Mental Block Tennis Forehand – How to Fix it


Any person who has watched me play tennis knows that I am not the guy you watch and say “wow that is a great forehand”. My backhand is the stroke that usually gets all the compliments (you can watch for yourself in this video of me training with Naomi Osaka). In my case, hitting backhands always felt incredibly natural while the forehand side was way more complicated. Because of that, my forehand was way more volatile. Some weeks I felt like I was hitting it well and some weeks I would completely lose it. That feeling of losing a stroke is common in tennis and all tennis players at all levels experience it. So in this article I want to share some of my experience dealing with this issue and my tips on how to recover from a mental block on your forehand.

In order to recover from a mental block on your forehand you need to first understand that losing a stroke is natural, so do not panic. Tennis players go through ups and downs in every stroke and you need to embrace that. Your goal is not to eliminate these swings; it is decreasing the volatility of your strokes. The second thing you should do is to understand your stroke. When you feel like you are hitting your forehand well, pay attention to everything. Analyze your footwork, the rotation of your body, the position of your arms and hands during the takeback and follow through, the ball flight and so on.

Knowing these things will help you with the third tip which is establishing a baseline. By being self aware you can understand what works and doesn’t for you which will help you regain confidence. Finally, the last tip is to have a good swing thought. Forget about the result of the shot and focus in an area of your swing that will help you properly execute the forehand.

This subject is complicated because we all experience mental blocks differently. So in this article, I will go through some of the steps I’ve taken in order to improve my forehand and control its ups and downs so I could become a more consistent player. Try to find one or two tips that might help you do the same. Let’s get to it!

Forehand Yips

A few months ago I was teaching a teenager who’s forehand was definitely his weapon. We went to a tournament and he played the best tennis I’ve seen him play since we started working together. He was dominating opponents, especially with his forehand. After the tournament, we took a couple days off and restarted training. First day back, he looks at me and says “I don’t know how to hit my forehand anymore”. I was shocked. I asked him what happened and he could not give me an answer, he just was not feeling it. Just like that, it was gone. He could not hit forehands for three weeks. During matchplay he would only chip forehands and if he tried to actually hit it he would miss by a LOT. It got to the point that we had to laugh about it.

But what happened? We did not change his stroke, we did not change the way we were training and he had just played an amazing tournament. I believe he had what we called the “yips”. The yips is a term we use to define a sudden loss of skill in experienced athletes. It is a state of extreme nervousness that causes players to not be able to perform at the level they are expected to. 

For most players, time and training will help them regain confidence. However, the time frame is different for each individual. The biggest problem is that players panic and the issue becomes mental and not physical. In the case of my student, he had one bad practice and his mind decided he could not perform something he was so used to doing. It took us a few weeks but he was able to recover from it.

It Is OK To Lose A Stroke

The first thing you need to understand is that it is completely normal to lose your stroke. It is not something you should look forward to but if it does happen, do not panic. In the case of my student, he quickly panicked which led him to believe there was something wrong with his forehand. It is important for you to understand that the issue is mental and not technical. If you immediately think you need to rebuild your forehand you will have a much harder time regaining confidence. 

Our brains can (and usually are) be our toughest opponent in tennis. A lot of us, including myself, work less on our minds than on the tennis court. So once a mental block happens we have a harder time responding appropriately. In my experience, I found that the best way to react once you have a mental block is to take a step back. It is natural for us to have a bad day on the court and overthink it. We want to get back on the court and quickly fix the issue but if tennis has taught me something is that quick fixes will be detrimental in the long run. Try to take some time off, however many days you can step away from it (duration is up to you and the circumstance you find yourself in). A couple of days off can help you because you will feel more excited to play and muscle memory will take over. 

Don’t let the frustration get the best of you. Photo: Regina Cortina

Work on Self Awareness

A lot of people will say that “you just need to relax and stop thinking about it”. But if it was that easy we would all be mindlessly hopping around caring about nothing. We have brains and they are, for better or worse, made for thinking. Personally, I believe it is very important to have a deep understanding of yourself as a tennis player. Know your strengths and weaknesses from a technical, physical and mental standpoint. Understand what works and what doesn’t for you in order to develop as a player.

So when you work on becoming more self aware and understanding your strokes, you can attempt to pinpoint where the block is affecting you the most. When a mental block happens, our minds get foggy and we tend to only focus on the result of the shot, which goes from “I want to hit the ball there” to “OMG I don’t want to miss my forehand again”. So take a step back and forget about the outcome of your shot but try to understand how you are being affected by the block. Are you not moving your feet as well? Are you decelerating the racket head? Are you making the right decision before hitting? Ask yourself some questions, regardless if you can actually answer them or not.

Establishing a Baseline 

Once you become more comfortable with the fact that it is ok to lose a stroke and work on your self awareness, it is time to establish a baseline. What I mean by that is that you should pay attention to what is working for you when you are at your best. Look into your footwork, racket head speed, follow through or whatever it is that makes you feel like you are hitting the ball well and remember that feeling. Then when you have a mental block on your forehand your goal in practice is to try to recreate that feeling. Let me explain.

