Stefan van der Stigchel: How concentration works in a tennis match – and how not

lightning start.

With a 3:0 in your strong back, you confidently walk towards the bench after ten minutes.

you push yourself You have victory in mind. Even if it’s still a bit early.

Less than 40 minutes later you’re back on the bench. Your euphoria has landed on the internet. Your hope for victory in the end.

You are hopelessly behind with 3:6 and 1:4.

How does it work? And why do you have such enormous performance fluctuations in your matches?

If you want to learn from a cognitive psychology professor in the next 10 minutes:

How to prepare for a match to use maximum concentration
Which exercises you can use to pull yourself out of concentration holes
Why you can never concentrate fully on an entire match – and what you should do instead
…then please read on.

Who is Stefan van der Stigchel?
Before I introduce you to Stefan, I have to tell you about our happiness.

When I contacted Stefan he wrote back with a real coincidence.

What is this coincidence?

Stefan and his son play tennis themselves. Crazy, right?

profile stefan
Stefan van der Stigchel is Professor of Cognitive Psychology in the Department of Experimental Psychology at Utrecht University.

He is head of the AttentionLab research group there. More on that in a moment.

He received a VENI and VIDI NWO grant as well as an ERC Consolidator Grant and a VICI NWO grant for his research on visual attention.


Stefan is the author of the popular science book “How Attention Works”.

His second book, Concentration: Staying Focused in Times of Distraction, was published in the Netherlands in November 2018 and was published by MIT Press in 2020. His books have also been translated into Russian, Korean and Chinese.

What is the research group around Stefan van der Stigchel doing?
Look here:

“AttentionLabis the research group led by Stefan Van der Stigchel. She is part of the Department of Experimental Psychology at Utrecht University. The aim of AttentionLab is to study “attention” and “visual awareness” in the broadest sense in the healthy population, but also in a clinical setting. In the AttentionLab, attention and visual perception are examined using various methods, such as B. Obstacle avoidance, eye movement recording, lesion overlap and flash suppression. These functions are being studied in different patient populations such as hemianopia, visual neglect and Korsakoff syndrome. The goal is to create a rich interaction between experimental psychology and neuropsychology, with the ultimate goal of

When I was completely KO after going 2-1 in the first set
Sometime in the late 90s I played a tournament in Warendorf.

It was a small, cozy facility. The draw wanted me to play the number two in the tournament in the first round.

His name was David.

He played extremely unspectacular. I expected the number two of the tournament to blow me off the field. But this was not so.

David involved me in long rallies.

He played extremely safe. Almost every ball from him came just short of the baseline. He played with a lot of topspin which made it even more difficult for me. His backhand was better than his forehand . There was a pace and spin to his shots that I hadn’t experienced before. Although, as I said, it was rather unspectacular what he played in the rallies. But I felt the efficiency on my clothing. It was a real task of concentration to control his long balls played with a lot of spin and to return them with quality.

I had to tap into all my physical and mental reserves to be able to keep up with those demanding rallies.

That worked until 1:2 from my point of view.

I was completely KO

I had a hard time even concentrating on my serve . There were no more analyzes in my mind. I stopped thinking about how to play my serve where . The rallies with David were so exhausting that I was glad when I finally made the mistake. At least that’s how most rallies felt to me.

I wanted anything but to play another long rally against this clockwork tennis player on the other side of the net.

Sure, fitness equals concentration.

But what can you do in your matches to keep your focus as focused as possible?


Stefan van der Stigchel on this:

“In tennis there are always judgments in your head. You have an opinion on every ball you hit.

Your mind may also wander to other aspects, such as the consequences of winning or losing, the stories you might tell about the game (ie the excuses), the people who bother you on or off the pitch.

Since we can only focus on one thing at a time, the key trick is to refocus on the game.

You will need to use a self-communication exercise. Since your thoughts are verbal and occupy the verbal portion of your working memory, using a verbal task will make it impossible to think of anything else.
For example, you can mentally say the word “tap” every time the ball bounces and “hit” every time the ball is hit, either by you or your opponent.

I understand that this might be boring, but it will be impossible to think of anything else.”

Interesting right?

Did you notice that Alexander Zverev has been consciously hitting the ball directly on the baseline for some time before the serve? Is this a new concentration technique from our former double fault monster?

We can only guess. Alex, if you’re reading this, feel free to comment below this article 😉

We hang on to:

Speak to yourself in simple words, with simple content. Comment on what you are doing right now.

My short story a little further up was about fluctuations in concentration. You start out like a berserker, but only to then degrade just as badly.

How can this be explained?

Stefan on this:

“It’s almost impossible to stay focused for a long period of time.

Just like with other tasks that require concentration, like reading or writing, there is a limit to the amount of time one can concentrate. Concentration exercises can help you improve your concentration (train it by simply doing it and stretching out the period longer and longer), but even then there is a limit. The brain networks responsible for focus get “tired” and you need to recharge your batteries.

