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Listen to the Voices-A Personal Journey to Mental Toughness

Listen to the Voices-A Personal Journey to Mental Toughness
By: Simon Grieve
Added:
11/02/09

Situation:

 

Serving 30-40, 4-5 down in the deciding set, second serve...

 

Thoughts:

 

“What if I hit it in the net what will I tell my coach?”

“Come on you can do it, attack the serve!”

“Yeah but what if I put the serve long?”

“Just be brave and drive your legs into it!”

“ahgghh I can’t stop shaking!”

 

No, you are not going mad, we all have conversations going on in our minds, discussions about past, present and future events. These conversations can be very powerful and may have positive or negative connotations that can really affect the way we act or perform in certain situations.

 

How does this affect us on the tennis court?

 

As a tennis coach who USED to play competitively (at an American university and on the satellite tour) I USED to have great awareness of the pressures felt during matches (unfortunately the mental side proved to be my greatest hurdle). For the past 10 years I have coached full time and have lived on the memory of what it felt like to be under pressure and how it affects technique. Subsequently, I delivered my advice to the players I have coached, nevertheless, as the years have gone by, my memory of the emotions felt under pressure have faded. I have realised that in order to maintain and improve my coaching ability, I MUST feel these emotions again!

 

Over the past four months I have started to compete again and the effect it has had on my coaching has been dramatic.

 

What I have learnt

                

                

                

                 

As coaches we try to make practice situations, as realistic to real match pressure situations as possible, however, this is extremely difficult and maybe even impossible. The psychological feelings of fear, uncertainty and the physiological changes that take place during an event that you really care about can be very intense, and can have a real impact on performance.

I practiced hard before my ‘comeback’ tournament and was happy with the way I was striking the ball. When I saw the draw I noticed that I was playing a younger player with a lower rating than myself and I hoped to have a fairly ‘easy’ welcome back into tournament tennis. After losing the first set 6-3 I couldn’t believe how tight I was and how poorly I was hitting the ball. I couldn’t hit through my stronger forehand and when I bounced the ball getting ready to serve the net looked two metres high, what would I say to people, I was losing to a young kid! Luckily in the second set I recovered and led 5-1. I started to think about winning the match in three and breathed a sigh of relief, now I wouldn’t have to have those awkward conversations, phew. Well as you can imagine things didn’t go to plan and 30 minutes later I was walking to the net shaking his hand after losing the set 7-6. What a beginning, I was gutted!

After a period of reflection I learnt a huge amount from that experience. I also looked back on my younger days of competition and drew the conclusion that my mental skills were far inferior to my technical and physical skills. I started to ask myself questions, had I ever reached my full potential? How could I preach about mental toughness if I couldn’t be mentally tough myself? And why do I perform at much higher levels in practice compared with competitive tournament matches?

 

The Challenge

All you can ever hope for yourself (and the people you coach/teach) is that you reach your full potential. This is the goal I have set myself. I want to feel in control of my emotions under match pressure, so that I can perform as I do in practice situations. This is my long-term goal. In order to do this I must identify the cause of the problem. Michael Johnson, one of the greatest athletes of all time, believes that we all have our ‘dragons’ or intangible things that we need to conquer in order to reach our full potential. Once identified there are many ways to ‘slay the dragon’.

 

Problem Identified 

The more matches I played the more I began to understand that I was continually talking to myself. Having conversations about shots I had hit, or decisions I had made (past events) and worried discussions about what would happen if I didn’t get the result I wanted (future events). Looking back to my first match I identified that my focus had been shifting continually from the past to the future with very little time being spent in the present. No wonder I found hitting the ball difficult.

Bjorn Borg has described tournament tennis as several hours of thinking, thinking on every point. In Robert S. Weinbergs book ‘The Mental Advantage’, he states, “It is not thinking itself that leads to performance problems, but inappropriate or misguided thinking” (Weinberg, 1988). What I had to do was change my thinking (internal voices), stay more in the present and remind myself of my simple performance goals.


Step One (insert video here)

I needed to play more competitive matches and become more aware of what I was saying to myself during these matches.

Robert Nideffer’s book ‘Psyched To Win’ explains how powerful the mind-body link can be. “The thought don’t hit it into the net, isn’t meant to cause you to hit the ball in the net, but the negative images associated with your thoughts can create that result. Your negative thoughts result in increased muscle tension and in the unconscious selection of an inappropriate motor sequence” (Nideffer, 1992)

 

Step Two

 

I had to replace ‘inappropriate and misguided’ thinking. How could I get into a state where I felt clam and relaxed and able to perform at a higher level? I had to say things that didn’t pile the pressure on.

