Winning the Body Language Battle: Are you giving your opponent confidence based on how you look?

Winning the Body Language Battle: Are you giving your opponent confidence based on how you look?

It is a scene all too familiar in every level of competition - negative body language as a result of poor decision-making, poor play, and frustration. Once the negative body language begins it typically takes root the rest of the way and is hard to overcome. The match progresses from me versus you, to me versus myself.  However, regardless of level, you will notice that the top players are better at limiting what they give away to their opponents and do a better job of keeping it about competition (me versus you). 

Let's start out with two questions:

What are you giving away to your opponent?

What events tend to set you off the most?

The answers to these questions are important because 1) they identify your hot buttons and 2) they can help you realize the impact your body language has on the opponent. Once you know what sets you off you can then build proper reactions to these events and make it a priority during competition. Additionally, by realizing your reactions have an effect on your opponent (good and bad), you can start to create a stronger on-court presence that increases pressure on the other player.

Here are a few additional thoughts:

The Negative-Neutral Cycle

Negativity breeds more negativity, and also clouds any positives that might be happening. Players get tunnel vision and they lock into the negative thoughts. As a result, they miss the good things they are doing and start what I call the negative-neutral cycle (negative response after a mistake, neutral response after a positive). This is exactly the opposite of what the cycle needs to be, which is neutral-positive (neutral response after a mistake, positive response after a good point). I find that negative players have difficulty going from negative to positive, but are able to go from negative to neutral. Start by limiting your negative outward displays and focus on a neutral outward reaction, such as going right into your routine when the point is over. Eventually, you will train yourself to have a neutral response after errors and this will open the door to you being more positive when good things happen.

You Give Them Confidence

Keep in mind that your opponent is watching you and they will often create their perception of you based on what they are seeing. If you are hunched over after a mistake and keep talking to yourself, the opponent can simply wait until you are ready to lose. This reduces the pressure they feel because they don't need to keep playing great to win - they simply allow you to do the work for them. Keep the pressure on by maintaining a solid presence throughout competition; at least this will send the message that the opponent must keep competing to get the victory. Your opponents will respect you a lot more if they see you continuing to fight even when behind/playing poorly. 

It's a Major Waste of Energy

This is an overlooked aspect of negative body language - it takes a lot of energy to be negative! Over the course of a long match or tournament, players simply run out of gas. In addition to physical exertion, emotion also burns energy. Thus, a downward cycle occurs; player makes a mistake, player gets mad, player gets negative, player gets tired, player makes more mistakes due to fatigue, player gets even more negative, etc. Be more aware of how you are using your energy during competition. Do you want this energy to be directed towards your opponent or towards yourself? Being aware is important, but it will take a full commitment to having a better mindset during competition for your behavior to change. Asking yourself a simple question during competition can help - am I competing against my opponent or against myself?

Negativity is a Distraction

Simply put, negativity distracts you from your goals and from the things that really matter. When you are engaged with prior mistakes, you disengage from your future purpose. A simple method of staying on task is to write down 2-3 goals/directions on a note card that you can read through during breaks in the action. Make this part of your routine on changeovers - in time, you will teach yourself to move on to the things that matter and drop the negative weight.

Best of luck this upcoming Spring season. We look forward to seeing you on the tournament trail. ASP coaches will be attending over 15 national and international events this year, so look for us and say hi.

2 Methods of Staying Positive

2 Methods of Staying Positive

1) Go from Negative to Neutral first, then work on Neutral to Positive.

In my experience, athletes struggle with shifting from a negative mindset to a positive mindset during competition - it's just too big of a jump to make in the moment, especially with emotions running high. Instead, focus on having neutral reactions first. Going from negative to neutral is a much easier transition to make than negative to positive. Work on limiting your emotional responses, especially when you are feeling frustrated or angry. In limiting your negative reactions and displaying a neutral response, eventually you will learn to limit the negativity in your thoughts and reactions. Once you learn to have a neutral response after errors/mistakes, making the jump from neutral to positive will be much more attainable. 

Skill Execution: Routines, routines, routines! Practice neutral responses each day, along with neutral thoughts. Focus on keeping a plain face, shoulders back, and a simple thought immediately after the point/play is over ("Next one", "Reset").

2) Be your own coach when competing and limit the voice in your head.

If you were to transcribe all of the thoughts you have during competition, 1) how long would that transcript be, and 2) what types of statements would you see? In general, athletes are overly critical of their performances, which leads to flooding the brain with useless, negative statements. For example, after missing an easy layup a basketball player might respond with negative affirmations: "I am terrible. How did I miss that? A 3 year old could have made that shot." And what tends to happen next? That's right, another mistake and another negative reaction/thought. Additionally, players tend to have a running dialogue in their heads, with very little instructional comments being made. The influx of thoughts and statements slow down the physical reactions and prevent the athlete's training from kicking in. In essence, the player gets in his/her own way.

Skill Execution: Work on limiting the emotional and critical comments you make to yourself during training and competition. Give yourself a goal of having less than 10 negative comments each game/match, and then work on having fewer than 5, etc. Additionally, after each negative comment, give yourself a piece of coaching advice. For instance, what would your coach tell you after missing the easy layup? "Great effort, you will get the next one. Now get back on defense and play team ball." Ultimately, you want to remove most of the emotional/critical comments and have more instructional statements, which are process-focused and forward-thinking. Remember, you are trying to alter your thinking habits, so it will take some time (stay accountable by setting thinking goals each day).

The "ASPire Pillars" Series: The Power of Intention

The "ASPire Pillars" Series: The Power of Intention

Over the next few weeks, I will discuss the primary "ASPire Pillars" of mental performance, which is the foundation of our work with athletes. The first "Pillar" is The Power of Intention.

What is Intention?

Intention, by my definition, is the purpose behind an athlete's actions/decisions. It means having a mental and physical plan of action for training and competition.

