability to sustain high levels of focus and concentration for long periods of time.
The ultimate question is, however, can this be taught and trained?
It would be fantastic to be able to take a pill that could boost our concentration and focus, but there are two problems with this 1) a pill to do this doesn’t exist (although it does in the movie “Limitless”) and 2) drug testing may be a small issue!!!
An emerging body of research called Cognitive Remediation Therapy (CRT), however, is looking at the ability to train peoples’ cognitive skills through practicing exercises in order to make people more efficient at problem solving, concentrating, sustaining attention and memory. To put it simply, CRT is brain training or a workout for the brain. This research is being conducted worldwide with great results on a variety of people – healthy individuals but also people suffering from schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and anorexia. One area yet to be researched however, is sport.
The concept of CRT is simple; the brain is a muscle that can be trained through exercise.
Online programmes like www.luminosity.com provide a training programme aimed at improving concentration and overall thought processes through a rigorous exercise regime. If regular individuals’ concentration and cognitive skills can be improved and refined through the use of CRT, why not tennis players?
Thirty years ago, off court physical training was unheard of. Today, it is an essential part of training for a professional tennis player. Out of the four elements of tennis (tactical, technical, physical and mental), the psychological aspect of the game is most certainly the least well explored and trained. As the game of tennis evolves and the level gets higher on a daily basis, the mental side of tennis is undoubtedly going to emerge as an area of research and training. Who knows, in the future, we may see tennis players incorporating off-court brain training as part of their daily routine!