Self-talk and mental imagery improve young tennis players’ serve performance – Study

By Beth Ellwood June 30, 2022 in Cognitive Science

A new study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology adds to a body of research suggesting that mental strategies can improve tennis performance among professional athletes. Among a group of young tennis players, a combination of goal-directed self-talk and motor imagery was most beneficial for improving their serve performance.

Motor imagery (MI) is a common mental technique used in sports training, whereby an athlete mentally rehearses an action before executing it. For example, a tennis player might visualize themselves performing a successful serve, imagining the trajectory of the ball and where it lands on the court. Goal-directed self-talk is another mental strategy used by athletes, where an athlete addresses themselves with motivational talk in an effort 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 might benefit tennis performance, specifically focusing on the first serve performance of young athletes during match play.

“Coaches and athletes widely recognize the potential effects of using mental strategies to improve performance, especially in racket sports,” explained Robin, an associate professor at the University of the French Antilles. “We were interested in mental strategies empirically employed by coaches and/or athletes to obtain greater performances such as motor imagery (i.e., the ability to recreate motor experiences in the absence of actual execution) and self-talk (i.e., verbalizations that the tennis player addresses himself) the most used techniques in tennis. And we wanted to test, with a scientific protocol, the effectiveness of these techniques in an ecological situation, (i.e. on tennis courts in our tennis academy).”

The researchers recruited a sample of 33 young tennis players (27 males and 6 females) with an average age of 15. The participants had been playing tennis for a least 8 years and had been involved in either regional or national competitions. The players were randomly assigned to one of three groups: the MI group, the MI and self-talk group, or the control group.

The study was carried out in three phases. The first and last phases consisted of testing sessions where the players performed 25 first serves in a competitive scenario, while two tennis coaches evaluated the speed, efficiency, and success of each serve. In between the two testing sessions, the players participated in three months of training, which included two practice sessions a week.

During the training, participants in the MI group were instructed to practice mental imagery before each serve, envisioning themselves successfully executing the play. Participants in the MI and self-talk group were asked to practice motivational self-talk in addition to mental imagery before each serve. The control group did the same physical training but was not instructed to engage in any mental strategies.

At the end of the study, the researchers compared the performance of the three groups. It was found that participants who practiced MI or MI with self-talk improved their performance following the training, in terms of both success percentage and efficiency of first serves. The control group, however, remained stable in their performance.

During the post-test, both 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-talk group outperformed both the MI and control groups in terms of efficiency.

Robin and his colleagues said their findings support the notion that motor imagery can successfully improve first serve performance among competitive teenage and young adult tennis players.

“Using motor imagery, before serving, improves performance,” he told PsyPost. “In addition, using motor imagery combined with motivational self-talk (such as ‘I/you can do it,’ ‘come on,’ ‘I feel good,’ and ‘I will play well on the next point’), induces greater serve performances. It is important to note that we showed similar beneficial effects in novice tennis players in a recent similar study.”

The results are also in line with research suggesting that a combination of mental strategies is best since the group who combined motor imagery with self-talk had the highest scores for efficiency of first serves. The researchers speculate that this group may have enjoyed an added boost of increased self-confidence with the motivating self-talk.

“With regard to motor imagery it will be important to imagine oneself succeeding in the action; and with regard to self-talk it is important to use positive words or phrases. These techniques can increase concentration and can proactively and reactively regulate motivation and emotion 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 racket sports but can also be transferred to a large number of sports, whether individual or collective. Everyone can do it, so go for it.”

Notably, the mental strategies did not seem to improve the speed of participants’ serves. The researchers say that a longer training phase might have been necessary to observe any improvements in serve speed. The authors further note that their study did not include a self-talk only condition, which prevented them from examining the effects of motivational self-talk alone.

The study, “Beneficial Effects of Motor Imagery and Self-Talk on Service Performance in Skilled Tennis Players”, was authored by Nicolas Robin, Laurent Dominique, Emma Guillet-Descas, and Olivier Hue.

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