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mental training

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. 

When hard work and passion collide with opportunity

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!  


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.  

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.