About 15 years ago I was frustrated and helpless regarding what I thought were my own failings in trying to help players achieve ‘ideal performance states’…But after some great mentoring from a psychology supervisor of mine, I underwent a process over several years of discovering that the ‘ideal performance/zone state aim was deeply flawed…As well as discovering the better way to develop mental toughness for tennis.
And I’m going to share with you examples of how to coach this better way in just a minute…
But first I have to explain how the field of sport psychology has failed us with some misinformation about how to help players become mentally tough.
How Sport Psychology Has Failed Us…
For a long time the field of sport psychology has mistakenly held on to the view that the path to playing mentally tough tennis involves the ongoing search for the zone.
This means that we’ve usually been taught that mental toughness is reliant on the control of unintentional thoughts and feelings (internal mental experiences) during competition.
And so as a result, thinking it should help our players’ improve, we’ve often encouraged the use of strategies during matches designed to help players stop unintentional negative thoughts and think more positively; reduce performance anxiety; and achieve ideal performance states.
But not only are these methods not helpful to long term mental toughness, trying to control thoughts and feelings during matches tend to actually tend to REDUCE mental toughness over time.
So How Has The Faulty ‘Control Attempts’ View Survived So Long?
Trying to control unintentional difficult thoughts and feelings is an incredibly seductive approach because it makes perfect sense at first thought…
After all, we all know it tends to be easier for players to play well when they feel calm and confident rather than nervous, angry, or when they don’t feel confident.
This is because when they’re caught up in difficult internal experiences like nerves, frustration, and negative thinking, their actions tend to become dominated by them.
So it makes sense that reducing these difficult mental experiences and getting more preferred states should help…
But Control Attempts Don’t Work: Here’s Why…
Unfortunately, as much as it would be great to get good thoughts and feelings whenever we wanted to during matches, these traditional approaches aimed at controlling thoughts and feelings during matches tend not to work.
Why is this?
Well, I could go into detail on all the scientific stuff, but I’m going to go easy on you :-)
Here’s a super quick summary…
The automatic thoughts and feelings players have in matches are largely determined by:
1.) Having a brain that in part interprets match situations like being in a life and death battle…
So just like it’s highly likely that we’re not going to be able to choose or change the thoughts and feelings we have if we were to come across a snake on a path, it’s near impossible for players to influence thoughts and feelings during situations that determine match outcomes…
2.) Our learning history of similar past experiences
So if last time your player served for a match at 5-4 in the third set he/she went on to lose the match, there’s nothing that they can do to stop the memory of that event being there at 5-4 in the third next time.
So while the unintentional thoughts and feelings that players experience in certain match situations can be shaped slowly over extended periods of time based on new match experiences and their communications with important others (coaches and parents), THESE EXPERIENCES ARE INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT TO INFLUENCE DURING MATCHES.
And You Probably Already Know Control Attempts Don’t Work Very Well From Watching Your Players’!
So even if players feel like they can sometimes replace ‘bad’ thoughts and feelings with ‘good’’ ones temporarily in some situations, it will tend not to work when they most want it to…
And the same difficult thoughts and feelings will seem to show up again and again based on the situation they face.
If they’re playing someone they expect to beat, they ARE going to feel extra pressure…
And if they’re trying to finish an important match, they’re likely NOT going to be able to reduce performance anxiety…
And if they’re not playing as well as they expect, they ARE going to feel angry and get self-critical thoughts…
And regardless of how often they try to stop thinking about the outcome, THOSE THOUGHTS ARE GONNA KEEP COMING BACK!
And it’s not possible to ‘get in the zone’ by intentionally searching for this state…
So at the very best these efforts are a tiresome, continuous struggle, that don’t lead to less difficult thoughts and feelings in the long term.
And they prevent our players from putting their energy on how they need to ACT to compete well.
Not Even the Pros Can Control Internal States…
Here’s some quotes from some of the greats!
"Your mind is always wondering what if, what if I win, what will that mean, you can’t help it, you tell yourself not to think about these things but they keep coming back…I was very nervous at the beginning of the last set. And the last game, obviously you can imagine how difficult that game was. It was almost unplayable for me because I was just hoping to serve some good serves and hoping he would miss. It was that bad”.
Roger Federer (On his less than ‘Ideal’ performance state during his 2009 French Open victory)
“I thought, I'm not going to come back. Not against Rafa. He's such a good player”.