If you feel that your concentration needs to be refueled, it may well be that you let your thoughts wander during this break. Even a short concentration break can be enough to enable a new phase of concentration.
Don’t be too hard on yourself: there is no infinite concentration.”

That means for us:

You cannot play with 100% focus and concentration in each of your matches, from the first rally to the converted match point.

It’s crazy that a lot of players get really upset about this.

You’re putting yourself out of the game. Because they are upset about something that cannot be changed. Every Buddhist right now, residing cross-legged, shakes his head with a smile.

Divide your concentration rather than wanting to play every point like the last one.

Reading tip for tennis elbow: The Masalo Cuff



Can you really play from point to point in your matches?
Okay, if you can’t stay focused for 90 minutes at a time, how long can you stay focused in a match?

Stefan van der Stigchel on this:

“There is no concrete answer to this question, as it depends on various factors:

primarily from your motivation, how well you slept, your surroundings (are there any distracting elements?) and what you were doing before the game (playing video games or taking a nap – it makes a big difference in your ability to concentrate ).
But also note that there are individual differences: Some people are naturally better at concentrating than others. This neurological diversity means that some players have longer concentration times than others.”

You can use a clever self-analysis to find out how you can best divide up your concentration in a match.

I would recommend the simple question method:

Are you late starters in your matches?
Do you start off strong, but then fall off badly?
Do you lack focus towards the end of a set or match?

If you answer these three questions honestly, then you’ll be a big step further in your game in terms of tactics and head.

Which leads us directly to the next important point:

How can you concentrate when you are incredibly nervous and tense?

Stefan van der Stigchel on this:

“I love Stanislavski’s concentration circles because I know them so well from my own playing experience (see below).

Of course you want to be in the first zone, but we often think of other things and are therefore present in another zone. When you play an important match and find yourself in game-changing situations, it makes sense to think more about the consequences of your actions.

Of course, this is not the case with training:

Who cares if the ball is in or out? Ultimately, it’s a matter of recognizing (doing an internal check-in) the circle you’re in and trying to get back into the first zone.

You can do the meeting point exercise (see above) or focus your attention on the fluff of the ball. Since you can only focus on one thing at a time, focusing on the lint will cause your attention to turn outward instead of inward. And it will even improve your game, because you’ll be able to see the ball better if you’re actively paying attention to it.”

In my Novak KonstantOvic course ( available exclusively to readers of my daily newsletter ), I go into depth on why watching the ball is so incredibly important.

And why many players do exactly this “exercise” so often so wrong.

Stefan explains very well here how important it is to assess the respective match situation plus your situation in your head.

The best example is the serve.

We both know a lot of players who, after a long rally, march to the baseline in anger and serve without a second thought.

How good will a serve be under these circumstances?

We both know the answer.

Here are the concentration circles of Stanislavski mentioned by Stefan :


Stefan van der Stigchel: This is what good match preparation looks like
But how can you prepare for a match to peak performance in your concentration?

Stephen on this topic:

“Try to do something that doesn’t require active attention: go for a walk, take a nap, listen to familiar music. Things that can be done automatically without taxing your attention system. That way, your concentration battery will be fully charged and ready for a longer period of concentration.”

The deciding factor:

Give your mind rest before a match.

Don’t fool around on your smartphone. Imagine a still lake. If you throw bricks into these, the lake surface will become restless. She makes waves.

You want to avoid these waves for your spirit. Smartphones are the bricks.

A while ago I stumbled across a video on YouTube.

It showed the great Rafael Nadal just before a match.

With headphones on, he did dry runs, did a few side steps, and danced in place. Nobody spoke to him. Probably no one was allowed to speak to him either. He was completely on his own. Sealed off by his headphones.

This is a very good example of solid match preparation. Rafa has been quite successful in one or the other tournament.

improve your game

The PDF mental report “Why strong players fail on themselves – and how to win more matches” . Look here:

Over 5,400 readers
Summary: What have we learned?
In a few points, I would like to put the most important insights from this article on your racket:

Since we can only focus on one thing at a time, the key trick is to refocus on the game. Take tapping the ball, for example, and comment on it in simple words

Don’t be too hard on yourself: There is no infinite concentration. Unfortunately, you cannot play 90 minutes with 100% focus

Divide your focus

Take phases from time to time to recharge your concentration battery. Let your thoughts wander consciously

In tight match situations, focus on the fluff of the ball. Goal: Look at the ball as intensely and focused as you can

Before an important match: Try to do something that doesn’t require active attention: go for a walk, take a nap, listen to familiar music. Things that can be done automatically without taxing your attention system
Understood. Finally, I’ll link you to Stefan’s website and books. They are in English but easy to read. You also have the option of having words translated for you on your Kindle.

It’s worth reading.

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