Intention Comes Before Execution

Athletes can get overly focused on outcomes, rather than the intent behind actions. This can lead to frustration and decreased motivation, especially when learning a new skill. Regardless of the outcome, or if you executed the skill, ask yourself a simple question: Was it the right decision? This is what really matters in the long run - making the correct decisions repeatedly during competition. Eventually, as correct decisions continue to mount, so too does execution. Athletes tend to look at the outcome and pair their emotional responses accordingly (happy if they make it, frustrated if they don't). Instead, change the dialogue in your head - Was it the right decision? Yes, do it again. No, what do I need to do better next time?

What Does Intention Look Like?

Successful athletes have clear purpose and intention when competing. How can you tell? Watch what happens after they make mistakes - they consistently correct the error right away, rarely making the same mistake twice in a row. For example, after double faulting, great players adjust by taking pace off and getting the first serve in on the next point. Intention can be very subtle, or blatantly obvious. It can be seen in body language and decision-making, as well as reactions to good and bad events. Some might say the player looks "confident" when they have intention. Which leads to my next point...

The Feeling You Get From Having Intention

Confidence stems from intention and knowing exactly what you WANT TO DO - the execution eventually follows. Take, for example, Rafa Nadal most of 2016. He consistently mentioned having low confidence in his forehand, but at the same time, he knew that he had to keep going after it during matches. In his words, "eventually, it started to go in." There are many uncontrollable factors during competition, with outcomes being one of them; however, the plan and purpose behind our actions are within our control, which can in turn lead to a confident feeling.

How Can You Work on Your Intention? 

Intention is a mindset. There is no luck behind intention, only a controllable thought process. Here are a few ideas to create intention and purpose in your training and competition: 

1) Know Thyself: At the core of intention is self-knowledge. You must know your game style and your strengths. You must know what events typically derail your concentration (along with a plan to deal with them), as well as what motivates you and gets you activated. By understanding what makes you tick, you will be more apt to develop clarity of mind when it comes to training/competition.

2) Create A Game-Plan: Having intention begins before you step onto the court, whether it be in practice or competition. You need to create your purpose and goals for the upcoming performance - create simple thought-directions and visualizations of these actions to employ during your pre-match preparation.  

3) Take Control of Your Thoughts: Nerves are normal, but when they become overbearing, it is usually due to excessive doubt and worry. When these thoughts come, replace them with your plan of action. Some players will repeatedly tell themselves the same instructions over and over to "flood" their brains, leaving no room for any other thoughts. Frustration operates in the same manner - limit the emotion tied to the outcome and instead redirect your thoughts to an action you want to take next.

4) Take Control of Your Reactions: Be a "Neutral-Positive" competitor, which means having a neutral response when faced with a poor outcome and a positive response when faced with a good outcome. Your reactions can linger and influence the next action you take - do you want a positive feeling to stick around or a negative one? By taking control of your reactions your body language will improve, and your opponent will see a more confident player acting with purpose and direction.

3 Simple Confidence-Boosters

3 Simple Confidence-Boosters

Make Positive Choices

A simple choice like ordering a healthy sandwich versus greasy pizza not only impact your energy levels for training, but these choices can also solidify your total commitment and dedication to your craft.  In making these types of positive choices, athletes begin to feel more responsible for, and in control, of their training - this leads to increased ownership and accountability, which are necessary to reach elite levels. 

Ideas: 1) go to bed 30 minutes earlier each night instead of watching another tv show, 2) limit cell phone use an hour before bedtime, 3) make healthy choices when it comes to nutrition and hydration (water instead of soda, etc).

Self-Statements: "The positive choices I make each day make me stronger. My sacrifices are for a purpose and create a more professional attitude/mindset."

Do Something Extra Each Day

Confidence can emanate from the feeling that we are going above and beyond the regular training load. While the extra reps can positively impact your physical performance, this extra workload also can strengthen your commitment, motivation, and confidence in your skills. Create a "first on, last off" mentality; be consistent and train with intention.

Ideas: 1) stay an extra 30 minutes after practice to work on a specific skill, 2) commit to daily injury prevention work, 3) show up early and jump rope 15 minutes before practice, 4) set daily practice/training goals and evaluate your effort, attitude, and intention. 

Self-Statements: "No one is going to outwork me. When everyone else is off, I am on. The extra reps are making me stronger." 

Create a Plan, Build Trust

Confidence stems from trusting ones abilities, but also trusting the plan behind the journey. Few athletes have a development plan, which is a series of action steps and goals meant to further develop physical skills, mental/emotional skills, and tactical skills. Goal-setting is important, but there also needs to be tangible training methods aimed at achieving these goals. Create the "WHAT" and also the "HOW" - in doing so, you will have a road map of how to improve, which will also increase the trust you have in your training process. It is imperative that you not only know what type of player you are, but also the specific areas you are working on to achieve a higher level. Confidence will come from knowing exactly what you need to work on, as well as what areas have improved over the last few weeks and months.

Ideas: 1) write down 1-2 goals/needs for each primary performance domain (mental, physical, tactical, etc), along with specific ways you can improve these skills, 2) commit to a 5 minute post-practice reflection period to evaluate yourself on the primary performance domains.

Self-Statements: "Trust the process, trust the training. I know who I am and what I am working on - this drives me each day." 

Into the Finals: Mindset of a Champion

Into the Finals: Mindset of a Champion

There's excitement in the air. Raging nerves. Only two players left. The finals. The finals are different than other matches; there is more pressure, more demands, less room for error, and only one chance to get it right. So how do you get it right? 

I have had the opportunity to coach and consult with several very successful players. One of the more common, and important, topics that come up is preparing for and playing in the finals (or simply a big match, farther than the player has been before).  Here are a few key things to consider when you find yourself in this position.