Whilst browsing through a local bookstore, I found a book that really changed the way I think. ‘Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway’ by Susan Jeffers, identifies ways of making no lose decisions all the time. Although it is not a tennis book Susan’s teachings can help you overcome fear no matter what situation you face in life.

Lets go back to the initial situation, hitting a second serve, match point down. Susan would claim this is a wonderful opportunity to see if your technique and nerve can handle this situation. It is a no lose situation because even if you double fault or lose the point in a tough rally, you were in a situation that gave you the opportunity to become a better and braver person. “Every time you encounter something that forces you to handle it, your self-esteem is raised considerably. You learn to trust that you will survive, no matter what happens. In this way your fears are diminished immeasurably” (Jeffers, 1987).

Once I understood the principle, I set to work on changing the internal conversations I have. Making my voices become more positive and optimistic is a very difficult task and by no stretch of the imagination have I reached the promised land yet, but, change is happening and I have won a number of matches recently that I would have lost in the past because of this change in thinking.

Playing in a National Club League match recently, for some unknown reason I became very tense and agitated from the very beginning of the game. It was strange because I thought I had prepared well and felt mentally ready for the match. What was happening? I felt like my mind was racing and all I could think of was how poor I was hitting the ball, how many mistakes I was making and how I was letting the team down. At 5-1 down I threw my racket into the back fencing and lost it, what was going on, all the hard work I had put in was going down the drain! It was at this point that I steadied myself and thought about what I had been working on. I had forgotten my performance goal of keeping myself thinking about the present situation and had allowed my internal voices to concentrate on uncontrollable areas such as the past and the future. I managed to dig deep and won the next two games before losing the set 6-3. At the change over I actually felt calm, I reflected on the lost set (learning from the past) and was eager to learn from it and move on; it felt like a new match was beginning. I had clear goals and even though tested, my focus remained in the present. I won the next two sets and the match 6-2 6-3.

This was a fantastic learning experience, I had managed to listen to the voices and change my thinking during a match, a feat I have seldom been able to accomplice in the past. My next goal is to become more aware of my internal state of mind at a quicker rate so I don’t have to battle back from a set down in the future!

 

Step Three

It is imperative to keep learning as a coach or tennis player. Putting yourself in testing situations, situations outside your comfort zone, enables you to move forward as an individual. It challenges you to find out what you are made of and as I mentioned before, if you adopt Susan Jeffers ‘no lose thinking model’ there is only one way to go and that is forward.

 

Examples in the pro world

Examples of how strong the mind can be, can be seen all around the world in every different situation possible. In the 2006 World Snooker Championships in England, the world number one Ronnie O’Sullivan was forced to battle his demons against his steely opponent Peter Ebdon. Having established a commanding lead, O’Sullivan known for quick play, was forced to watch Ebdon slow ball him; Ebdon pushed the rules to the limit in an attempt to get back into the match and break O’Sullivan’s momentum. The tactic had the desired result and O’Sullivan started to let it get to him. O’Sullivan was heard asking members of the crowd for the time and was seen pretend sleeping whilst waiting for his turn. His behaviour gave Ebdon more mental strength and purpose and a couple of hours later Ebdon was taking the victors salute, ready for his move into the semi-final.

Normally a very tough competitor, O’Sullivan let the negative voices gain strength. His actions were illogical, he preferred to blame his opponents tactics for his downfall rather than accept personal responsibility. In the heat of battle it is extremely important to keep a clear mind and understand what behaviours are constructive and what behaviours are destructive. With the power of hindsight I am sure O’Sullivan will learn from this experience and come back a tougher competitor.

 

The Future

So what’s my next step, how am I going to push myself outside my comfort zone? Well I am in training for the Over 35’s tour (eligible January 2006), and the British Open is in January. Nevertheless, before that I have the small job of helping my partner bring our first baby into this world in June, I guess this is the ultimate step into the unknown – I wonder if she will let me take the baby to Wimbledon this summer?

Good luck with your journeys outside the comfort zone and as usual please give me any feedback on the article at simon@procomparetennis.net.

Kind regards

Simon Grieve



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