How Tennis Players Make Decisions

When players step onto the court, they are actually two players. One is a thinking, conscious player who considers options and makes cognitive decisions and game strategies. Let’s call this the Thinking Player. The other player, in the subconscious mind, has learned the game from past experiences - including mistakes - and works beneath the level of conscious awareness. We call this the Automatic Player. The two complement each other, and both are important for tennis success. However, they can also get in each other’s way and keep us from playing our best tennis in critical moments.


Daily life is filled with non-ending series of decisions, varying from the very mundane decisions such as what to eat for for dinner to more momentous ones such as selecting a career or choosing a spouse. Sometimes decisions can be critically important, such as an airline pilot making decisions during an emergency landing. Psychologists and other behavioral scientists  have long been fascinated with just how humans make such decisions. This is a subject of great interest and one that the Spanish Training System is particularly effective in helping players develop and excel their ability to make decisions in high-performance situations.


The traditional assumption is that humans, as rational beings, make conscious decisions by gathering information, carefully analyzing the pros and cons, and selecting the optimal choice. However, this often may not be the case. Recent neurological studies have pinpointed where the decision-making functions reside in the brain. The prefrontal cortex at the front of the cerebrum is responsible for cognitive decision making when an individual weighs the pluses and minuses in a thoughtful manner. Surprisingly, though, scientists have found that individuals make most decisions throughout the day using a different part of the brain: structures directly connected to past experiences and emotional motives. It seems that impulsivity and emotions beneath consciousness often prevail over cognitive decision making.

Impulsivity and emotions beneath consciousness often prevail over cognitive decision making.

Parallels exist with how a tennis player makes decisions on the tennis court. One might assume that the brain neatly thinks out choices such as shot selection, striking the ball with the racket, and court movement and that one strategizes according to a rational, cognitive thought process. However, in real life this is for the most part not true. Think about it in the context of how one loses a point in tennis. It seems that basically three possibilities exist:


1. The opponent delivers a non-returnable shot, such as an ace or a winning passing shot that skims the line.

2. The player makes a tactical error, such as delivering a shot to the wheel-house of an opponent who has a strong forehand, or sticking to the baseline after hitting a high-bouncing drive deep to the opponent’s backhand corner.

3. The player makes an unforced error, such as missing an easy shot into the net when the court was wide open.


Only errors in the second category are true mistakes of the player because they’re the only actions over which one has conscious control. The player should have recognized the situation and thought, ’that guy has an incredible forehand, and I should avoid giving him the opportunity. The unforced errors that fall into the third category - the ones that often drive people nuts - are not really the fault of the player. Rather, they’re mistakes that are not under conscious control.

There’s just no time for you to consciously reason this out. For example, imagine that your opponent somehow manages to return your kick-second-serve and that the ball is crossing the net toward your forehand side. What do you need to do? Run to the right and either forward or backward to get your feet into position to strike the ball, keep your eyes on the ball, decide which type of forehand shot to make, change your grip on the racket accordingly,  bend your knees, bring your racket back, time the racket swing to correspond with the arrival of the ball, direct the ball with a proper trajectory and speed into an optimal spot while staying aware of the position of your opponent - all in just a second or two. That’s just not enough time to make a cognitive decision; your prefrontal lobe doesn’t work that fast. The prefrontal cortex just has too many pieces of information to process at one time. Therefore you have to go on automatic and let your subconscious brain return the shot. This part of the brain is very sharp - it has learned from all the practice hours you’ve put in, the previous matches you’ve played, and the errors you’ve made in the past. It puts into motion, without your conscious input, all the actions you have to perform quickly to return the shot.   


Unforced errors are a breakdown in the automatic player, over which one really has no control. The only decision he/she could have made to prevent that error would have been to practice more intensely, which is the best way for the automatic player to groove that mechanism and make it work most consistently. What happens is that the thinking player gets mad at the automatic player, which is really not fair. Even the automatic player can have a bad day every now and then. Some days the automatic player just can’t miss and the tennis player is in a groove (also know as being in the zone). Other days everything is long, wide or out. It has something to do with just the right greasing of the neuromuscular machinery, which a person can’t willfully control.


The Four Pillars Of Athletic Development

How should a player respond to the three ways of loosing a point?


1. If the opponent makes an incredible shot, applaud the perfect hit.

2. If the player makes a tactical mistake, try refocusing on the game at hand

3. If the player makes an unforced error, smile and practice more.


The best way to develop good decision-making on the court is to groove the automatic player, so that in the critical situations that subconscious player knows what to do. The Spanish Training System, and more specifically, the system developed at Sánchez-Casal Academies and followed by DCTENNIS, combine the four theoretical pillars of athletic development – technical, tactical, physical (Athlete Body), and mental (Athlete Mind) with the sole objective of pushing players to achieve their top performance and help them reach their ideal competitive state, where automation and mechanization of play is a constant standard in our daily practice sessions. It’s through the repetition of specific tactical situations that the player develops, enhances and optimizes the decision making ability and help understand how to play the point. 


I look forward to working with both of you - the automatic and the thinking players in you!

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Important note: The subject matter and the content of this blog is a somewhat of an adaptation of an excerpt of the excellent research and work performed by Prof. Thomas Rowland, published in his book entitled ’Tennisology - Inside the Science of Serves, Nerves, and On-Court Dominance. Thomas Rowland is a pediatric cardiologist at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield Massachusetts. He serves as a professor of pediatrics at Tufts University School of Medicine and was an adjunct professor of exercise science at the University of Massachusetts. 

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