1) Nerves Serve A Purpose: Reframe and Redirect

A simple reframe of thoughts allows the player to acknowledge that the nerves are there and serve a purpose. Players tend to see their nerves in a negative fashion, but I urge them to look at this type of energy in a different way. I want them to reframe their nerves into something positive. For example:

"When my nerves come it means I am ready to go, ready to compete."

"Nerves mean I care and look to do well. I can use this energy to my advantage."

These types of statements elicit positive reactions - nerves are a good thing! Once you acknowledge you are nervous you can begin to change the dialogue in your mind before the match begins. In my experience, the first player to work through the nerves usually wins. 

2) Win the Body Language Battle

Your opponent is just like you, they feel nerves and pressure too, which is why body language is so important in big matches. When your opponent looks across the net, what will he/she see? I call this the Body Language Battle - show strength, show self-assurance, create doubt in your opponent's mind. Think about what you think/feel when you notice that your opponent is positive, energetic, and competitive; create that same look in yourself! 

3) Focus on the bookends - starting, finishing

I give players very simple goals to achieve when they start out matches or when they are trying to finish. Essentially they are the same goals; win the first point of the game, first serves/returns in play, high percentage shot selection, play to win mentality, etc. These are simple concepts and are within the player's control. Players tend to let their minds drift to the finish line, which increases pressure and opens the door for choking. When starting out or finishing, keep everything very simple and trust your training. 

4) When Behind, Extend. When Ahead, Discipline

Remember that your opponent is just like you; he/she gets nervous when trying to finish matches as well. When you are behind, extend the match as long as you can, because good things can happen the longer you keep the opponent out there. When you do something good, SHOW SOMETHING GOOD. Commit to keeping a neutral/positive response after points are over. When ahead, maintain your point-to-point discipline; take time, simple thoughts, keep doing the mental work in between points. 

Breaking Through Losing Streaks

Breaking Through Losing Streaks

Every athlete will go through a period when they find themselves in a slump. Vince Spadea once lost 21 straight matches on the pro tour. Aratxa Rus lost in the first round in 17 straight tournaments at one point in her career. Ouch. There are other losing streaks, of course, such as Andy Murray losing 4 Australian Open finals to Djokovic. This is one of the most common topics that athletes bring up during training: How can I break this losing trend? Here are a few things to keep in mind.

It's Easy to Complain, Hard to Find Answers

Get all the complaints out of your system, and after you do, it's time to buckle down and search for answers. I find that players struggle to get out of the complainer cycle, and as result are late to arrive at the doorstep for change. Ultimately, this is a choice you have to make; engage in finding problems or engage in finding solutions. Take Andy Murray's press conference after his Australian Open loss to Djokovic (the year Novak appeared to be injured during the start of the third set, then rolled back to win in 4). The press were hounding Murray with questions related to Djokovic's apparent gamesmanship. Murray never took the bait, and actually placed blame on himself; he stated there was a 10-minute stretch where he lost his focus and he did not recover until it was too late. The easy way out would have been to point fingers and place blame somewhere else. Instead, Murray shouldered responsibility and put himself in a position where he could move on.

Dig for the Positives Hiding in the Junk

Below is a short article on how Grigor Dmitrov worked through his struggles in Grand Slams. The main take-away? He recognized that losing early in tournaments gave him extra time to train, and thus, extra time to get things right. A coach once told me, "You are either getting closer to the answer, or you are getting farther away. You never stay in the same place." Dmitrov was moving forward, even though the results were slow to catch up. He continued to develop his game, focus on his strengths, and create solutions where problems existed. This is a mental attribute that Dmitrov has developed; the ability to be honest with himself, but also find a positive (which represents a launching pad for moving forward).

http://www.tennis.com/pro-game/2016/06/dimitrov-finally-snaps-losing-streak-still-looking-answers/59244/

Lay it All On the Line, Every Time

This is essential if you want to get out of your funk. By laying it on the line, you give yourself an opportunity to evaluate your current standing, as well as what you must work on next. I see players struggle and go into tank-mode, which creates a crutch for excuses to follow. Be consistent in your effort during competition so you can gauge your progress.    

Confidence Comes from Knowing Your Game, Knowing Your Strengths

Simply put, you have to know who you are as a player (game style, purpose, personality, strengths). More often than not, a player going through a losing streak tends to make things too complicated, or has drifted away from his/her game style. Be the best version of yourself! Therefore, take the time to sit down and write out what makes you, you. Write down your game style, your on-court personality, your strengths, etc. In doing so, you can create a road map for getting back on track.

Commit to The Struggle, See the Bigger Picture

Commit to your struggle and realize that these phases are there for a reason; to challenge you as a player, to challenge you as a person. In looking at these times as opportunities to develop, you build resiliency and a tolerance to withstand even greater challenges. Be sure to surround yourself with positive, tough coaches/players who will keep you accountable. Keep searching, keep grinding, keep moving forward. 

As we end 2016, take some time to reflect on your year and also start mapping out 2017. What do you need to improve? What are your goals? How will you achieve these goals? Where do you want to be a year from now? Good luck and happy training.

Part II: "Why do I play great in practice but poorly in competition?"

Part II: "Why do I play great in practice but poorly in competition?"

Following up on Part I, this post offers insight into developing practice pressure, ways to balance out process and outcomes goals, and creating a more effective practice attitude/mindset. First, a simple quote to get us started:

1) "Pressure is a Privilege"  

Few players ever get to know what it feels like to get tight or "choke", because they are rarely in a position to win! And this is the main point here: look at pressure as something you have EARNED the right to carry. Being in pressure moments is why you train so hard and make sacrifices. Set up your training environment to simulate aspects of competition, with pressure finding its way into your drills and situational point play. You don't compete in a bubble, so why practice in one? 

2) Own the struggle

While it can be a challenge to create pressure in practice, you must learn to perform when something is on the line. No matter how small, find ways to make things competitive. I used to have players each put in $1 and we would play a tiebreaker tournament, winner takes all. It was amazing at how competitive it was, and more importantly, the pressure mounted as the players went through each round. One of my favorite pressure cookers included picking 2 players to play a deciding point/game at the end of each practice. Other players would choose who they thought would win, as well as join in the sprints for the losing team. Be creative and find opportunities to put yourself in a pressure environment.

