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mental routines

In the "Now": From Negative to Neutral

In the "Now": From Negative to Neutral

“You have to be positive.” This is a statement almost every athlete has heard at some point from either their coaches and/or parents. But how can you suddenly be positive when consumed with frustration and a negative inner voice? Is it really that easy? The simple answer: no. The more complex answer: No, and failing to shift from negative to positive can lead to more frustration and negativity. This article offers a different perspective on making the jump out of a negative frame of mind. Instead, make the jump from negative to neutral first. For example, is it really possible to go from saying “I am the worst player here. That was so stupid” to “I can do it. Things are going to be better”? And even if the “positive” statement comes out, does the athlete really believe it? This gap between what the athlete is really feeling versus what they are telling themselves can lead to a progressive downward spiral.

Use “neutral” statements

Neutral statements are directions with no emotional attachments (neither positive or negative). Think about the simple tips you receive from your coaches. What are they telling you to do? “Win with your strengths and find your way to the net”; “Play ‘x’ pattern and find your forehand from the middle of the court”; “Take more time before playing the big points.” These are all examples of simple, “now focused” statements. Create your own and be prepared to launch when you feel frustrated.

Time is your biggest ally.

An angry/frustrated athlete tends to speed up and play faster and more out of control. Their awareness of time is lost and replaced by a negative inner voice that directs their behavior. Simply taking more time allows the jets to cool off and can give the frustrated performer a moment to shift his/her attitude to a neutral space. Consider placing a towel in the corner and use it as a reminder to slow down, or create a simple “power statement” like “1, 2, 3, let it be.”

Deploy the chute before it’s too late!

Negativity breeds negativity. As the saying goes, “Bad habits are like a warm bed on a cold morning - easy to get into, hard to get out of.” Ultimately, your responsibility is to manage how loud the negative inner voice gets, and redirect it to a controllable aspect of performance. Allowing one bad play to fester opens the door for more to follow. Start out with giving yourself a limit: for example, no more than 5 negative statements per practice/match/etc.

Prioritize your inner voice! What you say does matter and does influence your performance. While it may be challenging to jump from negative to positive, the move from negative to neutral is within reach.

"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.   

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.