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sport psychology

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. 

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!  


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.


"There's a fine line between disaster and success..." ~Lee Westwood

Commitment to the shot, or lack thereof, ultimately cost Jordan Spieth a second consecutive Master's championship.  Standing over his tee shot on the infamous hole #12, things sped up for Spieth, who admitted he started rushing through his routines and did not fully commit to the shot in front of him.  After 63 holes, Spieth had few lapses in his performance, and when he did have a misstep he battled back each time.  But bogey, bogey put him on #12 on the final day with a one shot lead, after previously holding a 5 shot lead with 9 to play.  Pressure. History. Overthinking. In 2014, Spieth had a similar outcome on hole #12; he found the water hazard then too, which cost him the championship as well.  His personal history with the hole created doubt in his mind, which in turn led to carding an unprecedented 7 on a par 3.     

Committing to the shot is one of the most important aspects of playing tennis at a high level. Approaching the ball with a clear idea of what to do, followed by fully committing to the decision, leads to better execution and confidence in one's abilities. I venture a guess that if Spieth had committed to the shot in his mind he may still have put the ball in the water; however, the key difference is what would have gone through his mind afterward.  If he had committed to the shot and missed he could still move forward knowing that he made the right decision, but just didn't execute (he at least got one of the two right).  Instead, he didn't execute BECAUSE he didn't commit to the shot.  When you hear a player say "I got tight", this is what they are experiencing; overthinking that leads to doubt, which leads to poor decision making, which leads to poor execution.  As one of the commentators stated, "At this point in the tournament, poor play is usually a result of poor decision making."  In Spieth's situation, it led to him rushing through his routines and approaching the ball before he was ready to play.  

I would imagine that the sleepless nights ahead of Spieth are not because he missed out on an opportunity to win back-to-back Master's, but rather that he didn't commit to his game in the most challenging spot on the golf course.  If he had, and even if he still came up short, I bet he would sleep much easier.  

Success is "Intoxicating"

It’s so hard not to get intoxicated with fame.
— Jay Wright, Villanova men's basketball coach

Villanova, who is in the 2016 Final Four for the second time in Wright's career, is poised to win a national championship this coming weekend.  The article is a great example of the ups and downs that coaches, athletes, and teams face in sport, and how success can alter one's mindset and change a winning approach.  Wright's first Final Four appearance was in 2009, which was immediately followed by a few disappointing seasons, full of early tournament losses.  It was during the 2011 off-season that Wright confided in his assistant coach that he did not handle his program's success very well, and that success ultimately changed his approach to recruiting.  Rather than replicate the best-fit recruiting philosophy that led to the 2009 run, Wright made decisions based on best talent, which did not pan out to more wins.    

Success, using Wright's term, can be "intoxicating."  Winning can bring a lot of positive reactions, like increased confidence in one's abilities and increased motivation to continue succeeding.  But winning can also lead to a shift in an athlete's mindset, where the focus is on the success itself and what it brings (social acceptance, financial gain, etc.), rather than the process that went into its development.  The emotional defense mechanisms kick in and there is a temptation to change, to listen to the "noise", to "protect" what you just earned.  These reactions are all normal, but that is where the distinction needs to be; they are only reactions, not habits.  It is important to let success sink in and pull the positives from the experience, but keep your training and thinking habits close and take the time to reflect on what got you there. It's time to set new performance and outcome goals and get back to work.