3) Mini-Goals for Competition

Players play to win, that is no secret. But sometimes this simple goal can be counterproductive or is an easy way out (no accountability for effort, strategy, etc). Going into competition, I always have players write down 2-3 mini-goals, which are bite sized directions for how to achieve the outcome. In doing so, you get to see the athlete's thought process (a potential teaching moment), and the athlete has an opportunity to bridge the gap between practice goals and outcome goals. 

4) Know your mental traps

This is one of the most overlooked areas of a player's mental performance; using practice situations to identify "triggers", or mental traps. I really don't mind when players get frustrated or upset during practice, but I do expect them to start figuring out what sets them off. In my own experience as an athlete, I knew the situations that would drive me crazy and make me lose focus or decrease my intensity. For example, I had issues with players who would take a lot of time in between points. I liked to play fast, so that worked against my natural tendencies. But what I learned was that I needed to do something with that extra time, which for me meant staying active by moving around and staying focused by spinning my racket in my hand (it was a cue for me to stay engaged on the court). Reflect on the things that get you riled up or cause you to lose your focus, and then create your game plan for how to counteract those moments. Use practice for your trial and error process; fail, fail better.

Year in Review: 2016 ASPire Training Camps Set the Tone

Year in Review: 2016 ASPire Training Camps Set the Tone

Wow, what a year 2016 turned out to be! The ASP Team hosted four ASPire Training Camps throughout the year leading up to the nation's top junior and international events. While we still have just under a month left in 2016, we wanted to take the time to reflect on what a great year it has been and what is in store for 2017. 

An Elite Group of Athletes

The group of players we had the pleasure of working with this year brought a wealth of experience and success. As of this writing, the players have achieved the following:

- 3 players earned their first ATP points this year

- ITF Boys Group combined for a climb of 500+ spots

- ITF Girls Group combined for a climb of 350+ spots

- USTA Rankings (year highs) included 5 top 10 players, 8 top 25 players, and 6 top 50 players.

- USTA Clay Court Championships (Gold Ball in singles and doubles)

- 5 National Selection Champions

- 3 National Regional Champions

- 6 College Scholarship commitments to Top 50 DI collegiate tennis programs

ASPire Training for the Total Athlete

The ASP philosophy is to train the total athlete, which means he/she must gain access to elite training on the court, in the gym, and in between the ears. To accomplish this, we developed a curriculum that an aspiring player can relate to and actually incorporate into his/her daily regimen. Here are just a few of the topics we addressed with the players in each performance domain:

On-Court Training

- Practice bookends: Proper training warm-ups and cool-downs

- Purposeful practice sessions (setting and achieving daily goals)

- Situational sets/point play, appropriate strategies

- Doing the work in between points (mental focus cues) 

On- and off-court Conditioning

- Footwork and agility training while on the road

- Fitness assessments, identifying strengths and gaps

- Developing a deeper understanding of a personal conditioning program

- Understanding recovery and periodization for maximum performance

Mental/Emotional

- Professionalism in every performance domain (sacrifice, setting goals, ownership)

- Filling in mental performance gaps (motivation, resiliency, pressure, etc) and how to bring up your bottom end

- Believe. Commit. Execute. The fundamentals of mental performance.

- Mental performance assessments, building a plan to improve your mindset

Looking Forward to 2017

We are in the midst of developing our 2017 training schedule and curriculum, which will feature additional training opportunities and specialized topics for elite athletes. Due to demand, we will be limiting our camps to invite-only, and selection will be based on ranking requirements. If you would like to be considered for these training camps, please email Dr. Brandyn Fisher at brandyn@americansportpsychology.com.

There are still a few weeks left in 2016, so sprint to the line and finish strong!

Part I: "Why do I play great in practice but poorly in competition?" 3 Common Reasons Why.

Part I: "Why do I play great in practice but poorly in competition?" 3 Common Reasons Why.

1) Pressure-free phenomenon. 

Practice environments are primarily free of pressure. As a result, the player is more loose and focused, which usually leads to better performance. Failure is not seen as that big of a deal, which limits the negative thought processes. Practices take on a different meaning; development of new skills, getting reps, practicing habits/routines, etc. 

Part II will take a look at how practice pressure is a necessary part of training, and ways to create a pressure environment.

2) Process > outcome.

Players are more focused on the process-oriented goals, while outcomes take a back seat. The thought process in practice shifts entirely, and players become more engaged with bite-sized chunks of goals rather than the bigger picture. In turn, the mind has more room for developmental processes to take place, and is not clouded by expectations and thoughts of winning/losing.

Part II offers strategies on how to balance process and outcome goals during competition, and effective ways to maintain a growth mindset during performance.

3) Limited stinkin' thinkin'.

Players get frustrated in practice, but generally speaking, the frustration expires after a shorter period of time than in competition. The weight of failure/frustration is not as heavy, which allows the player to move on to the next process. Practice represents an opportunity to "fail", and players are more likely to take chances/risk, or try out new things without negative thought repercussions.

Part II will provide insight on how to bring a practice mindset to competition, and how a player can learn from himself/herself in practice situations to help in matches/games.

3 Ways Champions Succeed in the Face of Adversity

3 Ways Champions Succeed in the Face of Adversity

Adversity is a necessary part of sport. Without challenges there are no opportunities to grow, to learn, to develop. In essence, without adversity where is the fun? Yet many athletes view adversity in a bad light and as a result they are not prepared for when it comes. Below are three ways champions succeed when challenges and adverse situations appear:

1) Champions accept what they can and cannot control. They do not get hung up on things they are unable to do anything about. For example, when they make mistakes, they are able to hit the reset button and move forward. They have trained themselves to let adversity come and go, without it negatively impacting their performance. Instead of trying to control the outcomes, or even the past play, champions remain focused on their own attitude, effort, and emotional response to things that happen on the field or on the the court. 

