When the 2017 women’s Wimbledon champion is crowned on July 15, she will take home £2.2m. While the financial stakes are high, what players desire most of all is the title – especially those who are yet to win one of tennis’s grand slam tournaments.
That dream is over for another year for Britain’s Johanna Konta, who was beaten by five-time Wimbledon singles champion Venus Williams in the semi-finals on July 13. Getting to this stage had been tough, and Konta fought extremely long and hard under intense mental and physical pressure.
My own doctoral research showed that for many players, it takes time to feel they belong at the top of their sport, and having played so many semi-finals at grand slams is certainly an advantage for a player such as Williams. However, this was not the first time Konta has reached the final stages of grand slam event – she made it to the semi-final at the 2016 Australian Open. She has valuable experience to draw upon and walked on to court with some confidence.
Of course, being a British player at Wimbledon brought additional attention, massive crowd support and expectations.
The power of psychology in tennis
Every sport has psychological demands. But certain features of tennis demand extra mental toughness, meaning a player’s psychological skills are a key determinant of their performance. One of the biggest challenges is sustained concentration. A player’s focus is tested repeatedly when facing break points or when serving to win a set or match, and this intensifies during closely contested and long matches.
Unlike sports such as football, a tennis match has no time limit. A three-set match in a women’s tournament can last three hours or more. Between each point and at the end of every two games there is dead time, which places a further test on a player’s focus.
It is very easy to become distracted by external factors such as the crowd, or by a player’s own thoughts. Often, they will become stuck in a negative spiral, thinking about what has just happened, such as mistakes they have made, or what might happen next – winning or losing the match. Staying in the present, despite the emotions that naturally occur in the ups and downs of a match, is one of the toughest challenges in tennis. Without developing the appropriate mental skills, it doesn’t matter how well a player can serve or hit groundstrokes, they won’t be able to endure the mental battle.
The tennis greats develop such resilience: a mindset that accepts that points already lost cannot be replayed and sustains the intensity for each successive point. But even the giants of the sport falter occasionally.
The mental side of Konta’s game
Konta has worked hard on the psychological side of her game, and there is no doubt that this has helped her impressive rise to the top ten of women’s tennis in the last couple of years. During Wimbledon 2017 she has handled the pressure of competitive matches and of being in the public eye well. In interviews, she explained how she concentrates on mental exercises that have helped her to focus on one point at a time, to relax on the court, and to manage her emotions.
Sport psychologists support athletes with these goals, by first helping them to understand themselves better: how they think and feel, and just how these factors help or hinder them when they are in stressful situations. Working directly with the athlete, they enable the player to learn and practice skills which improve their performance. Those might be tools to improve concentration such as visualisation, or the use of routines. They might also help the athlete to cope with emotions such as competitive anxiety, by using techniques such as mindfulness.
Psychologists also often help behind the scenes as part of the support team to ensure the environment around a player – from their coaches, to their family, and administration – is creating the kind of atmosphere conducive to elite level performance.
Konta nearly became the first British woman into a Wimbledon final since 1977. If she can keep managing or ignoring distractions on court, keep her focus and play one point at a time then she has a very good chance of making it there one day in the future.
Elizabeth Pummell does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.