After many years of trial and error, I found the formula that works for myself. First, I realized that I would hit my forehand better when I focused on three things: Proper distance, body rotation and high elbow follow through. On the other hand, I noticed my forehand would be less effective when I focused too much on my hands and arms. I figured out that I would be finecking too much with my swing once my mind paid too much attention to those two areas which led me to lose confidence on my forehand.

The solution I found in my case was spending extra time being fed lots of tennis balls. Feeding allowed me to focus really hard in the areas I mentioned earlier: body rotation, distance and the follow through. On top of that, feeding was a no pressure situation which I was allowed to miss as I worked on regaining confidence. During low confidence times, I rather go on the court and be fed for 30 mins than hit for one hour and a half. When you have a mental block on your forehand, it is easy to lose your range; there is no consistency on where your balls land. Finding back the range is really important during low confidence times. 

Working on my forehand using feeding during off season

Our Tips To Help You Recover From a Mental Block

First let me preface by saying that these tips might not work for some of you. We are all unique individuals and it is hard to tell what will help each person who reads this article. The following tips come from my experience as a tennis player and I found them to be extremely helpful in my case. However, I think you can try them out to see if one (or multiple) work for you. Be sure to continue to work with the tennis professional who’s been coaching you and be open about your issue. Let’s get to it!

Take Some Time Off

This is a simple one. It obviously depends on your situation. If you are in the middle of playing a sequence of tournaments, it might be hard to step away from tennis. But if you are able to, take some time off. However long it takes for you to really miss playing and just being out on the court enjoying the process instead of fearing your forehand. Give your mind some rest and allow your muscle memory to kick in. It is ok to take some time off. 

Feeding

Instead of going out and playing matches, have a coach or friend feed you a ton of balls. As I explained before, getting fed allows you to hit a lot of shots in a low pressure environment so you can work on your range. You (and your coach) can fine tune your forehand without worrying about mistakes. Handfeeding is usually a great way to start and you can slowly move into normal feeding. The key is to actively try to find a formula that works for you.

Coach

This is for more advanced players. While coaching may sound like an odd tip, you would be surprised on how effective it is. A while back I had the yips on my second serve, I just couldn’t figure it out. A few weeks later I was working tennis camps and I was teaching a group of kids how to hit kick serves. I gave them some tips and they hit their serves great and then I realized “wait, why don’t I do that one my serve???”. I haven’t had problems with my second serve since. When you are helping someone else, tennis is much clearer since you are the outsider. The game becomes easier in your head and you develop a better understanding of the sport. Highly recommend this one.

Make Good Decisions

It is so easy to let your mind takeover during times of low confidence. It almost makes us dumber. Mental blocks on your forehand walk hand in hand with poor decisions on the court. Mental fog is our worst enemy. Don’t be a hero, choose bigger targets, play safer shots. In short, have small goals. If you can’t put one forehand on the court, aim at hitting one. Then two, then three and so on. Don’t try to go from missing every forehand to “yeah I am Fernando Gonzalez”.

Scenario. Let’s say I am struggling with my forehand crosscourt. So to make up for it, I start hitting more down the line. But since I will do so at the wrong times, I will still make mistakes. Slowly I won’t trust any shots and have a complete mental block. In this case, poor decision making contributed to my loss of confidence. Fight that urge, make good decisions.

Find One Swing Thought

When we have a mental block on our forehands, our minds are always racing during the execution of our shot. We focus so hard on “making it” that we lose our swing thought. It works like this: instead of worrying about the result of the shot, find ONE specific area of your forehand you should focus on during the execution. And you can change it as you go until you find the one that works for you that day. You can focus on your feet, body rotation, contact with the ball in front, racket head speed, follow through and so on. Just pick one area and see the result you get. If it does not help you, move on. If it does, stick to it until it stops working. 

 Work With a Specialist

All that being said, sometimes your mental block just won’t go away. It happens and there is nothing for you to be ashamed of. If the problem is persistent and nothing is helping you, paying a visit to a sports psychologist could be beneficial. I believe working with a qualified professional is extremely important regardless if you are experiencing a mental block or not. But in this case, if it is something that is making you lose sleep, seek professional help (if you have the means to do it).

Conclusion

Developing a mental block on any stroke in tennis is one of the hardest parts of playing the sport. It can be incredibly frustrating to feel like you are going backwards on your progress as a players. But like I said before, it is part of playing tennis. Our path in tennis is packed with ups and downs and how we respond to adversity shapes us as players and also as people; it helps us on the court and in our daily lives. Do not let a mental block discourage you and enjoy your time on the court. If you want to keep reading about forehands, check out this tennis forehand ultimate guide we made for you. Also, visit our YouTube channel, where we have a few videos to help you out as well.

Karue Sell

I’ve had some pretty cool experiences during my tennis career. I’ve reached the semifinals of the Orange Bowl U16 and as a junior, I ranked as high as #33 in the world. I have had wins over Dominic Thiem, Kyle Edmund, and Hugo Dellien (not sure how well I would do against them today, though). One of the coolest things I’ve done while playing was reaching the finals of the NCAA’s with UCLA, so I’m a great supporter of college tennis. I’ve won 3 futures since graduating, and I broke the top 400 on the ATP rankings. And most importantly, I have been to Pete Sampras’ house.

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