2) Champions see adversity as an opportunity. Elite athletes seek out challenges because they represent opportunities to overcome obstacles, to persevere, to achieve something greater; in short, the fun is in the struggle. Challenges bring out a champion's competitive spirit, which in turn brings out the best performances.   

3) Champions do the next right thing when faced with adversity. Have you ever seen a great player make a mistake? Sure you have, but watch what they do NEXT. More often than not, elite players find themselves making big plays after poor ones. They move on to the next play and put 100% of themselves into the challenge. Champions do the next right thing, which means putting the past to rest and refocusing on the upcoming opportunity. 

 

 

Eliminate the Limitations

Eliminate the Limitations

In my experience working with junior athletes, one of the main reasons why many will never realize their potential is not due to a lack of ability or desire, but rather the limitations that they place on themselves. To be great requires athletes to break the mold and be willing to make sacrifices. But yet, many players create limitations that prevent them from being the best version of themselves. Let's look at ways to break through these limitations and become more committed to achievement.

I Can't Statements are Killers

One of the most de-motivating statements a player can make is "I can't do it." It simply kills the practice or competitive situation. Most players may be able to do it, but they put limits on what they THINK they can do. Instead of going after the goal they protect themselves from the possibility of failure. How can you beat it? Stop the negative thoughts; be willing to fail if it means learning something; surround yourself with positive people; get extra training when everyone else goes home; put yourself in the best possible position to succeed. Change your "I can'ts" into "I cans".

Know Where You are Headed

Another limitation athletes unknowingly put on themselves is not having clearly defined and stated goals. You have to know where the top of the mountain is so you can game plan the correct route. I have yet to meet a successful athlete who did not consistently set goals. Keep it simple, but write them down. Start out with the end result and work backwards; know the destination and then work on creating the directions to get there.

Find Ways to Separate Yourself from the Pack

I have a saying that players need to "break through their fences", which means they have to find ways to grow beyond their current abilities. Players can break through their fences by finding ways to separate themselves from their personal best, as well as everyone else. Commit to doing more of something each day, such as getting an extra hour of sleep, making better choices at restaurants, or making injury prevention a regular part of the day. These little things increase confidence and make the player feel as though he/she is doing something no one else is willing to do. 

Limits exist only if you allow them to exist. Take control of your journey by eliminating the "I can'ts", stating goals, and finding ways to do extra work each day.  

 

Do you have the "stomach for losing"?

Do you have the "stomach for losing"?

I’m not going to lie, I had some nightmares about this heartbreaking final. You don’t want it to happen again. So I was really focused on going into this match. I really wanted that win.
— Felix Auger-Aliassime (2016 US Open Boy's Champion)

Just a few months ago, Felix Auger-Aliassime had 3 match points in the final of the Junior French Open, where he eventually lost 8-6 in the third set.  Fast forward to September and Felix is a Junior US Open champion at only 16 years old.  This time, the final had little drama, with Felix winning a 6-3, 6-0 match that was never in doubt.  The quote above offers a glimpse into Auger-Aliassime's mindset and motivation and how he used the French Open heartbreak to propel himself forward.

Roll with the Losses

One of the most important skills an athlete needs to have is the ability to roll with the losses and maintain confidence and motivation. As former top 10 ATP player Todd Martin once told me, "If a player wants to be great he has to have the stomach for losing."  Especially in a sport like tennis, where there is only one player who does not lose in a tournament, having the skill of resiliency is what will eventually separate the good from the great.  But like every other skill, building a resiliency for losing must be developed, starting with an understanding of what to take away and what to toss. 

Spend your Losses Like Cash

I have a saying that a player should spend his losses like cash, meaning that he/she needs to find the value (what to learn from the loss) and use the information to move on.  I find that most players hold onto losses way too long and do not focus on the information that really matters (i.e., what needs to improve, how to prevent the mistakes in the future).  Although Auger-Aliassime was holding onto his previous loss in the finals, he directed it in a positive manner; he used it to propel himself to a higher level and take advantage of the next opportunity. In essence, he allowed the loss to motivate himself to be better.  

Put 100% of Yourself into Preparing for the Next Challenge

I shared an article a few weeks ago about former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy and how he handled being fired in Tampa. In short, he talked about turning 100% of his attention and effort to his new team (the Colts). He would use everything he learned (both good and bad) from his time in Tampa to become an even better coach in Indianapolis. This is a great approach and is how I coach players to work through their mistakes and losses; PUT 100% OF YOURSELF INTO PREPARING FOR THE NEXT CHALLENGE. The longer a player stays in the past the less time he/she has to start getting ready for the next match. 

Take control of your training and mindset. The choice is yours how to move on during tough times. Believe in yourself and trust your abilities.

 

Words of Wisdom from Ivan Lendl

During the US Open Qualifying tournament, Ivan Lendl spent part of his day speaking with several of the top American junior coaches.  Here are a few of the messages he delivered:

Players Must do Their Job; Bring Energy and Motivation Each Day

1) "I have never understood how a player cannot be motivated to train or compete. If I have to motivate the player then it takes time away from doing other things that are more important. The player has to bring his own motivation each day, that way the coach can do his job." 

It's simple, the player's job is to bring his/her own energy and effort each day and the coach's job is to develop a training program and provide guidance. Simply showing up is not good enough. Are you bringing the right energy and effort to your practices each day? Are you self-motivated and hungry to improve? 

Take Advantage of Your Opportunities, and Always Be Looking for Your Chances to Do More

2) "Growing up in Czechoslovakia I had 2 hours of court time.  But I used to wait around the indoor facility and if a player was on vacation or didn't show up I would jump on the court.  I was able to get several more hours of training because of this attitude."