David Ferrer (On feeling helpless against Nadal at the 2014 French Open)
“Considering I had lost the last 3 out of 4 Grand Slam finals I would lie if I said it was not in my mind, of course it started playing with my confidence and I had some doubts”.
Novak Djokovic (On being nowhere near the ‘Zone’ during the 5th set of his 2014 Wimbledon Victory)
“At that point I was just so nervous, and as you could see, I wasn’t able to hit a forehand, a backhand, or any shot for that matter”.
Serena Williams (During the final set of her 2013 French Open Victory)
There’s Also Another Problem With Control Attempts…
So, here’s the thing…
If I was to ask your players to stop thinking about the outcome; reduce performance anxiety; to not feel angry; or ‘get in the zone’ – when it’s not possible for them to consciously create these states in that moment…
They’re going to end up with more difficult thoughts and feelings!
After all, If they can’t control these unintentional thoughts and feelings when I’m telling them that they should be able to, they’ll have more difficult thoughts as a result.
(E.g., “Why Can’t I/I Should Be Able To: Stop Worrying/Stop Feeling Angry/Get in the Zone/Reduce Nerves/Keep Calm, Etc, Etc”).
And those additional difficult states would be my fault, not my players’!!
The News About Control Attempts Gets Even Worse….
And the idea that the normal difficult thoughts and feelings that continually show up during competition are ‘bad’ or should be avoided guarantees that players will overreact when less than ideal states naturally show up.
So let’s use nerves as an example…
If players have a control mentality, as soon as they recognize signs that they’re getting nervous it triggers an automatic scanning process where their brains search for the state that they want to avoid.
This results in more nerves and worry as a result.
So instead of having the normal level of nerves for the situation, they also have worry about the nerves leading to more and longer periods of nerves being experienced.
(E.g., "Oh no, here it comes, I'm a bit nervous. I'm not supposed to be nervous, I can't perform when I'm like this")!
This tends to then lead to additional frustrations and difficulties as well!!
What about trying to stop difficult thoughts?
A heap of quality research has now shown that the more we try to stop having difficult thoughts like worrying about the outcome of matches and change them into more ‘positive’ thoughts, the more we think about it!
If I was to say ‘don’t think of a pink elephant’, what happens?
So just like you probably can’t stop thinking of a pink elephant at the moment, the more players try to stop difficult thoughts in tennis, the more difficult thoughts they’re going to get.
And so we may mistakenly advise the use of replacement thoughts to counteract the ‘negative’ thoughts…
But this of course only increases players’ unwinnable struggle with difficult thoughts over time, leading to more critical self-judgment when they realize that no matter how many times they replace them, these thoughts keep coming back again and again.
So Here’s the BIG Take Home Message!
The mentally toughest players are ABSOLUTELY NOT the players who are best at controlling internal mental states!!!
Because although in the ideal world it would be great to be able to stop thinking about the outcome, reduce performance anxiety, create quick confidence, and get in the zone whenever we wanted…THIS IS NOT THE WAY WE WORK!
Any traditional approach that encourages players to try to control or influence unintentional thoughts and feelings during matches with the aim to attain more preferable performance states are unrealistic, idealistic, and not in sync with reality.
And this is how the field of sport psychology has fundamentally failed any coach who has been advised to fall for these traps!!
So since ALL players are going to have lots of difficult thoughts and feelings during matches, especially at important times, regardless of any techniques or strategies they might try to use…
The mentally toughest players are those who are best skilled at continuing to commit to actions that increase the chance of success WHILE they have difficult thoughts and feelings and less than ideal performance states…
The Bad News and the Good News
So in the end we are left with some bad news and some very exciting news.
1st the bad news…
There’s no perfect solution to the challenge that unintentional difficult thoughts and feelings present.
Part of the wonderful challenge that tennis presents is frequently having to cope with difficult internal experiences.
And the exciting news…
Although our human brains ensure that there’s no perfect solution, there’s a better way!!
And I’m about to let you know what it is.
Let’s Think Back to Earlier Professional Examples…
As we saw in the earlier professional examples, the mentally toughest players in the world don’t necessarily need more desirable thoughts and feelings to play their best.
Because if you were to look at the final set of Roger Federer’s 2009 French Open victory, he played incredible tennis even though he was feeling terrible and having difficult thoughts.
