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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.

"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!  


Doing the work in between points

Tennis is full of "down time", or moments when you are not actually playing the point and hitting the ball.  It is during these moments that players tend to lose focus and check out mentally.  One of the most common issues players want help with is having consistent performance during matches.  Most players engage DURING the point but bring a different level of focus IN-BETWEEN points.  So how can you level out your mental performance and maintain high levels of play? Do the work in between points.  For every minute of actual physical performance you will spend about 4-5 minutes having to mentally perform.  This time is often unstructured and scattered, thus explaining the up and down play.  Most players have certain routines or rituals to help them reset and refocus, but it is more than just going to the towel and looking at the strings.  Here are a few ways to work more efficiently between points and level out your performance:

Take your time to get ready.  Every player is different in terms of how much time they like to use in between points.  Andy Roddick was a notoriously fast-paced player, whereas Rafael Nadal would consistently get time violations.  Most players will take more time after longer points or before a big moment in the match (i.e., facing break point).  A general rule of thumb: take more time when you are 1) frustrated, 2) not playing well, 3) behind in the score, 4) after long points, and 5) before the important points.  Play at your normal pace of play when things are going well or the opponent is struggling.      

Have a strong walk.  Make your opponent feel your court presence in between points by "walking strong".  Walk with a purpose; head up, shoulders back, racket in a strong position. Jog to the chair on changeovers and back to the court when it is time to play again; make them see that you are in control regardless of the score.  What do you want your opponent to see when he/she looks at you from across the net?   

Match or exceed their intensity.  When you get behind the worst thing you can do with your time is be flat or negative, especially when the opponent is bouncing around and looking strong.  At a minimum you have to match your opponent's intensity; if they are bouncing between points then you do the same.  When you get ahead, maintaining your focus is much easier when you are continuing to be positive after good points and showing positive body language.  Match their intensity when behind, exceed their intensity when ahead. 

Develop your on-court presence and start to do the mental work in between points. In doing so, you will find your inconsistent play will begin to level out.  Train hard.  Dream big.


Using Stats to Highlight the Most "Mentally Fit" Players

The ATP website has a great resource called the "ATP Performance Zone", where various stats are presented from the game's greatest players. Included are broad stats like career winning percentage, and more specific records such as winning percentage after losing the first set. After playing around with some of the options, it is really amazing how the top players are separated from everyone else.  For instance, take the stat winning percentage "After Losing First Set". What would you guess the top players' winning percentage is after losing the first set? You may be surprised to learn it is below 50%, with Rod Laver owning the best at 49%. For current ATP players, Nadal is at the top of the list with 43%, followed by Djokovic at 41%. What about other top 10 players? Berdych (26%), Ferrer (31%), Raonic (28%), Murray (40%), Federer (40%), Wawrinka (33%), Nishikori (35%), and Tsonga (34%).  Now look at other players in the top 30:

15th ranked player, Gael Monfils (26%)

20th ranked player, Benoit Paire (23%)

25th ranked player, Phillip Kohlschreiber (18%)

30th ranked player, Ivo Karlovic (23%)  

There is a clear distinction between the top 10 and everyone else in this statistical category. Not surprising, the players who have dominated the game for the past decade (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, & Murray) are all at or above the 40% mark. 

Let's take a look at another stat category, winning percentage for the "Deciding Set".  Looking at the top 10 again: Djokovic (74%), Federer (64%), Murray (69%), Nadal (69%), Ferrer (65%), Nishikori (78%), Tsonga (63%), Wawrinka (58%), Raonic (61%), and Berdych (57%). Now look at other players in the top 30:

15th ranked player, Gael Monfils (57%)

20th ranked player, Benoit Paire (54%)

25th ranked player, Phillip Kohlschreiber (54%)

30th ranked player, Ivo Karlovic (51%)  

Take what you will from these numbers, but consider the reasons why the top players are leading these lists.  Simply put, the top players keep fighting when others give up; the top players keep believing in themselves when others begin to doubt; the top players raise their level when the match is on the line whereas other players fade down the stretch.  It all boils down to mental toughness.  The top players are the most mentally fit and they use this mental strength to separate themselves from everyone else.  

So how can you use this data to improve your game?  Think about your own playing history. How well do you do after losing the first set?  How well do you do in the deciding third set? Consider the reasons why you may struggle in one or both of these areas.  Do you fade in the third set due to your fitness level?  Do you get negative or stop believing when you lose the first set?  Do your nerves interfere with your performance during the big moments in the match?  These are all questions to consider when trying to figure out where you can improve your game.  Reflection leads to awareness; awareness leads to problem solving; problem solving leads to action; action leads to improvement.  

Finding the Small Wins in a Loss

I have been working hard for a long time. I said enough about the nerves. I was nervous during the matches last year. Working hard every day slows that down... The victories help. Still not 100% perfect, but it is much, much better.
— Rafa Nadal after winning Monte-Carlo

Nadal's win in Monte-Carlo represents his first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title since 2014, and more importantly, represents a return to championship form that he has been lacking over the past 2 years.  Injuries, age, and a surging Novak Djokovic have not helped Nadal's road back to the top, but here he is once again holding the trophy in Monte-Carlo and marching his way to Paris.  It took a champion's mindset and approach to fight through the struggle and the setbacks, and Nadal's experience is full of learning opportunities for all players.