It was clear that Lendl had a unique mindset from a young age and took advantage of the limited opportunities he had in the beginning.  However, he was always searching for ways to do more, even if it meant spending all day waiting for an open court that may never come.  Are you taking advantage of the opportunities you have?  What are you doing to create new/more opportunities to improve?

Work on Bringing your Bottom End Up

3) "If a player has a weakness, he must keep hitting that shot until it's not a weakness anymore."

Lendl discussed how he knew his weaknesses and worked on them regularly to make them better.  For example, he worked really hard on keeping his fitness up so that he wouldn't mind longer rallies or longer matches. Lendl's reputation on tour as one of the most fit players certainly helped play into the mental warfare he waged during the match (i.e., running down every ball, making points physical). What are the areas of your game that define you? What reputation do you have at your level of play?

Surround Yourself With Like-Minded Players/Coaches

4) "In a club there might be a group of players. If one of those players is not working hard or not doing what he needs to do to get better, then everyone suffers. It's better for the club to push that player somewhere else."  

Growing up with motivated and hardworking training partners helped Lendl improve at a remarkable rate. When he had the chance to work with better players or pros, he talked about wanting to have a good practice for the other player.  This is a very different approach than most players bring to the court today; for the most part, players practice only for themselves. Would other players choose to practice with you?  If they would, what are the reasons? If they wouldn't what are the reasons?

 

Five Take-Aways from the Summer Nationals

After the summer grind be sure to find time to reflect on your tournament competition as a whole. What did you learn about yourself? What did you improve? What do you still need to improve to perform even better? What are new goals you will set moving forward? Similarly, coaches should do the same and be looking for ways to innovate and inspire their players. Below are 5 take-aways from the summer. Enjoy!

1. Be a better player on the last day as compared to the first day. When I travel with players to longer tournaments I am more concerned with how they are improving from day to day, rather than if they are winning or losing.  After a loss, I want to see the player clean things up in practice, and then go out the next day and do better in those areas.  The nationals provide players with plenty of opportunities to go out and fix certain areas from match to match; however, many players get hung up on the outcomes and neglect the process.   

2. The best "player" does not always win. The best "competitor" does. There were some pretty amazing matches this summer and I was impressed with the skill-sets that players have at such a young age.  From technique to tactics, most players at the national level have a solid foundation of skills.  However, technique and tactics did not separate the top players from everyone else, but rather competitiveness did. Competitiveness is an intangible skill, yet it continues to differentiate the good from the great. How long are you willing to fight? Will you work through the adversity and continue believing in yourself? If you want to break through to the next level commit more of yourself to how you are competing rather than how you are hitting the ball.   

3. Hold onto the wins longer; let the losses fade. It was interesting to see how the "wins" seemed to fade away too quickly, meaning that players were quick to move past the successes. However, "losses" remained for a longer period of time, and players were usually unable to move past them before going into the next match. Put the wins in the bank for confidence; use the losses for what you need and then move on. 

4. Commitment to the journey and long-term process is key. I had some great conversations with coaches this summer while watching their players compete.  The common thread was the emphasis on "playing the correct way." This can be very difficult for players and their parents to buy into, especially when the results are slow to come. However, tennis is one of those sports that require a systematic building process in which the player must go through a variety of things before progressing through the levels. Players are not ready to win until they are ready to win; failure is an indicator of the gaps that must be filled before success comes along. 

5. Take more responsibility off the court to find more accountability on the court.  When I travel with players I make them do a lot of things that they may not have to do when traveling with their parents. For instance, I always have players call for court time, buy a can of balls, call the tournament director for match times and locations, and even let the hostess know how big a table we need. While these things may sound trivial, these are opportunities for players to build confidence, get outside their comfort zones, and develop intangible skills that are often overlooked in today's society.  The result? When we return a week later, parents comment on how their child has changed (AKA, matured).  Players, pack your own bags, figure out your match schedule, and communicate what you need; in doing so, you will have a whole new outlook on your tennis.

Busting through the pecking order

For first-timers at this summer's super national events, being able to break through the
"established order" of rankings and seedings is a big challenge. Create the mindset of breaking up the pecking order with the following tips:

1) Trust your training. Take confidence from the hours of hard work you have been putting in over the last several weeks and months.  All the sweat, pain, and struggle has built your skills and toughness; now you have to use your training as a means of building your confidence.

2) Play with pressure, play to win. A player who states they are going to play "pressure-free" does not truly believe he/she can win.  If you play pressure-free, what happens when you find yourself in a position to close it out? Will you be ready to take on the pressure when it does come?  

3) Extend the match to add pressure. Good things happen when you can extend the match while playing from behind.  The longer you can keep your opponent on the court the better, especially when he/she is favored. 

4) Own the court, present strength. When you do something good, do something good; display body language of a confident player who believes he/she can win. Walk around the court with purpose; jog to and from the bench on changeovers; execute your routines between points. 

Good luck this summer and find your new position in the pecking order.

Managing Emotions Under Pressure - by Dave Shear

I have had several conversations with elite athletes, Special Operation’s operators from the Navy Seals and Delta Force along with highly respected law enforcement professionals. The one universal agreeable strategy was that if you panic you are done. It is not uncommon to watch varying levels of athletes lose their tempers and go into a panic zone over fear of loss or underachievement. I have been fascinated for years on how composed some professionals and top junior athletes are while others can quickly lose control of their emotions and sabotage their chances of winning and improving. There is little doubt that as leaders, mentors and coaches it is a challenge to keep our athletes in a peak performance zone, and when they edge into the panic zone, find ways to mitigate it.