And if you were to watch the final set of Novak Djokovic’s 2014 Wimbledon victory, his level of tennis was simply amazing at the same time as he was experiencing difficult self-doubts.
And so the REAL SECRET to mental toughness is how players become more skilled in continuing to do what they need to do, while feeling and thinking ‘bad’…
And unlike trying to control unintentional difficult thoughts and feelings during matches, this skill is simple to practice and improve over time.
The Better Way!
Quite simply, if we want to help players develop mental toughness over time instead of advising them to try to control difficult mental experiences, WE NEED TO DO THE OPPOSITE…
We need to promote their ability to ACCEPT unintentional difficult internal experiences without trying to do anything to control or influence these mental experiences so they can focus their energy and efforts onto what they need to do.
So rather than trying to change difficult internal states players need to learn how to respond to difficult thoughts and feelings in a way that lessens their influence over players’ actions.
What results over time is the improved ability to ‘do what they need to do’ regardless of the thoughts and feelings that may or may not be present (which over time leads to more desirable mental states as a result)...
How Novak Djokovic Explains Acceptance in His Book, “Serve to Win”
“Instead of trying to silence your mind or find inner peace you allow and accept your thoughts as they come without judging them.
They do bounce around like crazy let me tell you. But they are supposed to.
You’re job is to let them come and go. So now when I blow or serve or shank a backhand I still get those flashes of self-doubt but I know how to handle them.
I acknowledge the negative thoughts and let them slide by, focusing on the moment”.
Becoming Fitter at Having Difficult Thoughts and Feelings
Players can develop their ability to accept difficult thoughts and feelings in a similar way to developing physical fitness.
Imagine for a moment that you had a fitness trainer and every time you started feeling physical discomfort he/she told you to stop exercising to reduce the discomfort.
This approach would obviously prevent you from getting fit.
Well, I would also prevent your players’ mental fitness development if every time he/she felt emotional discomfort I asked them to do something designed to try to reduce it.
This approach literally prevents players from getting mentally fit!!
Instead, to become physically fit requires exercise and part of this physical training is improving our ability to tolerate physical discomfort.
So over time as we’re continually exposed to increasing levels of discomfort, we become better at coping with it, and can progressively continue to take the actions of exercising harder for longer as a result.
And this is what we need to encourage players to do with unintentional difficult thoughts and feelings as well…
So How Do Players Actually Train Acceptance?
Acceptance training is very simple to do and there are several ways to do it…Here’s an example:
It’s easiest to start by practicing in off-court situations and can be done in 2 simple steps:
1.) First, as your players go about their daily activities, they should try to notice as quickly as possible when difficult thoughts or feelings like worries, frustrations, or nerves show up.
2.) Second, as soon as they realize that the difficulties are present, they should see if they can find the physical elements of the experience in their body just like they could notice the physical sensations of stretching.
So with nerves they might notice butterflies in their stomach, or an increased heart rate, or tightening muscles…
Once they’ve located the physical sensations associated with that difficult feeling they should simply try to focus their attention on that feeling without doing anything to reduce or control it…
By observing without trying to reduce it they’re literally strengthening their brain in a way that makes it fitter in having the nerves or frustration just like running without slowing down would make their muscles fitter at having physical discomfort…
By doing this simple activity regularly players make their brain fitter at accepting and coping well with the difficult feelings.
How Do Players Implement Acceptance During a Match?
To implement acceptance in matches is also super simple…
They simply make it part of their point by point routine when necessary.
Here’s an example of one or a few ways I teach it:
Encourage your players to regularly ask themselves the following question at the end of points: Am I committing my actions to a helpful process (E.g.,strategy, cues) that increases the chance of success?
As soon as their answer to this question is no, they should take a few moments in between points to look for the physical sensation of nerves, frustration, or helplessness in their body.
If they notice any of those difficulties they should simply observe the sensation like they could notice the feeling of physical discomfort in their body without trying to reduce or change it in any way…
How Will This Help?
This increases their ability to shift their focus back onto the intentional helpful process that increases their chance of success for the next point and committing their actions to this process because:
1.) Observing the feeling in our body without trying to change it tends to
dissolve the feeling without trying.
2.) Observing the feeling also gives us a perspective of distance from it,
rather than being so swept up in it.
3.) Observing the feeling develops our fitness in having it.
If you would like a copy of this Control Traps Exposed Report You Can Get It Here...
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