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.