One of the most common questions I get from players is "I am working hard, but why aren't the results coming?" These are players who are returning from injury, making changes to their games, or who simply have not broken through the way they thought they would by that point in their careers. Regardless of the situation, the message is pretty much the same; each time you step onto the court is an opportunity to go out and get a step closer to where you want to be. Find the small wins in the losses as a way of maintaining and building your confidence; in doing so, your mindset will become more engaged in personal progress and finding solutions. 

If you go back through Nadal's press conferences over the past year, you will hear him working through this process of finding small wins.  In Buenos Aires and Rio, Nadal lost two three set matches, and while he was not happy with the outcomes he was pleased that he kept competing through his struggles. This year at Indian Wells, Nadal pointed out that even though he is losing to Djokovic, the fact that he is going deeper into tournaments to play against him is a big step forward.  Further, he noted that he was gaining more confidence in his forehand, and he was more competitive against Djokovic than in prior meetings. Not surprisingly, Nadal stated his forehand and level of competitiveness were the main reasons for his success in Monte-Carlo. 

Maintaining confidence is an active process, especially when going through difficult times. If you choose to focus on the negatives, you will keep finding the negatives at every step along the way. By finding the small wins in the losses, you train your mind to sift through the negatives and locate what you can build upon and what you can control.   

The opportunity hiding behind adversity

Three and a half hours, 7 match points saved, injury timeouts for cramping, 95 degree weather, and a great opportunity. This was the setting in the semi-finals of a 14-and-Under Super National event. Down 6-1, 5-2, 40-15 after only 35 minutes, my player, who I will call "K" was struggling mightily. After a great win in the Quarters, in which he played very well, his game suddenly abandoned him in the Semis. But resiliency kicked in and K saved four match points in the 5-2 game. His opponent tightened up and cracked open the door for a comeback. Over the next three hours, K would go on to save three more match points, win the second set in a tiebreaker, go up in the third set before getting tight himself, deal with a long injury timeout from his opponent for cramping, and ultimately drop the deciding set 6-4. His opponent would spend part of the evening in the hospital getting IVs, and would amazingly show up the next day and take the title. K, even in the loss, would be left with something equally great; recognizing the opportunity hiding behind adversity.    

Later that evening I asked K what was going through his head during that 5-2 game, facing two match points. His response; "At first I was just embarrassed at how fast I was losing, so I just tried to hang on as long as I could to make it look better. Usually when I get that far behind I am not able to get back into it, but I kept telling myself I could do it this time. At 3-5, I was still way behind, but it was at that point when I started believing that I really could come back. So I just thought of it as a challenge and I kept pumping myself up after each point. I lost but I felt like I did something I had never done before." It was in that moment that K saw the opportunity, which had been disguised by the challenge and adversity he was facing. The opportunity was to overcome a challenge, to prove to himself that he could come back, to fully commit to the competition in front of him. If K had simply rolled over or quit competing at 5-2, he would have never experienced the emotional and physical roller coaster ride. Further, he would have missed an opportunity to learn something about himself and become a more resilient and confident player in the process. 

How do YOU approach adversity and challenge? How do you view situations like playing the #1 seed first round, or having to play in windy conditions, or having inconsistent play during matches? If you are willing to redefine what "challenge" means to you, then adversity can represent an opportunity to learn about yourself, to experience new things, to persevere, to build confidence, to develop new skills.  Start thinking about what adverse moments impact you the most. Is it playing on certain surfaces or in certain conditions? Is it playing against grinders or counter-punchers? Is it dealing with weather delays or injury timeouts?  Identify what challenges you the most and then come up with solutions to more effectively deal with those situations.  Shift your mindset, focus on a positive approach, and then act on it.   

It's easy when it's easy. It's hard when it's hard, but oh so gratifying.

Staying positive and focused is easy when playing well and things are working. The true test does not come during these times, but rather when adversity strikes and the game challenges you physically, mentally, and emotionally.  Adversity is an opportunity to grow, to think differently, to stretch yourself beyond the limits you have set.  By re-framing these periods of time when luck seems to be on the other side of the net, players are able to stay engaged in the moment and keep their attention focused on something they can control.  So next time you are faced with a bad call, or a string of mistakes, or a lengthy rain delay when leading, talk to yourself about the opportunity in front of you.  

Champions remember the moments in their careers that were the most challenging, and through these challenges they find career-defining motivation.  A great example is Kobe Bryant, who explained how losing the NBA finals to the Boston Celtics set him on a new path: “Losing in ’08 changed how I approached the game, changed how I approached leadership, helped bring out the best version of myself.”  The Lakers would go on to win titles in 2009 and 2010.  When asked which title was the most gratifying, Bryant highlighted the 2010 series, also against Boston, that went the distance and was full of physical and mental challenges: “Going up against three sure Hall of Famers, being down in the series 3-2, having lost to them in 2008.  Understanding the history of the rivalry and all that goes on there. Having a broken finger and playing with a cast. All those things make that championship more special than the rest.” 

Adversity is an opportunity. How will you redefine the adversity in your life?