When an athlete's heart rate increases and panic-mode sets in during competition, he can slip into what is known as "Condition Black" (a more common word for this is "freezing" under pressure).  The normal resting heart rate of an average person is 60-80 BPM. I would argue that most elite level athletes maintain a lower BPM and can be registered in the sub 50 BPM range. It is important to note that when your BPM approaches 115 your fine motor skills begin to deteriorate. Complex motor skills, visual reaction time and cognitive reaction time at 145 BPM will further deteriorate according to experts. It is also known that the optimal survival and combat performance level is somewhere between 115-145 BPM. It would certainly make sense based on these variables that an athlete should be aware of their heart rates during competition and recognize the cause and affect of losing their emotions. For an athlete to diminish their cognitive processing, experience loss of depth perception, peripheral vision and near vision could be devastating in competition. Therefore, it is critical to identify the loss of emotional control as a result of pressure and how to control that emotion so you can stay in your optimal levels of performance.

I had the honor to learn how to coach tennis under one of the world’s best coaches, Hall of Famer Robert Lansdorp. His students are a who’s who of tennis: Tracey Austin, Pete Sampras, Maria Sharapova, Linsey Davenport, just to name a few. Robert once told me how critically important is was to train for the pressure of competition. He often used the example of athletes playing up in age and how the pressure was often times diminished. He always tried to present both ends of the pressure continuum by putting his players in pressure situations during training. Playing against your peers, teams or players that you normally beat presents a different kind of pressure versus “playing up.” This was a very important training element that all coaches and players should think about in their development. Elite Special Operations personnel will always tell you that it is fine to have disagreements but in the end, if you don’t agree you better have a solution to the problem. I believe the first part of the solution to handling your emotions is to identify the problem and come up with logical solutions to increase your performance. Stress in competition will occur and we must understand how critical it is to pay close attention to how it is affecting the athlete physically as well as mentally.

Too often the fear of loss, failure of reaching the goal, and/or disappointing others causes athletes stress during competition. It’s very hard to let that go and has to be addressed as a key component in training. This could take many weeks, months and years but to disregard it would be a major mistake. Coaches, leaders, mentors and players should have serious discussions about the cause and effect of stress, emotions and how to maintain a peak performance level.  ASP has developed individual programs that help athletes overcome emotions under pressure.  These systems have been developed by being on the road with athletes and working with them in their natural training and competitive environments.  As a result, we believe no two athletes are the same so it is critical to design a program that fits the athlete’s needs.  Lastly, we also work with coaches on becoming better leaders by giving them some additional tools to use during development. 

Announcing the "ASPire Series"

Announcing the "ASPire Series"

"ASPire Series"

Starting this month, American Sport Psychology will interview athletes and coaches from every level of competitive sport. We will have elite juniors, NCAA All-Americans, professional athletes, and top coaches throughout the world discuss a variety of topics, such as battling through adversity, keys to mental preparation, and motivational stories that keep the fire burning.  The primary focus will be on mental performance, but there will be plenty of other insights into the world of competitive athletes and coaches.

Click here to read "ASPire Series"

For updates, check back often or follow us on Twitter @AmerSportPscyh 

 

 

When hard work and passion collide with opportunity

http://www.atpworldtour.com/en/news/wimbledon-marcus-willis-main-draw-2016

At #775 in the ATP rankings, Marcus Willis was an unlikely qualifier into this year's Wimbledon main draw field.  If not for a nudge, some good old fashioned hard work, and a love for the game we may not have been able to witness his rise through the qualifying tournament and into the main draw of 2016's third Grand Slam event.  I will let you read the story above for yourself, but there are a few take-aways that all players can glean from Willis' story.

Hard-work is a pre-requisite 

There are no guarantees that if you work hard you will achieve your goals.  This is one of the most challenging aspects of sport; the unknown.  However, hard work is the pre-requisite to the "opportunity" for good things to happen.  Willis grinded it out in various European leagues leading up to June, which ultimately allowed him to get the last spot in the PRE-QUALIFYING. From there he advanced into the Qualifying tournament, and subsequently was the last entry into the Main Draw.  When the pre-requisite of hard-work is met and the opportunity arises, good things can happen.  

Prepare as though the opportunity is coming

The sports world is full of great examples of athletes who take full advantage of an opportunity when it presents itself.  Tom Brady comes to mind immediately.  His desire drove him to prepare each day as it was going to be the first day he could start proving everyone wrong. When the opportunity came he was physically, mentally, and emotionally ready to pounce.  We shall see if Willis can make a splash at this year's Wimbledon, but even if he doesn't, the fact that he was coaching at a country club for most of the year and was able to get into the main draw is inspiring.  Willis was preparing himself for this stage months ago, when the reality of getting to this point was a far-fetched dream.  But here he is, getting ready to take advantage of the next opportunity.       

Surround yourself with positive and honest people

At some point you will doubt yourself and your path, and when this time comes look to your inner circle for inner strength.  Sometimes players need to borrow someone else's positive energy, or maybe get a kick in the rear to get across the void.  Latch onto people who can inspire you, motivate you, challenge you.  Surround yourself with family/friends/players/coaches who have high goals like you do and will be honest and direct when needed.  One of Willis' friends challenged his intentions to give up his playing career and coach tennis in the US, telling him he was "an idiot and should keep going."  The nudge was received.  

Accept that the journey will bend at times

There is no straight shot to achievement. Look at a road map; do you think the engineers planned it that way? No, but they had an end result in mind and it was just a matter of solving the variety of obstacles they faced along the way. Approach your own journey in a similar way. Develop a plan and have an end result in mind, but be ready to adapt, to grind it out, to problem-solve regardless of the challenge.  If you accept the fact that your journey will bend at times, you will be better prepared for when it actually does.  

 

"Peaking Mentally" starts now

There are about three weeks left before the USTA National Clay Court Championships kick off the summer grind.  As I work with players getting ready to peak at the summer nationals, there are common themes that should be addressed so that players can cash in on their hard work.

By now, the training foundation has been completed.  From building the physical toughness and endurance, to cleaning up the technical changes, players must now transition into a different mode for the weeks leading up to the big events.  

1. Sharpen the blade:  

  • Focus on your weapons and what you do well.  Win with your strengths each day of practice to build confidence.
  • Shift your focus to tactics over technique.  Ask questions that matter during competitive point play.  What adjustments can I make?  What does my opponent do well/not well? How can I play to my strengths?       

2. Approach each day with purpose:

  • Create "mini-match goals" to stay engaged during competition.  Create measurable goals that relate to your game style. For instance, "Win 10 points at the net," or "Serve out wide on every first serve to the deuce box." 
  • Never leave the court frustrated or mad; finish with something positive each day. If you had a rough training day then end it with a drill that you love. I like to have players end practices with finishing drills like floater volleys, overheads, or mid-court balls; they work on being aggressive, which can alleviate the frustration. 

3. Execute your mental routines:

  • Use practice matches and smaller tournaments to work on your on-court presence. How do you want to look and act when you are competing at the larger tournaments? Practice being the player you want to be when the pressure arrives.  
  • Use your self-talk in a motivational way.  Remind yourself of the long road you have taken to get to this point and the challenges you have overcome.  

4. Use the excitement and nerves as motivation

  • As the excitement and pressure builds closer to the tournaments, keep yourself accountable for having a good attitude and work on being a positive player each day. The nerves are a good sign; you care, and you are emotionally engaged.  Now direct this nervous energy into a positive manner. 
  • Remember, the tournaments are the fun part!  They give you an opportunity to step outside of your comfort zone and test yourself in new ways.  

Look for the ASP Team in Florida during the Clay Court Nationals events.  If you are interested in working on your mental skills, reach out to us today to schedule training sessions.  Best of luck this summer!  

 

Be a better player on your bad days, when you aren't "in the zone"

Throughout my travels to the top junior and professional tennis events I have seen some pretty crazy things that players have to deal with, so much so that I could write a book about it.  For example, I once saw a player who was behind 0-3 in the first set launch all three balls into a pond behind the court, and then proceed to walk slowly to the tournament desk to get a new can of balls.  His opponent just stood there in disbelief, not sure what to do or say.  One of my favorite examples is about a player who lost the first set and took a bathroom break.  A few minutes later the player returned to the court.  There was only one problem; his identical twin brother (the better player of the two) came back and began playing in his place until one of the spectators pointed it out to an official.  I could easily take a different turn with the rest of this article and discuss the character component to competitive sport, but you know what, players have to learn to deal with the adversity and figure out a way to keep charging ahead.  Is it right for opponents to do these things? No, but the reality of being a competitive tennis player is that you are going to be exposed to a wide array of different cultures, conditions, and challenges, and to be successful you must be resilient.  Resiliency is no different than any other skill; it has to be strengthened through practice. 

Develop a Tolerance to Adversity

To become more resilient, players must build a tolerance to adversity, which is achieved by attacking the rough days with a different mindset and attitude.  Instead of trying to get into the "zone" each day, work on building thicker armor that cannot be penetrated by pebbles (the petty events that happen during competition).  I disagree with the notion that mental skills development is for the purpose of getting an athlete into the "zone".  Instead, I would rather help a player develop a deeper well for handling adversity. The "zone" is such a rare occurrence, and in my experience, not within an athlete's control.  The days when everything you do seems to work and is effortless are few and far between.  Instead, competition and training is full of random challenges and adverse moments.  I have asked pros and grand slam champions the question; How many matches in your career were you "in the zone"? Their answers were all very similar; a very small percentage.  One former world #1 said he would guess only about 20 matches fell into this category; he was on the tour for over a decade and played almost 800 matches in his career.  

Let's say, for example, that out of 10 practices a player will have 5 good days, 3 average days, and 2 bad days.  How much would he/she improve by bringing the good days up to great days?  How much would he/she improve by bringing the bad days up to average days?  Is it easier to get your performances from good to great, or from bad to average?  In my experience, players who improve on their bad days (process-oriented) make bigger jumps than those who want to make their good days even better (perfectionism).  Forget the zone, bring your bottom end up.  You will improve much more if your mental performances are consistent from the good days to the bad days.  Instead of striving for the highest level of physical performance every practice or every match, work on day-to-day mental consistency, which means you have a high level of mental engagement regardless of how well you are playing. Once you can accomplish mental consistency, then you can turn your attention to the top 1% of performance.   

Change Your Perception of the Bad Days; See Opportunity

Players who are exposed to struggle and adversity have a great opportunity to fill in their holes, but only if they choose to see it this way.  Very few players who I have worked with like the days when things are difficult, but eventually they learn to roll with it and focus on what really matters.  When you begin to look at adversity and bad days through a different lens, you begin seeking out challenge as a means of staying motivated and goal-focused.  The easy days offer few challenges, and as a result, few opportunities to build your tolerance for adversity. Which matches are you the most proud? The ones where you won easily, or the ones where you had to dig deep?  Which matches did you learn the most from or gain the most confidence?  Redirect your bad days and challenges into opportunities. 

Focus on the controllables to level out performance

A player's mental engagement will often correlate with his/her physical play.  Play well and you will see a positive and engaged player; play poorly and you will see bad body language and inconsistent engagement.  While it would be great to be mentally engaged AND play well, you only need one of the two to be present to put yourself in a position to win.  If you go 0 for 2 then you are in trouble.  If you have ever played poorly but managed to win, then you know what it is like to grind out the win mentally.  It won't be pretty and you will have to dig deep, but at least if your mind is focused on the controllables (effort, attitude, mindset, making adjustments, etc.) you will be in every match you play.  If your mental engagement goes hand in hand with your physical performance then you can expect a lot of ups and downs, which can be very frustrating.  Get off the roller-coaster ride and become a consistent competitor; grind it out mentally on the bad days.

Develop your tolerance to adversity by taking challenges head on with a different attitude. Practice and competition represents opportunities to strengthen your armor; the thicker it is the more you can handle and the less your opponent can get through.